nice ideas and nasty tricks

Nice ideas and nasty tricks
publication: Broadsheet, Adelaide
writer: Timothy Morrell
date: March, 1990
artist: Manne shulze
exhibition: fragments

A host of angelic plaster heads in rows gaze vacuously from a technicolour cloud of airbrushed swirls and random splashes of paint, as though a graffiti artist had broken into a baroque church. Chorus lines of crucified Christs with plump dolls’ arms disintegrate into a pile of blackened limbs. Monsters with striped serpentine necks, flayed heads and lurid golf ball eyes writhe amid the wreckage of abstract paintings. The lead-in period to the serious culture season has provided inoculation against sanctimoniousness by exposing Adelaide to the art of Manne Schulze. His work is so meticulously gross that the Grand Prix fades to an elegant reverie and the Adelaide Festival looms like Parnassus.

The distinguished achievement of Schulze’s scurrilous guerrilla invasion of the art world is the lack of heavy artillery. The work manages to be offensive without relying on obscenity, blasphemy, calumny or any of the usual tactics. Its subversiveness lies in its playfulness. He makes objects which look, entertain and irritate like pinball machines. This is not to say, however, that they are simply a series of crude jokes. The tawdry and tacky elements are carefully considered, combined and exaggerated (and more often than not beautifully crafted) so that the viewer’s notions of serious, well-made art become a little less secure. The work is difficult to classify, consisting of dissolved, exploded images which cannot be comfortably categorized as funny or earnest, random or calculated, painting or sculpture. It is made without preconceptions of what art ought to look like.

Schulze did not train to be an artist – he was a neurophysiologist who just decided to become one. The objects he makes have an odd, synthesized nature; things that were never meant to live outside the laboratory. Many look like strange, experimental forms of life and biological models. Apart from the warped sense of humour of a medical student, the benefit of his independent background has been the capacity to examine and practise the means of art-making with clinical detachment. This leads to blithe infringements of the hierarchy of style. Academic surrealism and its sci-fi mutants breed happily together in the one work, he blurs the distinction between the two customary notions: the one which is kept alive in the art gallery and the one which is kept alive in the test tube.

The works do not have the messy, slap-in-the-eye appearance characteristic of self-conscious assaults on good taste and decorum. An unsettling aspect of Schulze’s working method is his accomplished technical slickness, which gives even the most grotesque pieces a rather creepy tendency to be ingratiating.

He is enthusiastic about pop art, and this shows in his use of repetition, dot-screen graphic technique, and imagery from the mass media (including Disney Studios). These more obvious and superficial connections are perhaps less interesting than Schulze’s exploration of the morbid side of pop art, the fascination with photo-death, which embalms its subjects forever in chemical colours. Andy Warhol was the pop artist best known for this fixation, but the chilly exactitude of Roy Lichtenstein is a similar condition. Schulze’s What makes death so seductive, so irresistible?, a line-up of plaster skulls, with red-painted lips and false eyelashes, has a title closely related to the one Richard Hamilton gave to the 1956 collage which is historically cited as the beginning of pop art, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?. Schulze’s absurdly beautified death’s heads are all the more horrible for their cosmetic enhancement, and of course at the same time become kitsch artefacts. This piece caters very neatly to the fascination/repulsion for what is considered crass popular style (which Hamilton was exploiting in his montage of magazine images), and exaggerates it from a cultivated attitude to a gut reaction.

The interplay of opposites is a ploy which Schulze uses a lot. Neatly balancing the rows of skulls in make-up (the macabre rendered seductive) are other works with baroque cherubs (the adorable rendered nauseating). In Heaven the chubby faces proliferate over a panel of embossed plexiglass which has been painted behind to create an unearthly, pearly glow. In fact the surface is slightly reminiscent of a quilted fake satin brunch coat, and the whole work has a thick trail of yellow paint across it, like spilled egg. It is irresistibly repulsive.

Schulze expresses a deep interest in making art out of kitsch, which is what the Annandale Imitation Realists (Mike Brown, Ross Crothall and Colin Lanceley) were doing thirty years ago. The distinction between their work and his is the contrast between his rather chilling meticulousness and their frenzied construction. It is significant that Schulze is not in line with Australian antecedents because he is not Australian but German. He came to Australia three years go. Having grown up in Bavaria surrounded by Southern-German baroque churches with interiors as ornate as wedding cakes turned inside-out, he is quite conscious of the source of his obsessive, carnival aesthetic. The rubylipped putti are souvenirs of the traditional folk-culture he left behind. There are interesting parallels with contemporary German art too. He is not particularly aware of recent German art and his work does not specifically resemble any of it, but the simultaneously lurid-yet-detached quality of his work reflects a frame of mind discernable in some of the best-known younger artists in Germany (Salome for example, and especially Dokoupil). Kenny Scharf and the brief neo-pop explosion in New York’s East Village also come to mind.

The serial repeating of mass-produced objects (plaster and polyester multiples cast by the artist) across the surface of a piece is a dominant aspect of Schulze’s working method, and is based on the principle that things become increasingly banal as they are reproduced. This is part of the artist’s interest in kitsch, and the desire to eliminate sentimental involvement with the imagery. It is also (and this is where he puts artistic convention to personal use) like a system-diagram for his experiments in pseudo-science. The use of a rigid grid defaced with splashes of paint, like a graph gone haywire, is a parody of logical relations. The stability implied by the grid is undermined by everything else in his work. The systematic basis essential to science is sceptically examined. This is done on a grand scale in Celestial Chessboard, which turns the divine order of the universe into a black and white minstrel show.

Schulze candidly applies folk artists’ methods. The ad hoc use of materials (plastic bric-a-brac, toys, the occasional sheep’s skull), the gestures of graffiti (he even signs his name with a graffitist’s tag) and the impossible colour combinations, all put the work in the context of urban primitivism. This is a calculated mannerism of course; the work is meant to be viewed seriously in galleries, not arbitrarily located on tenement walls. The aspect of his work which links it most closely to authentically naive folk art is not the form but the content. Much of it is earnestly intended to be about important things. Like a socially-committed graffitist and unlike a fashion-conscious artist, he makes works alluding to such issues of our time as food irradiation and child-molesting. He also paints portraits of personal heroes, Mikhail Gorbachev and Benazir Bhutto, in much the same way as fans make pin-ups of their idols.

The portraits are made with a fragmented collage technique rather like reflections in a smashed mirror. Schulze also makes montages of his own photography and collages from magazine illustrations. Fragmentation is integral to his art ideas. He talks of the way subjects are in reality never defined or absolute, we piece them together from fragments. His work is likewise non-defined and elusive, at once portentous and frivolous. His biggest work so far, called Pictures from the Daily Jungle, is also the most fragmented. It is divided into three panels, each of which is teeming with painted and stuck-on particles. Each panel of the triptych is individually titled: Did you really brush your teeth this morning?, Mom, Dad, kiddy and pet, tired but happy after escaping from a black hole and Our neighbour has got an aquarium. It indulges in the blatant improbability of science fiction comics, which are the anarchic contradiction of rational science and the rock bottom of popular culture. The titling of this work exploits sci-fi’s full potential for banality and silliness, and does so without being condescending. Schulze has great affection for this medium, to which most artists only allude with arch-camp superiority. Perhaps, like the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, he suspects that it is so excruciating and so far beyond the pale that it may contain the truth.

His work is very much that of an outsider. It is hard to imagine anyone with the conventional set of prejudices which influence young Australian artists straying so deeply and earnestly into such un-hip, undignified and unsafe territory. For most artists, vulgarity is something to be kept insulated in quotes, but the lovingly-finished awfulness of these objects is the real thing, vulgarity refined into an art form.