Art has much to do with ego and its assertion. To make and market art in which the stamp of authority is faint to non-existent is rare and risky business. T.S. Eliot, that most fiscally-schooled of poets, maintained that ‘the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality’. His ideal, largely ignored by many artists, has found a latter-day realization in the quiet career of Hans-Peter Feldmann. But, behind the apparent puritanism of Feldmann’s self-effacing practice, is a gamble that pays off; his art is all the more winning for the subtlety with which it mediates the artist.
So subtle I actually walked into it. As you enter the current exhibition of his work at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the lefthand walls are collaged with photocopies of kitsch photographs. Moving closer to inspect them, I bulldozed an installation of cardboard tiles on the floor at my feet. The gallery attendant came skidding over hissing, ‘Hi – sorry – those are art works.’ I considered her point, but I found the casual and careless mock-modesty of the piece embarrassed any attempt to take them seriously. I would have felt more foolish admiring them than I did blundering into them. Still, I suppose they are art, and in this context they flag up the danger of trying too little, where, ironically, in the event to attempt to be as esoteric as possible, they reveal the intended-yet-unintended failure of interpretation as the ransom of hard-to-understand tactics. Once my mortification had subsided, I came to see them as illuminations of Feldmann’s prerogative – to make work so light it might amount to nothing.
An inconspicuous sign hangs on the butt end of the slim partition wall dividing the second and third rooms – an A4 paper text collage resembling a poison pen letter. It reads, ‘Art must have the right to risk being bad.’ This is pure Hans-Peter Feldmann and as good a guide as any to his work. At first humble, simple and honest, it has enough latent wit, veiled bombast and closet confidence to season the given message with understated charisma. His is the beauty of lowered lids, no ‘fuck-me’ eyes; and for some, this is more effective.
The first room of the show left me cold, though. The silhouettes of dogs sniffing each other, the rectangle of light over two peg hooks, and the semi-ironic touristy portraits made an unconvincing ensemble. It was all assertively take-it-or-leave-it, so I left it. The next room housed his early signature works. The Bilder series, beautifully installed in vitrines here, are themed photograph collections of an assortment of things – mountains, cyclists, aeroplanes, tools and the backs of heads, respectively. They are faded, nostalgic, sentimental and slightly stalkerish, so the fact that they don’t fall into indie cliché is a tribute to Feldman’s skill as a collector and archivist. His image selections are off-beat, just shy of mawkish and sometimes spontaneously overblown. A tone emerges through his decision-making process that makes a rather removed set of images obliquely personal and distinctive. The peculiar pleasure, pathos and sense of humour with which his pictures are taken or picked is what makes his collections unique.
I have loved All the Clothes of a Woman since I first saw it at Simon Lee Gallery four years ago. The items of a woman’s wardrobe are individually represented in 70 deadpan black and white photographs. It is a simple, touching portrait but also sinister, forensic and cut off – conceivably the work of a detective, killer or Auschwitz officer.
It is one of many instances of the variety of register that his work spans. His collages of knees are bizarrely erotic; the silent photographs of Car Radios While Good Music is Playing is a rather bald joke; the life-size shot of bookshelves covering the end wall is a spoofy trompe-l’oeil that manages to reference both the sliding furniture of murder mysteries and the sleight-of-hand in historic still life painting.
In the central sculpture hall are his skimpier one-liners: the Adam and vagina-less Eve mannequins; updated surrealist art objects (a stack of bowler hats, a uselessly woolly hammer, drawing pin-lined stilettos); a set of photographs of hands holding up photographs (so meta); and a wall display of seaside paintings bought and arranged by the artist. The works in this room are not profoundly clever, interesting or innovative, but I couldn’t help respecting in them the singular quality maintained throughout the show. These are the precise gestures of an artist with a particular world-view and, moreover, one that is found and framed rather than invented and announced, which is what makes his work refreshing.
The only part of the exhibition I found disappointing was Shadow Play. In a dark room lights shine onto rotating podiums of toys to project circling shadows onto the wall behind. It is an entertaining gimmick: the toys are tacky close-up but their shadows have a macabre majesty. The relative status of the objects and their shadows performs an inversion of Plato’s cave theory (unavoidable here) reevaluating traditional notions of originality, gravity and beauty. It is spectacular, philosophical, adult, childish, folksy and modern; the craftsman’s instruments– chisels, screwdrivers, bulldog clips, rubbish – all casually discarded across the display table, shatter the fourth wall of ancient theatre in a typically post-modern flourish of self-consciousness. But I found the piece much the worse for being uncharacteristically authoritative, obvious and contrived.
The last room features two less laboured works. In a piece made especially for the show, Feldmann paid six women for their handbags, replete with personal contents, which he has meticulously laid out in a set of vitrines. They present his art and its display as a stark and, in this instance, heavily gendered invasion of privacy, while at the same time striking a hands-off pose. It is a bold, potentially coarse, continuation of his earlier cataloguing practice, but he pulls it off with typically nuanced aplomb. There is nothing excessive in this literal overture.
The series of old nude paintings that surrounds the installation is more elusive. Feldmann has effaced each picture in a different way: on one he has anatomically labeled the figure, de-romanticizing a prospective Venus with biological terminology. On another he slaps black bars across a reclining lady’s genitals, nipples and eyes so that the censorship becomes more objectionable than what it hides by drawing crude parallels between the shapes or functions of the obscured parts. And, finally, on an odd fake-homage to Man Ray, he scrawls two f-holes on a woman’s naked back, making a cheap arthistorical gag of such authorial intervention.
In this last room Feldmann re-assumes the wry aloofness that distinguishes his best work. A few of his more recent pieces are fashionably turned out as overtly cynical, clever, self-deprecating or self-aware, but these lack the confidence, distance or discipline that make his better pieces great. Nevertheless, more often than not he holds his own here, and certainly warrants the attention that he doesn’t demand.