Mad About Meese

Jonathan Meese: The Art World’s New Bad Boy

On The Town | Isabella Vatter | October 2007

Meese going wild in the painted Rotunde at the Essl Museum (Photo: Essl Museum)

The sky is a powdery blue on this sunny, autumn noon; the hills surrounding Klosterneuburg luscious and green. All colors seem to be fusing into one another: the cloudless sky, the slightly mucky Danube, the bonbon hews of the little houses; all is delicate and almost disturbingly idyllic.

It is very quiet as I park my car in front of the impressive grey cube that comprises the Essl Museum. The overly modern entrance (the glass doors swing open as soon as one passes an invisible motion detector), and the lobby are even more still, seemingly swallowing every sound.

"Where is the press conference…" I whisper to the guide, then quickly clear my throat and add in a more confident voice "for Jonathan Meese, please?"

Climbing the long stone stairs, I pass windows revealing parts of the other floors, still showing impressive pieces of Essl’s Passion for Art anniversary exhibition.

Then, suddenly, the contrast. The moment I reach the entrance of the highest floor, a vivid mumbling of stimulated conversation fills the air. Simultaneously, the view opens up to reveal the highly anticipated show of the young super-star artist Jonathan Meese.

And what a sight it is! The lofty, sun-flooded room with its high ceilings and clean wooden floors is screaming with color, sound and wild imagery. I have to take a moment to breathe and take in the craziness of the room that so much contrasts the paleness of the day.

The first room is dominated by sculptures. Several life-size pieces made of bronze fill the space. They look rough; the texture and the way the metal has been worked are aggressive, and the figures appear forced into their somewhat unfinished form. On the long wall, there are six black and white photographs showing the prominent face of the German actor Klaus Kinski as well as a portrait of Meese himself. On top of the photos, the artist has painted several words – Love and Isis – in bold white letters.

Up to here, all is relatively civilised. Further on, though, the works become an explosion of size, color, theme and sound. The walls are filled with oil paintings; some are very large, two by four metres (79 by 158 inches) and with wild imagery. Meese uses a broad palette, ranging from bold primary colors to complex blends, which he often mixes directly on the canvas. The canvas is filled entirely, out to every corner, with simple marks and brushstrokes, written words and short sentences as well as figurative drawings and photocopies. His technique is free and expressive; there seems to be no composition, but rather a feeling that he let the work flow out of him, going along with an instinctive creative urge.

In the back of the hall, Meese had installed several small, white wooden buildings that could be garden huts, changing cabins or allotment sheds. Each one is individually decorated on the outside and varying in contents. You could walk into some of the miniature houses to find more declarations or statements, such as "Mein Schlüpfer juckt (lebt)" which translates to "My underwear itches (lives)." In others, you could only look into through a small window and watch a video of the artist painting, eating, playing.

The most impressive part of the exhibit is the so-called Rotunde, an approximately eight-meter deep, round exhibition space accessible from two floors. Inside this already interesting structure, the artist had built a massive, black machine-like object, which he called "the rocket, the pressure chamber or the volcano." Around the sculpture, the entire space, including the floor was been covered in canvas and painted in the style of the other works.

The exhibition is impressive and it takes a long time for the images to settle into your eye and mind. It is almost overwhelming, almost too much – a playground, a theatre and an artistic science lab all at once, filled with an overload of Meese’s ideas, dreams and concepts.

His artistic style could be described as a combination of the German painter Anselm Kiefer and the Haitian Jean-Michel Basquiat. Like Kiefer, Meese is a very "German" artist, using Germanic folk tales such as Parsifal or Struwwelpeter, as well as more recent, dark events of Germany’s nightmare of National Socialism.

Meese and Basquiat share the graphic use of writing, sentences reeking of black humor and social criticism as well as a distinctive wit in the bright palette of stylized, comical figures that remind many of childhood drawing experiments. And yet, the work is never childish, neither simple nor banal. Meese is as highly reflective as Basquiat was in the 70’s and 80’s of both historical and contemporary tales, societies and conceptual ideas.

Jonathan Meese:

"Fräulein Atlantis"

21.09.2007 – 03.02.2008,

Großer Saal and Rotunde

Essl Museum

An der Donau - Au 1

3400 Klosterneuburg

Tel: (0)2243-370 50 DW 150

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    the vienna review October 2007