Oh You Pretty Things
Jonny Niesche: Throb
Zeller van Almsick, Vienna
12.12.18 – 26.01.19
Entry in English
A glimmer. A colourful figure slides into view: striking, well proportioned, and without wrinkles – totally put together, so all the more exciting. A flash of eye. A pupil. It is pure flattery, and seduction. But there is something strange about this vision, like mascara on a statue, or a piece of sculpture made to be slipped inside a person – holding your gaze, and the room. It is pure androgyny; a double performance – and you are fascinated. It is theatre, and the question of your own role is not immediately answered. Nor do you know what this thing wants with you. You remember a playbill mentioning Jonny Niesche being dragged through shopping mall cosmetics departments by his mother, in the 1980s, secretly falling in love with powder colours and mirrors; that it mentioned him ( or was it you? ) rapt at the sight of David Bowie, preening on stage, somewhere. As you keep looking, you begin to fall into character…
Exactly fifty years ago, as rock and roll approached its zenith, the critic Michael Fried wrote ( contra minimalism ) that ‘The success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theatre’, and that ‘Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre’.1 ( Considering the circumstances of Niesche’s artistic education, and his subsequent oeuvre, the disjunction between defeat and triumph is moot. ) His professor at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts, Heimo Zobernig, an exemplary investigator of formal concerns ( tropes of the monochrome, and passages between painting and sculpture, for instance ), was trained as a stage designer. Taking up Zobernig’s interest in what one critic has termed ‘setting the stage for art’, Niesche, too, has deployed the folding-screen format as way for colour-field painting to score architectural space – and, moreover, to occupy it as a quasi-protagonist. Speaking of his new works, Niesche talks of wanting to imbue the surface of his pieces with a ‘performative’ quality, in terms of changing optical effects; for them ‘to be responsive to the viewer, [for] the viewer to be responsive to them, and responsive to the environment in which they’re exhibited’.
The artist’s claim, and the testimony that his own oeuvre supplies, satisfies Fried’s charge that such an endeavour ‘depends on the beholder, is incomplete without him, it has been waiting for him’. The august critic continues: ‘And once he is in the room the work refuses, obstinately, to let him alone.’2 Fried’s complaint is that there is something undignified about the ‘literalist’ art-object’s overtures; something needy and entrapping – a would-be topping from the bottom. In rejoinder, one might claim that, through this theatrical scenario, the beholder’s subjectivity has been delivered to analysis and, therefore, made a visible issue. Yet, the two critical positions are not incompatible. In Niesche’s work the scene is set for the beholder to bottom from the top and, crucially, reflect upon this situation.
Indeed, the confluence of subject and object in Niesche’s aesthetic is such that the beholding subject is figured within the piece, in optical terms. This doubling scenario stems from the materials employed. ‘By the reflective surfaces’, the artist says, ‘the viewer becomes present in the work.’ However, the object also conditions the psychological constitution of the viewer, as a libidinal subject in a theatre of relations: ‘It is this desire-like situation when you are looking through a shop window at something you want, and at some point you are apprehended by the reflection of yourself within that situation’, says Niesche, reporting his inspiration. His painting-objects at Zeller van Almsick are not just completed by the viewer. In addition, and more generally, they encapsulate a ( contemporary/consumer ) regard.
We have thus arrived at the figure of Narcissus, whose reflected gaze delivers ‘the revelation of his identity and his duality’, according to Gaston Bachelard. ‘Above all’, says the philosopher, this amounts to the disclosure ‘of his reality and ideality’.3 It is Bachelard’s ‘idealising narcissism’ that appears to register in Niesche’s stylistics, in which real life takes a ‘surge upward’ towards a ‘holiday in unreality’. In terms of the tactile, both the mirrored surfaces of Niesche’s objects, and the flat manner in which they have been painted, proffer an idealising sublimation of the hand – which may be understood through Bachelard’s comments on the drama of a possible caress: The ( self- )image, contemplated in still water, whose beauty solicits touching, would be disturbed by even the slightest physical imposition. To illustrate this tension, he quotes Mallarmé – ‘The least sigh / Which breathed out / Would come back to me and ravish / What I adored / On the blue and blond water / And skies and forest / And the Rose of the wave.’ In light of this we recognise the pleasure of sublimation, in Niesche’s art, as being manifest in the delicate aspect of his creative task; the smooth applications of pigment, and the perfect polishing of mirrored surfaces, both of which are analogous to a ‘virtual, formalised, caress’. Moving beyond analogy, Niesche sets the stage for the beholder’s vivid regard of their own double – neither smudged, through the laying on of fingers, nor hazy, from too much heavy breathing.
In Throb’s free-standing painting-objects, reflective surfaces and paint operate according to an aesthetic of near stillness. While their mirrored elements ( literally ) crystallise this principle, the ultra-flatness of Niesche’s ( non- )painterly approach, with its slow colour gradients, appears to index the furthest thing from a disturbed liquid. Its antithesis, of course, is the vortex of paint ( that Kriegspiel of brushstrokes ), which expresses an active narcissism. This said, in line with our previous claims, the pleasurable idealised narcissism developed through Niesche’s work is no less generative. In fact, the stillness of it’s surfaces necessarily reflects the self-creating possibility of artifice – a theatricality unconsidered by Fried. Bachelard speaks its sovereignty: less a case of ‘I love myself as I am’ than ‘I am the way I love myself’. ‘I live exuberantly because I love myself fervently. I want to show up well; thus, I must increase my adornment.’ Witness, the vivid panoply of hues with which Niesche adorns his objects and canvases – inspired by cosmetic products. Moreover, the way his anti-expressive technique, and laborious achievement of colour gradients, demonstrate and solicit a deliberate mode of showing up ‘well’.
Stars are not born; they are made up. As much holds true for fame as astrophysics, and, wonderfully, etymology, in which a line runs from cosmetics to the celestial vault itself. The latter, kosmos, is ‘order, ornament’, giving kosmein ( ‘to arrange, adorn’ ), and, finally, kosmetikos ( ‘skilled in adornment or arrangement’ ). For what it’s worth, David Bowie held that the arrival of a ‘star-man’ required bi-directional traffic running along such a thread: ‘If we can sparkle he may land tonight’.4 Niesche all but states that his objects are, in some way, the glam star’s ‘pretty things’ – glitter on the surface of certain works, serving as the direct appropriation of Ziggy’s stardust.5 Within the flowering of such a Narcissus, in Niesche’s work, in which ‘life takes on beauty; clothes itself in images, blooms, transforms being, takes on light’, showing up well sidesteps neurosis, precisely because it has a cosmic outlook. While the gradient character of most of his painted surfaces rules out any horizon line that might serve as a vanishing point or pictorial coordination, the subjective vision that they establish is, nevertheless, not without orientation. Mathematically, a gradient is the rate of change of a function. It is a vector ( a direction ). In this light, even within the pure ‘ornament’ of the artist’s abstract colour fields, there is ‘order’, and that order is a trajectory – a Target ( 2014 ) – that fixes upon the stellar figure to enact orientation.
This said, following the optical logic of reflection, the orientation in question is mirrored this way and that; the arrow flies from the beholder towards the target and also from the target to the beholder. It is unclear who, or what, is doing the seducing; whether one wants to possess the phallus or be it. Ambiguity obtains in a looking glass, where a doubling desire makes Narcissus both want to be Bowie, and want to do Bowie. In this universe of desire, a human entreaty may be perfectly echoed by a non-human purr – the situation uncanny, in so far as it is unclear who, or what, spoke first. A deeper contemporary narcissism is thus whispered, for an instant, in Niesche’s painted and reflective objects: the commodity fetish as contemporary sexual orientation. Here, the starry-eyed lover lives the illumination of a mise-en-abyme; where ( as it was once thought ) light is a product of the eye. Glinting in a person or an animal’s regard, at night, in a club, or a shop, a little fire is seen to burn. By the analogical magic of the mirror it becomes as clear as day: the sun, the stars, are all eyes. The cosmos, thus adorned, can lift up the eyes of the beholder – they, too, can be heroes.
Jonny Niesche is just two letters away from sharing a surname with a philosopher who wrote that ‘when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you’.6 Perhaps, if the latter had worn eyeshadow, then the glare of the looking glass would not have assaulted his vision so. It was, in fact, Friedrich Nietzsche who also said that ‘As long as you still experience the stars as something “above you” you lack the eye of knowledge.’7 More than a century later, the stars ‘look very different today’, and Jonny Niesche can know, as per the title of a previous exhibition, that ‘nothing goes deeper than decoration’.
1. Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’ ( 1967 ), in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock ( New York: Dutton ), 1968, pp. 139–41.
2. Ibid., p. 140.
3. All quotations by and references to Bachelard in this and subsequent paragraphs are from Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay of the Imagination of Matter ( 1942 ), trans. Edith R. Farrell ( Dallas: Pegasus Foundation ), 1990.
4. Lyrics to David Bowie, ‘Starman’, 1972.
5. Cosmos Cosmetics was the title of Niesche’s solo exhibition at Minerva, Sydney, 2016.
6. Friedrich Nietzsche, Part Four, epigram 146 ( ‘Whoever fights monsters…’ ) of ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ ( 1886 ), in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann ( New York: Random House ), 2000, p. 279.
7. Part Four, epigram 71 ( ‘The sage as astronomer’ ) of ibid., p. 270.
Zeller van Almsick画廊，维也纳
译 / 梁霄
就在五十年前，当摇滚乐的流行接近顶峰时，评论家迈克尔客弗雷德（Michael Fried）在反思极简主义的《艺术与物性》中写道：“各种艺术的成功，甚至是生存，越来越取决于它们战胜剧场的能力。”而艺术在“接近剧场的条件时就会退化”。1考虑到尼施所接受的艺术教育背景以及他后来的全部创作，我想成功和失败之间的割裂是没有意义的。尼施在维也纳应用艺术大学的老师黑默客佐伯尼格（Heimo Zobernig）是形式问题（例如单色画的比喻和转义，绘画与雕塑间的联系）的代表性研究者，最初曾接受舞台制景设计师的专业训练。佐伯尼格“为艺术制景”（一位评论家所言）的兴趣被尼施继承了过来，他将折叠式的屏挡形式发展为色域绘画的新方法，并以此来划分建筑空间——更重要的是，将其视为一种空间中的“准主角”（quasi-protagonist）。谈及新作，尼施提到他想要在作品的表面注入一种“表演”的特质，比如不断变化的视觉效果；希望它们“对观众有所反应，（观众）对它们有所反应，作品对它们身处的环境也有所反应”。