Current Genres of Fate: The Painter of Archaic Life

by Paul North


F. Undine in his Brooklyn studio, June 2016

In the third installment of “Current Genres of Fate” I want to think about a mode of fate that has been all the rage for the last 20 years or so. Let's call it “the persistence of the past.” For some time before that, as is well known, it was the rage to remark on the speed with which we were leaving the past behind. Rages come and go. It was oddly pleasurable to discover, in the midst of our progress, that the past had kept right up with us. Now we happily talk about how little has changed. But however cutting edge it has recently seemed, the idea that the past persists within or behind the newness of things is at least as old as our ideas of progress. Darwin tells about a species driven toward innovation that at the same time keeps intimate ties with the deep past. Freud says a new psychic attachment is a guise for a primal ur-attachment.

You will never be rid of the past. This is surely a fateful way of understanding the past's persistence. But this fate does not have to be bad. Just because we are shadowed by the old does not mean we are its puppets or have no freedom at all. What's more, the idea that the past persists can have a salutary effect. It may soften our fetish for change, turn our fever for forward movement to reticence, relax the continual, tortured desire to “move on.” On the other hand, if we admit that the past persists, it does seem unlikely that we will ever achieve total freedom. Accepting this mode of fate ruins the fantasy that we could have no constraints whatever.

An artist named Friese Undine has made it his responsibility to cast shadows on the idea of progress in life as well as in art. Undine proposes to stain putatively current images with blotches of the past. In art this is particularly hard to do, since art, visual art—‘contemporary' art—seems over the last 150 years or so to have signed a pact with progress-lovers in other walks of life, like politics and economics. Art wants to consign the past to the past just like they do. We associate this gesture with “modernism”—waving away tradition, refusing conventional subjects and traditional techniques. With its dismissive wave, modern art kept up with capitalism. “Make it new” was the aesthetic rallying cry of a century, until, at a certain point, the sheen on the plastic packing rubbed off. Newness got old. The only novelty left to plunder was the past. Yet even the return to past forms—in order to quote styles, ridicule out of date wishes, to consciously recycle images or to debase conventions, and all the rest—even this way of doing art that saw the past as a storehouse of gestures to be repurposed, also denied that the past simply persists. Artists could not proceed plundering the past if it were not dead. They could not innovate and renovate and at the same time admit that the past had never actually passed.

A test: dream yourself as you would be if you lived deep in our shared past—palling around with Neanderthals or hunting Mammoths. In this daydream—shocking as it seems—nothing essential about you changes. To wit: you are already our deepest past. The study of this strange fact, the archaic nature of the contemporary, could be called “Undine science.” The field has several branches.

One official branch of the study of our barely hidden archaic side is occupied with technique. Undine uses, highlights, and often fakes more and less out-of-date techniques and styles, though not out of any antiquarian impulse. His works on canvas, paper, and metal are almost exclusively black and white. For several years he has been trumping up aquatints with a nail, an aluminum plate, some ink, and spray paint for shading.

Friederich Barbarossa (1121 - 1190) and his Resurections (1284, 1846)
Friederich Barbarossa (1121-1190) and his Resurrections (1284, 1846)

There is much to chuckle at in these images, even though he does not use these techniques in order to make the subjects risible. One laughs nervously, black irony is near. In truth there isn't much to laugh about in, let's say, a faux-antique portrait of a carnage-hungry beast under a thin veneer of royalty. An illustration of a legend shows Barbarossa, the first Holy Roman Emperor, emerge with his knights from their long sleep in a Thuringian cave. The ravens have stopped flying, so he comes to restore Germany to its greatness. Barbarossa is just one figure from our quite populous political unconscious, waiting to leap out and seize the day that history stole from him. The restrained lines of the faux antique style reduplicate the refined lines of the King's costume; this stylistic restraint cannot conceal the fact that he is about to crush modernity back to the middle ages. The “German question,” the subtext of this picture, underlies many other images in Undine's oeuvre. The question is: when will the sleeping beast awaken? How does fake civility come to characterize a whole people? Germany is an emblem for a people that has repressed the most and also released its savage impulses the most. A monumental collection of two thousand politicians' portraits painted over a decade or more (“Take Off the Head”) finds this same inscrutable mixture of beast and blueblood in every corner of the world.

TAKE OFF THE HEAD (Tarja Halonen +)
“Take Off the Head,” Exhibit, 2015

It is perhaps easiest to recognize the thrust of this out-of-date artistic style through its opposite. New styles in visual art announce a renovated human being. “Ecce homo!” “Here they are, the new improved humans.” When you want to announce that after all they haven't changed much, a moth-eaten style is best. This has to be distinguished from consciously retro styles, such as black and white films or hi-fi vinyl records that imply a return to the past “as it was.” Cindy Sherman adopts something of the Undine stance in her purposefully backward-looking glamour stills (“Untitled Film Stills” 1977-79). Rather than a political policy or social norm, it is an image, a particular style of image, that put women in the shackles of a restricted pose, a desired silhouette, a symbolic expression of the face. To reenact that entrapping image is a critical gesture. The mode of critique holds an important difference from Undine technique. It is one thing to reenact ur-images of women colored by Hollywood's glare, in order to indicate the strictures and clichés. Sherman herself exhibits, on her own body and face, the grotesqueness of that theater. In the process, however, her real body, her modern self, steps out of the fake history she has concocted and confronts us. The faces of her characters betray enough weariness to perforate the glamour effect. A critical consciousness recognizes these images of the past as artifices and grotesques and discovers in them their antipode: the natural, the plain, the free woman. The balance is perfect, but it is clear that Sherman makes her style out-of-date in order to show the way forward, to indicate the path out. Undine, in contrast, fakes Soviet propaganda posters or 18th-century aquatints in order to indicate that there is no such path.

Page 73.
From the series “Schreberismus,” image entitled: “Page 73. “This process of unmanning… might have been completed in a sleep lasting hundreds of years.” Page 121. (Miracled birds took) “…the poison of corpses… from celestial bodies.” Page 208. “I have to imagine myself as a man and a woman in one person having intercourse with myself”.”

How could someone create in us a desire not to be free and would we want this? This kind of art is not about what we most desire, but about what we most are, and so it is a profoundly different kind of endeavor, requiring different techniques. You might say it is analytic rather than critical, where critique means to indicate or create, through a negation, a healthy distance from the past. For analytic art, technique and style have a different meaning. Instead of inventing a new “way of seeing,” Undine practices the simulation of out-of-date modes. Instead of using these modes to show the out-of-dateness of the subject matter, Undine uses them to allow the presentness of the past to spring out in us. Take for example a centuries-old middle-European practice, the “Nagelfigur.” Community members hammered nails into a tree for luck. With this act, the tree abandoned nature and became a repository for social intentions. Around the start of World War I the practice was re-purposed to raise money and, more importantly, to implicate individual civilians in the collective project of war. Undine's Nagelfiguren do not refer to the historical practice or try to revive it.

Augustus 3
“Caesar Augustus Nagelfigur,” 2013, sawdust, resin, copper nails

He does it as if the practice had never stopped. We are lead to think about recent versions of a similar social configuration. Blow by blow, individual intentions knit together into a single group will, represented in the figure. We hammer at an effigy of a hero out full belief in sympathetic magic. The imitation of a military exercise, the penetration of a body with projectiles, drafts us civilians into the defense of the nation. The many small acts of violence also produce a psychological bounty: pleasure. All of this happens today playing video games, and just as commonly, watching a typical Hollywood movie—these are heirs of the technically simpler, equally monstrous Nagelfigur.

Here is a good place to introduce a conceptual term that might describe these effects. The term is “spring” and here is how it works. You are presented with a snapshot of a man in a casual outfit—it is not a photograph, it is a painting, head and shoulders painted with quick hard lines, deep blacks blotting out the background, the foreground capturing a familiar look, a sunny expression, and a comfortable gesture. A 1970s Sunday snapshot of dad at the bar, for one hour completely satisfied with life.

“We Watched Him Turn into a Wolf (Armin Meiwes),” 2010, oil on canvas, 12″x14″

This is not your dad. It is “The Master Butcher” Armin Meiwes (pronounced “mai-vays”), who shared his lover's penis with him and then killed him and ate the rest himself. To speak conceptually for a moment, the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky might have called the effect here ostranenie, sometimes translated as “estrangement.” Although reminiscent of Goya and Otto Dix, who also remind us of the grotesqueries within civilizations, especially “enlightened” ones, the restrained style, here the intensely normal mode of the snapshot, which is to say, the way Undine has of not depicting the disturbing acts or even indicating them or their explosiveness, sets a claw to our throats. We are gripped by the image in such a way that the miasma leaps out at us and leaps up in us. Title and image interact—phrases or names are often included in or on the images, sometimes extending into long quotations or prose expositions. They speak as if from very far away. Thus it is not so much we the viewers who are estranged from the image, but the style, image, and text that are estranged from their subjects, and this dissonance causes the figure to spring out of its frame and come for you.

In the surrealist game called “Time Traveler's Potlach” players pick a gift from the present to bring to a historical or mythical figure in the past. You present a laptop to Odysseus, say, so he can Skype home to Penelope. Times have turned and what is surreal teaches little. What is sub-real, on the other hand… Undine brings gifts from the past, although we may not be happy to get them, since they indicate the subcutaneous archaic hypo-self under the latest fashions. The effect of the out-of-date techniques and the jarring text allows what we thought was past and gone to spring back. A correlative to the “spring” is the effect that the subjects themselves have, once you know who they are and what they have been doing. All have committed crimes. Cannibals, generals, politicians, Machiavelli, countless parents and grandparents, the insane judge Daniel Paul Schreber, australopiths and other early hominins, and personalities from stories by mythologists like Freud and the Hebrew Bible. The archaic subjects produce an effect we can call “drag.” Pictures and constructions that present these subjects have a retarding effect. They give us a special gift, a feeling that we have progressed little, if at all.

Assorted cannibals

Believe it or not, Meiwes is an example of a good interaction with the fate. He accepts his archaic monstrousness with kind humor and uncommon openness, and he does not impose it on anyone else, anyone who is not willing to share it openly with him, that is. He sends out invitations to dinner. It turns out there are enough of us around who want to be eaten that, if he didn't happen to be in prison, Meiwes could easily nourish himself to the end of his days. The other cannibals etched by Undine, however—they don't seem nearly as comfortable with themselves. For instance, Fritz Haarmann, “die Bestie von Hannover,” “the Beast of Hannover,” suffocated young boys against their will with a “love bite” to their Adam's apples. He dismembered the bodies and hid the parts, although the story about his selling their meat on the black market may have been a rumor.

Fritz Haarmann (25 October 1879 ?  15 April 1925) - Germany - killed and at least 24 boys - sold some of the flesh on the black market
Fritz Haarmann, the Beast of Hannover

This cannibal's criminal activity and secret desire to poison the community with his miasma are signs of shame, resistance to his own fate. Haarmann was less accepting of his archaic urges than Meiwes. He does not smile in his portrait. Both cases—positive acceptance and negative secrecy and criminality—remind us how so-called primitive forces run through bourgeois neighborhoods and periodically knock on living room doors. What's more, the space of living, the city, the suburb, and the space of the Schlachtfelder, the slaughter fields of the Great War, were and are continuous, war is no anomaly, society is carnage by other means, etc. And here is where the drag effect begins. The discrepancy between the (now historical) contemporaneity of the cannibal's businessy portrait and the primordiality of his act grips us. We feel encumbered, inertial.