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Paintings like Icons - Victor Man at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
Muses and Models - Lagerfeld Meets Feuerbach
An Overwhelming Sincerity - Pawel Althamer at the New Museum


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An Overwhelming Sincerity
Paweł Althamer at the New Museum

They were shown for the first time in 2011, in his exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim. Since then, the life-sized portrait sculptures in plastic have become Paweł Althamer’s trademark. After making an appearance at the Venice Biennale, they’ve now taken over the New Museum in New York. Karen Archey on the first American retrospective of the Polish artist’s work, in which the boundaries between art and life are blurred.

If you’re inclined to think that figurative sculpture and formless social practice are diametrically opposed, you might well be right—except, that is, in the case of Paweł Althamer. As evidenced by the Polish artist’s recently opened solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York, Althamer’s practice spans works as disparate as a self-portrait in animal intestines, videos of the artist getting existential on various illegal substances, a room graffitied by museum goers, and a coat drive benefiting a nearby homeless shelter.

“I’m not a sculptor,” Althamer informs Massimiliano Gioni, New Museum Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions. “I think of my sculptures as totems—they show you that the process is happening and never fixed. They are there to connect people, to integrate them, and to create a common narrative.” Much like a conceptualist whose work is united by ideas rather than a medium such as painting or sculpture, Paweł Althamer’s practice is guided by a desire to emotionally connect with various bodies of people and to create environments that promote empathy and interpersonal exchange. “My role is to integrate,” the artist says. “It’s just a job, and it’s the basic tradition of the artist—it goes all the way back to the work of the magician and the shaman.” These ideas were also of key importance to Joseph Beuys. Among other things, Althamer’s new “social sculptures” also embody references to the “expanded concept of art” Beuys developed throughout the sixties.

This commitment to audience integration is echoed in Althamer’s New Museum exhibition title, The Neighbors, as well as the crowd-pleasing, large-scale collaborative project on the museum’s top floor. Originally commissioned by the Berlin Biennial in 2012 and now reconfigured in New York, Draftsmen’s Congress (2012/2014) invites museumgoers to paint and scribble on the museum’s walls, providing ladders, paint, and brushes to this purpose. While some graffitists favored the artistic—such as inky impressionistic portraits or a drawing of a tree—others went for emo odes like “WILL YOU LOVE ME IN THE MORNING?” or the self-promotional, for example, “2014 SENIORS” or “MUSEUM TEEN SUMMIT! Follow us on FB, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr.” While the cacophonous landscape presented the voices in the public in unison, as per the artist’s intent, Draftsmen’s Congress additionally evinces the uncanny phenomenon that graffiti in real, physical space has been eclipsed by graffiti in online space—with our old bathroom partitions now replaced by Facebook Walls.

Also participatory in nature, but perhaps more selectively, is Black Market (2007), which convened remnants of a collaborative ebony-carving workshop Althamer organized with African-Poles at galerie neugerriemschneider in Berlin. The New Museum presentation entailed a large black figure laid supine on a shipping palette with sundry other carved objects vaguely recalling African art installed around it. Importantly, Althamer invited African immigrants living in Warsaw with expertise in areas outside of artistic craftsmanship, exploding the depressing preconceived notion that these immigrants would probably be good at carving Africana. At this point it seems pertinent to ask ourselves whether Althamer’s rendition of social practice falls under the rubric of exploitation. Along with questions of authorship, the artist is clearly setting up dichotomies between black and white, immigrant and citizen, skilled and unskilled. This dichotomy continues in both his pieces Coat Drive, Althamer’s aforementioned coat drive for the Bowery Mission, which allows museumgoers free entry should they donate a new or lightly used men’s coat, and The Musicians (2014), which commissioned around fifty street musicians to play in the New Museum lobby and broadcasted their music on the third floor. Here we see lines drawn between the clothed and unclothed, homeless and sheltered, public and private. Although a cynical mind might attempt to poke holes in Althamer’s ethics, there seems to be an overwhelming sincerity at the heart of The Neighbors. Again in conversation with Gioni, Althamer reveals that one of the most transformative moments of his life occurred when he realized that, although he was a poor student in academic studies, his adeptness lay in his ability to study and befriend people—an adeptness that carries over to his decades-long artistic practice.

Most striking are Althamer’s figurative sculptures or “totems,” which are often portraits of the artist himself, his friends, relatives, or neighbors. These works employ organic materials relatively revolting to both onlooker and archivist: hemp, hair, ceramic, wax, animal intestines, straw, fur. For a portrait of his young daughter Weronika, Althamer even used a human skull. These works date from 1989 through the present and are often expertly and beautifully composed, if a little surreal and nasty. Self-Portrait (1989/2013) places raku ceramic plates tied together by leather and resembling both cloth and armor onto a somnolent, limbless metal figure. Self-Portrait as the Billy Goat (2011) features a human-sized billy goat, a folkloric animal in Polish culture, made from ceramic, metal, plastic and fur, sitting on a block of white Styrofoam in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker and apparently musing on life—or the portraits surrounding him.

Althamer’s latest project, Venetians (2013), combines his propensity for figurative sculpture and community engagement, commissioning Althamer’s father’s plastics manufacturing company in Wesola, Poland to create the sinewy, deliquescing portraits of local Venetians the artist met on the street. Althamer’s first collaboration with the Wesola plant was for Almech, a Deutsche Guggenheim commission launched in 2011 that cast the faces of the museum’s staff as well as employees of Deutsche Bank and the Guggenheim Foundation. In another binary switch, Althamer temporarily relocated the plastics manufacturing plant to Berlin and renamed its Polish location “Deutsche Guggenheim.” Over the course of the exhibition, Althamer created a monumental collective portrait that defined the Deutsche Guggenheim in terms of its visitors, while at the same time providing an extraordinary social experience for everyone involved. While earnest sentimentality, minority community engagement, and even representational art forms continue to remain controversial subjects in the contemporary art world, Althamer asks us to lay aside our cynicism to engage with the often alienated neighbors and worlds surrounding us.

Paweł Althamer: The Neighbors
2/12 – 4/13/2014
New Museum, New York

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