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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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Paintings like Icons
Victor Man at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

Victor Man’s exhibition “Zephir” invites visitors on an expedition to a dark and enigmatic cosmos. The accomplished oeuvre of the Deutsche Bank “Artist of the Year” touches upon existential themes as Man looks to the past to open up entirely new perspectives for painting today.

It feels like entering a chapel: the opening section of Victor Man’s exhibition at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle consists of a stained-glass window with blue-green light shining through into the dusky exhibition space. The work seems to depict a dark angel—or Zephyrus, the Greek wind god that lends the show its name. Zephyrus appeared in Botticelli’s famous painting Primavera (spring) of the 15th century, in which the god of the mild westerly wind was portrayed as an uncanny, puffy-cheeked figure cloaked in deep blue robes and reaching for the nymph Chloris. In Man’s window piece, however, the mythological figure undergoes a radical transformation in which it’s splintered into a dynamic composition of organic and geometric forms. Pinions and bones, stars and pentagrams can be detected as light rays shine through the image. The work was inspired by the glaziers and knife-grinders that used to wander the Transylvanian countryside when Victor Man was a child. One of the panniers they typically used to transport their tools can also be seen in the picture.

The connection between modernism and the history of painting is characteristic for the Romanian painter, who has now, as Deutsche Bank's “Artist of the Year,” installed his work in the KunstHalle for his first major museum exhibition in Germany. Born 1974 in Cluj, Man is considered to be one of the biggest promises in contemporary East European art, at the very latest since his 2007 presentation in the Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Because of the many sculptures, assemblages, and installations he’s shown alongside his paintings, he has long been considered an artist who expands the prevailing concept of painting. At the KunstHalle, however, he has created an almost sacred space for the celebration of panel painting.

The dim light and subdued atmosphere of the rooms, which are covered in stretched brown linen, recall the large halls of Italian palaces and museums where old art treasures were protected from the glare of daylight. Indeed, due to their virtuosic painting method, Man’s paintings resemble old masters that have fallen out of time, as though they were nocturnes or had darkened over the course of centuries. In contrast to much of the painting of the past decades that has focused on representation and on the overwhelming presence of the large-scale format, Man’s paintings are often small in size, subdued, almost intimate. They are difficult to reproduce photographically, and call for the viewer’s immediate proximity. You have to draw very close to them to grasp their multiple layers in form and content.

Yet it’s possible to address existential matters on a panel painting format, and Man makes this abundantly clear. Indeed, in the KunstHalle, he orchestrates his paintings like icons. They are lit in such a way that they seem surrounded by an aura of light. It’s a presentation that fetishizes paintings that, for their part, address a variety of different fetishes, be they of a sexual, magical, or artistic nature. His motifs—creatures stuffed into latex costumes, totemistic objects, masked figures—are often redolent of obscure and mysterious rituals.

The boundaries are fluid. Untitled (Shaman II) (2008) is the name Man gives to a painting depicting a figure in a latex skirt who is turned away from the viewer and seems to glow against the darkness. The figure could assume the role of a slave or a high priestess. A painting mounted on fur of a masked figure encased in a silver-hued rubber dress (Untitled, 2006) calls Mexican wrestlers to mind, or the British performance artist Leigh Bowery. Just as with the horse creature in Man’s well-known painting Grand Practice (2009), the source and true nature of these ghostly figures remain, in the truest sense of the word, in the dark. It’s almost as if Man’s painting revealed only the spectral shells of these apparitions, the barely perceptible traces of stories and original meanings. While his work harbors countless references, the artist deliberately obscures the sources of the material his paintings are based on, in other words, the original “content” or context. Instead, he is more concerned with generating new levels of meaning and association.

Zephir spirits the viewer away to a painterly universe in which enigmatic transformations take place far from the light of day. In Man’s work, animate and inanimate, human and animal, male and female are in constant exchange, as though caught in a process of amalgamation. Man not only quotes biblical stories and heroes of the late Gothic and Renaissance periods in his paintings, combining them with the erotic coolness of New Objectivity and Surrealism; he also—as in Untitled (after Sassetta, St. Anthony the Hermit Tortured by the Devils) (2009-2010)—resurrects demons and saints. In the process, his work reveals itself to be something like an alchemical counter-model to the current art scene—and to conventional notions of reason and enlightenment.

In this vein, and inspired by the biblical story of “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” the female figures in his latest series The Chandler (2013) appear deliberately headless—as though the artist wished to liberate them from rationally induced behavior and connect them with their bodies and subconscious mind. Zephir is anything but backward-looking. It’s particularly in the extraordinary formal and thematic connections between antiquity and modernism that Man creates in his works that a contemporary and reflective artistic narrative form comes to fore. The artist links literature and art history, collective memory and personal experience to create a non-linear narrative in which the boundaries between present and past, fiction, imagination, and reality are suspended. Man’s paintings do not direct the viewer’s gaze nostalgically to the past, but establish their own personal iconography that reflects the conditio humana as we know it today.

Victor Man – Zephir
“Artist of the Year” 2014

3/21 – 6/22/2014
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin

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