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October 2011: Olaf Breuning: The Art Freaks

Olaf Breuning, "The Art Freaks", Metro Pictures 2011, Installation View. Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures 

Olaf Breuning: The Art Freaks
Metro Pictures
September 23rd-October 29th, 2011

Currently on view at Metro Pictures upstairs gallery is Olaf Breuning: The Art Freaks. The exhibition, his second solo with them since 2009, is composed of larger than life-sized color photographs which make sometimes obscure, sometimes obvious references to well-known 20th Century artists. Each photograph demonstrates an investigational approach into the visual recognition of seminal artists who have been celebrated within the realm of Modern Art and culture.

Using the human body as a starting point and canvas alike, Breuning has reinterpreted painted marks from many artists whose original depictions are unmistakable, even to those without art historical knowledge. However, both loose and precise, his interpretation from two-dimensional object onto three-dimensional being will leave some viewers perplexed. It is in this state of perplexity and amusement where we find the viewer and artist alike participating in a contemporary dialogue.

Olaf Breuning has actively used the human body to reference art history in this and previous bodies of work. In a series of photographs from 2010 called Marilyns, he wryly interpreted the silk-screens of Andy Warhol featuring Marilyn Monroe. The original prints, like many Warhol images, are a comment on pop culture, obsession and celebrity. Often in multiples, color separated by chemically treated screens became distorted and askew. Breuning takes this technique to a different level, choosing to apply paint directly onto the face of his model, appearing distorted at inception. In doing so he flattens both layers of process and years of Pop Art memory, not unlike the way many open windows of an Internet browser can be condensed with a keyboard shortcut.

Olaf Breuning, Pablo, 2011, Color Print, 74 3/8 x 34 1/8 inches. 

For The Art Freaks, he once again makes a comment on where art has been and where it is going. It’s as if he has taken original paintings from our recent past, still wet and dripping and allowed his model to do one full nude rotation. Color appears to shield every inch of the numerous undressed bodies and they are both recognizably human and unemotionally still life. Some of the figures stare blankly, while a few turn their backs to the viewer. The physical actions are performative and while different, not unlike the photographed characters embodied by Cindy Sherman over the course of her career. Olaf Breuning utilizes the practice of traditional photographic portraiture to occupy a position that many artists have attempted to touch upon but few have succeeded in a way that is not overtly derivative.

The Art Freaks exist in shallow, rectangular spaces. Consistently, each background has been painted a matte, black patina. Measures have not been taken to hide imperfections of the body and/or paint application. There is such an overt sense of purpose with each stroke of color, that the imperfections lend themselves to individuality, a birthmark or freckle assisting in distinguishing one figure from another. As if putting together pieces of an abstract Modern Art puzzle, Breuning gives the viewer hints into who he is representing in the series. If you haven’t happened to walk the halls of the Museum of Modern Art lately or the Tate Modern, don’t fret. A full gallery list is available featuring each of the twenty-two portraits with titles such as Pollock, Andy, Edvard, and Louise, all 2011. While the names may be familiar to some, not all viewers will be part of the inside joke. In the realm of contemporary art there is a distinct methodology of looking backwards to not only learn from the past but in order to occupy a specific niche in the present. Generations of artists have employed didactic visual language to communicate his/her own agenda or the anti-narrative of experience. Olaf Breuning has made The Art Freaks which references many notable artists. As a series, it has both the power to inform and withhold information in a way that only a contemporary artist can. This is most notable in the more obscure representation of artists Joseph (Beuys) 2011 and Paul (McCarthy) also 2011 who are probably lesser-known to a larger audience. The idea behind The Art Freaks is a simple one; to reinterpret well-known paintings, by way of the human form. Yet, as a whole the works not only wryly and intelligently allude to the past but do so in a way that hasn't been done before.

An iteration of The Art Freaks, with banners hanging from the lobby ceiling of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, is currently on exhibition. Other one-person exhibitions include: Kunstmuseum Luzern; Migros Museum, Zurich; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Chisenhale Gallery, London; and the Swiss Institute, New York. His work was included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, New York, and he has exhibited in group shows at S.M.A.K./Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; and Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona. Olaf Breuning was born in Switzerland and lives and works in New York and Zurich.

Olaf Breuning, Pollock, 2011, Color Print, 74 3/8 x 34 1/8 inches.

Olaf Breuning, Yves, 2011, Color Print, 74 3/8 x 34 1/8 inches.

Olaf Breuning, Louise, 2011, Color Print, 74 3/8 x 34 1/8 inches.

Katy Hamer

Katy Diamond Hamer is an art writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently contributing to Flash Art International, Sleek, NY Magazine, Whitehot Magazine and others. For more of her writing visit: http://www.eyes-towards-the-dove.com

Photograph by Takis Spyropoulos, 2012

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