Whitehot Magazine

October, 2008, Peter Strauss

October, 2008, Peter Strauss


Laika, a former Moscow stray, was the first dog in space. Launched into orbit by the Russians in the 1950s, she died several hours after takeoff, most likely from stress and overheating. Nevertheless, the ‘little howler’ performed her task: to represent the hopes and dreams of an empire desperate to make a point about its identity and power in the human world. It’s this worrying greyness between human and animal identity, performance and disaster, that forms the core of artist Peter Stauss’ latest exhibition, ‘Sei gerecht!’ or ‘Be Just!’.

“The animals in my paintings embody the impossibility of identity”, says Stauss. “They wear badges or military insignia and achieve the gestures of humans, but they can never get into a human condition.” Casually grouped together like holidaying relatives, Stauss’ anthropomorphic characters lounge playfully on enormous, depthless planes, clutching flags and becoming lost in an overwhelming carpet of colour. With their flattened cheeks and elongated snouts, the animal figures perform recognizably human actions alongside their more human looking counterparts, demonstrating both “the necessity of biological commitment….(while) at the same time embodying uneasiness, fear and doubt.” For their part, the creatures appear both comfortable and confused with their roles. “Most of the characters are in the situation of indecision…” says Stauss. “They act in a play of permanently changing consciousness.”

Born in Sigmaringen, Germany, in 1966, Stauss has exhibited work in London, New York and Germany. ‘Be Just’, his most recent show at Crone Gallery Berlin, is a collection of paintings and drawings exploring themes of identity through the prism of performance, behavior and expectation.

Influenced by the accidental processes of Dieter Rot, Stauss has a non-linear approach to making art that often results in a lack of a clear beginning or starting point. “I try to avoid every linear working process…when I start I take the panels which are my painting grounds from the floor where they have been prepared for weeks by accident.” A lot can happen during this process, says Stauss, and it’s often hard to distinguish if it “supports or hinders” the result.

Perhaps it’s this dynamic but precarious relationship between canvas and characters that creates a world within the paintings that seems so terrifyingly close to collapse – a volatile place where things do not behave as we expect. “Imagine,” says Stauss, “the disturbing situation when you can’t rely on the innocence of nature anymore.”

Enormous in size and almost muralistic in composition, Stauss’ paintings seem to challenge the tradition of heroic portraiture and nationalist identity. “I think absolute identity cannot exist,” says Stauss, “even genetic origin does not grant membership in a certain family or community.” Interested in the role nationalism can play in identification, Stauss is always on the look out for “signs, behavior or attitudes that back up the construction of a certain national identity,” and in seeing these objectively as a relative structure, Stauss believes nationalism and racism can be unmasked as “some kind of self deception.”

Confusing, avoiding and subverting assumed roles, Stauss’ paintings call into question the structures and rituals associated with the idea of ‘self’, and the implications of a world constructed on these very foundations. ‘Be Just’ raises questions about how we behave as a society, and how we appear to those outside that society.

Just as Laika assumed her human role, so too do the creatures inside Stauss’ works, although unlike the little dog from Moscow, the animals in Stauss paintings – cleverly armed with the signs and symbols of identity - seem much more likely to survive in a human world.

“Sei gerecht!” or “Be Just!”
May – July 1, 2008
Crone Gallery
Kochstrasse 60

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Adele Smith

Adele Smith is a writer from Australia currently residing in Berlin.

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