Wolfgang Neumann: Playing with Naivety
In conversation, Wolfgang Neumann admits that with his paintings he wants to provide “visual roughage to aid the digestion of life.” In view of the absurd theatricality, the over-confident drift for example in current politics, his art, he explains, may seem a statement about the insanity of the world’s goings on. And because some events in the world can only be born by showing its laughableness, it is a concerned laughter that he confronts his beholder with, and that he expects of him as well. “My paintings may shock, but they do so with an off-key humor, sometimes they are satire, but they shouldn’t trigger any depression,” because, Wolfgang Neumann argues, he does not feel he is in any way outside of this crazy world. He himself, he explains, stands right in the center of the daily madness every day, and sometimes he enjoys the unpredictable and contradictory, and from time to time confronts the challenges they pose. He enjoys the world as a theatrum mundi, a world theater, “where you can pull the mask off all the madness, only to put another mask on it once you’ve recognized it all.”
This attitude saves Neumann from propagating a social critique that is in any way moralizing. He breaks the social climate — “where we have only parallel societies and no longer just one manageable one”— down to an ironical, trashily capricious system of references that is a significant feature of his visual worlds. “Provocative and at the same time seeking harmony, and obsessed with dreams” — this is how he likes to communicate with his environment, says Neumann.
For this, Wolfgang Neumann repositions his artistic system of perception, which has been consistently committed to the figurative, into a field of tension between reality and surreality, nuanced by comic strips and American post pop culture.
In his paintings, some of which provide a lot of space, while others are quite compact, we find figures from history as well as figures of current political events, which in spite of the whimsicality of their representation seem strangely familiar to the beholder. In Neumann’s most recent works, we encounter Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, at the public viewing of Bin Laden’s liquidation, or the European leaders Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy as they rub their noses in a friendly fashion, or Julian Assange, the merciless sensationalist Wikileaks revealer of secrets, and the victim Bradley Manning as Mad Max. Other pictorial protagonists come from the visual universe of the media that attacks us all so aggressively: Lady Gaga in the beak of the “federal eagle”, Michael Jackson as a bankrupting con man, or a Cowboy’s horse (with a damaged back) from Brokeback Mountain. Still other figures originate from the artist’s dream worlds, such as the “running little red riding hood” (Run Rotkappe Run) of 2011, or the Energy-Drunk-Man who sucks his power from irradiated waste barrels, opposite him the “sad Playmobil boy”. Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, mutated into a stick figure in a bespoke suit, has, like all the grave-looking VIPs of the current political world, an antithetical habitus to the figures from comics or childish TV shows like The Simpsons, The Fantastic Four.
Neumann’s protagonists in the pictorial space are randomly linked; like in a register, they stand or are lined up next to or on top of one another in the rectangle of the painting. Sometimes they are integrated into fragmentary plot lines or idiosyncratic ideological contexts. Peopled with whimsical figures, sometimes marked with the label “hard” (a reference to the trademark of the well-known products of the Swabian company Steiff), sometimes eccentrically decked out with collars or red hooded coats (little red riding hood), the protagonists present themselves to the beholder in scenarios that seem whimsical or even absurd, but always touch our senses. In the upper part of Sketchup Messdestruction, for example, a superhero Obama, losing feathers, meets the anti-hero Goebbels, while in the painting’s lower register, the “brain” Assange is surrounded by a Playmobil figure, an archaic-seeming little man with a turban bomb, and Mr. Burns, the owner of a nuclear power plant in The Simpsons, a group that rather undermines the pose of the two figures at the top, so assured of victory.
Then of course, the only thing left for the formerly connected individual remains an enforced self-referentiality when the screens of the computers at the stock exchange remain blank. Supremratismus is how Neumann, with a malapropism so typical for him, entitles this work devoted to the stock exchange. He succeeds in underpinning the collapse of the stock market spectacle with a delicate allusion to art history – the empty computer screens to Kazimir Malevich's famous Black Square.
A connexionist visual world, densely populated, with timelines that keep crossing each other, full of virtual references (Facebook etc.) and symbols, mediates an idiosyncratic exploration of the world, always open for individual interpretations. The artist explains that behind all this lies “the breathlessness of actions, but also the almost unbearable acceleration, redundancy, and half-life period of information.” In his paintings, he thus relies on the power of confusion and confounding precisely by using his traditionally painted works, made in the extended timing cycle of the brush stroke, to pay homage to the monitor vision and the visual experiences of the screen generation.
This diverse visual vocabulary from different fields of the real and the virtual, whirled up with the brush in vigorous colors, presents itself with great expressive power in monumentally and trashily collaged decals of our age, in a madly flittering way. The pictorial dynamics that are specific for Wolfgang Neumann at first sight seems to be brought into the painting by a narrative overabundance. But we must be careful here. Neumann practices, as has been mentioned, a “strategy of conscious discontinuity,” fuelled by “collage-like thinking” and a desire to “dexplain” that demands from the beholder an “effort of reading” to understand the narrative fragments that are assembled in the painting, in a style reminiscent of video clips, as a cohesive pictorial expression.
Because in a world “where everything we get served is pre-chewed, we must do something against that,” Neumann argues. And this is where the sophistication of his visual content lies. It gives him “anarchic pleasure” to deceive the beholder, who is used to the simplicity of current media communications, on the level of his expectations. He calls this attitude a “hit-back mentality.” Because sometimes Neumann acts as if his paintings were done from the naïve perspective of a child. He relies on the power of child-like things to touch and move us (teddy bears and figures from advertising for Kinder chocolate are part of this): they sometimes make the insignificant seem significant. In doing so, Neumann attests with gusto to how media-addiction has led to an infantilized and schematized imagination of the current mass taste, the social addiction to re-infantilization that is accelerated by the unlimited and generally available access to the virtual world of the Internet.
From excesses of “petty bourgeois taste” (for example in Germany "der röhrende Hirsch" - the belling stag - as in the US the American Bald Eagle) to the laughableness of media-dependent notions of artists like Michael Jackson, portrayed as a pope of insolvency, all the way to nonsensical associations, such as for example in the encounter of Marge Simpson, who acts as a model for Jackson Pollock’s action painting, in the background a painting with an imprimatur of a shower curtain borrowed from Kandinsky – this is how Neumann plays with images and words, with a mad world that keeps moving between the real and the virtual. With his cast of figures borrowed from the worlds of TV and the Internet, he relies quite consciously on the beholder recognizing them, mocking of his “standardized imagination” by foiling “meaningful” contexts with nonsense.
Not just through the content of the paintings, but also through their idiosyncratic choice of titles, the play with words and puns, Wolfgang Neumann’s art sets in motion an entire machinery of associations —Twitteritor, Gracecamp Sharewood For-rest, Hirschzeche, Papst Insolvenz XXL, Leaker, Chewseum are the titles of some of his works — the last an allusion to an (art) museum reminiscent of a chewing gum, one “that only pays homage to blah blah and sells bubbles as cultural goods.”
Finally, I would like to mention the Rotkäppchen [little red riding hood] series (Rotkäppi im Splatterwald, Run Rotkappe Run). Seen in the context of his most recent work, this series has a singular position. It should be appreciated from an aesthetics of bad taste, which Neumann also thematizes as a current social phenomenon. In this sense, the paintings with the blood-red hooded figure are more than just a parody of the current greed for “more and more TV blood, mystery, and splatter movies.” By addressing the dark sides of the fairytale, behind all the trivialization and nostalgic romanticization typical of the genre, he recalibrates the tradition and presents the fairy tale in an exemplary fashion as a “tough fairytale story” for “today’s youth.” In all this, what is typical for Neumann’s art reveals itself clearly: his Rotkäppchen [little red riding hoods], in spite of all the suggested violence packed into the painting, exclude any direct social critique, since our contemporary society is so split up into so many parallel milieus that it is impossible to reach all its layers in their various mental states. More than all other paintings, Rotkäppchen in the end stands for Neumann’s statement about art: if art is capable of taking up all these vulgar and abstruse elements, it can alone, without resorting to the banality of moralism, create a catharsis (possibly?); it can, as an aesthetics of the spocky, resocialize the figure of the vulgar in the sign of laughableness.
Translation: Wilhelm v. Werthern, www.zweisprachkunst.de
Neumann often creates new words for greater expression. 'Dexplain' in German is written 'zerklären' combining 'zerstören' (to destroy) and 'erklären' (to explain). Thus 'dexplain' means explaining to the point of ruining any understanding.