Writing Art History Since 2002

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Stephen Friedman Gallery | London

Kendell Geers, The Passion Considered, 2006,1964 Vespa and spray paint,107 x 56 x 170cmWalking through The word made flesh, Kendell Geers’ recent solo show in London, I kept returning to a quote by Marquis de Sade: “You refuse to admit that vices exist, it is as unjust for you to punish them as it would be to jeer at a one-eyed man”. Like de Sade, Geers is no stranger to the relationship between vice and virtue and is also familiar with the tenuous relationship between human morality, politics and our Lady Justice. Geers and de Sade are however not alone here; the vain, the ambitious, in fact all kinds of so-called leaders are implicated. It is a dangerous and contested area. Were it not for the occasional court jester making a spectacle of it, it would remain the domain of gods and self-righteous sods only. To my mind, Geers is a modern-day jester, prodding at firmly held convictions and beliefs through his art. His primary tool is appropriation.Cool white walls frame his works. At the entrance, on the left, a Vespa, a mirror-style disco ball, and a human skull, all with the word “fuck” repeatedly stencilled and spray-painted onto their surfaces in a barely legible black, Gothic font. On the opposite side, a wall painting – it too contains the word “fuck”. In the main space, located at the rear, one is confronted, on the left, by a video work entitled Exodus 20 (2006). It features text from the Ten Commandments overlaid on near pornographic material. Also on show in this space, Geers exhibits a large installation, seven ultraviolet wall sculptures spelling out the names of the seven deadly sins. Geers’ use of Gothic font is of particular interest here. First used by the Protestants during the Reformation, and more recently by the Nazi regime, the authoritarian history of the Fraktur font family (and its broken visual style) lends itself well to the notion of repetition, both conceptually and formally. In a manner reminiscent of the early Op artists, text becomes optical pattern, adorning and covering the surface of each object (including the gallery walls), in the process de-familiarising them and forcing us to reconsider our easy relationship with written language and its formal function. Similarly, the central theme of this exhibition – the disruption of order and morality – forms a constant binary cycle that may be traced from the beginnings of western civilization (think Apollo and Dionysus) through to the middle ages and the Renaissance (God and the Devil), to contemporary society (global capitalism, democracy and terrorism)Kendell Geers, Fuckface, 2005,spray paint on human skull,22 x 14 x 15cmViewed in this context, The Seven Deadly Sins (2006) and Fuckface are particularly interesting works, if not the two most poignant works on this show. Superbly crafted, both are formally and conceptually engaging. In the latter, the straightforward coupling of the word “fuck” with a human skull is chilling. Depending on how one interprets the meaning of the word fuck, the work hovers ambivalently between being an affirmation or a negation of life (in Greek mythology, Eros and Thanatos respectively). When used as an adjective, the work could refer to the end of Humanism and the myth of individuality that sustained it, but when used as a verb, the work brings to mind Georges Bataille and the psychosexual death hinted at in the aphorism La petite mort.The Seven Deadly Sins look almost like commercial shop signs, aggressively bathing the viewer in purple ultraviolet light as you enter the space of the installation. The name of each sin (wrath, greed, avarice, etc.) is broken up, arbitrarily continuing on separate lines that are mirrored both horizontally and vertically. This makes it a difficult work to read in any conventional sense. The combination of the biblical reference with ultraviolet light creates some interesting juxtapositions. The increasing amount of ultraviolet light passing through our fading ozone layer has been implicated in a number of human diseases, from skin cancer to cataracts, to immune suppression. More prosaically, although no less significant, this light is used to check for banknote forgeries, and in discos to add a bit of funk – including to one’s teeth. In fact, anything white is instantly highlighted through exposure to ultraviolet light. White, of course, is the colour of colonial purity. So here we have the seven deadly sins, spelled out in a physical form that conveniently identifies whiteness (read moral purity) without leaving any hope of wilful deceit, while also giving you, the viewer, skin cancer. I personally felt somewhat ill after a brief walk around the space.

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