bis 29.08. | #2794ARTatBerlin | Contemporary Fine Arts presents from 30th July 2020 the exhibition Leaky Keyholes with works by the artist Werner Büttner.
When Werner Büttner became a professor at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg, after a long night of drinking and reciting poetry with Franz Erhard Walther he had business cards printed with the enigmatic job title “Professor für Unterhaltung der Art” (Professor for the Entertainment of the Species). During an afternoon spent together at the artist’s studio in Geeshacht, a small town on the Elbe distinguished only by Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite and the densest population of nightingales in Northern Germany, I learned first-hand that Büttner is indeed a consummate entertainer. Neither bombastic nor particularly light-hearted, qualities typical of showmanship, he instead exudes a performative mildness—a genteel deadpan manner that is echoed in the unsettling, often bleak world that his recent canvases depict. Each painting in his exhibition Undichte Schlüssellöcher (Leaky Keyholes) at Contemporary Fine Arts proposes a self-contained universe and on first glance it can be challenging to chart any real connection between the assembled works. Those looking for clear, straightforward messages will not find them here: a painting of a plague doctor hangs alongside canvases that portray a bottle of booze and a pack of smokes, a gaggle of unwitting geese, and a pensive nude with a pug. As Büttner himself notes in his “didactic office noise,” an accumulation of aphorisms directed towards his students, “cryptic is as clear as I get.”
In the exhibition’s title work, the shadow of a black keyhole frames a woman’s bare back. Pulled into a loose chignon, her hair grazes the nape of her neck. The woman’s downward gaze seems to indicate that we are witnessing a moment of solitude and contemplation. Yet, a second keyhole deftly painted on her back disturbs this otherwise tranquil scene. A menacing blue eye stares outwards towards the viewer, meeting and disrupting our own voyeuristic gaze. When I first saw this painting I immediately thought of Siri Hustvedt’s “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women,” which I had read only a few weeks prior to meeting Büttner at his studio. Hustvedt’s essay on the works of Picasso, Beckmann, and de Kooning in Women from 2012—an exhibition composed entirely of works by men—reflects upon how the specter of woman has “haunted” the creativity of certain male artists. Büttner is no exception. Alongside faeces and urine, you were pushed into this world! proclaims the title of one of his earlier paintings and, indeed, it is the capacity to catapult us into this wretched life that seems to be at the root of Büttner’s own grappling with the category of woman. A cursory glance through racks of paintings from the 70s, 80s, and 90s at his studio revealed numerous depictions of small children—whether mewling, crawling, suckling, or bewildered while being bathed in a sink full of dishes—his ambivalence towards them perhaps standing in for a generalized sense of despair regarding the brutality of the world they would inherit.
Leaky Keyholes on the other hand, possesses a placid sort of violence, not unlike Man Ray’s iconic photograph Ingres’ Violin (1924), which depicts the model Kiki Montparnasse trans-formed into a fleshy instrument through the addition of f-holes to her bare back. While Man Ray presents the female body as an object—a surface to be cut into, embellished, or adorned—Büttner’s riff on this cliché is tremendously self-aware. Rather than simply objectifying, this depiction of the female form violates and is violated in equal measure. The eye looks back at us looking. Yet whose eye is this? Does the woman’s body somehow resist his gaze, like an otherworldly superhero with an eye in the wrong place? Or more likely, could this be an inversion of the Peeping Tom’s own gaze, thereby confronting him with his own baseness and depravity? As Hustvedt notes, we have no recourse to living bodies in art, and when we look at them we are looking into fictive spaces. The body depicted in Büttner’s painting clearly could never exist in the real world, but it speaks volumes about his own view of the world. Ironic distance, a mood that pervades his paintings, involves “seeing yourself from without” and in this case, the painting looks back.
Berlin, July 2020
Excerpt from: Werner Büttner Undichte Schlüssellöcher – exhibition catalogue Contemporary Fine Arts
Opening: Thursday, 30th July 2020, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
Exhibition dates: Thursday, 30th July – Saturday, 29th August 2020To the Gallery
Exhibition Werner Büttner – CFA Berlin | Galerieführer Berlin | Contemporary Art Guide | Exhibitions Berlin Galleries | ART at Berlin