Bernhard Martin: Garten Center

by Donald Goddard

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Courtesy Spencer Brownstone Gallery

The card for Bernhard Martin's show is a color photograph of several birdhouses for sale in a German supermarket, some with thatched roofs, some covered in bark or made from birch branches, some to be hung from trees, some mounted on tripods. A sign for a birdhouse for 49.99 euros with stand has been covered with a sticker that says "Garten Center." What a strange conceit, that nature could be thus arranged, that birds could even love the idea of houses with thatched roofs. It's a picture of paradise, the Garden of Eden, the Garten Center.

It is hard to know how to take this image. The objects are manufactured, sought after, and used. They are legitimate, yet seemingly beside the point, unworthy of consideration, even ridiculous. Perhaps tasteless? They are quaint and might fulfill someone's fantasy of how things should be. Birds are expected to live the lives we make for them, as we are expected to live the lives that are made for us. Anyway, they are here, and obviously have some place, in the store and beyond, in someone's back yard or estate. I don't know. They are quite ingenious, really, and they are available. Maybe it is paradise.

There aren't any birdhouses in Martin's paintings and drawings in the show, though there certainly are places and events with which birdhouses might well fit--gardens, suburban houses, pools, resort beaches, weddings--all the things that make life worthwhile. The mise-en-scène and characters of each work appear as though created by a computer program that is capable of using any number of representational modes: cartooning, three-dimensional modeling, cutouts, pixel formations, amateur painting methods, abstract brushstrokes, etc. Despite the disparity of modes, every image is connected. There is such enthusiasm and sensual pleasure in the central event that it is impossible not to see everything around it in that light.

Rudi Völler's Wedding

Courtesy Spencer Brownstone Gallery

In Rudi Völler's Wedding, the wedding couple, bridesmaid, and flower girl look like demented dolls in a giddy blur of mostly white dresses, red skin and flowers, button eyes, and smudged mouths, but their excitement is beyond measure so that every other image, each in its own mode, is a function of this central one: the pointillist bower that frames them; the abstracted reflection in the foreground; the collage-like cutout branches that act as a repoussoir, or foreground framing device, for the scene; the pastoral idyll with horses drinking from a river and the red glow in the background that serve as emotional extensions and counterpoints of the formal event celebrating love. The overarching cliché, characterized by all kinds of standardized techniques, is overwhelmed.

Tapestry - Nymphenberg
Courtesy Spencer Brownstone Gallery

The central image in Martin's huge tapestry, woven in Belgium in the centuries-old Jacquard technique, is even more overwhelming. Whatever illusions are created in Martin's paintings, which are all on wood, the images are always perceived to be on the surface, to be removable. Here they are in the weaving itself, not painted on the fabric, but part of the fabric, tightly held in place. At the center is the torso of a young woman who is snorting cocaine with a look on her face of the unhappy uncertainty that often seems to accompany this activity.

Studie - Drawing of Woman at Window
Courtesy Spencer Brownstone Gallery

A vibrating ghost image emerges in front of her. On either side is a cartooned suburban environment: a man sunbathing next to a red-roofed house; the torso of a naked woman, rudely drawn, turning toward us; a caricatured, egg-headed toddler in a bathing suit. Here the scene is an illusion. Dramatic as it is, it fades into the weaving. Tapestries are not screens on which images appear but substances in which time and history are gathered. Paradoxically, what brings the scene out of time and into our world are the collage patterns added to the surface: the rows of buttons on the woman's shoulder in the form of a sleeve, the lacy white line streaming from her mouth, the kid's blue bathing suit, the sparkled eyeglasses of a disembodied head, the moon in the sky. The odd connections that are made within the picture are also made with us, in keeping with the varying levels of abstraction and realism, detail and blankness, color and drabness that we actually see and think about our experiences in the world all at once.

Within the profusion, however, are glimpses of congruity, of a woman seated before a monitor that echoes something very like the sea outside the window.

Donald Goddard © 2003

The exhibition was on view at Spencer Brownstone Gallery, 39 Wooster Street, New York, NY 10013.

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