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Friedrich Kunath's fever dream at Blum & Poe

Wild emotion flows through 'Lacan's Haircut,' the painter's massive solo show.

October 14, 2012|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Artist Friedrich Kunath at a show of his work at the Blum and Poe gallery in Los Angeles.
Artist Friedrich Kunath at a show of his work at the Blum and Poe gallery in… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Walking into Friedrich Kunath's show at Blum & Poe is like stumbling into a dream that is at once madcap and melancholy.

The paintings bring together a mishmash of images, whether goofy cartoon animals or brooding men from 19th-century German etchings. On the floor is a trail of giant shoes — replicas of men's penny loafers filled not with feet but with odd objects like a massive matchstick or a big banana.

The deeper you walk into the show, the closer you get to the dreamer-character himself, a painfully lonely man who ultimately appears in two forms: a lumpy sculpture slumped on the floor and a character in a 17-minute film shown adrift on land and at sea. The film is called "You Go Your Way and I'll Go Crazy."

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The show feels like one big hallucination of this shipwrecked or exiled man.

"I would say fever dream," said the artist, 38, something of an exile himself, having grown up in East Germany and lived in Berlin and Cologne before landing five years ago in L.A.. "To me hallucination always implies drugs. I think fever dream because there's a little more truth there or the promise of something real."

Whatever you call it, the show easily ranks as Kunath's most ambitious. Not only is it two or three times the size of most solo shows (with 32 paintings, 14 sculptures, an installation and a film, all made this year), but many works are large and dizzyingly dense.

"It's a real game-changer," says independent curator Douglas Fogle, who describes an explosion or escalation of themes found in earlier work at Blum & Poe here and the Andrea Rosen gallery in New York. Next: a museum show in Hannover, Germany, this fall and a major touring show in Europe organized by Modern Art Oxford next year.

This summer, while preparing for the L.A. show, Kunath also became a father for the first time. "It pushed me in weird ways," he said during a visit to the gallery. "I was so agitated by all this life."

He was wearing jeans, a black jacket and, yes, loafers. "I love loafers," he said with a soft German accent. "I don't like to tie my shoes, and I don't like to wear socks. They're a good way to walk through life."

He also likes their cultural history, talking about their association with New England preppies as a "transatlantic myth," considering they were really invented in Norway — hence the name Weejuns (for Norwegians).

Looking down at the giant loafer-sculptures, Kunath noticed scuff marks on the lurid yellow carpet covering the concrete gallery floors. "I wanted something on the ugly side, and this was perfect. It reminded me of a kid's room in Czechoslovakia," he said.

The Blum & Poe show, open through Oct. 27, is called "Lacan's Haircut," but Kunath says it is not a reference to French psychoanalytic theory. Rather, he liked playing the everyday against the high-minded.

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He also brings high and low together within a single painting. He typically begins the process by making a color-field-style painting by pouring, spraying or brushing paint on a thin layer of muslin on the floor "and letting the colors marinate," he said.

He then tacks the muslin up on the wall to make paintings and drawings based on projected images, putting assistants to work as well. After that, he fleshes out images freehand before the painting is stretched and mounted on heavier canvas.

Almost all images start with existing real-world sources. Many come from books. Others are modeled on a mix of objects he collects in his studio: animal figurines, Hermès scarves, tennis rackets, musical instruments and other finds from EBay and flea markets. Snippets of text come from pop songs or sound like they could have.

His work is at root Surrealist collage, though closer in spirit to the overlaid images of Francis Picabia or enigmatic narratives of Max Ernst than the seamless landscapes of Dali or Magritte.

For one canvas he placed a shiny American cowboy boot on the foot of an 18th-century Romantic figure by German painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Another brings together a Dutch vanitas skull, a Jiminy Cricket-like character, and an ice cream bar against a psychedelic mountain landscape.

"You have these dots and you want to connect them. I always felt I wanted to have the dots but not connect them," Kunath said. "Meaning always comes after for me."

In many paintings, the color-field-style background provides coherence for disjunctive images. In others, the canvas is ruled like notepaper, with the idea of a notebook — that catch-all for jottings and doodles throughout the day — serving as an organizing motif.

"The illusion of a notebook allows me to put things on canvas that have no connection to each other but in the end make sense, a democracy of sense. The logic of the notepad is a democracy of images," he said.

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