Art Life The Universe Hans Peter Feldmann Serpentine Gallery

Review – Düsseldorf-born Hans-Peter Feldmann started up an artist in the late 1960s, at a time when young people in America and in Europe were beginning to challenge authority and the prevailing social order.  The new generation wanted to explore new ways of living their lives and artists sought to reconnect art and life.  Many rules were broken in the process, as artists questioned long-held assumptions about how art had come to be placed on a pedestal, how skills had been passed down and how value had been created in the Western art world, especially since the Renaissance.  Feldmann positioned himself amongst this group of tradition breakers as an archivist of the everyday.

In his work, Feldmann characteristically appropriates readymade objects and photographs as works of art.  The Serpentine show, simply named ‘Hans-Peter Feldmann’ (for the artist prefers not to sign, number or title his work), continues in this vein.  In this exhibition, items and images that have been gathered by the artist are grouped together in themes.  The subject matter ranges from collections of well-crafted oil paintings that were once owned by the upper middle classes, to the contents of women’s handbags encased in glass vitrines.  Feldmann catalogues his findings in much the same way that museum would with historical artefacts.  The main difference is that Feldman’s objects are drawn from the present-day fabric of contemporary culture, rather than from some distant forgotten past.

A sense of humour that is sometimes light-hearted and sometimes darkly cynical, permeates through the collections on display.  One series consists of eight black and white cartoon sketches of Hans-Peter Feldmann himself, of the type commonly seen at popular tourist destinations around the world.  The irony of the gesture is impossible to miss.  Feldmann is an art world insider.  By contrast, the caricature artists who authored the drawings are not only unknown to the wider art-going public, but their craft is unlikely ever to be taken very seriously on its own terms by people who ‘count’ in the art world (be they collectors, dealers or galleries).

In another grouping of objects, Feldmann turns his gaze towards the tradition of commissioning portraits, once very popular with the upper middle classes as a means of marking their status in society. Feldmann parodies his subjects by endowing their portraits with a red clown’s nose and squint eyes.  However, floating just beneath this playful exterior are more subtle questions about the slippery line between art and craft. The portraits, which were executed by painters whose names have now been forgotten, were undoubtedly intended to enjoy the elevated status of ‘art’.   However, Feldmann questions this, given their obviously decorative function as wall hangings in the homes of the wealthy.  In an interview with an art critic, Feldmann once commented, “It’s not art, it’s craft – but it’s fascinating how well painted they are.”

Also included in the exhibition are Feldmann’s trademark plastic replicas of classical Greco-Roman statues, which he has coated in gaudy, bright colours.  These figures are, in turn, displayed against a backdrop of painted seascapes (another genre of art that Feldmann has taken to collecting).  This juxtaposition of the classical and the kitsch aesthetic interrogates the ideal of beauty and style that underlies much traditional Western art.

Of course, the making of art out of readymade objects is nothing new: the idea of somehow magically transforming an object into a work of ‘high’ art by placing it into a well-known gallery is a well-worn theme in contemporary art.  However, Feldmann takes this notion of artistic surrogacy one step further.  Instead of the Duchampian urinal, Feldmann re-appropriates the labours of other artists and artisans, produced independently of him, in another time and in another context, as a commentary on the status and meaning of art in life, the universe and everything else. Words: Carla Raffinetti © ArtLyst 2012

The exhibition runs from 11 April – 5 June 2012

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