For more than a decade, German artist Jonathan Meese, 40, has provoked, seduced and irritated art audiences in Europe with raucous, libido-driven performances and dense, dissonant installations, packed with all sorts of detritus, fragmented photo imagery, graffiti-scarred painted surfaces and the like. All of his projects relay a sense of urgency—anarchical abandon with a dose of absurdist humor—the only unifying theme being art itself and the creative process. Propelled by sociopolitical undercurrents—especially those pertinent to Europe’s post-Cold War identity—and an acerbic critique of mass culture, Meese’s efforts convey a feverish, psychosexual energy. Despite the abject look of much of the work, there’s a Wagnerian grandiosity in its scope and scale.
It is peculiar, then, that his U.S. museum solo debut should focus on a rather narrow and insular part of Meese’s oeuvre: his sculpture. The 56 pieces currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, in “Jonathan Meese: Sculpture,” curated by the museum’s director, Bonnie Clearwater, do, however, provide a glimpse into Meese’s range of formal strategies, if not the spirit of his endeavor. One of the most imposing sculptures, Der Propagandist (2005), gives an idea of Meese’s unique brand of thoughtful provocation, wild imagination and penchant for the grotesque. Over 7 feet tall, the bronze figure is one of a half-dozen mythology-based works. Its most outlandish attributes are two pairs of twin phalluses—one emerging from its head and one from its back—and an erect phallus jutting from its crotch. The figure also features a distorted sheep’s face, two perky breasts, and hooves.
Meese initially showed the work in Copenhagen’s Statens Museum fur Kunst in 2005-06 as part of an elaborate performance and installation piece presented in collaboration with the Danish-Israeli artist Tal. R. There, on the pink floor of the mixed-medium environment (shown in reproduction in the Miami exhibition catalogue), scrawled text reads “LOOK INTO/ THIS/ LOVING/ SEXUALITY/ PLEASE.” The words help explicate the artist’s intentions, but even without them, viewers get a strong sense that with this satyrlike figure Meese is attempting to channel a mythological time and place that might resonate with his own throbbing libido.
“Sculpture” is a limited overview, but it manages to convey a sense of Meese’s career trajectory. The exhibition catalogue and press materials emphasize the artist’s concerns that his complex, interdisciplinary work can, as he says, “put viewers on the wrong track,” and, according to the press release, viewers should “slow down” to properly receive the work. Indeed, this exhibition has that effect, as it treats the individual pieces as discrete objects without related paraphernalia, paintings or the artist’s performative presence, which have been integral to his major European exhibitions. In his 2008 solo New York gallery exhibition at Bortolami, by comparison, the artist’s one-time performance The Dictatorship of Art consisted mostly of running around the space, yelling incoherently and periodically giving the Nazi salute, with portable speakers pressed to his ears, upstaging the paintings and sculptures on view. Meese’s performance, incidental though it was, overshadowed subsequent visits to the exhibition.
The Miami show opens with his earliest extant work, Old Red Nugget in Old Sweet River—A Man Goes Through a Wall (1985), presented like a relic of mythic origin. Produced by a troubled 15-year-old, the tiny pink slab, made of glazed ceramic, resembles human gums without teeth. A small fingerlike protrusion on one side hints at a figure. Despite its modest scale and demeanor, it is an alluring and seductive object, almost jewel-like.
Born in Tokyo to a British father and German mother, Meese moved with his family to Hamburg as a child. He subsequently attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg, where he befriended artists John Bock and Christian Jankowski. Martin Kippenberger, Franz Ackermann, Daniel Richter and Albert Oehlen (with whom Meese has often collaborated) had studied at the academy in previous years. The college also hosted exhibitions of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy during the time Meese attended. These shows made a strong impression on the young artist. While Meese shared with Boch and Jankowski an interest in Dada, installation and performance, he was the only one who painted. He also closely studied the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, who would become a major point of reference in his later work. Throughout his student years and just after he graduated, Meese continued to investigate the possibilities of creating narratives and theatrical tableaux in miniature with glazed ceramics as well as with a series of assemblages using plastic valises.
Meese demonstrated early on a kind of quirky knack for effectively combining textures, colors, unorthodox materials and appropriated imagery—especially photo stills from popular films, like the James Bond series, and music icons, such as the Beatles. He merges these multifarious elements in ways that are consistently amusing, although, perhaps, too canny to be truly funny. An untitled work (1993) features two toy figures. A yellow ceramic figurine of a Native American warrior, with a hatchet in hand, has been cut at the waist; inserted between the two halves is a piece of what looks like a yellow Twizzler. The alteration enhances the effect of exaggerated motion as this figure faces off against a red plastic cowboy with a bundle of half-smoked cigarettes tied to his back with string. This and other pieces with toys led to a series of dioramas set in valises, from 1993-94, which suggest maquettes for large-scale installations and theater pieces. The valise works underscore the importance of scale in Meese’s work as he constantly explores the range of bodily and also psychic implications in the notion of miniature vs. monumental. A group of abstract ceramic heads, “Tiermetabolismus” (most of Meese’s titles are nonsensical and resist translation), from 2008-09, recall African masks, Kachina dolls or tribal fetishes while also suggesting models for towering, architectonic structures one could imagine the artist producing. The scale becomes interestingly problematic toward the end of the exhibition, where the artist’s models and set designs for his 2006 theatrical production, “Kokain,” at the Berliner Volksbühne, are displayed in a darkened room. There are three monitors showing clips and stills from Meese’s performances, including “Kokain,” which offer some sense of the use of the objects and sets, but the viewer is still left with only a vague and unsatisfying idea of their theatrical impact.
The show finds its surest footing with Meese’s larger sculptures, which, fortunately, make up the bulk of the exhibition. Suzy Wong (2006) is a 6½-foot-tall bronze creature with a reddish patina. A rather freakish sci-fi figure, she is, however, relatively elegant compared to some of the other sculptures on view. She has a lizardlike face with a long distended tongue wrapped around a bananalike shape. “Isis” is tattooed on her arm, and she wears a kind of blocky wristwatch. One of the most striking works, Wir, Erzkinder lernen Macht (Süsses Dorf der Verdammtin)=Die Güren (2007) was inspired in part by the 1960 horror movie Village of the Damned. It shows two life-size ghoulish children, hand in hand, with incongruous touches of gold patina in their hair and clothing; one figure holds what appears to be a dead dog.
Napoleon (2006) is exceptionally detailed and seems almost deliquescent. Wrinkles and other surface nuances are evidence of the artist’s technical skill. The anguished expression on this figure’s face, and in a number of the smaller bronzes in the show, including Mutter (Mother), 2003, Son (2004) and Elephant Man träumt von Dir (2007), betray Meese’s interest in the bronze portraits by the 18th-century German-Austrian sculptor Franz Xavier Messerschmidt, with their extreme and expressive distortions.
In performance, Meese often inhabits a Janus-faced character that represents Wagner, Dionysus and Apollo simultaneously. The performances are intense and aggressively noisy. The Miami exhibition presents a quiet doppelganger, a twin of the artist who is tamer, if not entirely well behaved. On one level, the show presents a Meese alternate, his museum-taste avatar. But the installation of the artist’s untitled masks (all 2003), set into the wall behind glass, as if in a natural history museum, reveals the inertness of an exclusive exhibition of Meese sculpture. The masks themselves are undeniably intriguing. Most were used in performances: there’s a pink paper mask of a king with a curly beard superimposed on a real human skull, and a rubber mask of a gentleman that appears equal parts George Washington and George W. Bush. Meese’s conflating of sculpture and performance props is evident in the display, and he has repeatedly stated in interviews that he intends his objects to have a life beyond the context of performance. But this installation neutralizes the material and transforms the works not into talismanic objects, as Meese might have wished, but into mere archival material. Like the show as a whole, the presentation alludes to but doesn’t capture the idiosyncratic presence of the artist.
Currently On View “Jonathan Meese: Sculpture” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, through Feb. 13. New works by Meese at Galerie Templon, Paris, through Feb. 19.