There is a painterly esthetic of the abject—it might be called pathetic formalism—which emerged at the end of the 1990s. Artists such as Michael Krebber, Sergej Jensen, Gedi Sibony and MichaĆ? Budny have converted the weakness of damaged objects and disposable gestures into a strength by claiming it as grit in the cogs of art production. A failure, or unwillingness, to provide a conventional degree of finish is presented as a subversion of a win-win culture. When this art began to rake in the cash, it inevitably began to seem a little disingenuous. What could be more chic than the asymmetrical vintage look?

As in the work of other artists who gravitate toward this approach, painting—and, more specifically, modernist abstraction—is Kiaer’s departure point, and he sees it as a basic topos from which to elaborate installations that include sculpture, collage and filmic elements. To this generic mix he adds a pinch of 19th-century Romantic symbolism which is all his own.

His modest and often physically vulnerable objects are arranged with a discriminating spareness that can be overly precious. With Kiaer, the self-affirmation of exhibiting is diminished by a stance of self-denial. The act of construction itself is viewed as temerity, the vulgarity of the ambition it implies tempered only by the work’s diffidence. Initiative is seized only to be abandoned after a few inconsequential moves.

In one corner of the gallery, a small cube of semi-transparent black acetate sat on the floor (Black tulip, traité des oignons, 2012). The sticky tape holding it together was roughly visible, and the cube’s glossy plastic shell smudged with whitish dirt. On an adjacent wall, a small ink drawing of an ill-defined squarish form—in a frame too large for the paper—might have related to the acetate object, or not. Such indeterminate cross-referencing constitutes Kiaer’s vocabulary, registering as either Samuel Beckett-ish lethargy, or as effete, slacker cool. Either way, Kiaer lacks the Beckett-ish desperation to make his gestures seem more than immaculate and studied.

Black tulip, sleep (2012) consists of a sheet of transparent plastic, unevenly stapled to the wall, above a black floor mat. This shabby geometric decor, equivocating between monochrome and screen, might be a staple of recent pathetic formalism. But a further element, a sepia-tinted PVC bag hanging from the cord of the fan heater that keeps it inflated, co-opts our perception of the sheet. It’s as though the clearer plastic on the wall had wrapped itself into cylindrical form in order to transform its flatness into awkward volume and, in doing so, had appreciably darkened, as if concealing itself. The bag might be a symbol of the floating ego struggling to prevent itself from imploding under the pressure of a hostile exterior world. Kiaer’s delicate esthetics require such cartoonish turns to release them from an air of self-regard.

A fly, the protagonist of the show’s two films, can also do the trick. Black tulip, offset, stain (2012) is a rectangle of bubble wrap that has been stained with glue, glitter and spilled coffee, and affixed to the wall. Facing it, a freestanding screen showed a projected film of a detail of the bubble wrap’s surface, on which two squares, made of fine wooden splinters, intersect under a wash of glittering yellow paint. The enlarged image, in conjunction with the original, transformed whimsical materiality into a transcendently glowing Suprematism. Beneath this luminous color field, the fly meanders across the underside of the plastic. Kiaer elevates emotive levels only to puncture them with bathos. The charged sentiment requires the crude intrusion of the fly to save it from pretentiousness, and the fact that he knows this raises Kiaer’s game above many of his peers in the abject formalist business.


Photo: View of Ian Kiaer’s exhibition, 2012; at Alison Jacques.