Jochen Klein: Untitled, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 75 by 59 inches; at Buchholz.

The first solo exhibition of Jochen Klein’s work in the United States since 1998 afforded a glimpse into the early practice of an artist for whom engagements with institutional and social critique formed a complex backdrop to a highly particular and open-ended approach to painting. Charming, sexy, adorable, tender, deflective, and at times a bit nasty, Klein’s paintings are hazy fantasies that ensnare. His work is remarkable in its capacity for ambivalence, which is to say that any quality you might pinpoint could quickly dissolve or veer into something else. Luxe Rococo interiors or soft, forested landscapes whose spaces spread like water or rise like steam often collapse into rather dry surfaces up close—a miragelike effect that finds an equivalent in the way that some of the paintings seem to both expose and withhold their subjects. Oversize geese or hairless rodents appear as reminders of how easily the cute can slip into the abject, and how both can be regarded with tenderness. Ambient space itself figures as a kind of protagonist, as it dissipates or asserts itself within these pictures’ frames. Rather than enacting critique per se, Klein’s images conjure a critical atmosphere that opens possibilities in lieu of delivering the easy gratification of contemplating a painting that shows off its “significance.”

An essay by Russell Ferguson accompanying the exhibition sketches the contours of Klein’s social and discursive environment from his time as a student at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1980s to his relocation with his close friend Thomas Eggerer to New York and their friendships with artists like Ull Hohn, Tom Burr, and Wolfgang Tillmans, who was Klein’s boyfriend at the time of his death from AIDS in 1997. From 1992 to ’95, Klein stopped painting altogether while he became increasingly involved in other types of production, both as a member of the politically- and community-oriented artists’ collective Group Material and as a collaborator with Eggerer, with whom he authored a number of articles of social criticism. The latest paintings in the show, which portray isolated figures delicately vignetted in green park-type settings, were made in 1996 and ’97. Among them hung a copy of a 1994 essay cowritten with Eggerer about Munich’s English Garden, then the largest gay cruising site in the city, which encouraged viewers to read these works in relation to Klein’s deep interest in the social dynamics of architecture and public space. Situating the history of parks parallel to that of the bourgeois social order, the essay tracks the relationship between officially sanctioned and deviant forms of activity that coexisted in the park. The verdant landscape paintings displayed near the essay often originated from bits of collaged photographs, and are full of skillfully camouflaged seams that gently unsettle the images’ coherence. In some cases, the move into photographic space feels like a kind of perversion: an excess that edges the images toward the uncanny. 

A subtle hang avoided the imposition of any rigid narrative, leaving room for the paintings to breathe and relate to one another on their own. Like a well-designed public park, Klein’s images invite repeat visits because they always seem to lead somewhere slightly different. To see them properly, you may need to get a little lost.