New York High on a wall near the gallery entrance, Olaf Breuning wrote his name five times in large black letters in various styles and then finally scratched them all out. Failing to find an appropriately striking tag with which to emblazon the wall, he scrawled in smaller letters the pathetic excuse, “At least I tried,” and left it to herald the exhibition, his fifth New York solo. The gesture seemed tossed off, but it served well as an introduction to the Swiss-born artist’s special brand of self-deprecating and often wicked humor that permeated this wisecracking show. On view were recent large photos, sculptures and site-specific wall drawings, as well as some 80 small framed cartoonish works on paper that lined several walls.
Culling from a wealth of neo-Dada and Fluxus precedents, Breuning’s work has an overall absurdist bent. Somehow in each piece he manages to be silly and profound in equal measure. The large photo Brian (2008, 60 by 75 inches), for instance, spoofs fashion advertising. Here, a male figure, nude except for yellow boxers, reclines seductively like a Calvin Klein underwear model. Mocking conventional notions of beauty and sex appeal, the figure is rendered entirely grotesque as he sports a pig mask, a wig made of long green hair, disfiguring body makeup and a fake bloody stump of a leg. Another photo, 20 Dollar Bill (2008), has a political charge. It shows a group of five boys standing in the middle of a huge dump, which the artist photographed in Ghana. Grinning from ear to ear, each boy proudly holds up a $20 bill. The image recalls a casual travel snapshot of kids relishing a tourist’s largesse, but on another level it refers to the paltry economic aid developed countries have offered poverty-stricken areas of Africa.
Breuning made a splash at last year’s Whitney Biennial with his Park Avenue Armory installation of a teapot Army (2008). A wide array of altered teapots placed on the floor in a darkened gallery appeared freakishly anthropomorphic or as sci-fi creatures, with blinking lights and found-object appendages suggesting heads and limbs. The artist expanded upon the idea for the 3-D works in this more recent show. Here, six large (most about 6 feet high) blobby white ceramic pieces sport “heads” made of found objects. Each sculpture conveys an uncanny personage. Lighthead (2008) is topped by spotlights—two pink lamps surmount a double row of red lights indicating eyes and a mouth. One of the weirdest, Bird Dog (2008), features a mass of yellow rubber gloves that resembles the head of a huge shaggy dog. With tongue in cheek, Breuning presents these abject creatures as curious sentinels, perhaps guarding the gallery’s precious contents. Or do they simply parody nonplussed gallery visitors in search of the latest trend?