Ull Hohn: Untitled (Off the Wall), detail, 14 panels, oil, enamel and plaster on wood, each 14 inches square; at Peep-Hole.

Painting is nothing but the discourse around painting—this is what one could conclude after seeing Ull Hohn’s exhibition at Peep-Hole. “Painting, painting,” Hohn’s first show in Italy, surveyed the work of an artist who died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1995 at the age of 35, and whose entire oeuvre dates from the late ’70s to the ’90s. More than a show of pictorial works, however, the exhibition—effectively a retrospective—was a clever, theoretical inquiry into the limitations and possibilities of the medium. 

A former student of Gerhard Richter at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, Hohn left Germany for New York in 1986 to take part in the Whitney Independent Study Program. It was there that he became part of a scene that prized politically oriented strategies of institutional critique and often regarded painting with suspicion. The heady discourse in which he participated pushed Hohn to combine his masterful pictorial technique with a new conceptualist rigor. It was also at the Whitney that Hohn met his future partner, Tom Burr, who produced a site-specific architectural intervention for the Peep-Hole show.

Rejecting a chronological setup, the exhibition was structured in three main sections, each reflecting one of Hohn’s major interests: the landscape, the concept of revision and the body. On one wall in the first room was the multipart Untitled (Nine Landscapes), 1988, which Hohn produced for the final exhibition of his Whitney program. The piece comprises a group of nine wood boxes (each 15½ by 18 by 2½ inches) on which are painted landscape scenes recalling the style of the Hudson River School but rendered entirely in yellow. On the adjacent wall were five oil-on-canvas works from the series “Joy of Painting” (1992-93). Hohn made these pieces by following the instructions of Bob Ross, an artist who anchored an instructional TV program for Sunday painters in the 1980s and ’90s. Both projects reveal Hohn’s interest in the issues of copying and seriality, appropriation and authorship. They also call into question the kind of “pictorial beauty” epitomized by the Romantic landscape (a visual cliché suitable for television). 

The “Revision” series occupied most of the second gallery. Produced during the last two years of Hohn’s life, the canvases mark a return of sorts. He reconsidered the banal subjects—a landscape, a glass bottle and a shoe, for instance—that he had painted in the years prior to his academic training. The series scrutinizes how a painter’s interest evolves and appears to mock the notion of “maturity” in art.  

The exhibition’s final section manifested a more sensual atmosphere. The centerpiece was Untitled (Off the Wall), 1989-90, a work comprising 14 painted, wall-mounted boxes. Seven photorealistic depictions of male sexual organs—those of Burr—rendered in red alternated with seven cream-white monochromes evoking patches of human skin. 

Burr’s site-specific work inside the exhibition could be compared to a visual comment on Hohn’s life and art. Titled Particular Room Divider, it consisted of four walls made of plywood, plexiglass and mirrors that reflected, framed and sometimes obscured the paintings. The installation echoed the wall that divided Burr’s studio from Hohn’s at the Whitney program. Burr’s intervention turned the physical space of the gallery into an intimate, emotional landscape that conjured, in a poetic way, the profound attraction and shared interests that brought the two artists together.