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The Museum as Marketing Temple - Mike Bouchet & Paul McCarthy at the Portikus, Frankfurt
Walk the Line - A visual journey at the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle
MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners - Washed Geometry: Rebecca Michaelis's Undogmatic Color Field Painting
Shared Visions - The Rise of the Johannesburg Art Scene
Dark Metamorphoses - Victor Man Is Artist of the Year 2014
The Question: Who or What Should We Keep an Eye on in 2014?
"I want my art to put people on edge" - An Interview with Clare Bottomley
No Escape - Idan Hayosh´s Suggestive Threat Scenarios
Let´s talk: Ingrid Pfeiffer & Bernhard Martin on Philip Guston
MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners - Longing: The Photographic Works of Nicolas Balcazar
MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners: Sonja Rentsch´s Imagination Space for the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle


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Dark Metamorphoses
Victor Man Is Artist of the Year 2014

He’s one of the world’s most compelling contemporary artists. Now Deutsche Bank has named the Romanian Victor Man “Artist of the Year” 2014. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on Man’s puzzling work, and his predilection for headless heroes.

Victor Man - Deutsche Bank "Artist of the Year" 2014

Victor Man’s paintings look like they have darkened over centuries. There’s something sacred about them, like the images and devotional objects hanging in the faint light of chapels and churches. In our enlightened, medialized world, in which everything is on the surface and things have to be “brought to light,” they look like something from another era. His works take the viewer into an enigmatic cosmos in which strange metamorphoses take place under the veil of darkness. In Man’s work, animate and inanimate, human and animal, male and female, appear to be in constant exchange and, as in an alchemistic process, undergoing a fusion.

The paintings, objects, and installations that have garnered the Romanian artist (who was born in 1974) international acclaim in the last ten years are appealing and disturbing at the same time. Grand Practice, a painting from 2008 that is one of his most well-known works, shows a stooping figure on all fours – half human, half horse, constricted by a leather harness and latex, with a mane and hoofs. The boots and the shiny silver material prompt inevitable associations with fetish clothing and rituals of dominance and subjugation, as does the painfully constrained position of the body. We are literally left in the dark about what is skin, hair, or material on this creature, about what is artificial or organic, about what are limbs and what are prostheses.

But this non-obviousness opens up different possibilities of recognition, remembrance, and seeing. Man’s creatures could have their origin in the banal flood of images on the Internet or in mythological creatures. The expression “Grand Practice” conjures up the completion of secret exercises mastered only by the initiated, whether in magical, sexual, or spiritual contexts. All of these practices are connected with the act of self-experience. Perhaps this exercise could also consist in recognizing that life is not very human but animalistic, or is full of sorrow and an existential sense of abandonment.

Naturally, Grand Practice can be read as a symbol of the condition humaine. But not even this is certain, as Man juxtaposes human nature with an absolutely artificial one in which everything is “made,” a construct, a construction. In other paintings, too, such as Untitled (2006) and Shaman (2008), people wear masks and rubber suits, are constricted in bizarre costumes. “This creature might be a man or a woman,“ writes the English curator and critic Tom Morton, “a fighter or a physician, somebody who harms or heals. What matters here, however, is not what is beneath its slick, shiny skin, but the skin itself, and what narratives or possibilities might be projected onto it.” Thus Man’s paintings also function as skins. Paradoxically, it doesn’t matter where the images come from, on what they are based, what their content or actual context was. “It's like stripping the image of its initial significance in order to construct a new one with it,” the artist said in 2007 in an interview with the curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist. “It's a process of emptying the images in this sense. But emptying always leaves par of the original layer inside. It's like stealing their soul and taking it to a different place.”

It is precisely this practice that has spawned one of the most complex and idiosyncratic oeuvres in recent contemporary art. Now Victor has been named Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” and will be featured in a solo exhibition in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle starting in March 2014. The award is given to artists who have created a substantial work in which paper or photography play a role. At the same time, it was initiated to honor impulses coming from the new art centers in Africa, Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe. One of these new hubs is Man’s home city of Cluj in Transylvania, where, in addition to his studio in Berlin, he still works in his boyhood room. Cluj, situated halfway between Bucharest and Budapest, is home to a vital art scene whose international appeal is inextricably entwined with Man’s career and Plan B Gallery, which opened in 2005 with a solo show devoted to the artist. It was the first gallery exhibition in Romania which a large U.S. art magazine reviewed - Art in America. Plan B was initiated by the artists Mihai Pop and Adrian Ghenie not only as a production and exhibition space for current art, but also as a research and documentation center aiming to raise international awareness of undiscovered Romanian artists and works from the last fifty years.

The success of Plan B and Victor Man was resounding. His work was shown at the 2005 Prague Biennale, and at the 2007 Venice Biennale, where Plan B was showcased in the Romanian Pavilion, the same year in which Romania joined the EU. He contributed various works to the group show Low Budget Monuments: in addition to an intervention on the building’s outer façade, for which he filled gaps between the ROMANIA insignia above the main entrance with shreds of old fur coats, different sculptures and a large painting of a group of children in fur costumes rehearsing in front of the landscape setting of a puzzling play. When he was asked in an interview by the German  curator and art historian Yilmaz Dziewior whether there was a link between the “political” statement on the façade and the surreal-looking painting, Man replied: “It is not that we were trying to create very direct literary connections between the works exhibited there, but rather looking to make a connection between them in a more subliminal way. […] But you see once you start to take away the ... let's call it 'veil' from things, I think it is not as interesting anymore. I like the noumenon you might get from the disparate associations, without the loss of meaning.”

For Plato, the noumenon was “that which is known by intellect or spiritual sense as opposed to what is seen by the eye,” phenomena that can be experienced with the senses. Victor Man’s works close themselves off in terms of their appearance so they can be “recognizable” in a new and different way. Unlike a large part of the painting of recent decades, which relied on representation, large formats, and overwhelming power, Victor Man’s paintings are dark, generally in small formats, almost intimate. In the past, he often presented them in the form of installations, in connection with objects and materials such as fur, thus emphasizing the objective, corporeal character of his painting. For Composition with a Pagan Statue (2010), for example, Man combines an oil painting with a print hung above it that shows a satellite floating in space. An African sculpture he found at a flea market stands on a thin, plain metal stand. A can of cat food serves as the pedestal. It is an ironic comment on the anthropocentric worldview on which Western culture and enlightened modernist thought are based. What we call “reason” has not only brought progress but has also triggered unforeseeable crises.     

Man’s art seems to radically dispense with reason. Not only does he resurrect demons or saints, as in Untitled (After Sassetta, St. Anthony the Hermit Tortured by the Devils) from 2010-11. In addition, many protagonists in his more recent paintings have become almost demonstrably headless – as though the artist wants to free them from rational control and give them greater access to their body and their unconscious. The initials S.D. repeatedly appear in the titles of Man’s recent works, an allusion to Stephen Dedalus, the main character of James Joyce’s semibiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man from 1916. In Man’s work, Dedalus is in a continual process of transformation and appears as an androgynous figure between the sexes. In Untitled (S. D. as Judith and Holofernes), for example, Man portrays him as a woman holding an African-looking mask on her lap, with her face frozen in the same mask-like pose and her eye sockets black. The form recurs with male features in Untitled from 2013. As a paradoxical version of Hamlet, Dedalus views a black miniature skull. Man runs through the motif of the “headless” woman in his most recent series Le Chandler (2013): an androgynous sitting figure whose head cannot be seen in the picture is balancing something on her knees that turns out to be a female head.

In his “decapitated” images, Man was greatly inspired by George Bataille and Acéphale, the publication of his secret society of the same name. The cover picture of the first edition, of which five appeared between 1936 and 1939, shows an illustration by André Masson: a headless man with a burning heart in one hand and a dagger in the other. A skull conceals his gender. The illustration is a counterpoint to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, which is constructed based on ancient rules of proportion and symbolizes harmony and reason. For Bataille, Masson’s version was a liberation – not only death and chaos, but also a reunion with base instincts: with the unconscious, sexuality, lust.

In Victor Man’s dark world, however, this reunion does not occur as a triumphal act of liberation. At most, it suggests itself subliminally. Like the horselike creature in Grand Practice, the androgynous figures of Le Chandler assume ritualized poses and wear costumes. Much more than a triumph or departure, they speak of tolerance, self-control, and contemplation. They keep their secrets with artful restraint, “the veil that covers things.” Baitaille’s  Acéphale, Joyce’s Dedalus, the myths and images that these beings have engendered, lie hidden in it, layer for layer, and forgotten. But this is precisely what constitutes their promise – that they will enable us to feel what cannot be said, shown, or rediscovered.

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