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This category contains the following articles
Between Myth and Reality - Victor Man's Existential Painting
"The Contemplative Art Experience no Longer Takes Place" - Olaf Nicolai on the Future of Biennials
MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners - Hide and Seek: The Self-Portraits of Annina Lingens
An American Affair - A Visit to the 2014 Whitney Biennial
Let's talk: Dayanita Singh & Gerhard Steidl on the High Art of Making Books
Six Feet Under - Why does contemporary art love to spotlight Old Masters and forgotten outsiders?
"Optimism is part of a revolutionary mindset" - An Interview with Biennale of Sydney Curator Juliana Engberg
Rethinking the Language of Art - The Whitney Biennial 2014 beyond Discourse
The Man Who Invented Pop Art - London Celebrates Richard Hamilton
Dark Metamorphoses - Victor Man Is Artist of the Year 2014
MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners - "Colors were never strong enough for me": A visit with Nicolas Fontaine
MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners - Lena Ader: A Certain Strength


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Between Myth and Reality
Victor Man’s Existential Painting

The Deutsche Bank “Artist of the Year” 2014 spirits the viewer away to an enigmatic painted cosmos that at the same time reflects the human condition today. An essay by Sebastian Preuss.

With Victor Man, it’s all or nothing. His paintings take us down to the abysmal depths of human existence, showing us our dreams, our nightmares, longing, despair, desire, and aggression. This is a cryptic and dark cosmos, but one that is oddly seductive. Mask-like faces, androgynous figures caught between life and death, idiosyncratic plays in wolf costumes, magic tokens such as animal horns, crystal stars, crosses, or simply silvery shimmering branches: these scenarios may seem surreal or even improvised, but the fact is that nothing is left to chance. On the contrary, everything is in its rightful place. Victor Man often quotes Old Master paintings and refers to them in the titles of his works. And even though the figure squeezed into latex from head to toe might have been lifted from some fetish website, one is inevitably reminded of the legendary costumes of the performance artist Leigh Bowery.

Victor Man offers us nothing less than a painted existentialism, though one that follows his own rules—rules we might guess at, but will never fully fathom. Nor can we turn to his pictures for help in understanding his ethereal world. An animal head hazily hovers in space; a hand touches the legs of a woman of whom we see only the lower body. An androgynous Hamlet presents to us a miniature skull, above it the words: Titanik Bar.

Victor Man: “Artist of the Year” 2014
In what is the most comprehensive presentation of his works to date, “Artist of the Year” 2014 Victor Man is showing an overview of his oeuvre in the exhibition Zephir at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. New paintings will be on view, as well as a work on glass created expressly for the exhibition. With the “Artist of the Year” award, Deutsche Bank honors contemporary artists who have already created a substantial body of work and blaze new trails.

Sometimes Man emphasizes the object character of his pictures by backing them with animal skins or combining them with sparsely distributed objects to create a spatial installation: a chain here, some wire mesh there, an assemblage of chairs or a floor-mounted statuette. But these additional layers of signification only make Man’s semiotics even more puzzling and inscrutable. You find yourself continually wondering: how does it all fit together?

Mere descriptions quickly run aground, incapable of doing justice to the visual qualities of this enigmatic imagery. Victor Man does not like to discuss his work, he does not want to be photographed, and he rarely gives interviews. He sees no reason to explain the cryptic figures and props in his paintings and installations. Apart from some clues in the titles, we have nothing to go on. We’re left to our own devices in trying to divine meanings. We have to look carefully, to engage with an enchanted world alive with irrationalities and allusions, to delve into a cosmos rife with historical references and scholarship, but which defies any clear scholastic interpretation. Victor Man sets boundaries on our understanding. One message of these works is, however, quite clear: nothing is as it seems.

Perhaps it makes sense to first approach Victor Man’s art from an aesthetic viewpoint. Leaving aside all the perplexing mind games, we can simply indulge in enjoyment of masterful painting. Man is a virtuoso in playing with color values, in modulating his figures’ pale countenances and heightening their skin in white until they look like stone under hoarfrost. He effortlessly commands both black-in-black and icy gray mist, weathered surfaces and meticulous painterly detail. There can be no doubt that the act of painting itself is a central theme here. Man plumbs all its possibilities with relish. He makes blouses wrinkle as if trying to rival the Baroque greats, he shades faces and builds up spectral veils of color with the best of the Symbolists, he sets vinyl S&M costumes glistening, or takes the finest of brushes in hand to depict every last fiber of a bloom.

Man’s trademark is above all the gloom into which he plunges most of his paintings. They look as though they had spent centuries slumbering in archives, or had gone through whole odysseys in smoky candle-lit churches or cigarette-clouded bars. He not only paints the patina; he makes it a subject in its own right. History is omnipresent: very concretely in pictorial quotes from Sassetta’s Temptation of St. Anthony or in a statuette of Jupiter from André Malraux’s Musée imaginaire. The dream visions of the Surrealists naturally come to mind, as do the doll-like girls and women painted by Balthus, whose frozen faces sometimes gaze out at you from Man’s paintings almost like direct quotes. But there are also literary allusions, for example to Shakespeare’s Hamlet or to the character of Stephen Dedalus from James Joyce’s novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.

“His approach to history is fully conscious, but totally free,” says curator Alessandro Rabottini, who realized exhibitions with the artist in Bergamo and Rome. “He deals quite intimately with the history of painting, but does not limit himself to a postmodern quoting of concepts and motifs.” Rodica Seward, owner of the Paris auction house Tajan and one of the most dedicated collectors of Man’s work, likewise views the artist’s engagement with the past as among his most outstanding qualities: “There is a perfect interpenetration of classical and contemporary. His images give me a feeling of timelessness, of eternity, and yet always remain rooted in the here and now.”

Man exhausts the possibilities of his appropriation strategy, yet always manages to maintain the fine line between depiction and mood, between myth and reality , cliché and magic. The precision, and presumably also hesitation, with which he takes up his quotations, motif snippets, and stylistic borrowings is palpable; it is no coincidence that he usually condenses these ingredients in small formats instead of seeking refuge in the grand gesture like so many contemporary painters. “He proceeds with the utmost economy of means. Nothing is there without a reason; it is almost minimalist,” enthuses Seward. Nothing could be further from Man’s mind than to create picture puzzles that can be unraveled layer by layer (like Baroque allegories or Surrealist dream visions). We are not meant to decode his iconographies, but instead to willingly immerse ourselves at least temporarily in their occult, sexually, and intellectually charged atmosphere.

Man’s works are sought-after today throughout the art world. The Romanian artist, born in 1974 in Cluj (Kolozsvár), can look back on a remarkable career that began in 2005 in his hometown, far away from the international art centers. That year, the artists Mihai Pop and Adrian Ghenie opened their Galeria Plan B with a solo exhibition of Man’s work. The gallery soon made a name for itself as a showroom and art mecca, helping to establish a lively arts scene in the remote Transylvanian mountain town that soon put it on the global art map. Just two years later, in 2007, the Plan B artists were put in charge of organizing the Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Ever since then, they have been appearing frequently at prestigious art spaces and galleries from Berlin to Los Angeles.

Deutsche Bank and its Global Art Advisory Council—Okwui Enwezor, Hou Hanru, Udo Kittelmann, and Victoria Noorthoorn—have chosen in Victor Man a highly idiosyncratic, sometimes almost dismissive figure as “Artist of the Year.” The decision also signals a commitment to the penchant for the obscure and diffuse, for vague allusions and a detachment from reality, that can be found in the work of so many contemporary artists. This is a noticeable trend in times when a chaotic, crisis-racked world is longing instead for clear messages. Art is denying them just that. It does not set out to explain the world or to provide dubious assistance, only at the most to ask questions or evoke moods. “Art is becoming a personal place of resistance,” says Rabottini of Man’s work in this connection. “It may of course incorporate obscure meanings. But in the end it comes down to preserving supreme freedom.”

With the bleak universe that he paints so masterfully, Man expresses moods that resonate with today’s state of mind. His figures and props become the conveyors of these inner realms, affecting every viewer in a different way. The Symbolists of the fin de siècle worked in a similar vein, with artists such as Eugène Carrière and Odilon Redon creating particularly radical and enigmatic images. The period around 1900 vibrated with an energy similar to that of today, with a wild push for progress that would soon be brought up short by the great catastrophe to follow. Here, too, Victor Man does not draw any direct parallels with the past. His works abound with historical reminiscences yet are unequivocally situated in the up-to-the-minute sphere of conceptual painting. This is just one of the many contradictions that make Victor Man’s art so exciting.

Dr. Sebastian Preuss is an expert on art from the Middle Ages to the present. He lives in Berlin. Since 2012, he has been deputy editor-in-chief of the German magazine Weltkunst.

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