CATALOGUE TAKE A CATALOGUE,...Catalogue
Take a catalogue, any catalogue with sales offers – not on art works but on products of mass consumption. The layout is invariably ghastly; the objects have been stashed to fit the page, the price tags, either in bold type or crossed out, have been stuck randomly and burdened with percentage signs and footnotes. In case you’re holding a mail order catalogue, you’ll know that its main goal is to make you believe that buying without getting up from your chair and
checking the quality of the product by yourself is actually a considerable advantage. A return voucher will make do. After all, who wants to walk up to the salesman in a countryside sex shop and ask for a plastic buttocks lamp with ears? The mail order dispenses with guilt. Yet, at the end of the day, a catalogue on art is hardly any different. True, the layout is mostly immaculate, the glossy paper holds four-colour reproductions, and a critic churns out a
pseudo-intelligent text. But it all boils down to the same business, though slightly less filthy. And the main point should not be obliterated here: art works are not to be experienced second
hand. The designer of the catalogue you’re currently holding in your hands should thank Damien Deroubaix, since the artist has already included prices, bubbles, and other artifices in
his paintings, thus considerably alleviating his task.
Be it a huge “PROLETAIRES” in an orange bubble, a nice “WERBUNG” (“publicity”), a promising “ULTRAMOD” (for “ultra-modern”) or a catchy “YEAH!”, Damien Deroubaix never hesitates to associate consumer culture and the ramshackle remains of the communist model. By chance, we’re spared Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, as Deroubaix is neatly sticking with a chubby Karl Marx... But there is an antinomy that feeds the artist’s entire body of work. A way of speaking and acting: I herewith present you the fanciest and neatest thing on earth onto which I’ve stuck atrocious stuff; take these well-wiped paintings that I’ve hidden behind horrible kebab-shaped lamps; here comes the world’s most beautiful
girl with a leg missing (talking of which, I believe I’m not the only one to be fascinated by the charismatic persona of Aimee Mullins); and here’s Marx reduced to an icon of consumption.
These ongoing confrontations prevent the viewer’s look to go past the surface and see the gorilla that hides beneath it, turned upside down. “I don’t see the woman who hides in the forest”, once painted a famous surrealist, while there wasn’t even a forest in his painting.
You could say that Damien Deroubaix is the most German of French painters. His work does not resemble that of Richter, Immendorff or Polke, but a substantial part of his words, images, and figures is indebted to the German culture. This probably has to do with provocation, for one (think of the famous image of a punk wearing a swastika on his kangaroo slip), but also with culture. For only Germany, in literature as well as cinema, has taken violence to such
lengths (from Müller to Fassbinder and Dada), not to make it a sales argument but to turn it against those who generate it daily. Fighting evil with evil by spitting in its face.
In his book Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus traces and re-traces the lines and connections between three major movements in the 20th-century history of counter-culture: Dada, Lettrism (followed by Situationism), and the punk movement. Three adventures separated in time but resting on the same grounds of protest, refusal, cruelty, violence, dirt, and villainous humour. Three movements revolving around the same character: a rational moralist presenting himself to the public as a sociopath. But, equally, a clever teenager who holds few illusions about the adult world.
I know. The music Damien Deroubaix listens and refers to has little in common with the punk of yesteryear. But what the heck; I’ll use it anyhow to prove my point. Let the purists revile. As far as I’m concerned, I prefer Scorn and Painkiller.
Violence, cruelty, and black humour
If you had a neatly grinded axe you could split Dada in two. One part would be the schoolboy jokes and proto-surrealism. The other would be black humour, violence, and cruelty. John Heartfield (1981–1968), first a painter then an illustrator and photo-layouter, would be part of
the second bunch.
Because the girls are wearing leather or latex masks with thirty-or-so-inches-long needles stuck on them. Because, on top of their outfit, they have been substantially mutilated. Because the shark hovering over the installation Let there be rot at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in
Berlin or in Cologne’s Rheinschau is reminiscent of one of Steven Spielberg’s early films (though the plastic animal in Jaws is definitely less beautiful). Because the song titles (can you actually call this a “song”?), transformed into simple pyro-engraved slogans, were
borrowed from Napalm Death and other grindcore bands. Because the light bulbs have ceased to enlighten, now casting dark shadows. Because the bad taste of satirical magazines announcing “that asshole Ronald Reagan’s” death was blown up to twenty times its size and fixed to a wooden panel... You might think that these are the signs of the times. That it’s all about showing the ugliness and violence surrounding us – from mad dogs to first-degree pornography and provocative signs of consumption. That would be a short-sighted historic perspective and tantamount to letting oneself drown in the ambient melancholy, summed up in catchphrases like “believe you me, young lads, things were better before...”. No, really, it’s been a while that the world has been like this.
Setting a poser
Of course, John Heartfield is not a painter. His medium: photographic collage, with the slightest retouch to pull the wool over your eyes, to make you see a swastika-shaped heart in Adolf Hitler. But Heartfield’s materials, simultaneously political, ironic, and dramatic, are pretty much the same than those used by Damien Deroubaix. Only the historical context has changed. The works provoke, subverting the codes of advertisement to make antiadvertisement. The shallow and vulgar propaganda clashes with the artist’s violent and subtle propaganda.
Damien Deroubaix’s painting is liquid. It flows like body juice. It stains the paper several times. It superimposes countless layers and soaks the surface. Just like Bacon wiped his popes with vitriol, Deroubaix has his protagonists trickle and drip. After all, the metal bands’ logos often associate the axe and the drop of blood. It’s the most primary of pictorial provocations you can think of: to make flow, to let piss, to spit and drool. The exact opposite of what is commonly understood when speaking of a “well-crafted” painting, of tidy outlines and planes.
In troubled waters
Some animals are meaner than others; they’re the ones Damien Deroubaix prefers. Most of all sharks. This animal is found both in Heartfield’s collages (6 Millionen Naziwähler: Futter für ein grosses Maul, 1930) and Bertolt Brecht’s anti-Nazi pamphlets (Wenn die Haifische Menschen wären, 1940). The shark also appears in Spielberg’s films, where it anticipates the colonies of desperate boat people about to strand at Cape Cod, on New England’s coastline
(Jaws, 1975). The shark is a beautiful contradiction. The fish with teeth, a thoroughbred that one would like to be gentle as a dolphin, and feed on plankton like a whale, and keep quiet. But there’s a hitch: once it opens its mouth, it displays a set of teeth that has the beach boys yell like there’s no tomorrow.
Heiner Müller’s language is mean. Tough. Compact and incisive. The same goes for Damien Deroubaix’s painting, his fierce animal teeth, his dismembered girls, his skinned kids, his
upper case letters. Heads fall in Hamlet Machine, women’s breasts are eaten by cancer, people tear up the author, rape and incest is ever-present. Here, the world hasn’t changed either; only the historical context... (as I’ve said earlier). Müller wanted to see Brecht at the peep show and, as far as I’m concerned, I’d love to see Hamlet Machine with a stage set designed by Deroubaix.
“The question of ancestry in culture is spurious. Every new manifestation in culture rewrites the past, changes old maudits into new heroes, old heroes into those who should have never been born. New actors scavenge the past for ancestors, because ancestry is legitimacy and novelty is doubt – but in all times forgotten actors emerge from the past not as ancestors but as familiars.”
Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces. A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Harvard University
Press, Cambridge (MASS) 1989
What links Dada and Mike Kelley’s, Raymond Pettibon’s and Paul McCarthy’s California to the sound of Napalm Death, Terrorizer or Slayer is a certain “anxiety” to provoke. I do mean “anxiety”, this feeling that has you knit your brows for hours on end and forget about time altogether. This thing that keeps you from sleeping at night and turns your stomach upside down. For as wiped as they may be, Damien Deroubaix’s liquid paintings express a constant anxiety towards the world. And no matter how provocative his assemblages, they’re not about satisfying his own little pleasure but about taking a stand. You can provoke by error, for no reason, without real intention. You can sit at home and stay alone with your worries and brood. The main difficulty lies in bringing the two together – “being anxious to provoke” – in one work of art.
“If sharks were men, there would, of course, also be art. There would be beautiful pictures, in which the sharks’ teeth would be portrayed in magnificent colors and their jaws as pure pleasure gardens, in which one could romp about splendidly.”
Bertold Brecht, Stories of Mr. Keuner (translated by Martin Chalmers), City Lights, San Francisco 2001
Thibaut de Ruyter