Bones’ Beat: Olaf Breuning at Metro Pictures


This week Bones, intrepid art-world raconteur, finds himself in Chelsea, ducking the cold and the wind to check in on Metro Pictures’ fete for Olaf Breuning, Swiss marathon artist par excellence. Haters step back…

Olaf Breuning is a Swiss man in his late 30s who makes cute and nonsensical sculptures, photographs, drawings and video, and who has been a considerable presence in the New York art world since October 2001. This was the year he debuted at Metro Pictures with Primitiv, an exhibition of vikings and savages that explored ideas of tribal might, gang mentalities, and the cultish coded insider trading of friendship. From where I was standing, as far as art goes, it was this show, along with Oliver Payne and Nick Relph’s concurrent American debut at Gavin Brown’s old space, that brought about mellower spirits and unjangled nerves in the immediate aftermath of September 11th’s catastrophes. Now, exactly seven years on, Breuning’s fourth solo show is wrapping up at Metro Pictures.

Breuning’s biography is suffused from the start with both peripatetic energy and an insistence on the worth of presence and participation. His basement studio in the former Chinese massage spot at 222 Lafayette Street, door often ajar, is ostensibly open to the public. With solo exhibitions mounted in Switzerland, Poland, Japan, Australia, England, Denmark, Austria, Holland, France, Mexico, Germany, and New Zealand in the last decade, he ranks among the world’s most frequent-flying artists. He became sufficiently notorious for his epic daily breakfasts at Balthazar that the Sunday Times wrote a story about them. But the undeniable vigor of his practice has, thus far, allowed him to remain impervious to both categorical critical swipes from the cerebral set and blanket hating at street-level, the angry twin gales awaiting every artist with this much exposure. Roberta Smith claimed, with admirable bluntness, that his debut progressed from “abysmal to promising.” I always liked that. Now as then, promise drives and defines this artist.

Take his drawings, of which there are eighty-six in the show. Executed with a sharp, hard pencil on letter-sized typing paper, they are never more than a very simple single idea, crudely executed in a matter of a few lines: a dream, fantasy, vision or gag plucked unedited from the id’s slipstream at the moment of its creation. Talk With The Hand is a traced hand, hatched in, with a mouth and eyes. I Hate Email is a passable rendering of E.T. on the phone with the titular phrase coming out of his mouth. Why Can Humans Be So Disgusting? depicts a pile of people throwing themselves into a pit with question marks flying about. Monkey B.J. shows a frontal view of a man, a monkey, and what I suppose I’ll call a sex act. Was Leonardo Gay? is a riff on Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man with a second man peeking out from behind the first. Both have smiley faces. I Like Boobs puts that message (along with “so much”, then smaller, “maybe I am sick?”) in type made up of circles with dots in the middle. There are eighty more of these, and they are all exactly as dumb and exactly as slight as they sound. Not one looks like it took more than ten minutes to make. Confidential to Metro Pictures: two thousand dollars is too much to charge for one of these works.

Breuning stands for pure, relentless, enthusiastic production. His desire for discovery and enlightenment is enacted through enthusiasm and energy, not reflection. I noticed that Brian, a photograph of his frequent subject Brian Kerstetter as a reclining mutant with fright mask, cucumbers for fingers on his left hand, and his right leg bloodily amputated at the knee, is a near-verbatim remake of Sibylle, a photograph of his then-girlfriend from 1997. The back-story isn’t acknowledged in the press materials, suggesting that the private meaning the pair of works may hold for the artist, and whatever reason spurred the new one’s creation, does not matter: The echo may commemorate, exorcise or answer the original, but it doesn’t have much bearing on one’s understanding of the work. Breuning does not look back with his art, and forbids analysis—perhaps thoughtfulness is the word—from weighing down the force of discovery that will eventually drive us to answers that last. That’s his promise.

In Home 2, the 30-minute video that Breuning debuted at the Whitney Biennial earlier this year, Kerstetter played a tourist ignoramus staggering around the world, from Switzerland to Africa and Japan. Everything he did in this painful piece was an intellectual pratfall, culturally inappropriate and ugly. The film’s grace note shows Kerstetter back home in New York, crassly reveling in the wonders of taxicabs and orange juice with the same dizzy, impatient stupidity he brought to New Guinean tribal elders and Ghanaian poverty. In Breuning’s work, momentum is a force for good. His wide-eyed enthusiasm drives us all forward. The artist, it seems, has no intention of stopping.-Bones

Olaf Breuning will be up at Metro Pictures, 519 West 24th Street, until November 8th, so do not delay. Take note of the Champagne Dog behind the counter, and consider an investment in one of his catalogues, or a cute tote bag, instead of a drawing.

Next week, Bones heads uptown to check the pulse of the luxury galleries clustered around Bergdorf’s and the UN on 57th Street. Hiding on upper floors of gold buildings, what are these palaces saying and doing in the current cultural climate?