Michel Majerus

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May 31 – September 25 – 2012

CAPC - Entrepôt Lainé. 7, rue Ferrère F-33000 – Bordeaux

‘I’m fascinated by the idea of doing something without being sure of what it will become, and without anyone else being sure what it will become. I will never know, and no one else will know: that is how I think of art’.

Michel Majerus

The brief span of Michel Majerus’ career coincides with two major revolutions, one technological, the other political. The artist’s work reached its creative peak and made its mark on the international art scene in 1996, when the Internet was emerging as a new phenomenon. His death in a tragic plane crash occurred one year after the political turmoil caused by the 9/11 attacks in 2001. In the space of six years, these two revolutions profoundly transformed the socio-cultural and economic parameters of our civilization, giving birth to a new era we commonly refer to as ‘globalization’. It brought with it mobility, polycentrism, information streams, new networks, social diversity, and hybridization. Nothing is ‘remote’ or ‘peripheral’ any more, power hubs no longer have physical locations, and social time patterns have been desynchronized. In the space of a few years, Michel Majerus sensed and embraced these new parameters and used them to develop new aesthetic paradigms: painting as a space for navigation and circulation, the canvas’s surface used like a screen, the boundless availability of images, the simultaneity and non-uniformity of signs and forms, the importance of communication technology in human interaction, and so on.

The openness and permeability of Majerus’ work reflects its genuine kinship with Pop Art. Its contemporary thrust owes much to the artist’s relentless concern with the question of style, rooted in his awareness of living in an entirely ‘designed’ world in which all entities, ideas, and physical manifestations are produced via standardized communication tools whose visual identity is tightly controlled. Majerus decided to refrain from making choices, remaining faithful to this fundamental, difficult and often misunderstood relativism until the end, as shown in the darker, more anxious paintings he made in 2002, shortly before his death.

Of all painters, Michel Majerus undoubtedly embodies most clearly the methods of production that I attempted to outline and analyze in my essay Postproduction.3  The casual manner in which he manipulated the signs of postindustrial culture, the diversity of his techniques, as well as his disdain for any subject that had not yet featured online, made his work a veritable manifesto for a generation of artists that did not even view painting as its preferred medium. Just as I did a few years ago in Esthétique relationnelle, I shall endeavor here to explore the forms of knowledge particular to the age of connectivity. The central question here is: how does the cultural chaos wrought by the Internet generate new modes of production and, more importantly, new artistic stances in the face of our changing environment?

The term “postproduction” is of course drawn from the audiovisual domain and applies to all aspects in the treatment of already recorded material: montage, inserts from other visual and audio sources, subtitles, voice-overs, special effects … Since these activities are seen as entirely connected with services and recycling, postproduction is clearly anchored in the tertiary sector and its mindset. By reworking forms already created by others and freely available cultural products, art attuned itself to the global culture of the information age. It is distinguished both by the excessive augmentation of cultural signs and the radical inclusion of forms ignored or shunned up until then.

At first glance, Majerus’s paintings only contain images and forms that one has seen somewhere else and that have long been common property, either borrowed from consumer culture or from existing artworks. More to the point, however, his brand of painting strives to abolish the difference between subject and form. By blending painterly techniques with packaging materials, Majerus conceived his exhibitions as shop windows, as advertising spaces, which he then structured as commercial displays according to the rules of product placement. This fascination for the shopping mall aesthetic and attachment to Pop’s visual matrix are typical for Majerus’s works of the nineties. As a reaction to the American Simulationist art of the preceding decade, young artists were now more likely to be inspired by the formal model of the flea market. From Thomas Hirschhorn to Rirkrit Tiravanija and Jason Rhoades, the exhibition in Sète formed a complex visual circuit and was founded on such themes as the availability of formal elements that displayed a taste for the short-lived. From a painterly perspective, it revolved around the demand, dominant in the late twentieth century, for a historicizing or sentimental form of painting, from John Currin’s mischievous portraits up to Karen Kilimnik’s or Elizabeth Peyton’s assessment of visual junk. Formal equivalents to Majerus’s universe can be found in the double nostalgia that marked the works of the Young British Artists, the years of Koons, and Pop Art. But even the impact and immediacy of the visual approach of a Damien Hirst [or Angus Fairhurst] possess neither the bite nor the critical potential of Majerus’s paintings. One is more likely to find a profound reflection on the digitalization of painting in the work of Albert Oehlen, who one can truly see as Majerus’s equivalent in terms of approach. Among his own generation, his direct peers were Bruno Peinado in France, who drew on a perceived “creolization” of culture to fuse commercial graphic art with fine art, Franz Ackermann in Germany, who indexes the contemporary landscape with Google Earth and GPS, and Kelley Walker in the USA, who couples the pictorial space with digital circuitry.

When Majerus lived in Berlin in the second half of the nineties, he had direct contact with other artists of his generation, who were extremely politically active and very involved in techno and dj culture and were unabashed in their manipulation of the language of advertising and corporate culture. One of them, the video artist Daniel Pflumm, started to rework brand names like AT&T and Sony into a kind of abstract “anti-ad” using self- composed, minimalist, electronic music. Svetlana Heger and Plamen Dejanov are also two figures, who in 1999, shortly prior to their separation, dedicated themselves entirely to the company BMW and featured the products of this particular brand in all their exhibitions. In the late nineties, Berlin was a bastion of capitalist hardcore realism, fuelled by the dramatic urban transformation process that saw the city mutate into the capital of a united Germany. Majerus was strongly influenced by this cultural atmosphere. One of the most essential principles of techno culture was the abolition of the traditional separation between production and consumption, creation and copy. A dj’s raw material comprises audio products that are already in circulation on the cultural market, in effect things that have been designed by others. Due to the nature of the details used and his painterly techniques, Majerus was one of the artists of his day who came closest to being a kind of dj: by changing preexisting material through diverse effects of color and form, he created visual loops. Most importantly though, he both saved his images and worked on the composition of his paintings on the computer. This fact is of great significance, for the postproduction artists who emerged in the nineties and two-thousands differentiate themselves from postmodernism, and in particular from its proclivity for citation, precisely through the fact that they integrate the functions available in the digital universe in their conceptions.

Benjamin Buchloh was scathing in his assessment of the postmodern painting of the eighties, stating: “Style thus becomes the ideological equivalent to merchandise: its universal interchangeability, its free availability denote a historical moment of closure and stagnation. If there remains no other option for the aesthetic discourse other than maintaining its own system of distribution and circulation of its marketable forms, then it should hardly come as surprise that all ‘boldness has become mere convention,’ with paintings gradually resembling shop windows, decorated with fragments of historical references.”4 To dispel this view, in the nineties many artists were concerned with the forms’ use, which resolutely differs from citation. What Buchloh criticizes as a “historical image” is the illusion of a unity and totality that conceals various historical aspects under the guise of “style.” By comparison, the history of forms becomes a tool box thanks to the process of postproduction, as seen from Mike Kelley to Henrik Olesen, or Michel Majerus to Pierre Huyghe. By raising awareness of the meaning and use of signs, they propagate history as an incomplete action and move toward the kind of art, demanded by Walter Benjamin that redeems the “defeated”—the political summons of the formal phantoms of the past, brought before the tribunal of the present. Majerus managed to escape the “merchandise style” decried by Buchloh thanks to his repetition of motifs, the constant juxtaposition of serial figures, and visible brushstrokes. The results were some, at times, brutal collisions, but through them he rediscovered the essence of “modernist collage,” whereby “the various fragments and materials of experience … are revealed, exposed as tears, hollow spaces, irreconcilable contradictions, incongruous specifications, pure heterogenity.”5 Majerus’s painting never allows itself to be beguiled by the things with which it is fascinated.

The Pop monumentality and motley iconography of his large compositions are at first glance reminiscent of James Rosenquist’s key works dating from the sixties. Over the years, however, the art historical references in his paintings became more explicit, in particular with regards to Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, and Martin Kippenberger. He “samples” details from their works as a matter of course, like they were a packet of Cornflakes. At the same time, he engages with them in a subtle dialogue whose traces can be read as his composition unfolds. A nearly monochrome image in dazzling yellow, for instance, features a white spot with a figure inserted into it in the bottom half of the picture, which in the choice of motif and layout reveals the influence of Basquiat; in another area of the canvas the modulations in the bright background subsume the figures placed on top, in a similar way to Ed Ruscha’s works. Also crucial here, however, is the reference to Rosenquist, for, in contrast to Warhol or Lichtenstein, he calls for a collage aesthetic, which also permeates Majerus’s work. Critics often claimed the creator of the colossal F-111 (1965) produced a form of “Pop Surrealism” that illustrated the oddness of urban life in the industrial age precisely through the over-sized scale of its figures. Rosenquist, wrote G. R. Swenson, forces the viewer to become aware of the disharmonious, anonymous elements of a reality he is confronted with on a daily basis. 6 Despite the heterogeneity of the figures and textual elements used by Majerus, in his works the viewer has an impression neither of oddness nor disharmony. As a mirror of an epoch full of contradictions and brutal clashes, his paintings underscore the breaks and distortions between the signs that, due to their familiarity, we hardly perceive anymore.

Image above: Michel Majerus – Pathfinder- 2002 – Digital print on vinyl – 380 x 290 x 3,5 cm

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Michel Majerus

enough – 1999

Acrylic on cotton

250 x 400 cm

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Michel Majerus

mm1 – 2001

Acrylic on cotton

260 x 300 x 2 cm

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Michel Majerus

MoM Block Nr. 89 – 2000

Acrylic on canvas

200 x 180 cm

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Michel Majerus

MoM Block Nr. 68 – 2000

Acrylic on canvas

200 x 180 cm

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Michel Majerus

nothing is permanent – 2000

Acrylic on canvas

260 x 450 cm

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Michel Majerus

3mmT-2 – 2001

Computer print on PVC

280 x 400 cm

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Michel Majerus

degenerated – 2001

Acrylic on cotton

280 x 400 cm

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Michel Majerus

mm1 – 2001

Acrylic on cotton

260 x 300 x 2 cm

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Michel Majerus

pressure groups 2 – 2002

Acrylic on cotton

300 x 300 x 10,2 cm

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Michel Majerus

MoM Block Nr. 5 – 1996

Acrylic on canvas

200 x 180 cm

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Michel Majerus

MoM Block Nr. 11 – 1997

Acrylic on cotton

200 x 180 1,8 cm

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Michel Majerus

Ohne Titel – 1997

Acrylic on canvas

300 x 320 cm

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Michel Majerus

it’s cool man – 1998

Lacquer and silkscreen on aluminum

251 x 548 x 15,5 cm

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Michel Majerus

reminder - 1998

Lacquer on aluminum, acrylic on canvas, silkscreen on canvas, emulsion on wall, plasterboard

670 x 1700 x 150 cm

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Michel Majerus

yet sometimes what is read successfully, stops us with its meaning, no. II – 1998

Lacquer and digital print on aluminum

278,5 x 485 x 15,5 cm

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Michel Majerus

MoM Block Nr. 331 – 998

Acrylic on canvas

200 x 180 cm

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Michel Majerus

liebt euch 2 – 1999

Lacquer and computer print on aluminum

280 x 300 x 4 cm