Wry photo-trickster Hans-Peter Feldmann looks beyond the camera at a new 303 Gallery show

Legs, by Hans-Peter Feldmann (Courtesy 303 Gallery)
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In 2009, Walter Konig published a wonderful little book called Interview, featuring the art world gadfly Hans Ulrich Obrist doing what he does most, interviewing. His subject was Hans-Peter Feldmann, the clever German conceptualist whose new show at 303 Gallery in New York City opened last Friday. What sets that particular Q&A session apart from the thousands Obrist has done (he’s a tremendous resource for those seeking to learn more about the inner workings of contemporary art) are Feldmann’s responses, which came in the form of pictures.

Rather than opining in prolix paragraphs about artist intentionality and the politics of appropriation, Feldmann just selected his answers from a trove of images. These ranged from stock medical images to classic examples of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment-school of documentary photography, but they were always purely visual responses, and always conveyed his sentiment perfectly.

This use of photography is often thought of as the core component of Feldmann’s practice. While he has ventured out into other media, including sculpture and painting, Feldmann most often works in, with, and through, photographic imagery, which he appropriates, catalogues, and displays in various typologies.

His new show has several great examples of this kind of work, heavily indebted to his studies at the University of Arts and Industrial Design, Linz. Legs (pictured above) is a classic example: 31 photographs pinned to board, all the blandly erotic legs of fashion advertisements. Haphazard yet perfectly arranged, the composition is singularly identifiable as Feldmann’s, functioning through a semiotics very much his own. The viewer immediately grasps the signals of wealth, success, beauty, health, etc. that each little image broadcasts, but it comes as background noise, like the insistent hum of ads on TV left on as you cook.

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American appropriationists like Richard Prince employ a much more bombastic strategy, isolating different elements (the turn of a head, for example), and increasing their scale to highlight their effect on, and for, the viewer. In works like Legs as well as Collage and Collage (2)—two medium sized boards plastered with a variety of found imagery, from movie stills to family portraits, the latter of which is pictured at left—Feldman’s strategy is more mimetic and less self-serious. Collected images are repurposed in casual compositions that represent, and recreate, their original effects. Being both a catalogue and producer of a certain kind of mediated effect, they both show and tell.

In this, Feldmann is also quite different from his fellow Germans. Like the Bechers with their water towers, Feldmann is interested in the formal and conceptual riches of typologies. For Beds (Betten) Feldmann photographed beds in varying stages of undress. In view of earlier, similar work like Photographs taken from hotel room windows while traveling, the viewer could reasonably assume the artist himself slept in these beds during his art-circuit travels and became interested in the various forms his twisting, turning, and rising took. Beds is presented much the same as Legs, each image carefully pinned to the backing board, and in a sense their effect on the viewer is quite similar. Legs both represents and recreates the cumulative effect of flipping through a magazine, while Feldman’s arrangement of Beds makes viewing it akin to paging through some slightly mundane and off-kilter personal photo album.

Feldmann’s work in non-photo or collage media hasn’t been shown or documented much (though he is a prodigious producer of books of his work), so it's notable when viewers get to see such work, as in the current show, which goes a very long way to introduce audiences to Feldmann's full range. For this reason alone, it is something of a revelation. It features plays on sculpture, painting, and drawing, all of which made with the same wry sense of humor of his better-known work.

David and Venus (pictured at right), a pair of three-and-a-half-foot sculptures in classical poses, are painted bright, gaudy hues the viewer delights in imagining Michelangelo using. Zebra is a cannily simple painting of a zebra skin, the work splayed on the wall much as the skin would be in a game lodge. Hung catty corner, Jacket is, well, a jacket, splayed too, its back facing the viewer and arms stretched out along the wall. The pairing is obvious, and hilarious.

The series Street Portraits, Madrid, one example of which is pictured below, is composed of photocopies of drawings of Feldmann made by tourist caricaturists in Madrid over the years. Each features a different exaggeration of Feldmann’s face: his nose, or his jowls, or his chin, or his cheeks, or all of the above. Taken together, they are a refreshing take on current arguments over artistic outsourcing.

It would be easy to assume that Feldmann’s art is political in nature, functioning as a screed against consumer culture and its cults of beauty, wealth, and waste. Golden Shoes with Pins and Shoes are easily read that way, the former’s little push-pins representations of the pain women go through in the service of glamour, the latter’s snake eggs reminders of the animals sacrificed at luxury’s altar. Are the Street Portraits comments on how artists are nothing more than members of the service class these days? These readings aren’t wrong, but somehow they seem too self-important, too serious for Feldmann. They limit his interests. When he won the $1 million Hugo Boss Prize in 2010, he used the Guggenheim show that comes with the prize to hang one million dollar bills. Was this meant to explore the nature of value in art? Not really.

“I wanted to see what all that money would look like,” he told Art in America. Feldmann is clever, conceptually canny, and politically and socially aware, but more than anything he is curious about how we live. All the works in this current show, and in fact much of what he has made throughout his career, share this common thread. They all converge on his desire to collect and document the records our culture makes of itself, and the traces it leaves behind.

How he conceptualizes this interest changes from work to work. Beds, Legs, and Collage are visual documents of the ubiquitous and unexamined things (ads, photograms, unmade beds) that make up our cultural wake. David and Venus call attention to the temporality of this phenomenon (the real David is reified culture par excellence), and propose a continuity of kitsch, from then to now—“if only neon existed in the Renaissance.” With Zebra, Jacket, and the Shoes pieces, Feldmann toys with how we conceive of skin—painting as zebra skin, jacket as human skin, snake skin shed and remade as snakeskin stilettos, and golden shoes as the skin of feet, kicked off in pain and left behind.

And the Street Portraits, while it would be easy to presume they are about ideas of authenticity, actually seem more like records of Feldmann’s travels, just like the hotel room photographs.

And then there are the four works at the entrance to the large gallery in which the show is hung: ink-jet prints of vinyl music records, a perfect encapsulation of all of Feldmann’s interest. They are photographs of obsolete cultural artifacts that could once circulate (literarlly), and can now only re-circulate, records of a dying technology.

Hans-Peter Feldmann’s work is on view at 303 Gallery through March 31.