LOS ANGELES — “Suspicious Fugue of the Speculative Ego as pragmatic sentiment investigation the ephemeral Maelström in oil (Dialogue with embarrassed elegance)” (2015) is a small, intimate painting that resembles an Easter basket knocked over by a truck. The titles of the paintings in Viennese artist Verena Dengler’s first exhibition in the United States, at the Thomas Duncan Gallery, smack like bad academic poetry. “Young male painter channeling Falco gazing at Keith Farquhar’s Neon Vaginas through Chanel-style Champion Logos” (2015) features an LP vinyl sleeve-sized embroidered square (like many of his paintings here) that shows exactly what the title promises: a formally dressed gentleman with slicked back hair in the style of 1980s Austrian pop star/rapper Falco (think “Rock Me Amadeus”) wearing two back-to-back Champion logos, like clip-on sunglasses from lobster. Her “gaze” is indicated by a green triangle leading past the frame of the embroidery to the rest of the piece where paint and graphite marks frolic and wiggle across the unprimed canvas, including three small designs in red , yellow and blue, based on Scottish artist Farquhar’s neon lights Vagina (2005) — fetishist and gynophobic monuments to a future where cloning has replaced sexual reproduction. This tangle of references in this otherwise spared work seems to accumulate in absurdity. But that’s Dengler’s satire: pop culture overload that seems to fly from left field, but stacks neatly into a wry, feminist critique of the macho young art poser.
All of Dengler’s paintings have busy, quick strokes, as if she were playing the role of an action painter who takes the label a little too far – all action and little regard. The work that gives the exhibition its name, “American Painting” (2014), is a small canvas with marks and smears that bubble inwards in turd brown, Pepto-Bismol pink, piss yellow and black, under several spray paint outlines of rectangles. For his previous exhibition, Verena Dengler: Dengled Up in Blue, at Galerie Meyer Kainer Wein in 2014, Dengler wrote an essay (also titled “Dengled Up in Blue”) in the guise of an imaginary alter ego, Dr. Envy Norpol, in which she wrote that the artist, who was born in 1981, (aka Dengler), began his artistic career at the turn of the millennium. It was a time that “Norpol” describes as “neither fish nor fowl”, during which other artists had “established techniques [that] included things like building networks and fishing for identities, making art about the preparations you were making to one day make art, and thirdly, making art about the fact that you held on to distance from tools and implements that, to outsiders, give the appearance of spontaneous creativity. Dengler’s veiled comment here that the art world had little to do with actual artistic creation – one that perhaps looked more like a Monty Python sketch on art – has channeled its way into the very threads and mixed mediums of these canvases exhibited in American painting.
Over the past decade, Dengler has discovered digital qualities in what otherwise looks overwhelmingly hand painted, sketched and embroidered. The work is ticklish and new. Its inclusion of fabric – both in the form of embroidery and, in one work, of a digitally printed scarf – is meant to reference the origins of computer technology in the Jacquard loom’s first automated punched card weaving system, invented in 1801. Dengler slips the viewer a wacky cocktail of abstract painting with craft materials as DIY as any embroidery set one might find at a Michaels craft store. She plays a role that is neither that of a genius painter nor, as the show’s press release explains, “the detached technological aesthete”. She undermines the spontaneity of abstraction by embroidering marks that mimic random brushstrokes while illuminating and disrupting the boredom of labor-intensive embroidery with her messy style. This synergy is the basis of Dengler’s practice.
In previous exhibitions, Dengler has included three-dimensional pieces – that she only shows paintings here is unusual. For the last exhibition Triennial 2015: Audience Surround at the New Museum in New York, the artist has installed many of his works in a nervous stratification of embroidery, drawings, paintings and sculptures – carpets, self-portraits, CD holders, appropriate advertisements, books and other carefully calculated detritus. As the range of references in American paintingthe New Museum installation was a popular culture and consumer goods fever dream, and allowed Dengler’s personal items to be approached like a voyeur.
Reduced to mere mural works, Dengler’s American painting delicately slides the tongue in the cheek and criticizes the search for a contemporary language of artistic creation. She is positively happy here – offering a feast as well as a display that confuses the viewing and making of abstract painting in the face of technology.
American Painting: Verena Dengler continues at the Thomas Duncan Gallery (Los Angeles) through