Kunstverein, Hamburg, Germany
Lukas Duwenhögger’s first major retrospective highlighted the delicate theatricality at the heart of his work. His paintings reiterate the staging of a primary scene: an encounter between different men that creates a moment of personal, social and sexual recognition. Duwenhögger’s characters pose and exchange glances, casually accommodating brief instants of physical contact. The articulation of the sexual tension implicit in these encounters is refined to the point of being barely perceptible. Yet the atmosphere in the pictures is electric.
Duwenhögger treats the canvas as a stage, allocating fixed positions to his protagonists. As in the paintings of Balthus, these compositions are static but not stable. Perusal of Ill Begotten Treasures (2003) depicts a group of men in a park above a city by the sea. One sits on the grass among newspapers, a second poses in a fur coat, another in a suit leans over a secretaire (parts of an interior appear in the open air), while a stranger watches the group from behind a tree. Through slight incongruities in the spatial co-ordinates of the painting Duwenhögger keeps the relationship between the figures in a state of suspense. Minute slippages in the link between figure and ground leave the characters frozen in mid-air. Despite the surreal inertia of their poses, the constellation of the figures remains precarious. They are in the same painting, but not in the same space and time frame.
This sense of displacement prevails throughout the work. It is a universe of queer codes transferred to another time and place. The time is the imaginary historicity of literature, the past tense of storytelling: each painting reads like a novel. Duwenhögger, who some time ago moved to Istanbul, has also transplanted the setting of his works to an imaginary Orient populated by proud men with impressive moustaches. One character who reappears in different works is a stout middle-aged figure, bald with a neatly trimmed fringe. He looks at times like a man of letters and at times like a businessman or possibly a jeweller. The third man in the park in Perusal of Ill Begotten Treasures also appears backstage at the theatre in Birds of Istanbul (2000), on the bedside of a black man holding a Henry James novel in Gespräch (Conversation, 1992) or as a Punch and Judy puppet propped up on a revolving chandelier in the installation Eine kleine Kantate (A Little Cantata, 1992; with Julian Göthe).
The theatricality of Duwenhögger’s Orientalism is further clarified by the installation G - An Interior (2001). This consists of a recess built into a wall with an ornamental doorframe closed off by a richly patterned curtain, from which a curved lamp protrudes to light a coffee table. On the table lies a hand-painted facsimile of a Turkish newspaper with a cartoon on its front page showing a parody of the abduction of Ganymede.
Duwenhögger’s work addresses the viewer as a knowledgeable reader of queer codes. Did you know that a green cravat was a sign of recognition for gay men in New York in the 1920s? I have just found this out from a text about Duwenhögger. I share a fascination for innuendo as an art of communicating through an ever proliferating subtext, and also sympathize with the idea that the Dandyist revolution is realized in barely visible gestures of refined symbolic meaning. Still, the art of the innuendo remains a technique for surviving under repressive social conditions. The sophisticated codes it generates therefore mirror the social constraints from which it is born. What is the use of mimicking these codes in art? Is a detailed knowledge of them not just another prison, affirming the world as it is rather than envisioning it as it could be? Is there a concept of freedom then in Duwenhögger’s work?
There definitely is. It is tangible above all in the imaginative dimension and sensual immediacy of the paintings, which are strongest when they disregard actuality and instead depict a different universe, a literary Orient, inhabited by imaginary boys who embody a promise of other potential realities. Moreover, there is a liberating humour in the bright pastel colours in which Duwenhögger revels, defying any logic of sophisticated taste: they can be so sweet they make your teeth hurt. Caspar (2002) is a vertical painting in a long oval frame that shows a bearded man in a bright red cashmere jumper and a white apron who, a pink ice cream in his hand, waits in leisurely fashion outside his ice cream parlour, painted in various conflicting shades of green. He stares straight at you with a mysterious expression on his face, his eyes following you as you pass by, to be met by the provocative looks of other men in other paintings such as Balthazar (2002) or Giorgio (2000). They disrupt their frames by framing you. It’s not that you feel embarrassed, but you can’t help but smile at the heightened awareness these looks give you the viewer of your theatrical presence on the stage of the exhibition space.