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Issue 239

Florian Krewer Compels Us to Love the Mess of Being Animals

Raw figurative paintings at Aspen Art Museum show how the artist's relocation to New York in 2020 infused new life into his work

BY Evan Moffitt in Exhibition Reviews | 17 AUG 23

You can smell Florian Krewer’s paintings before you get a close look at them, so thickly layered are they with oils. It’s not hard to imagine the scent of sweat wafting from their roiling, nocturnal scenes of male camaraderie and confrontation. The painter’s first US solo museum exhibition, ‘everybody rise’, opens with several such works, completed not long after he graduated from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where he was mentored by Peter Doig. The influence of the older artist is easy to see in Krewer’s de-skilled figuration, submerged beneath raw, youthful aggression. The connection is often stressed in press accounts of Krewer’s ascent from house painter in the working-class suburbs of North Rhine-Westphalia to art-market darling, such that it’s tempting to approach his display in one of North America’s toniest small-town museums with a degree of cynicism; but something far stranger and more ambiguous is at work here.

A mostly black and white painting of a white dog between the legs of a man in black
Florian Krewer, nice dog, 2019, oil on canvas, 2.2 × 1.7 m. Courtesy: © Florian Krewer and Aspen Art Museum

Take the show’s title painting, completed in 2019: the alleyway embrace between its central trio of young men could be tender or violent, while their smeary eye sockets and polka-dotted tracksuits give the impression of a grotesque commedia dell’arte play. Then there’s nice dog (2019), an enigmatic image that runs rings around you, like the white hound portrayed encircling its young master. In all his works, Krewer depicts facial features vaguely, if at all: here, the owner’s obscuring hoodie feels like a further affront to our gaze. As the writer Stanton Taylor observed in a 2021 catalogue: ‘The figures populating Krewer’s paintings are the very kind of people that the kind of people who like looking at paintings like to avoid.’ Representing characters on the social margins, these works retain an undeniable power.

A painting of a black man in a hoodie and facemask, arms up, it seems ecstatically, while what looks like a car burns behind
Florian Krewer, sun in the sky, 2020, oil on linen, 2.6 × 2.2 m. Courtesy: © Florian Krewer and Aspen Art Museum

In 2020, just one month before the COVID-19 lockdown, Krewer relocated from Germany to the South Bronx. The move was clearly transformative, with the latter half of the exhibition going from strength to strength. The Black Lives Matter protests which lit up the city that summer seem to have inspired sun in the sky (2020), whose central figure – disguised in a surgical mask and sweatshirt with a demonic design – appears to have set a police cruiser on fire. If it’s tempting to read the painting as praising anarchism, the title also frames the torched car (and, by extension, collective resistance to authority) as a source of hope in cold, dark times. In new day (2020), the young man doing a headstand in the middle of the street has inexplicably grown snowy white owls for feet; the bird, an ancient symbol, could indicate the wisdom in Krewer’s empathic way of looking at a world turned upside-down.

Beneath a bright orange-red sky filled with crows, a sitting figure with crown and green shoes
Florian Krewer, pride, 2021, oil on linen, 2.9 × 2.4 m. Courtesy: © Florian Krewer and Aspen Art Museum

Creatures abound in paintings which nod to the art-historical canon, from the murder of crows in pride (2021) that resemble the bats in Francisco Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799), to the demon in captive (2020) which recalls Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781). Krewer’s variable handling of space and colour in these works – skewed perspectives and lurid, chromatic contrasts – indicates a bold new confidence in his practice. Then there’s the astonishing ursa minor (2021): a grizzly bear roaring above a bent-over man showing hole. It’s unclear if the man is servicing the virile bear – an avatar, perhaps, for toxic masculinity and its untamed aggressions – or simply showing off his sex. Krewer seems to suggest that all of us animals have the right to enjoy our latent potential for both dominance and submission.

A human figure in black tugging at a bright pink, orange and red bear
Florian Krewer, reviving the bear, 2022, oil on canvas, 2.6 × 2.1 m. Courtesy: © Florian Krewer and Musée d'art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

‘We must not forget that we are human and that we need to be human,’ he told Artspace in August 2023. Spend time with ‘everybody rise’ and come to love the whole stinking mess.

Florian Krewer, ‘everybody rise’ is on view at Aspen Art Museum until 24 September. 

Main image: Florian Krewer, dark garden, 2021. Oil on linen, 3 × 2.4 m. Courtesy: © Florian Krewer and Aspen Art Museum

Evan Moffitt is a writer, editor and critic based in New York, USA.