At the Steirischer Herbst festival in Graz this autumn, during Austrian election season, a large banner hung over the façade of KM– Künstlerhaus Halle für Kunst und Medien. The banner showed a photograph of Austrian artist, curator and musician Jörg Schlick, sat at a café table in a meadow wearing a beige dress, sunglasses, a hat and brown leather sandals, and holding two crutches in his left hand. In the background, one sees a pond and hair-curler shaped sculptures on a hill. If one knew of the artist’s 2005 cancer diagnosis, the dress could be identified as a hospital gown. There is a fragile glamour in the staging of ambiguity in this photograph, taken a year before Schlick’s death in December 2005.
This image was a good choice of motif for this major retrospective of Schlick’s diverse artistic output. Although Künstlerhaus director Sandro Droschl sought to emphasize (within the Steirischer Herbst festival’s overall theme of ‘legacy’) Schlick’s role as a precursor to the now-commonplace artistic practice of operating across different art forms, sections of the exhibition departed from this. The exhibition’s upper floors focused on Schlick the painter. This worked best where the formal humour of ‘bad’ painting contrasted with a more or less classical hanging as a mode of staging the figure of the painter in general, presenting Schlick’s approach as both mockery and counter-model in one. Another aspect (to return to the photograph) was the legacy of received models of masculinity (not only in the art context): in the election campaign, Austria’s conservative and right-wing parties, now joined by a so-called ‘Men’s Party’, presented as if they were being steamrolled by ‘gender madness’ or by a form of political correctness imposed from Brussels or elsewhere – forces as huge as the photograph’s hair curler sculptures.
In the gallery shop, among issues of Sonne Busen Hammer (Sun Breasts Hammer), the magazine Schlick published through the Lord Jim Loge, a parodic men’s club he founded, I came upon the ‘women’s issue’ from 1993. Inside, the magazine is full of garishly exaggerated female stereotypes, Barbie and wedding dress photographs, on the pink cover of the ‘Official Mouthpiece of the Queen Barbie Loge’ the lodge’s ‘sun breasts hammer’ logo is replaced by ‘moon kicks cock’ with stiletto heels. The disconcerting use of a cliché that was outdated even at the time has great potential to annoy. It plays with an imagined set of expectations, poking fun not only at the rejection of obviously reactionary content, but also at the supposed stupidity of the viewers who fail to see through its play on hollow forms – unless they themselves belong to the ‘secret society’ that constitutes itself precisely via a shared ironic distance to the material used.
As a member of a younger generation, however, perhaps one is helped by the simple distance afforded by time, which allows for a different view of this kind of 1980s male humour. In the basement, for example, there was a highly amusing video in which Schlick dances to his own abysmal cover version of The Troggs’s classic Wild Thing (1966) while waving a piece of particleboard painted with the logo of the Lord Kim Loge (Wild Thing, 1990–91). Now and again, the lodge’s motto ‘No one helps anyone’ appears. This reanimation of the figure of the leather-clad rocker, declared dead many times over, could be interpreted from today’s point of view as a critique of a supposedly progressive political correctness that mistakes the ironic use of clichés for identification with these clichés. The reappearance of the male rocker in the Austrian band Wanda, currently the best-known band in the German-speaking world, also plays with this discrepancy, though far less ironically. This may be because in times of austerity, a different kind of seriousness is required when running riot in order to mark out the joyful wasting of time as a subversive act. In his work, by contrast, Schlick played with the ludicrous: in the extreme reduction of means, broken down to a few elements (simple identification mechanisms with recognition value, like a logo), he showed up the then relatively new format of the ‘music video’. It was also the time of Institutional Critique, when artists sought to unmask the structures in and around art-making.
The screen showing the video stood on a plinth to which black acrylic paint had been sloppily applied with a roller: painting as a plinth, as a supporting function, or as crutch that allows a fragile person to move about. In Schlick’s serial photographic works, too – rows of C-prints with different shots of dirty stairwells or a stack of unspectacular cushions, (Ohne Titel (A.T.C.G.), 2001) – the ironic breaks are a main constitutive feature. And when the simplest of means are used to create a psychedelic computer aesthetic, as in the videorecorded ballet Ein Bild und sein Schatten. Kronos und Freud, zwei Zeugen für die Lösung (An Image and Its Shadow. Chronos and Freud, Two Witnesses for the Solution, 2001), in which a single cyborg-like dancer in a constructivist costume performs against a projection of the above-mentioned photographs onto a video screen, then rather than being technically optimized, the cyborg in question uses a walking stick. And while collages from the 1980s offer enjoyable encounters with little details and local references (a bag from a Graz record shop, or the carrier bags from the Billa supermarket that became firmly anchored in Austrian pop culture after punks used them to make outfits for a graduation ball) the upper floor seeks atypically, as mentioned above, to celebrate Schlick as a serious painter – perhaps as a way of counteracting his image as a drunk. This strategy only works to a limited extent, however. Witness a series from 2004 consisting of 15 reflective sheets painted with acrylic, the paint having been scratched away in various ways to reveal a partial view of the viewer. Its title? Ich hab kein Überich (I Have No Superego). I, too, lack a superego – when given enough alcohol. In Schlick’s oeuvre, as this show ultimately made clear, intoxication and seriousness can’t quite clearly be distinguished.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell