BY Roberto Ohrt in Reviews | 01 JAN 99
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Issue 44

Otto Dix, Raymond Pettibon

BY Roberto Ohrt in Reviews | 01 JAN 99

The Otto Dix and Raymond Pettibon show in the North German port of Kiel had something about it reminiscent of exhibitions from the United States shown in Europe just after the Second World War. At that time, people were astonished by how little the Americans seemed to be bound by convention and how they handled large formats and themes with surprising ease. Later, this was attributed to the incomparable scale of the North American continent. But in contemporary Kiel, the poles seemed even further apart. Raymond Pettibon was invited to intervene in the hanging of Otto Dix's graphic works, and chose to paint directly onto the wall behind them.

It is well known that Dix's subject matter was strongly influenced by his experiences fighting in the trenches of the First World War. Although he sent his girlfriend some rather naive (and still relatively unknown) drawings of the front, which he executed on the backs of army postcards, it wasn't until the 20s that he produced his famous series of works which portrayed the horrific catastrophe of war. The Kiel gallery showed watercolours and lithographs from the 40s, when Dix, outlawed by the Nazis, had withdrawn to the country, and was increasingly exploring Christian motifs. The lessons of history were integral to his work: he attempted to stop another disaster by means of explicit realism, his faded drawings providing ephemeral panoramas of destruction.

On the front wall of the gallery, high above the graphics, a little Pettibon matchstick man raises his finger: 'At this fin de siècle I am still here'. He looked as if he was flying, a fleeting sign and plaything of the wind, far above the painted red waves that towered up the side of the space and occupied the full width of the long wall. This running image was drawn upwards in flowing red hatchings, an endless wave-crest, breaking downwards three times in a white curve of foam. 'Thank you scribes - for a job well done - revealing another secret surf spot' read a line in the first space, and at the other end of the 50-metre wall of waves: 'that the chosen people won't play in the shore break'.

This tide of drawing came to a standstill in a woodcut-like image of the crossing of the Red Sea. Other wall paintings accompany this image: a large heart, looking as though it had just been torn out, a black battlefield without a trace of life, and finally, a little candle 'for the millennium - that the fire principle would wear out all the rest'.

The wall pictures were certainly impressive, if only for their size and the speed of their execution (they took three days). But the real magic was concealed in their style: the way in which they acquired such precise shapes from the most simple lines and hatching, the way they combined movement and counter-movement, juxtaposed realism and transcend- ence, and were then shot through with shimmering sarcasm.

Translated by Michael Robinson