For Michel Majerus, art history is over. All images that have ever existed appear to be represented in his work simultaneously, in an infinitely rich and hospitable present. Seemingly unrelated or even incompatible pieces of visual information - a slice of a Frank Stella painting and a Nintendo monkey, say - exist side by side, or even folded inside each other. These juxtapositions create radical clashes and visual effects which transcend the traditional confines of painting. Distinctions between high and low, original and reproduction, no longer seem relevant. It's all there at once - glaring, overwhelming and hideous.
His often extremely large canvases - some almost ten metres wide - display fragments from the history of painting and image-making in its entirety: Rubens, Runge, Böcklin, Watteau, Cézanne, Schwitters, de Kooning, Warhol, Disney and many others. What dominates, however, are not the traces of old and recent masters, but lurid slivers from newspaper ads, comic strips, and video-game imagery, all reproduced in bright acrylic. Is this an updated form of Pop, or a new take on appropriation? Probably both, and something else as well.
What's interesting in Majerus' work is the radical sense of presence it conveys, and its complete lack of sentimentality. It's ugly, it's spectacular, it's superficial, but there is no reason to moralise or indulge in melancholic reflections upon the loss of authenticity. Majerus does not mourn the death of painting, but instead celebrates the abundance of imagery accumulated throughout the history of art, and generated today with increasing speed by the media and new information technologies. The temporality of his works is that of a floating and all-encompassing Now, analogous, perhaps, to that of the World Wide Web.
Radical pluralism is, of course, not Majerus' invention. In an interview with Gerhard Richter, Benjamin Buchloh contends: 'One always gets the feeling that you're showing the various possibilities just as possibilities, so that they simply stand alongside or against each other, without performing any other function.' 1 Buchloh's observation could equally apply to Majerus' way of appropriating various conflicting styles without presenting any single one of them as his own privileged mode of expression. But whereas Richter's oeuvre, as Buchloh suggests, could be seen as a farewell to the avant garde in the moment of its eclipse, no such strategic claims could be made for Majerus' chaotic imagery. Rather than reflecting upon lost possibilities, his work affirms that some options are still open for the visual, painterly or not.
Majerus' work seems devoid of all intimacy, and ultimately of subjectivity as such. His images bear no essential link to a psychological interiority, but seem to float freely along the conduits of visual information, where the hierarchies keeping entertainment and high culture apart have long been abandoned, and where cartoon figures live inside pieces of abstract art. Sometimes the scene depicted is covered by a thin white layer, as if glimpsed through a Robert Ryman painting; in others, a bundle of Expressionist brush strokes surround stupid looking animals from a video-game.
What's the point of this mess? Majerus proposes painting as no longer a strictly circumscribed mode of expression, but rather as a zone of contagion, constantly branching out and widening its scope. Rather than working exclusively with flat images hanging on the walls, Majerus often manipulates the architectural conditions of the room as a whole: furnishing a traditional museum space with a rough industrial metal floor, for instance. Inside the images, the clash between traditional painting and new technology is sometimes emphasised through the juxtaposition of bright acrylic with murky and history-laden oils. In Katze (1993), his largest painting to date, the insipid scene - a huge cartoon cat surrounded by birds, bees, mice and tons of candy - is blurred by a murky field of oil paint, introducing a fragment from a different time. Different, but not gone. In Majerus' world the past is now.
When confronted with his huge paintings, one gets a sense of a will to encompass everything. No image is irrelevant or unworthy of attention. Majerus is the very antithesis of such subtle reductionist painters as Luc Tuymans and Cecilia Edefalk, and naturally his production is fittingly massive. While they take away from images to make what remains more visible, Majerus simply adds another layer.
Considering the variety of styles and appearances in Majerus' work, it may be inappropriate to theorise his production within one framework. In his first catalogue, Majerus decided to avoid a false sense of unity, and instead of publishing one essay, chose some 20-odd quotes as commentaries on his work.2 This lack of synthesis may appear disturbing, but for me his work remains intimately associated with an advertising slogan for West cigarettes that deluged Berlin when I was first assailed by his painterly bombardment. It read: THE POWER OF NOW.
1. Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting (London: Thames and Hudson/Anthony d'Offay Gallery, 1996), p. 162.
2. Michel Majerus, Kunsthalle Basel, 1996.