BY Deborah Irmas in Reviews | 06 MAR 95
Featured in
Issue 21

Thomas Grünfeld

BY Deborah Irmas in Reviews | 06 MAR 95

The windows of Parisian charcuteries are often adorned with stuffed versions of the creatures whose flesh has been transformed into the delectable offerings inside. The 'process' of food preparation is a common feature in the presentation of traditional French culinary arts. In the visual arts as well, stuffed animals have been used to illustrate strategies of process. Indeed, some early works from the late 50s and early 60s by Robert Rauschenberg incorporated both feathered and furry friends as an expressionistic gesture to defend an ongoing discussion of image and object in painterly presentation. The creatures deposited on the canvas were meant to be looked at in the same way as paint, photos or newspaper collaged onto the surface; the iconic meaning of these creatures was of far less significance.

Fast forward three decades: artist Thomas Grünfeld's 'Misfits' is a series of taxidermy specimens of multiple species reconfigured according to the artist's imagination. At Galerie Jousse Seguin three of these 'still lives' are displayed in a glass case. Grünfeld's creatures, rather than raising issues of visual perception or the politics of style, make reference to a popular storytelling tradition from southern Germany - the politics here are symbolic. Called wolperfinger, the stories tell of improbable animals with human traits. Like most folk tales, they are moralistic; suggesting that Grünfeld's strange pets are meant to put us face to face with our principles. By manipulating Mother Nature, in the form of antlered animals with webbed feet or furry specimens with wings, Grünfeld seems to wander into a dialectic territory: the real versus the imaginary and, perhaps, eventually good versus evil.

While these objects are curious to behold, and are certainly consistent with current taste for the contemporary surreal sensibility which Mike Kelly has coined 'the uncanny', I only feel intrigued while in their presence. I somehow know that a baby deer doesn't have webbed feet, no matter what kind of inter-species experiments its ancestors may have practiced. Playing God through 'art-practice' is fun, but it doesn't grip the imagination for very long. Perhaps, because bizarre folk tales of snakes mating with horses (or whatever) weren't part of my cultural edification, I am unable to recognise their larger significance - to me they seem strangely regional.

Conversely, I am struck by Grünfeld's Eye Paintings. Here the uncanny has graduated to a realm beyond the more predictable one of rubber dolls and stuffed toys. Grünfeld has torn out the eyes of Rauschenberg's goat, stolen Noland's Target paintings, and abused the sanctity of Ryman's pure white ground. As you admire these panels, they look back at you with a variety of taxidermist's eyes carefully arranged in a grid over the surface. The slight differences in size and colour create a kind of irregularity in the apparent perfection of order. The smooth resin and plastic eyes - each one unique - assume a kind of life force... they too perceive. It is a peculiar sensation to be looked at by a painting.

Grünfeld has presented a body of work that is original whilst acknowledging art historical impulses. It cleverly morphs late-modern abstraction and post-modern materials with curious objects that are endowed with rich literary and symbolic meaning. Painting with eyes, these 'windows of the soul', could be the beginning of a very interesting and original painterly investigation.