BY Jörg Heiser in Features | 28 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 182

Worlds Within Worlds

Jens Fänge's mysterious environments

BY Jörg Heiser in Features | 28 SEP 16

When I walked into Jens Fänge’s exhibition at Galerie Perrotin in Paris last spring, the first thing that caught my eye was a small, framed work. Entitled Soft Machine (2016), it depicts an intertwined, possibly sleeping, young man and woman. He is blonde, dressed in blue jeans and a striped T-shirt; she’s an outline, a sketch, a fading memory, perhaps. The figures are shaped from wood, placed upside-down, relief-like, on a background also partly composed of cut-outs. The work includes details of what might be a tiled floor in brownish and purple hues as well as a table cloth patterned with orange, beige and ochre shards, rectangular and curved fragments of interior walls and a glimpse of blue sky. Like the oriental carpet in a Renaissance painting, or the wallpaper in a work by Henri Matisse, the elements of interior design take on a life not so much of their own but one that reflects the psyche of the people portrayed, as if their ambition or weariness have infused the rooms they inhabit. 

I asked Fänge why the couple was depicted upside-down, wondering whether it was an inversion in the manner of Georg Baselitz. His answer was that they are simply seen from a bird’s-eye view. He then elaborated: in early-to-mid-20th century crime-scene photography, the bodies of murder victims were often shot from an elevated perspective, which made it easier for the police to reconstruct what might have happened. It’s a distanced view that is almost as chilling as a close-up. Yet, it was not until Soft Machine was finished that the association with a crime scene occurred to the artist. He told me: ‘I’m also fine with the couple being “misread” as hanging upside down.’

Jens Fänge, Soft Machine, 2016, oil, vinyl, coloured pencil and wood on panel, 62 x 48 x 5 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Perrotin, Paris, and Galleri Magnus Karlsson, Stockholm

Fänge’s work constantly invites, and plays with, possible ‘misreadings’ of perspective and the constellations formed between objects and living spaces. His Paris show shifted between the intimacy of smaller works, such as The Hours Before (2016) – an interior that lent its title to the show, and the panorama offered by a huge wallpaper work with pictures and objects placed on it, in the adjacent room: Journeys at Home (2016).

Fänge takes to the extreme the trompe l’oeil idea of paintings within paintings – and a matryoshka-doll logic of rooms within rooms – and then counters it with friendly pastel colours, decorative details in green, orange and yellow, and a Mediterranean-style tiled floor. The first impression his work creates is less modernist disorientation – despite the jarring angles that recall a 1920s German expressionist film set – than 1980s postmodern playfulness, as if a coked-up architect had bent and twisted a model of a mansion in order to irritate a snooty client.

Fänge's work constantly invites, and plays with, possible ‘misreadings’ of perspective and the constellations between objects and living spaces.

Moving closer, what seems at first to be a representation of a painting in a room proves to be an actual canvas – irregularly shaped and anamorphically painted to match the perspective of the wallpaper behind it. It depicts a gallery space, a painting and a lone visitor whose shadow doesn’t quite match, its form instead recalling an antique bronze of a boy striking an exalted pose. Another ‘painting’, this time part of the wallpaper, shows a young man sitting next to an empty easel; above him floats a stately male head with its eyes closed, like a ghost emerging from the wall. Not only is the scene rendered in the style of a black and white photographic negative (except the young man’s shirt, which is striped red and white), but the face turns out to be an actual bronze death mask, hung onto the wallpaper: Fänge found it in a flea market. There is one final picture on the wallpaper: a striped abstract, complete with a paper cut-out and a wooden frame, but this time it’s a regular rectangle.

Despite all of these contradictory, positively dizzying, details, the cherry on top of the Paris show was yet to come. After walking through a room filled with another group of small assemblages from 2016 – images of maze- or stage-like architecture, inversions, paintings within paintings, rejigged painterly tropes, including coarse linen or craquelure evoking early cubist canvases or Kurt Schwitters’s collages – I was confronted by a model of a schooner, hung mid-air. The effect was both stunning and amusing. Just as I was beginning to suspect that Fänge was too caught up with cute nostalgia, he anticipated, answered – and trumped! – my suspicion by providing an object that is the epitome of hobbyism: the boat is a found object that the artist slightly altered by adding a striped pattern to its sails (the same as the one featured in Journeys at Home). 

Jens Fänge, Journeys at Home, 2016, wallpaper, watercolour, oil on canvas, bronze masque, exhibition view at Galerie Perrotin. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Perrotin, Paris, and Galleri Magnus Karlsson, Stockholm. Photograph: Claire Dorn

In recent years, Fänge’s work has undergone some decisive changes. It’s not that his earlier works lacked skill, vision or wit – quite the opposite. An untitled green doodle from 1995, for example, looks as if it were made in one elaborate stroke. Yet the piece – which recalls the work of David Reed – creates an impression of three-dimensionality, like an excessively long funnel cloud. It’s an impression that is heightened by the inclusion of three small drinking cups and two leafy twigs flying about around the central image.

‘Funnel cloud’ strokes reappear in Premiere (2001). In the lower right-hand corner, a 19th-century dandy seen from the rear – his top hat transformed into a half-filled glass of schnapps; his green waistcoat emblazoned with a cannabis leaf – seems to be fidgeting with his left arm, as if he’s conducting an invisible orchestra. His movement is visualized with pink, green and brown strokes that dominate the beige picture plane. A.E.N. (1996) is another portrait-from-behind, this time of the unmistakable boyish head and protruding ears of Alfred E. Neuman – the mascot and cover boy of Mad magazine – with small leaves and a smoking pipe floating in the thin green air around him. Fänge’s frontal portraits are as ironic and melancholic as they are forensic: whether they are of Hans Christian Andersen (1998), with a wooden puppet nose and eyebrows like a violin’s f-holes, or of a woman with an inclined head and popping octopus eyes (Hennes, Her, 2009).

The first impression Fänge's work creates is less modernist disorientation – despite the jarring angles that recall a 1920s German expressionist film set – than 1980s postmodern playfulness.

The cuteness of twigs, the soberness of bland backgrounds, the eccentricity and romanticism of bohemian figures from bygone eras: none have disappeared from Fänge’s visual universe. But, recently, his work has become more philosophical, architectural, theatrical and paradoxical. Thinking back to my experience of the sequence of rooms in the Paris show, I was like a cartoon depiction of someone who has been crawling through a desert dying of thirst, desperate for a painting show that dealt with the viewer’s movement through space, and who has finally found it. Of course, some eminent painters are simply not interested in creating a choreography of images (Gerhard Richter, for instance), and it’s not as if Fänge is the only artist constructing installations from paintings (Monika Baer and Laura Owens spring to mind), but it’s been a while since I’ve seen it done in such a striking manner. Fänge further complicates this endeavour: he converts his sequences into the micro-universes of his assemblages, with their oblique splintering of décors, poses and sentiments, paintings within paintings and optical illusions that turn out to be the real thing.

Fänge cites Guldålder (Golden Age, 2012) as a key piece that anticipated his recent work. Indeed, although it’s a painted canvas rather than an assemblage, many of the elements in the 2016 exhibition can be seen in this earlier work. These include the oddly coloured and playfully patterned interiors lacking a central perspective, the paintings hung on painted walls and the figures placed like dolls in a doll house – in this case a Biedermeier-era man, seen from behind and lifted straight (as Fänge readily admits) from a painting from the Danish Golden Age, Christen Købke’s View of the Plaster Cast Collection at Charlottenborg Palace (1830).

Jens Fänge, Guldålder (Golden Age), 2012, oil on canvas, 130 x 50 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Perrotin, Paris, and Galleri Magnus Karlsson, Stockholm

Fänge first showed assemblages in his 2013 exhibition ‘Förvandlingsrummet’ (Room of Transformation) at Galleri Magnus Karlsson in Stockholm. The motif of a person pulling a sweater and shirt over their head, which is central to Våren (Spring, 2013), recurs like a misplaced jigsaw-piece-turned-sculpture in the Giorgio de Chirico-esque, surreal urban landscape of Liten pjäs om natten (Little Piece of the Night, 2013), in which some elements of wall or floor protrude. The work, in turn, echoes Play within a Play (2012), which – albeit still executed in oil on linen – features a similarly stage-like scene.

The title of this latter piece is, of course, a hint that is hard to ignore. In the play-within-a-play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c.1599–1602), the truth about the king having murdered his brother, Hamlet’s father, is articulated in thinly veiled terms. Similarly, Fänge’s paintings-within-paintings and rooms-within-rooms are more than just entertaining follies. They’re serious, Goldberg-machine-like mechanisms which express the fact that there is no means for returning our fractured world to the – deceptive – solidity it once had.

Jens Fänge is an artist living and working in Stockholm, Sweden. His solo exhibition ‘The Hours Before’ took place at Galerie Perrotin, Paris, France, earlier this year. Lead image: Jens Fänge, Hennes (Her), 2009, tempera and oil on linene, 45 x 40 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Perrotin, Paris, and Galleri Magnus Karlsson, Stockholm

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.