in Frieze | 01 APR 06
Featured in
Issue 98

Writing on the Wall

Dan Perjovschi’s simple drawings and cartoons mount a fleeting assault on the white cube

in Frieze | 01 APR 06

The walls of the lofty exhibition hall looked like a giant had covered it with doodles. Simple, hastily sketched motifs extended from floor to ceiling, without being over-constrained by any system or order. The impression they conveyed was entirely at odds with the space: they were not overwhelmed by the high walls – they were too unfettered and cheeky for that – nor did their tone echo the exalted status of this hallowed hall, which until several years ago celebrated grandiose German painters such as A.R. Penck, Georg Baselitz and Markus Lüpertz. Stubbornly modest in size, they dealt small but powerful blows to the white cube.

In the summer of 2005 the Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi went to Cologne for a month to prepare for his solo show ‘Naked Drawings’ in the project space of the Museum Ludwig. A tall scaffold and a few permanent marker pens were all he needed. He worked for a few hours every day, and by the time the show opened he had completed hundreds of drawings. Most of them consisted of just a few lines or isolated letters, succinct wordplay, slogans and logos. There were concise matchstick men and funny faces: Cologne Cathedral was a simple zigzag; rectangles were tower blocks; two arcs and two elongated stripes made up a tank; and four deft marks were all it took to make a terrorist. The arc used by Perjovschi to suggest the dome of a mosque continued in a gentle curve so that the lower floor extended to form the Euro symbol. A head poked out of the ‘O’ in ‘job’; someone had slipped through the word, as if falling through the mesh of the social safety net. A figure encircled by surveillance cameras mumbled, ‘Now I feel the Terror’.

The drawings spread out, jumped the balustrade that protrudes into the room from the upper floor, climbed the staircase, and even made their way into adjacent galleries and the stairwell. The fortnight after the opening was a public affair. Perjovschi continued his visits to the exhibition space, where he had installed furniture originally designed for the museum’s cafeteria by Franz West, and invited visitors to watch him at work or to leaf through The Guardian, The International, Newsweek or Le Monde; the reading material on offer also included 22, from Romania. The viewers soon became readers, for the caricatures were swift, witty comments on current affairs. The topics ranged from global surveillance as a result of the ‘war on terror’ to the Pope’s forthcoming visit to Cologne, and from unemployment to terrorist attacks.

Perjovschi mixes everyday observations with reflections on macro-political events: he always has a notebook in his jacket pocket, and never stops collecting and drawing. Whereas the major events are taken from the newspaper, the drawings he transfers to the wall from his notebooks refer to his own discoveries and experiences. Once they find their way onto the wall, the motifs develop a life of their own: a cathedral encounters a minaret, there are towers and a cross. It is astonishing how the artist constantly reassembles the world: with just a few strokes he sums up, always with a twist in the tail, the current state of affairs with regard to religion, terror, nationalism or consumerism. He is a reminder of the forgotten art of caricaturists who used to appear in front of an audience or in a television studio to present their wit and repartee like an acrobatic display.

Although these extremely reduced images are easy to decipher, retelling them can be tricky: they combine the properties of a doodle and a good newspaper cartoon. With strong outlines but with no sense of depth or three-dimensionality and without any detail that is not crucial for their legibility, their plainness transforms them into a personal alphabet, like pictographic fragments. Unnecessary complication is avoided: everything is apparent at first glance. This could be because Perjovschi developed his artistic style primarily as a newspaper caricaturist – for more than a decade he has been co-publisher of the aforementioned 22, the first political journal founded in Romania after the fall of the Ceaucescu regime. In this role he is constantly in touch with everyday political events. This day-to-day involvement has not only shaped his distinctive style: his political position is as clear and decisive as the way he wields his pen. Added to which, the gallery space is only available for a short while – after a few weeks everything will be painted white again, a convention that, as a newspaper man, Perjovschi appreciates: ‘Then something else will be the hot news.’

Perjovschi aims neither for durability nor for overwhelming impact. He mounts an effective assault on the white cube, and the result looks like a graffiti-covered subway passage or the plinth of a monument. The artist’s work in the museum is not intended to last – such quick strike tactics also symbolize the unofficial art that developed in Eastern Europe during the postwar era, when performances, actions, readings and interventions became fleeting survival techniques for those who refused to abandon art even under totalitarian rule.

Perjovschi, who was born in 1961, understands this historical background from his own experience. At the age of eight his talent for drawing was discovered and he was sent to a school for gifted children, before completing a course in painting at the art academy in the north-eastern Romanian town of Iasi. ‘As a 24 year old I already had 12 years experience in painting’, he explains. As stipulated, he took a metaphorical subject of his own choosing as the focus of his diploma show at the academy: he selected helmets and medieval armour. When he was given a job near the border with liberal Hungary, his involvement with the highly active local scene took his work into very different areas – such as open-air happenings: ‘We just did these things, and after the fall of the regime we were most astonished to find that in the West there were precise terms for them.’

But after the revolution Perjovschi did not continue with this work; nor did he return to academic painting. When he was invited to New York for the first time in 1995, he responded to his own past in a different way: for a work entitled Anthroprogramming he covered one wall of the Franklin Furnace Gallery with a grid and placed a single head in each of the compartments. ‘As a student, I always used to paint battle scenes, but all the riders were headless. For a moment I gave the bodies their heads back’, he says; then every day he rubbed the sketches out. At the time he was not aware of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning Drawing (1953) – but he still insists on a simple explanation of this piece: ‘For me it was about demonstrating the notion of easy come, easy go.’ Four years later he filled the floor of the Romanian pavilion at the Venice Biennale with simple drawings
(rEST, 1999): this time the visitors’ shoes replaced the eraser; hopefully everyone took a line home on their soles.

The factors of architecture and place became even more central concerns with a project in 2003 at Kokerei Zollverein in Essen, Germany. Located in the huge complex of a former coking plant – an architectural memorial to heavy industry in the Ruhr Valley, a region now afflicted by unemployment and in economic crisis – Perjovschi produced a gigantic panorama entitled White Chalk, Dark Issues that extended over its entire second floor. Using chalk he drew on mildewed walls, uneven reinforced concrete and crumbling plaster. The greyish brown sequence of spaces felt as dark as an abandoned cave or a vacated castle, and in this setting the drawings looked like the work of former prison inmates, soldiers in a bunker or workers on their lunch break. ‘In the coking plant I had to use chalk, which demands a very simple approach; it breaks easily and I had to develop the right technique, like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. One only gets better gradually, and I lived there for three months’, Perjovschi recalled. ‘It was the time of the Second Gulf War, and I spent the days in an office with the curator Marius Babias – a pro-American Romanian sharing a small space with a German who was strongly opposed to US policy. Every day I was confronted with this different point of view.’ Reflections on the day’s events were inscribed directly onto the walls: like bubbles, three holes open up in front of the matchstick men, each deeper than the last: a ‘common grave’, a ‘bunker’ and one marked ‘oil’. Rockets resembling Klansmen engage in intimate chat, and the US flag is broken down into its stars and stripes, as though it was crocheted.

Although Perjovschi’s approach recalls graffiti, he denies any connection with comics or Western youth culture. ‘I come from literature, I like to read, I like book covers, illustrations. When I make drawings for an article, then I am illustrating a context that can stand for itself.’ When the artist spread his Urban Drawings around Kassel in 2003, the medium was described as ‘street graffiti’, but in fact, if his fine-lined, simple drawings resemble street art at all, then it is only the earliest forms, as photographed by Brassaï in Paris. Seen alongside the loud and strongly coded traces left behind by those wielding spraycans, it becomes clear that they differ not only in formal terms. Graffiti tends to mark identity and to impose symbols and slogans on an environment, either with colourful pieces in billboard format or in a constantly growing trail of tags. By contrast, Perjovschi’s deliberately temporary imagery breaks identity down: there is no symbol that cannot be transformed – the peace symbol is only one line away from a Mercedes logo, and the EU flag is just a scattering of stars. To him they are patterns and sequences of letters that can be combined, rearranged, mirrored, erased, joined together; meaningful and yet at the same time nothing more than lines.

Nevertheless Perjovschi remains very much aware of the real effects of identity labels. In a short text entitled ‘Balkan’, published in the catalogue for the group exhibition ‘Das Neue Europa’ (The New Europe, Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2005) and written in his role as the exhibition’s co-curator, he laconically describes how origins were re-labelled four times: ‘In the early 1990s I was Central European. In the mid-1990s people called me Eastern European. At the end of the millennium I was considered south-east European. Today people call me an artist from the Balkans. And throughout this whole period I lived in Bucharest.’

Perjovschi’s oppositional stance manifests itself as severity in the details and clarity in the scattered whole – which makes him immune to being co-opted, even by the art world. It is unthinkable that he might eventually accept the offer of a frame or a pedestal, that he might become monumental or pathos-laden. ‘Smells like Lüpertz or maybe Penck’, mumbles a moon face on the wall at the Museum Ludwig. Perjovschi may do as he pleases with the hallowed hall vacated by the large-format paintings, but the matchstick man has no intention of filling the space.

Catrin Lorch is an art critic living in the Rhineland.