I first wrote about Robert Birmelin in an article, “How We Live – Paintings by Robert Birmelin, Eric Fischl, and Ed Paschke,” that appeared in Artforum, April 1983). In the years since, Paschke has died (in 2004) and Fischl has gone off the rails, doing celebrity portraits and bull fights. Recently, he has been making poorly painted, cliché critiques of people at art fairs in an attempt to be taken seriously again. In “Rift/Raft” (2016), the largest painting in his exhibition, Rift/Raft, at Skarstedt’s Upper East Side outpost (May 3 – June 25, 2016), Fischl revisited the bifurcated approach he explored in his 1983 canvas “A Visit To/A Visit From/The Island” which is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In “A Visit To/A Visit From/The Island,” which I have always found problematic, Fischl abuts two panels, one depicting white, well-heeled bathers cavorting on the beach, and the other with desperate black refugees climbing out of the surf among the bodies of the drowned. In the foreground of the left-hand panel, he depicts a naked white woman, her tan lines visible. In fact, the skin tones of all the Caucasians in the left panel are subtly different from one other. Not so with the black people on the right; they are all the same color. This suggests that he derived the image from a black-and-white news photograph and did not bother thinking it through.
The reason I bring these things up is because I want to provide a context for my review of the exhibition Robert Birmelin: The End Of Certainty at Luise Ross (September 17 – November 5, 2016). In the paintings and drawings in this exhibition, Birmelin returns to the theme of the crowd – urban chaos, seething discontent, violence, and disaster. Completed between 2003 and 2016, and inspired — if that is the right word – by the boisterous crowds of Occupy Wall Street, by protesters confronting rows of police bedecked in riot gear, and by everyday weirdness, Birmelin’s paintings and drawings of a world going haywire bring together all sorts of visual possibilities, including multiple focal points, compressed juxtapositions of near and far, clearly defined details beside blurred and partially transparent passages. In a 1985 interview with Eve MacIntyre, Birmelin said: The space is […] highly objective and eccentric.” Elsewhere in the same interview, speaking about his admiration for the Futurists, he stated:
A quote, by one of the minor Futurists, which always intrigued me, was about perception: ‘Through the cheek of his beloved, he sees a cart-horse on a distant street.’ An object of interest or desire, in other words, remains there, or is imprinted in the attention, even though in a moment it’s gone.
In the work on paper, “Pulling The Shade On The Hallucination Outside” (2012), an angled view through the upstairs window reveals a naked man and woman crawling up the stairs of a subway entrance. The view from the window looks down at the street below, where something unfathomable and troubling is taking place. A large hand, in close-up, rises diagonally from the lower left corner, clasping the window shade’s drawstring between thumb and index finger, pulling the shade either up or down. The gesture is delicate and incongruous. Two pedestrians are walking away, looking at something else.
By placing us inside the room or in the narrow, crowded hallway of the painting, “Workmen 1, The Last Shift (An Elegy)” (2010), Birmelin dissolves the barrier separating us from them, whoever they might be. This is the opposite of what Fischl does when he uses a snapshot and a news photograph, as he seems to be doing in “A Visit To/A Visit From/The Island,” in which the appropriation of so-called objective views suggest that we are detached viewers who cannot be touched by what is going on in the world. It is a privileged perspective full of phony empathy. Birmelin’s harsh views don’t try to evoke empathy. The workmen in the hallway of “Workmen 1, The Last Shift (An Elegy)” don’t elicit our sympathy and most likely wouldn’t want it. The blur of red paint filling nearly a third of the right-hand side of the canvas remains ambiguous, open to interpretation. Why are there are newspapers scattered in the corridor? Why is a man bending over to pick one up? Looking at all different poses Birmelin gets into the painting, not to mention the variety of body types, from the jacketless, middle-aged man with a paunch carrying a briefcase — a low level bureaucrat — to the man in a green uniform and brown safety vest putting on (or pulling off) his helmet, most likely a supervisor. Birmelin never settles for an easy view with its practically programmed response of correct sentiment.
In the painting “Watching It Happen” (2016), Birmelin overlays a view of a riot going on in the street below with a semi-transparent close-up of a gray-haired man wearing glasses, who’s looking from a window at the scene unfolding below. Peering through the patches of thinly applied paint that make up the man’s face and neck, we see a black man striding toward the rows of riot police standing behind shields. The policeman directly in front of the black man seems to be pointing a rifle at him. The ragged crowd seems to be in confusion, with some moving away from the police and others heading toward them. From protesters confronting the police to men leaving work, to a dog walking determinedly down a crowded city street, to a woman standing on a curb, no one gets the chaos of urban life better than Birmelin. The conflation of the gray-haired man’s face with the rows of police recalls Birmelin’s long interest in the line: “through the cheek of his beloved, he sees a cart-horse on a distant street.”
In this exhibition, Birmelin once again shows his mastery of a difficult composition — city pandemonium — as well as his commitment to implicate himself and the viewer in the chaos we inhabit. It is a position that pushes back against the privileged views of artists of Fischl’s ilk.
Robert Birmelin: The End Of Certainty continues at Luise Ross (547 West 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 5.