LOS ANGELES — “Suspicious Fugue of the Speculative Ego as pragmatic sentiment investigating the ephemeral Maelstrom in oil (Dialogue with embarrassed elegance)” (2015) is a small and intimate painting that looks like an Easter basket that’s been run over by a truck. The titles of the paintings in Viennese artist Verena Dengler’s first exhibition in the United States, at Thomas Duncan Gallery, rattle off the tongue like bad academic poetry. “Young male painter channeling Falco gazing at Keith Farquhar’s Neon Vaginas through Chanel-style Champion Logos” (2015) includes an embroidered square the size of a vinyl LP cover (as many of her paintings here do) that shows just what the title promises: a gentleman formally dressed with slicked-back hair in the style of the 1980s Austrian pop star/rapper Falco (think “Rock Me Amadeus”) wearing two Champion logos back to back, like lobster-claw sunglasses. His “gaze” is indicated by a green triangle leading beyond the frame of the embroidery toward the rest of the piece where paint and graphite marks scamper and wriggle across unprimed canvas, including three small drawings in red, yellow, and blue, based on the Scottish artist Farquhar’s neon-tubed Vagina (2005) series — fetishistic and gynophobic monuments to a future in which cloning has replaced sexual reproduction. This tangle of references in this otherwise spare work seems to pile up in absurdity. But this is Dengler’s satire: an overload of pop culture that seems to fly in from left field, but stacks up neatly into a wry and feminist critique of the young, macho art poseur.
All of Dengler’s paintings have strokes that are busy and fast, like she’s playing the role of an action painter who takes the label a little too far — all action and little consideration. The work that gives the show its name, “American Painting” (2014), is a small canvas with marks and smears that bubble inward in turd-brown, Pepto-Bismol pink, piss-yellow, and black, underneath several spray-painted outlines of rectangles. For her previous exhibition, Verena Dengler: Dengled Up in Blue, at the Galerie Meyer Kainer Wein in 2014, Dengler wrote an essay (also titled “Dengled Up in Blue”) under the guise of an imaginary alter ego, Dr. Envy Norpol, in which she writes that the artist, who was born in 1981, (aka Dengler), began her art career around the turn of the millennium. It was a time “Norpol” describes as “neither fish nor fowl,” in which other artists had “established techniques [that] included things like building networks and fishing for identities, doing art about the preparations you were making in order to someday do art, and thirdly, doing art about the fact that you were keeping a distance from tools and implements that, to outsiders, give the appearance of spontaneous creativity.” Dengler’s veiled comment here that the art world had little to do with actual art-making — one that was more, perhaps, like a Monty Python skit about art — has channeled its way into the very threads and mixed mediums of these canvases on view in American Painting.
Over the past decade or so, Dengler has been discovering digital qualities in what otherwise looks extremely painted, penciled on, and hand embroidered. The work is tickling and new. Her inclusion of fabric — both in the form of embroidery and, in one work, a digitally printed scarf — is meant to refer to computing technology’s origins in the early automated punch card weaving system of the Jacquard loom, invented in 1801. Dengler slips the viewer a goofy cocktail of abstract painting with crafted materials as DIY as any embroidery set one might find in a Michaels craft store. She is playing a role that is neither genius painter nor, as the press release for the show explains, the “detached technological aesthete.” She undermines the spontaneity of abstraction by embroidering marks that mimic random brush strokes while brightening and disrupting the ennui of labor-intensive embroidery with her messy style. The synergy of this is at the root of Dengler’s practice.
In past exhibitions, Dengler has included three-dimensional pieces — that she is showing only paintings here is unusual. For the recently exhibited 2015 Triennial: Surround Audience at the New Museum in New York, the artist installed several of her works in a nervous layering of embroidery, drawing, painting, and sculpture — rugs, self-portraits, CD racks, appropriated advertisements, books, and other carefully calculated detritus. Like the range of references in American Painting, the New Museum installation was a fever dream of popular culture and commodity goods, and allowed one to approach Dengler’s personal objects as a voyeur.
Stripped down to just wall works, Dengler’s American Painting slips the tongue delicately into cheek and critiques the search for a contemporary language of art-making. She is positively slap happy here — delivering a feast as well as a display that troubles the viewing, and making, of abstract painting in the face of technology.
American Painting: Verena Dengler continues at Thomas Duncan Gallery (Los Angeles) through