Thursday, February 7th, 2008

A Surfeit of Genius: William Kentridge at Marian Goodman Gallery

William Kentridge: Seeing Double at Marian Goodman Gallery

January 16 to February 16, 2008
24 West 57th Street, New York City

installation shot of the show under review

installation shot of the show under review

William Kentridge seems to have a problem few contemporary artists are even eligible to suffer — a surfeit of genius.

The G-word is never to be used lightly, but in relation to the South African draftsman, printmaker, filmmaker, sculptor, opera designer, theater producer, and political activist, resistance to the moniker seems churlish. Besides being a polymath, he enjoys several other attributes of genius. He is inventive, prolific, multifaceted, and highly dexterous. He has a style unmistakably his own. He frequently bridges the divide between artistic and scientific inquiry. And he can move people to tears.

His latest exhibition at Marian Goodman is packed with technical departures that offer elaborations of his trademark idiom: imagery transmogrified. His show fills several rooms of this sprawling, floor-through gallery, as well as an ancillary space on a floor below. Besides a broad array of mediums, which include works on paper, projections, sculpture, prints, and even a tapestry, individual projects display technically intricate and sophisticated realization.

There is a series of stereoscopic prints, for instance, in which, hovering over the twin impressions of seemingly identical images that are placed adjacent to one another on tables, are special viewing lenses under which the images coalesce to a single, 3-D image of receding planes.

A pair of mammoth charcoal drawings of a rhinoceros, each just under 7 feet by 8 feet, face each other and resolve in the reflection of a V-shaped mirror viewed head-on. They are variants of imagery familiar from Dürer, whose famous print, “Melancholia,” hangs on an adjacent wall.

And three circular tables present further explorations of anamorphism with images from a project titled “What Will Come” (2007). On each table, a circular drawing, in charcoal on paper, is reflected in a mirrored steel cylinder placed at its center. In one piece, forms taken from Mr. Kentridge’s body of film animations, such as a gas mask and a world on legs, appear outlandishly bulbous on the page and resolve to a legible scale in the reflection. As the viewer circumnavigates the table, these forms seem to chase each other in a spin. In a separate, darkened viewing space, a film animation that featured these preparatory drawings is presented in similar fashion: The 8-minute film is beamed onto a table, and this projection then reflects in a central cylinder. Here the forms metamorphose back and forth with Mr. Kentridge’s characteristic fusion of surreal humor and historic gravitas. The film is accompanied by a stirring, jingoistic vintage soundtrack featuring music associated with the Italian war against Abyssinia.

William Kentridge, What Will Come, 2007.  Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery

William Kentridge, What Will Come, 2007. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery

In some respects, this new body of work represents business as usual for Mr. Kentridge in its mix of wizardry and warmth. The technical feats are prodigious. The drawing at the core of Mr. Kentridge’s activity, meanwhile, is powerful, direct, and personal — its combination of realism and expressionism recalling George Grosz and Max Beckmann. But there seems to be a shift in the balance of power, within his work, between the poles of expression and ingenuity. In earlier work, it seemed that the technical presentation was at the service of the drawn aspect. His animation technique was defiantly low-tech, deliberately emphasizing the handmadeness of the images, in contrast to the seamlessness of digital animation. Now it feels that drawing is almost incidental, and the main event is the presentation. The tables and viewing paraphernalia are artfully crafted, quite apart from the skill with which they operate, to create a theatrical, cabinet-of-curiosities atmosphere to the exhibition.

It could be argued, of course, that a distinction between handmade and engineered elements is spurious, especially if it assigns greater expressivity or authenticity to the drawn element — making a fetish of the hand, and casting the technical stuff as somehow less “honest.” A work of art is a complete package that comes off or does not. But with this greater emphasis on the viewing context and its clever play with optics, there seems to be a loss of narrative richness. The new emphasis is on static objects, albeit ones around which the viewer must move for that stasis to resolve. The actual point of the exceedingly clever anamorphism is never fully established.

In the film animations that secured his reputation in the last decade, there was a sense of fragility and urgency, as if the rubbing-away charcoal was of a piece with an agitprop sensibility, linked somehow to the work’s relationship to history and politics. Without resorting to overt propaganda or sloganeering, Mr. Kentridge’s fantasy realism scenarios, staffed with the recurring, poignant characters Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum — a property tycoon and a dreaming artist, respectively — dealt in a highly personal fashion with South Africa’s legacy of exploitation and greed. By making his characters Jewish, like himself, Mr. Kentridge bridged a divide between the personal and the political, although to some the Jewish identification of a rapacious capitalist and a woolly idealist traded in problematic stereotypes.

Where Mr. Kentridge’s dramatic or narrative impulses used to find their outlets in animated films, recently his energies have been more focused on the stage, especially opera. He produced a spectacular “Magic Flute” for Brussels that came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music briefly last year, and many of the prints in the current exhibition use stereoscopics to delve into a proscenium space. A room of sculptures is preparation for a production of Shostakovich’s “The Nose (Horse)” — raucous, absurdist inventions that make lively with broken forms. In a way that recalls the pentimenti in his rubbed-away charcoal drawings, these sculptures make expressive play of the simple mechanics of their open construction. The sculptures, a departure in Mr. Kentridge’s oeuvre (though recalling his puppetry of a few years ago), are the highlight of this exhibition, both in terms of invention and resolution.

At times, though, this noisy, intriguing show, with its complex of projects, each in itself quite complex, feels a bit like hearing an orchestra tuning its instruments while the singers warm up their voices. On the evidence of past quality and current ambition, something substantial can be expected when the conductor finally taps his baton.