Drawing on Humanity’s Animal Nature - … on Humanity’s Animal Nature ... Karel Appel,...

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  • Drawing on Humanitys Animal Natureby Joseph Nechvatal on January 7, 2016

    Karel Appel, Untitled (1949) (all images courtesy the Karel Appel Foundation / Adagp Paris, 2015; all photos byTom Haartsen Ouderkerk)

    PARIS Karel Appel would start drawing by shimmering bright muck or line around until iteventually formed into semi-abstract philosophical lava, or monkey shit, or the poetry of release. Thatshimmering never really ends. His spontaneous drawings haunt his art practice as a sort of lostdemon of pure exuberance. Appels graphic enthusiasm rooted in Expressionism, Vincent vanGogh, Joan Mir, Jean Dubuffet, Paul Klee, and the art of children privileges physical blossoming.This burgeoning reminds us of how much of the art of our time seems to have been led by cynical,mercenary minds and vulgar, secret wealth cults. But Appels Expressionism requires more from usthan brooding and mute feelings of solitude. He requires our exuberance to match his own.

    The Centre Pompidous current retrospective of the Dutch artists messy, cacophonous works onpaper brings together a selection of 85 drawings dating from between 1947 and 2006, the year of hisdeath. In them, Appel asks us to puzzle with him, reminding us again that art language isnt always(nor essentially) communication, but keeps a difficult score.

    Nechvatal, Joseph. "Drawing on Humanity's Animal Nature." Hyperallergic, January 7, 2016.

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  • Karel Appel, Animal n 14 (1951) (click to enlarge)

    Appel, who as a young artist was influenced by Walt Whitmans Leaves of Grass, Comte deLautramonts The Songs of Maldoror, and the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, was closely linkedwith the activities of the COBRA group. As such, he made a profound impression on European art inthe aftermath of the Second World War. While Appel underwent a revival during the 1980s withJunge Wilde, Neo-Expressionism, and the Neo-Fauves (favorites of the art market for how theyrestaged historical engagements with a crude, macho consciousness), theres a constant somaticdemand in his drawings, urging us to rewire our bodies and nervous systems.

    Almost like unconscious activities, Appels imaginative drawings have an immediate and apparentreality to them that moves the eye toward penetrable, shifting expectations by removing sometraditional areas of closure. The dynamic and subtly-colored gouache Untitled (1949) has the swingof change about it: change of mind, heart, feeling, rationality, calculation. Likewise, the drawingCratures venues de lespace n 2 (1948) resonates with loose visual intelligence and discharges afar-out sentiment without sentimentality. In it, Appel seems unafraid to render perspectives that recallthe protean charge of our insanely complex and connected contemporary existence. Theenchantments of the aforementioned gouache, Untitled (1949), extract the essence of Paul Kleeinto a way of bringing everything no matter how childish into Appels circle of intent. Thesedrawings winsome figures seem to have a semi-transparent relationship to each other. Appelsidealized human forms transcend our embodied situation and might fool us into thinking that we, too,have the power to transcend the material world.

    Nechvatal, Joseph. "Drawing on Humanity's Animal Nature." Hyperallergic, January 7, 2016.

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  • Karel Appel, Personnage (1947) (click to enlarge)

    Another, related drawing in which humanity appears transformed is Personnage (1947). A goodlook at it reveals a primal person haunted with the maledictions of being something of an animal.Looking at Personnage makes us feel like children, like foreigners, like jokers. It could even serve toillustrate the actor-network theory of Bruno Latours Reassembling the Social. According to Latour,the social is not at all static or essential, but constantly in process and under construction. So thesocial conditions we think of as making up a person cannot fully explain an individuals socialsituations because the social is the very thing that always needs to be boxed off and explained fully and never can be. Examining Personnage shows us the limits of wobbly social and personalconstructs. It asks us to think about a person in a more free, rigorous, and nuanced way.

    Picking up on the social theme running through Appels work, the caustic gouache Animal n 14(1951) plays, contrasts, and jams visual inquiry into balanced fragments. The images irregulararrangement of forms, lines, and colors seems to have forgotten what it started out to do or become.Perhaps Animal n 14 and the nearby Animal n 6 (also from 1951) never intended to have anyfinal heft, a gesture that could be taken as a political stance on freedom in that they stress the rolesof both human and animal actors in forming social networks. Appels beasts seem to be mediatorsrather than mere intermediaries, so we cannot simply think of their genetic situation as an objectproduced in a fixed political context.

    Nechvatal, Joseph. "Drawing on Humanity's Animal Nature." Hyperallergic, January 7, 2016.

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  • Karel Appel, Animal n 6 (1951)

    Theres a marvelous, hard-won simplicity and directness in these drawings that evokes thephysicality of a wild spiritual journey recalibrated as allegorical satire. In Animal n 6 thefragmentary, decentered body is everywhere. Given its deeper tones, it has a wonderful way ofshowing heartbreaking routes away from human civilization. It is a drawing both public and private,with narrow roads to the interior organs literally broken up. Animal n 6 could also be read as anerotic convulsion, almost deathly, that urges or induces human flesh to become decent again, likethat of an animal. These two animal drawings are just savage and self-aware enough to wobble witha deeply humanistic esprit fou that imagines the possession of an outrageous animal consciousness.

    Nechvatal, Joseph. "Drawing on Humanity's Animal Nature." Hyperallergic, January 7, 2016.

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  • Karel Appel, Visage de femme (1961) (click to enlarge)

    Appels collage Visage de femme (1961), perhaps my very favorite piece in the show, organizes acollision of mutable elements of the everyday with an excessive, unavoidable degradation ofsensibility. With it, hes responding to Pop art as much as to the technologies of propaganda,information, and opinion that are churning every minute of every day. As with Personnage (1947),the mismatched eyes in Visage de femme are a wink at the idea that human identities arecollections of broken but hip syntax at once polyphonic and forever marginal. These drawings arenot about our animal side confessing itself to itself in moments of unified solitude. Rather, Appelmakes the opposite point vividly with the almost entirely abstract and shamanistic Tte bleue (BlueHead) (1961). This human head, built up out of collaged print clippings, is in a media frenzy. Itportrays the thinking self as outcast, invoking a fantasy world where were remote from both humanintimacies and media manipulations.

    These wild drawings build a symbolic space for us to examine ourselves in an almost animal state.They remind us of our free, untutored activities. They might even startle us out of complacentacquiescence and so change our minds, helping us think what hasnt been thought before, orreminding us of what is as yet unseen. Tte bleue depicts the messy headspace that requiresminds to critique, so criticism becomes something essentially enthusiastic, too. Even in Appels late,tortured piece, Untitled (2006), his art seems concerned with the guts of living life as a one-waywhirlwind. The drawing is of a very uncertain face deformed, perhaps ecstatic rattling around inan abstract style similar to the zombie formalism so fashionable today.

    Nechvatal, Joseph. "Drawing on Humanity's Animal Nature." Hyperallergic, January 7, 2016.

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  • Karel Appel, Untitled (2006)

    Appel was one of our best, last bets on visceral enthusiasm, so if anyone can restore zeal to ourstumbling world of art, devouring whole the evil spirits at play in the market, that artist or group ofartists will have something of his fervor about them. To run wild under the banner of Appel is to askhow art is complicit or subversive in its social context. Art will always need something of his loosegesturing toward hidden animal forces those forces that explain art as the process of tracingconnections, attachments, and conflicts.

    Karel Appel continues at the Centre Pompidou (Place Georges-Pompidou, 4th arrondissement,Paris) through January 11. It will then be on view at the Pinakothek der Moderne/StaatlicheGraphische Sammlung (Katharina-von-Bora-Strae 10, Munich, Germany) from February 4April17.

    Nechvatal, Joseph. "Drawing on Humanity's Animal Nature." Hyperallergic, January 7, 2016.

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