Review by Matt Swain
White Cube Hoxton Square presents the first solo UK exhibition by Friedrich Kunath. Born in Germany and based in Los Angeles, his work covers an impressive range of mediums, encompassing sculpture, painting, drawing, photography and installation, often incorporating text among these techniques. Conceptual art, German romanticism and Symbolism permeate Kunath’s artistry and he frequently references popular culture – song titles are a particular favourite – together with lyrics and books.
Entering the ground floor gallery is at once like entering a museum of the extraordinary. There is a great air of adventure and the heady aroma of incense fills the room as you are confronted by the horn playing banana man sculpture that is Starlite Walker. Welcome to Kunath’s improbable and surreal utopia; the world according to Kunath.
Kunath has a variety of drawing styles which are layered onto colourful watercolour washes, often accompanied by handwritten text, cartoons and doodles. Throughout, he explores themes of love, hope, despair and vulnerability that are infused with tragicomic pathos and dreams of possibilities. These works are about human beings trying to find their way in the world, lost souls making explorations of the human condition. Male figures, non-specific and often alone are caricatures that can elicit sympathy or even empathy, becoming cartoons of emotion. I heard I was in town bears the text ‘Over-lonely and Under-kissed’ whilst Let those I don’t care days begin depicts a seated man resting on a staff beneath a tree at sunset pondering his life. In particular, the middle aged male protagonist questioning how his life has unfolded continually reappears, reflecting on what has gone before and what lies ahead. There are regrets and aspirations as destiny unfolds in Younger Men Grow Older, a rich and multi-layered emotional journey and the psychedelic Paisley Past.
Amongst the visual bombardment, one could initially assume that the lone figure who repeatedly occurs in Kunath’s work endlessly searching for his heart and home is self-referencing. In reality, it is almost certainly a longing for human connection and revelation, a comment on society’s values and a desire for a return to a more simplistic way of life and a certain purity. Sharing loneliness can be a beautiful thing; this is about life journey of the individual – people struggling to define their lives. Yet there is resilience in these characters – they keep walking, keep moving on and are here to share their tale. We are looking at playful optimism fighting what is ostensibly mid-life crisis. They are shadows against sunlight, a visual representation of the vulnerability of man against the vastness of the world and all that it brings.
The relocation from his native Germany to Los Angeles has clearly had a sizeable impact. Californian counter-culture has bled into Kunath’s work, the results of which he has readily acknowledged, stating: “the colours got brighter and the topics got darker”. This is a place where the skies are not cloudy at all, at least until you close your eyes. The desert landscape of I saw God’s shadow on this world shows cacti providing shade from the burning sun. In a world shrunk by globalisation and information overload, our attention spans have been splintered into tiny fragments, yet somehow Kunath has used this to his advantage, seizing on small moments, forgotten oddities, the faded and the obsolete, ensuring that his works don’t fall prey to commercial navigation. Kunath’s elements are culturally deeper, representing the layers of life – each piece is unique but universal. All the sleeves are brown and the tie is grey (California Dreaming) features a man on a battered raft floating on a wild sea, the text of the title inscribed above him.
Part of a series of surreal sculptures, The tear will love us apart, shows a reclining male sculpture watching a film chronicling a journey between past and present, whilst a model train runs through his head and body. In One day we will follow the birds, we discover the source of the incense, a powerful and evocative stimuli for the human spirit. This is a remarkable piece, a spoken word track over a melancholic piano backdrop, the voice intoning from the loudspeaker thoughts and emotions such as: “I didn’t expect to remain the same but I didn’t know what to expect” and “No matter how hard I try to remember, sometimes I forget to come back”. A figure next to a second loudspeaker, wearing Kunath’s clothes and holding balloons observes all of this, whilst a bird rests on his elongated nose. It is as if you are falling in love one minute and then saying goodbye to your heart in the next, a temporary dislocation of the senses. Kunath is pulling you into his world, circumventing reality.
In the first floor gallery, Sad Polo (One of these days, these days will end) is a denizen of vibrant colour, jockeys battling underneath the text of the title, whilst Window Pain depicts a young boy sitting on window ledge staring into a night sky, one suspects in wonderment rather than melancholy despite its title. The defining beauty is in the implied and sometimes explicit realism that Kunath brings to this improbable world and the universal shared experiences of yearning, disappointment and discovery. Nobody should ever be afraid to be brave and Kunath fearlessly evokes memories and emotions with a real sense of intimacy. Ambition is evident in Kunath’s range of scale, his passion inextricable from all of the ideas, colours and happenings that run through his work. Literary, evocative and deceptively simple, it is a surprisingly smooth, cohesive ride against a backdrop of optimism which Kunath then seeks to undermine with subtle irony ambiguity and self-deprecating humour.
There are contradictions, but they are beautiful, deliberate, poetic contradictions, the kind that can only be found by someone in love with this life, and who can see all of it’s subtleties and intricacies. That we should always remain inherently hopeful is reflected in the title of the exhibition. Strangers that will never meet again, faces that we’ll never see again, one day that will never be again; it is all here, in this room, in the here and now.
The Most Beautiful World in the World continues at White Cube, Hoxton Square until 4 June 2011.
© the artist
Photo: Ben Westoby
Courtesy White Cube