The craft of resistance

by Ken Pratt in WOUND 5 / 2008

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The Berlin-based artist Wolf von Waldow is charming, with impeccable manners, as befits anyone from an old German aristocratic family. There is something out-of-synch about him that proverbial sense of being from another time and place, an air of a long-gone past that lends him a sense of fragility in amongst the hustle and bustle of contemporary Berlin.

But looks and impressions can be misleading. Whatever sense of temporal incongruence Von Waldow's personal aura suggests, he is no passive bystander, indulging in fey Romanticism about his identity and nor is he actually that well behaved, despite the impeccable manners. Spending just a few minutes with his work will quickly convey to the viewer that he engages in both conscious and almost coincidental forms of resistance to rules and orthodoxies. And, in fact, his humour often into a dark transgression, not really a 'sick' sense of humour, but certainly one that subtly toys with conventions and accepted positions. One need only look at his early designs for penile jewellry to tell taht he would map out a path that would not always obey the rules of any given art form.

Other forms of this resistance are evident even at first glance. Von Waldow's work is precise, colourful, decorative and uses deft craft techniques. He will as readily engage in commissions for public and private spaces as much as producing works for a gallery context, underscoring his interest in the traditional relationship between art and craft. It is, quite consciously, the kind of work that stands at odds with much of the lauded canon of contemporary German art with its emphasis on conceptualism and ist apparent aversion for traditional media.

In Von Waldow's work we encounter frequent references — and indeed visual puns —to German folk culture, to traditional art and decorative forms. The complex and highly aesthetic compositions of drawings, sculptures or wallpapers often have a heraldic quality. Von Waldow has acknowledged that this, in part, relates to his childhood fascination wilt the topic, it being the kind of thing that little boys from august aristocratic families are inevitably fed from an early age by older relatives, reminded of their lineage through the visual depictions of it.

Von Waldow's work makes no attempt to conceal his love for and interest in the rich art and design culture that his background afforded him. Many of the works, such as the small sculptures or wall pieces that combine painting on wood with other three-dimensional materials, have something evocative of much older art and decorative art traditions. There is something about them that alludes to the kinds of pieces commissioned by the privileged and wealthy patrons of the arts in earlier centuries to decorate their expansive hoimes or to commemorate some important event.

And yet, this is not the reactionary employment of either media or content that some might expect or even want to see. Von Waldow's work is not the bemoaning obstinacy of the last root of an old Prussian noble family tree, but, in fact, a rather subversive practice. If his choices for materials and media seem traditional — marquetly, inlaid, painted wood and precision cut metals — then, it is simplistic to divorce them from their actual context: he as often uses digital and industrial techniques in order to achieve his desired precision finishes.

But, just as importantly, whilst achieved in precise, well-finished materials. Von Waldow's content would hardly be welcome in the conservative salons of the Old Establishment. Skinhead gay boys dance a merry jig or get up to rude things with each other in delicately cut steel decorated with pearls. Mythological dwarves and other heraldic characters go about their business whilst stumbling across the accoutrements of a contemporary urban lifestyle and its ubiquitous sex, dance and drugs subcultures. Motifs from real heraldry arc appropriated and assume the roll' of visual doublc-entendres. In amongst the völkisch imagery or forms alluding to the traditional decorative styles of grand country houses, the  world spins in a riot of colour, drugs, sex, contemporary gadgetry. And, like the Vanitas, with its own traditions of visual metaphors for the spectre of death, illness and disease develop their own iconography to be embedded within the overall compositions of digital prints, wallpapers or three dimensional works.
The visually seductive and pleasing qualities of Von Waldow's work is obvious at first glance. But it takes a little longer to assimilate some of the subtleties of his quirky sense of humour to sink in since much of it is played with a straight face.

A good example of this might be a commissioned work for a large up-market hotel in Hamburg where his mural for the walls besides the swimming pool juxtapose motifs of stainless steel divers and sand dunes. We also see hippos. Not exactly the sleek and sexy way we might want to think of ourselves gliding through the water. The work, almost reminiscent of an Art Deco sensibility, prompts a certain bemusment at the decadence of so much water being made available purely for leisure whilst the design draws the inspiration for its forms from. regions that struggle to find any water at all.

This same mechanism of parody, in effect, a cynical bemusement at the political landscapes beyond this work's confines, is evident in his works commissioned for a private dining room. The striking wallpaper, at first glance an abstracted decorative motif, in fact turns out to contain the flags of the world's poorest countries, visually represented as the comfortable western diners, no doubt, discuss pressing problems like world hunger over a meal. The wallpaper is accompanied by a wall piece in various materials that draws on folk traditions and includes an ironic black 'Mammy' character, present almost in protest at the privileged table of the'developed world'.

In the works that form the backbone of his trope — works reflecting on various scenes that surround him in Berlin and, in particular, the gay subcultures — there is a similar hubris present. Gay boys with shaved heads and the 'look' that we particularly associate with places like Berghain dance about or generally get on with things in amongst dense field of form and colour or clamber, monochromatic, over delicate sculptures in precisioncut sheet steel. All around them, the objects that facilitate their lives of endless sex and drugs mixed up with mythological and heraldic figures or forms more ordinarily associated with traditional children's illustration. And, here and there, the subtle references to other realities that are, nonetheless, part of this endless party: biohazard symbols or sweets that might as easily be a nod to Gonzalez-Torres as indicating mind-altering recreational drugs. Rather than graphic depictions of sexual extremity, scenes associated with it and concomitant prices paid for hedonism, we are offered, in the tradition of much older art, visual metaphors standing for its existence.

The Berlin offered to us by Von Waldow is a Dystopian Disneyland for gay men in which a set of lifestyles has become so enframed within the fabric of the city. It is impossible to separate out the fun and the thrills from the less pleasant realities that all come as part of the package. Importantly, this is not really work about ambivalence. Von Waldow's disdainful humour and barely guarded swipes leave us in no doubt about his very conscious experience and understanding of the negative impacts of the Gay Dream as lived out in Berlin. Rather; it is, in the tradition of the Vanitas or possibly even Buddhist philosophics, about simultaneity; about cause and effect.

In Von Waldow's work, the affirmation of  Berlin gay identity and its right  to party is not divorced from the costs it might have. Yet, nor is there any hysteria about those costs. And, placing himself clearly in amongst it all, critique is also self-critique. Hedonism, and sexual extremity are not being praised as such, but there is a clear notion that, given all the factors that we associate with the city's unique history and economy, Von Waldow makes no pretence that there is too much of a choice. The very particular gay subcultures of Berlin are, in effect, almost an inevitability, the only viable means of development under the circumstances.

There may be a bemused skepticism in Wolf von Waldow's work, perhaps even a certain frustrated resignation. But, there is also a lot of unbridled  positive regard. He does not reject this strange city and its oddities. The long tradition of May Day riots seeps into his sculptures alongside the dancing skinheads. There are moments of simple joy in amongst any certain witzhdrawls of approval. This is not an artist waving the rainhow flag though he may, in certain ways, be redesigning it to be more accurate and aesthetically pleasing.

In more recent works using digital prints, the reoccurring iconography is reworked and further developed. However, Von Waldow has gradually turned his attention back to the notions of painting. In these 'wallpaper' works, the techniques used to construct pattern have been applied to composition and form. But, rather than existing as actual wallpapers, the works are shown against white walls in squared dimensions of a scale often associated with larger paintings.

These works show a new complexity in using colour to construct layering and, indeed, to prompt discussion about the traditional construction of images by painters (or indeed pattern makers). In confining the work to these painting-like dimensions, Von Waldow has been able to deploy a spectrum of extreme and deep colours that may have yielded an entirely different effect as wallpapers.
What might have taken on overpowering, punky tones — with their dense blacks and vibrant reds — turn out, in fact, to owe far more to the traditions of scientific and technical illustration. Instead of this being lost in the density of a room fully installed with wallpaper, we are, instead, given an easier access to both the content of the works and their discussions about the nature and status of paintings; the attribution of a whole range of values to the particular things we choose to hang on walls

This fragmenting of the experience of the wallpapers, the denial of their role as mere wall decoration, links bark in many ways to the very early works in winch he began to consider painting in the context of object and its relevant traditions linked to decoration. In effect, the presentation of ’wallpapers' as a contained, painting-like object shares a lot in common with the earlier installations in which the architecturally cut and hand painted surfaces were effectively presented as a kind of installation. Freestanding and wall-based elements both alluded to and drew upon architectural vernaculars that had historically been decorated with painted motifs. Of course, Von Waldow's versions were not simple replications of existing historical objects. Even then, the subversive tendency to  insert new meaning was evident.

However, there are certain questions that these works raise about the value structures connected with tastes and preferences that were arguably touching on reoccurring contemporary questions ahead of their time. One need to only examine the work offered by many commercial galleries recent years, from Germany to the United States, to see that this reappraisal of folk art forms and traditional decorative forms has become so prevalent that it has almost collapsed in on itself. How many of us now attend art fairs terrified that we will have to deal with yet another deftly executed folksy landscape? Or worse still, anything to do with stags. The vehement efforts of many artists genuinely and validly re-approaching what had been confined to the realm of kitsch has, to a certain degree, become lost in the forest of depictions of the natural world or reappraisials of the value of heimatkunst and all its offspring.

Wolf von Waldow, along with a sizeable cohort who also started engaging with related themes in the 1990's, deserves acknowledgement for being at the vanguard of the wave artists interested in reappraising the role of manual craft skills and decoration in art rather than an arriviste. Furthermore, in Von Waldow's case, the issue is far less one of the eco-friendly vision of the natural world that has become so prevalent within this strand and much more one of examining the status of specific art forms and tropes in relation to dominant social values. As his early works make clear, this is far more about architecture — often viewed .is ii kind of receptacle for any civilization's cultural worth — and its relationship to decorative forms, perhaps above all to painting. Von Waldow's works consciously expose the layer of taste, trends and orthodoxies in defining what is valid painting and who is a valid painter by highlighting the practice's shifting status according to the times in which it is undertaken; its relativity to the dominant discourses acting as arbiters of taste and cultural value.

In much the same. way that we can see how works that focused on painted surface bearing a direct relationship to the part of a building they may have adorned are present in these early works, so too do the more recent wall paper works — in fundamentally refusing to be wallpapers — raise questions about the meanings and accorded values of things that hang on walls. Would these perfectly precise designs, for example, be accorded a different value had they been executed in a slightly different way in paint on canvas? One gets the feeling that Wolf von Waldow has both strong views on who, when and how such values are defined and a-certain refusal to play along, to come quietly.

© Ken Pratt / WOUND 5, 2008