“Josef Strau A former proprietor of well-regarded project spaces in Cologne and Berlin as well as an artist. Strau is known for combining aspects of automatic writing and automatic drawing into installations and sculptural ensembles that often include household furnishings—most notably lamps, which are something of a signature element for him.”
That’s the dictionary definition of Joseph Strau you can pick up at Greene Naftali, where you can inhabit his new conceptual installation until Aug. 10. That hand-out made me laugh when I got it home and read it, and laughter is so often my response to contemporary art, whether I’m laughing with the art or at it. Bottom line: I kind of liked the show, but I’m liking the guy who appears to be behind it even more than what he’s done here. If he’s real. Can you tell anymore? The ethereal quality of show makes you wonder if it’s all just a put-on, but I’m going to assume it’s sincere. It appears to be about recovered innocence, and it has a sense of rebellious spirituality you could trace back through the Hippies and Beats, on backward through Thoreau and Emerson and Rimbaud, all the way back to Blake and Wordsworth. It also reminded me of Aldous Huxley’s experiments with drugs and conclusions about the mind in The Doors of Perception. Anybody who’s a friend of those luminaries is a friend of mine, and Strau appears to have whatever visa is required to work in their neighborhood.
Yet the show offered little in the way of visual pleasure to draw me in. Like so many shows I saw this summer, it hinged on writing—so I’m surprised that I didn’t turn around and head down the street, since words are exactly what I try to escape every time I paint. But I was intrigued. The gallery looked like a fraternity after a series of 3 a.m. misdemeanors. I laughed when I glanced around the place. The joint looked pretty casual and morning-after, with lamps and—most notably lampshades—scattered all over the gallery floor. On the walls were large sheets of paper with shaped columns of type, the sheets of paper hung with those little triangular clips you buy at Staples, the ones that fold their wings back so you can pry them apart like those clothes pins with wire springs. These big sheets of paper kept lifting off and falling back to the walls, like laundry, as the air currents shifted while the air conditioning tried to battle the stifling heat outside. Unfamiliar sounds kept coming from the lampshades on the floor. I wandered over for a closer look and saw that little iPods and Sony speakers had been wired to the lamps, so that they could give off their playlist of ambient noises. The artist was using the lamps’ bulb sockets to power speakers rather than light bulbs. And the speakers were set into the lampshades so that the shades worked like megaphones. Again, I laughed. Shades that dampen light were used to amplify sound. Nice counterpoint there. But what was the actual point?
I walked up and read some of Strau’s prose poems and looked once or twice at the acrylic images on Plexiglas, though they all looked more or less alike and didn’t divulge much, visually. The prose poems kept me reading until the end. Here’s a condensation of one example, without the line breaks of a poem. You have to stay with it. In this bit of what he claims is “automatic writing” rather than just a first-draft journal entry, Strau refers to a pair of interesting figures by turning their names into invented adjectives: Swedenborg and Oblomov. One was an eccentric mystic and the other the protagonist of a 19th century Russian novel:
One of the ways to articulate this smooth and thin path between the Oblomovistishe and Swedenborgishe attitude in any case is to give up willing and to submit to spirits instead. This notion is greatly indebted to the American spirit of working as I often observed many are not even aware although they practice it every day. The calling of a spirit is hallelujah. FAME, oh how stupid is fame and even more so to work for it. It is great when one is young and starts life and starts a project but it is stupid as it slowly turns into envy and then is slow brain demontage and ends in the bureaucratic spider net with all its works eaten up by it. Your fame . . . no . . . in exact terms, your desire for fame is what binds you . . . and makes you the slave of the daily have-to’s. . . . .the daily have-to’s . . . you help them become stronger and bigger everyday until one day you will die with them, which is not so bad, but you will not have anything else. Like a tree in a dry land . . . what a relief instead to find a community of nobodys and people to whom you yourself are even more a nobody. Oh spirit of David, king of poetry. Oh spirit of Montezuma, come down and save our old land abundant in sprit and of pure life, water, sky and respect. Oh spirit of the Americas, throw these evil spirits of Europe out of our old and spiritual institutions. Save! That is the spirit of the non-productive attitude.
Oh King David. Oh Montezuma. WTF? This isn’t great writing but there are winning hints of Whitman and Ginsberg. First draft quality notwithstanding, he had my attention. But why am I doing literary criticism in an art gallery? Swedenborg was an odd, but highly influential, Swedish mystic whose writings had an impact on Blake, Emerson, Innes, Balzac, Strindberg and Yeats. He was a visionary who promoted unconventional views of humanity’s spiritual nature—like Tolstoy, another wise old crackpot, he believed he could re-interpret Christian scripture in a new way. Oblomov is the most famous creation of Ivan Goncharov, a Russian novelist. His fictional protagonist is a young man who refused to engage in productive activity and, for the first 150 pages of his novel, doesn’t even get out of bed. Now that’s an act of subversion I can get behind. In this show, these two figures seem to symbolize Strau’s own personal experience, as he describes it in the gallery press release:
In the period before the exhibition, the artist withdrew from human and social conditions and situations. As if thrown from an airplane over a desert and experiencing a surprisingly soft landing, the artist felt a short moment of extreme worry and fear then suddenly found himself in the middle of paradise: the neighborhood park close to his house where he found small things on the ground or in the bushes. Following this experience, which he could only call paradise as he never developed a language for these small worlds, his life in the big world could accordingly only be called hell.
OK, now I love this guy.
Although he was not becoming a real participant, he felt that he had been chosen to be a passenger who would walk, ramble, and promenade through the different spheres inside and outside the great park. He had started believing that the ignored beauty of the neighborhood would in fact be the perfect earthly place for him. At this point the artist’s work suddenly fell under the influence of the garden and the flowers as the walks turned into exercises, often done in the hours of dawn.
All of the material in the show is a result of coincidence, rising from non-productive attitudes, leading to a devotion to randomness and so-called “inner voices.” The artist began to praise the day, the early sun, and the influx of the voices in the neighborhood after so many years of praising the dusk and the nights. Several texts for this project, including King David Invoking and Montezuma Appearing, describe experiences with both inner and exterior spirits and have been used in similar forms in other works. The artist believes that there are very obvious, strong similarities between David and Montezuma; not only are they both kings of great lands, but they also share a legendary and mysterious influence in the kingdom of poetry as well as an intense ability to revolutionize and reform their nations. Another older text also used in this project, And Then I Fell from Hell, stands for the very beginning of both the neighborhood and the American experience, extending the praises of the day and of the neighborhood to the entire country in general and trying in so many ways to express gratitude for having taken part in it.
Strau seems more interested in experiencing states of consciousness and awareness than in creating material objects to transmit any of it. Which is a nice way to excuse oneself from all the nasty labor of actually making art, but you have to admire his nerve. Carry on, Oblomov. It’s what’s both admirable and problematic in this show. In another bit of writing on another wall, he talked about moments of preparation for the exhibition as “moments of pure undecided happiness.” I like how he circles around the idea of completely putting aside all productive aims and purposes and becoming what Emerson would have called, in one of his least felicitous phrases, “a transparent eyeball.” As Ralph W. put it in the 19th century: “I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being.” Strau seems to be trying to convey a state of awareness that simply absorbs everything without discrimination or judgment: what the mystics, in all traditions, talk about when the self drops away and what’s left is, at least at first, a state of fascination with, well, everything. Strau also talks about trying to make art that is nearly immaterial, which is why this show is heavy on the writing: you can’t get much less material than that, unless you just play some Mozart to an empty room.
The only issue I have is a big one: as much as I love the spirit of what he’s trying to convey, the way he gave form to his ideas didn’t leave me wanting more. If Strau had printed up his text and published it as a book, with a few mp3 files to play while reading the prose poems, I’m not sure I’d be losing much. The arrangement of lamps on the floor didn’t illuminate a whole lot for me. And though I’m eager to see and hear more of Strau’s work now, I took away from this show pretty much an attitude, which could have been conveyed in more lasting ways than this gallery exhibition. But I appreciated how his show invoked a kind of sincere, though unconventional, spirituality not much in evidence these days—especially in the other shows I visited in Chelsea and elsewhere in the city. The other ones drew content from religion and faith, mostly in a snarkier and distanced way. There’s a certain kind of spirituality I take for granted when I listen to Sufjan Stevens or even Jack White, who still considers himself a Christian—it saturates the songs as a kind of energy, while the songs themselves are “about” other things. The artist’s faith is there in the background as a structure that gives vitality to the work. It isn’t the subject of the work. I want the craft involved in the work to convey an artist’s spiritual intuitions, subliminally, if there are any to be conveyed: that’s the whole magic of art. What’s ineffable somehow gets drawn down into something that appears to be purely physical, a painting, a piece of marble, or the sequence of vibrations in the air called Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, say, at the end of Tarkovskiy’s Stalker. Next time I have the urge to feel the euphoria of childhood again I may go to back to Rimbaud or Blake or Whitman for the fiftieth time. Strau wants to offer art that is almost entirely disembodied, purely conceptual, but art for me works in exactly the opposite way: it’s an intense physical embodiment of realities that otherwise aren’t physical. I want more than ideas from my art. I want the mystery that lives in the sound of Whitman’s wording or the amazing ways Blake could employ watercolor to visualize states of mind or sexual relationships or phases of history and still, simply in the physical qualities of his imagery, lift you out of your ordinary, bored state of mind to remind you how innocence once felt and can feel again.