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The Man Who Wasn't There

Gunther Herbst at Gallery AOP

By Michael Smith
11 August - 01 September. 0 Comment(s)
Glovers Island 4/Red White Yellow Black

G√ľnther Herbst
Glovers Island 4/Red White Yellow Black, 2008. Oil on canvas 1260 x 1620 mm.

‘We must rebuild, open up and clean up the hearts of our cities’, said Joseph Darst, mayor of St Louis, Missouri, in 1951. ‘The fact that slums were created with all the intrinsic evils was everybody's fault. Now it is everybody's responsibility to repair the damage.’ Darst was speaking of the city’s process of slum-clearing and rebuilding, specifically the creation of the Pruitt-Igoe housing development, which was first occupied three years later in 1954.

Pruitt-Igoe is now synonymous with modernism’s catastrophic failure to uplift the lives of those it most enthusiastically targeted. It’s the stuff of FINA- or ARCH-101 that modernism, as purveyed by Walter Gropius et al, aimed to address postwar social ills. The oracular professor intended his style of affordable, clean architecture to break decisively with the past and establish a new order of efficient, functional living. He famously said, ‘Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.’

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Modernism’s good intentions are as clear as Gropius’ crystal. Less attention is paid to how that project has failed to deliver anything beyond cold, barren, high-rise monoliths, intentionally dehistoricised structures that seemed to perpetuate the poor’s sense of alienation in urban areas.

Charles Jencks, writing in The Language of Post Modern Architecture, called 16 March 1972 the day that modernism died. On that day the demolition of the first of Pruitt-Igoe’s 33 towers began. Since then, similar demolitions have occurred across the globe. In March this year, Financial Times traced the myriad demolitions of prime modernist buildings in London in ‘Fans of modernism, look away’; contemporary times, apparently, call for more sustainable buildings.

Günther Herbst’s ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ at Gallery AOP this month is arguably the most damning indictment of modernism through the medium of painting to which we have yet been treated in South Africa. From Cheslea to SoHo, Berlin to Braamfontein, it has become rather fashionable for artists to bash or rehash modernism’s rigours; little more than a collection of hip painterly gestures is deployed to allude to its collapse. What is often absent is a real grasp of the stakes.

But the implications of this failure are amply explored in Herbst’s works. He says, ‘After moving from Berlin to London in 1995, I started photographing the makeshift shelters of London’s homeless population.’ These amorphous, tragicomic structures became the backbone of his small and medium-sized paintings in which dragged, Richter-esque swathes coalesce with meticulous rendering and floating graphic elements.

Each image focuses on a homeless person’s collection of crates, boxes, bits of plastic and newspaper that makes up a home. Yet they become more; they become miniature temporary monuments to Pruitt-Igoe, to modernism’s demise and the failure of the modern urban machine to adequately care for its marginalised.

Intruding into these exquisitely-painted vignettes of social realism are hard-edged shapes of flat colour, straight out of modernist painting’s playbook: Mondrian’s primaries, Caulifield’s outlines, Malevich’s dogged two-dimensionality. In Glovers Island 4/Red White Yellow Black from 2008, a raft containing a makeshift house floats past a forbidding multi-storey; the side wall of the shelter magically comes to life in the colours of the title. In Tottenham Court Road 3/Black Blue Red (2009) the jagged colour slashes are more peripheral, jutting in from the edges as the viewer is lured into the central darkened void of a collapsing cardboard box.

Though they intentionally operate at a different speed to the illusionistic areas, Herbst takes care that these shapes echo areas in the image. The results poignantly conflate modernism’s uber-idealism with the harsh make-do ethos of surviving on the streets.

That the tactics of the homeless speak so movingly about the society from which they are excluded is not lost on Herbst: in Whitfield Street/Red Blue Yellow a shopping cart sits alongside an allusive shape (a person wrapped in plastic against the cold? Or is it just a bag?). In Duane Hanson’s Supermarket Shopper of 1970 the figure’s trolley, piled high with groceries, is emblematic of a consumerist age; in Herbst’s work it signals the DIY existence of the outsider, who must eke out a life off the detritus of a materialism from which he is denied participation.

The intimate nature of many of the works (at least four of the works in this sparsely-curated show are around the size of A4 paper) presses home the prevalence of this tragedy in suburbia. Staring down a domestically-sized image of painful social failure and the cruel liminality it has wrought should bring a lump to anyone’s throat, if they are looking carefully enough.

The topicality of this show for Johannesburg, in which an ever-growing homeless population easily dwarfs that of London, is clear. One senses that the truths of which Herbst reminds us need to remain top of mind as we hurtle at break-neck speed towards a massively urbanised population.