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Norbert Bisky: The Proud, the Few

Having caused a stir in his home country ever since his first solo exhibition in 2001, German painter Norbert Bisky has finally made his way to the States via Leo Koenig Gallery. Though glimpses of Bisky’s work could have been caught at the 2003 Miami Basel Art Fair or at a 2002 group exhibition at Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland, Oregon, the current show is his solo debut in New York. As much criticized for using imagery and titles that bring former Nazi and Socialist propaganda to mind as admired for his incredible technical skill and talent as a colorist, this former student of Georg Baselitz seems to be on the fast track to becoming one of Germany’s most controversial artists. With the determination and ease of the younger generation (Bisky was born in 1970), he challenges his country’s more conservative minds by employing visual aesthetics that have been left untouched for decades and by openly wondering, "How democratic are we?"

Norbert Bisky, Kleiner Feigling (Little Coward), 2003, oil on canvas, 35 x 26 inches. Courtesy Leo Koenig Inc., New York.

Born and raised in Leipzig, East Germany, Bisky grew up under the Socialist regime of the German Democratic Republic. Though his first encounter with mass media was linked to Socialist ideals, he later discovered that the concept of propaganda, and the visual vocabulary used for it, remained similar even when employed by opposing ideologies. To Bisky, rigorous praise of the ideals of youth, health, physical strength, and perfection always implies a fascist view of life, whether the promoter is a dictatorial government or the creator of a contemporary advertising campaign. By portraying groups of young men whose physical features fulfill the clichés of Aryan perfection, Bisky points out the consequences of abandoning individualism and fantasizing about fabricating a superior race.

Bearing the same title as the exhibition itself, "The Proud, the Few" (2003) is a good example of Bisky’s standard vocabulary. Utilizing strong diagonals as dramatic structural license, the composition features a translucent palette dominated by blue, ochre, and white, that leaves large patches of the primed canvas revealed. With his white-blond hair blending into the vivid clouds and eyes that reflect the saturated blue of the sky, a young male is set against a summer-bright horizon. Shown from the waistline up, he wears a tight muscle shirt that favorably frames his well-toned arms. Depicted from a lower perspective, the boyish head seems tilted upward, while his gaze fixates on the far distance and the rest of his face remains motionless. Denying any insight into the figure’s emotional condition, Bisky subtracts all traces of personality from his hero and provides him with a discomforting aura of secrecy and mistrust.

It is, however, in the more complex figurative assemblages that Bisky’s work is at its most psychologically ambiguous and powerful. In "Neue Pyramiden" (New Pyramids, 2003), the muscular torso of a male youth dominates the picture plane. Arms raised with two red sticks in his hands, he creates a triangular shape. In the background, two groups of men who could easily be generic duplicates of the main character, translate this symbolic gesture into three-dimensional form. Climbing athletically onto each other’s shoulders, they build pyramids with their own bodies. Rather than being viewed as a harmless game amongst comrades, the scene serves as a metaphor for the aggressive human urge for expansion. A tiny bright red helicopter appears on the upper left horizon line, a threat to the celebration of the pyramid as a symbol of stability. Going down on a slight diagonal, it becomes the potential bearer of horrific destruction.

Though Bisky’s work will not have the same provocative effect on the American public as it has had in Germany, one of the most important questions it raises will hardly lose its impact: "When, why, and how does evil start in human heads?"


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2004

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