My eyes are like watery ‘pools of love’, welling up, imminent to your arrival, as I stand here above you, waiting … woof woof! Looking down the stairs at you. … a coquettish mut.
“Heeeeello,” you say as you walk up the stairs, “Ooo you are a sweetie … what do you want us to do?”
And there is something in my gesture, implied in the half-turn of my body, in the appealing angle of my head, in the slight skewing of my stance, in the skilfully painted wetness of my nose, in the hand-tooled seduction of my curls and fur, even in the suggestion of a flirtatious smile playing at the corner of my jaw …
And then, as I trot along beside you, your spirit animal, as we enter the main exhibition space, breathing in the perfume of pine and maybe the hint of sandlewood – cleaning fluid or maybe air-freshener. Woof woof woof! And the succulent shine underfoot of glassy concrete.
“O this is amazing!” you exclaim, as the light bursts in on you.
The ruptured gash, down through broken rock, a view of aquatic spectacle, a chasm into entangled swirls of waves, clouds, cliffs, skies, submerged architecture; baroque loops of liquid seduction, watery death and sunlit ripples. The horror of the ‘depictive’, coy perspectival fakery, the crude invitation of base representation for the sake of representation with its tricks and returns and re-animations, moving across the surface, the shine and glamour mixing desire and phantoms, as deluge or flood; ‘crafted with time-honoured technique and skill’ … woof woof! A proposal for glimmering surfaces and depths, doubled down and crowded with abstractions so clearly always only ever one millimetre thick; impishly critiquing the murderous ideology of ‘seductive surfaces and hidden depths’.
And all the while the gloss feels so strange on my paws. I yelp slightly and you all laugh, “O you adorable pup!”
And as we tip-tap across the floor of the of the former British Council building, where previously they used to present and promote Cold-War British high-art culture. O my doggy heart! On one level, this is a similarly trivial representational spectacle … but on another level … no … always this! Always only this!
“Ha ha ha ha,” you laugh as we make our way across the ravine. And on the far side, horizontally and vertically aligned, a row of fly sculptures spaced across the span – a row of punctuation marks, of black dots. One of them is perhaps, frozen mid-flight in front of a flower, as an ‘anti-bee’ … not the happy, furry, orange, ecological pollinator whose buzz delights but more like the symbols of death and decay from Dutch still life, or just the vermin that cluster in the dirt. Woof woof woof! Or on closer inspection … on closer inspection … Rorschach ink blots … maybe you can see the head of Max Wall, English music hall star, famous for his character Professor Wallofski, comedy piano routines and acting in Beckett plays.
Or maybe you can see me in the fly, can you pick out my adorable form mixed in … a Cavafloo? Or perhaps a charming Cavaflooloolooolooo to mimic the sound of a song bird perhaps. But anyway….
“Cavafloolooloo…” we cry out as we make our way out again.
As I am trotting by your feet. Eager. With a look of love when you look down. Now leaping down the stairs and at one point I stumble, a bundle of fur tumbling down. Then back on my feet. Too full of juice! Too full of life!
“Woof woof … follow me … down here” I cry. Such a cute docent. And downwards.
“O this is wonderful!” you cry.
And we walk down to the basement space, only partly accessible, roped off. A goat. Viewed from the raised foyer space. And another fly, sitting on the eyelid of the goat (an historical ecstatic fly! The same fly as sat on the eyelid of Margaret Thatcher as she died.)
The goat – most damned of creatures, not least in its repeated use in art. O cursed spawn how many more times must its carcass be reanimated in artistic context. Dragged out to metaphorical affect! And here we are again, observing its satirical form with initially sad expression, clambering across a rock outcrop, in the style of German medieval realism. Folds of fleece highlighted, rendered in oil and gloss varnish, possibly mocking the echo of William Holman Hunt’s famous ‘Scapegoat’ painting of 1892, or the mascot of Cologne FC who was, on one occasion, punched by the fans of an opposing team. Doubling down its religious schtick in its gaze out to the viewer (as implicated). Bloated with sin; as a scapegoat or indexing other formats of art-goats, or cultural goats, erotic, mythological, occult etc. As well as being just a goat. This is a specific goat indicative of its own specific potentialities. And the maggots (baby flies) on the goat’s legs and in the folds of its fleece.
Woof woof woof! “OK OK ! And where are we going now? Ha ha ha” We want to move on and there is a brief worry “Are we ghosts?” we all shriek. “Are we phantoms? Ha ha ha!”
Such fun! And ascending back up, spiralling back up. Upstairs past the posters; amalgamations of sales pitch, supermarket pitch and politics, where sits, on the wall, on the first floor, the painted portrait of the goat, rendered in bas relief and oil, in the style, or spirit, of ‘A picture of Dorian Gray’, where the subject remains youthful and beautiful and the painting deteriorates. That old goat is smiling happily at us in its whiskery decay.
And close by the goat painting, the painting of a crow, standing on a stump picking off ants on the ground below. The ants labour collectively but are snatched away by a force above them, greater than them.
“Woof woof … that old crow … if I get my teeth into his feathers! Ha! Then he would feel my force … if only for a few seconds as I shake him dead! Ha ha! Woof woof!”
“O darling so violent! Leave him … leave him … he isn’t worth it!”
“Woof woof … give me just one minute and I will stop him plucking at our collective labour! Ha ha! Woof woof!”
Woof woof! And finally, one more visit, one more leg on the trip, one more refrain, one last date, one last chapter, verse, prayer, homily, rapture, dream… Yes, to the cinema! The theatre of dreams! A sojourn in the darkness. In the shadows. Amongst the images projected on the screen. The crow features briefly and the ants … and the fly makes a fleeting appearance, drenched in the searing heat of rural France, the melting pollen, mosquitoes and coagulating history. Yes, you can sit back in the cushioned seats. I shall maybe trot up and down in the aisle. As we watch an ‘intense dialogue between two commuters, one taking the form of a Giacometti sculpture, choreographed across the platforms of a suburban train station’. As they search for the allusive Egghead.
Egghead wants his eggs back!
Egghead wants … woof woof!
Sweltering intensity, warm to the bones, into your flesh, into your skull and teeth. Woof woof woof woof!
And now in waves moving down. We flow outwards. And then lapping, flowing down the stairs and leaking out under the main doors, out into the street … joyous new cavapools in the street, across the pavement, in visions down through the concrete, under the paving stone. Gently lapping waters.
Text: John Russell
Curator: Nikola Dietrich
John Russell (*1963 in London) studied History of Art at Goldsmiths College of Art and Fine Art at Slade School of Art and Saint Martin’s School of Art. He was a co-founder of the artists’ group BANK, of which he was a member for ten years. Since leaving BANK in January 2000, Russell has worked both independently and collaboratively in producing exhibitions, curatorial projects, and artist books. His work has been shown in solo exhibitions including Bridget Donahue in New York (2021 and 2018), High Art in Paris (2017), Kunsthalle Zürich (2017) and in group exhibitions at Viborg Kunsthal, DK (2018), Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow (2018), Galerie Crèvecoeur in Paris (2018), Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin (2017), Artists Space in New York (2014), The New Art Gallery Walsall, UK (2013), ICA in London (2011), Focal Point Gallery in Southend, UK (2011), The Grey Area in Brighton (2011), Kunsthalle Exnergasse in Vienna(2011), Tate Britain in London (2010), and Tate St Ives in Cornwall, UK (2009).
José Montealegre Nervous System
20.8. – 16.10.2022
Opening: Friday, 19.8.2022, 7 pm
In his first institutional solo exhibition Nervous System at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, José Montealegre continues his ongoing series of works from 2020 titled Páginas. The starting point for these sculptures is an extensive botanical archive of plant illustrations created in the course of the Spanish colonization of Mexico and published as Nova Plantarum Animalium et Mineralium Mexicanorum (1628). The archive saw the catalogization and re-systematization of hundreds of indigenous plants by the colonizers. In rich detail, Montealegre translates these botanical illustrations into copper sculptures and presents them on the second floor of the Kunstverein. In his artistic practice, which also includes writing, the artist tells stories that blur the line between origin and (mis)translation. Contrary to knowledge shaped by colonial powers, Montealegre allows marginalized perspectives to emerge thus challenging canonical history(ies).
The exhibition will be followed by the first publication of José Montealegre.
One. Like a protagonist in a cartoon drawing entering the revolving snout of a concrete goosebump city like, for example, New York, my brass-buckled leather briefcase snaps unshut and all my papers fly away. Now I’m late. Now I’m poor. Now I have dreams. Now they fly away.
Two. It is awfully obvious that any conversation about the methodologies of art begins and surely ends with life. Begins because it is the spring which taps the well. Ends because bloated goldfish are prey for hawks.
Three. Document whirlwind. Papercut city. The nerve, the nerves, nervous nerve of steel. The page tornado scatters order and logic, thus rendering the business pitch to be delivered into an unintelligible levitation where bureaucracy has no grasp and the tendril tether fails to anchor root. A misfiring neuron is perhaps what you have.
Four. Upon which I realize that what is sought cannot be accidental. The person who fails to hem the hole in their pocket is called a benefactor.
Five. It is the spinning paper cyclone that so destroyed my life, the site of the worlds autolysis. Where the invisible is not only seen but transforms. The papers levitated are crumpled into orbs. They hold, hide, and corrupt information. It is to look down into the well and see the golden meniscus that refracts the light, it is the cast and wilting blossom that falls gently on the surface of the water and is blown about by the wind, it is the goldfish that swims clumsily if not in grace and the talon that breaks its peace and plunges into the water and takes that goldfish into another ecstatic world.
Six. In May 2020 I downloaded a digital copy of the Nova Plantarum Animalium et Mineralium Mexicanorum (1628) from Biodiversitylibrary.org to a thumb drive. Then I took that thumb drive to a student printer. There I printed it in black and white on recycled paper. Leather bound front cover and all. The 1,104-page stack of documents has hundreds of drawings of plants and animals found in present day Mexico and Central America. Each drawing is accompanied by a Nahuatl name that has been scattered by the empires and a Latin name that has been reinterpreted by modern botany. Since printing this version of the ‘Nova Plantarum’ I have been going through the book almost every day. I look at the plants and sometimes, recognize them instantly. Other times it takes me months to realize that I have seen them in the past, but most remain unknown to me. When I google their name, nothing comes up. Familiar only through these drawings, I see faint possibilities in the landscape. When I feel like it and when I start to realize that I know them sculpturally, I make a sculpture of the drawing. So far, I have made around eighty plant sculptures. There are hundreds remaining. Every time I leaf through the black and white printer copy of this book I create a new order within it. The leather cover is now in the middle of the book with tons of scribbles and notations. Its order has become irrational and irrelevant. The page numbers jump by the hundreds. I have lost pages. I have crumpled them. I have stained them.
Text: José Montealegre
One. Looking at First look at the white walls, second look at the tiled floor. Looking around. Looking down. Get on your knees. Get closer. Discover. Repeat.
Two. Claiming In 1517, during the Spanish colonization of the Americas, naturalist and physician Francisco Hernández de Toledo was sent to the first scientific and botanical expedition. The result of a seven-year expedition was an extensive botanical archive in the form of an illustrated manuscript with schematic drawings commissioned from Nahua painters. It was then stored in the Escorial Monastery, re-structured by the Italian medic Nardo Recchi, partly lost in a fire, and eventually published 100 years later under the title Nova Plantarum, Animalium, et Mineralium Mexicanorum historia in 1628.
Three. Knowing Seeing, naming, knowing. The names of the plants in the book are both in Nahuatl and in Latin. Yet, since the references have been partially lost through appropriation, acquisition, and translation, attempts to find an equivalent in today’s botany are not always successful. As we walk through the city of Cologne, I see a strikingly dominant plant that has broken through the curb. “Didn’t you notice that paving stones in German cities are always in arches?”, he asked. Thinking through craft.
Four. Narrating In 2013, I visited José Montealegre in his studio for the first time. He had just moved from Managua to Frankfurt am Main to start his studies at the Städelschule in the class of Willem de Rooij. I remember looking at, or rather observing, platforms of tiles on low pedestals on the floor displaying miniature jungle worlds in clay, at reliefs of tiny skeletons on the wall next to framed, seemingly historical book pages. It was with surprise when I found that those documents were fictional: digital prints on blank pages torn out of used books. Overwriting histories. Rewriting history. Reclaiming the narrative.
Five. Expanding Montealegre’s works have the potential to extend beyond their edges. Like four rectangular cutouts of a larger environment, they seem to grow, to evolve, to reproduce. Outside, the mirroring surfaces of the plastic containers, used in Honduras to collect rainwater and hand wash clothes, reflect their surroundings. Stained-glass squares echo the influence of Catholic iconography and craft and the all-consuming European narrative. The Renaissance in Europe brought on not only the concept of perspective in art but also colonial expansion.
Six. Collapsing What copper and nerves have in common is that they are both electrical transmitters. “Don’t trust me, I’m not telling you the truth”, he says. Trembling and shaking. Restructuring knowledge and power. Returning agency.
Text: Miriam Bettin
Curator: Miriam Bettin
José Montealegre (*1992 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras) lives and works in Berlin. He studied philosophy and literature at the Universidad Centroamericana de Managua, Nicaragua, and with Willem de Rooij at the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main. His work has been shown in solo exhibitions at the Klosterruine in Berlin, Mountains in Berlin (both 2021), Convent Art Space in Ghent (2019), and in group exhibitions including Lantz’scher Skulpturenpark Lohausen in Düsseldorf (2021), Städelmuseum in Frankfurt am Main, Natalia Hug in Cologne (both 2019), Futura Gallery in Prague, Gillmeier Rech in Berlin (both 2018), and Kunsthalle Darmstadt (2017, 2014). Parallel to the solo exhibition at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, a group show curated by José Montealegre and Rebekka Seubert is on view at the Dortmunder Kunstverein (until 30.10.2022).