Who said art about other art is boring? (Christian Jankowski at Petzel)

Petzel in New York is presenting Christian Jankowski’s third solo exhibition at the gallery. Once again the German artist proves himself being a master in making art about art.

A conceptual artist working in a variety of media, Christian Jankowski has made a history of collaborating with other people to create his artwork. Based in Berlin, the German artist first made his mark in the international art world with his 1992 video The Hunt, where he used a bow and arrow to hunt for his food in a supermarket—shooting everything he needed for a week, from frozen chickens and vegetables to packages of toilet paper and butter.

Since that time, Jankowksi has made work in a casino and a psychotherapist’s office, recreated porn films, collaborated with a fortune teller and an evangelical TV pastor, shot a film with wannabe actors at Cinecittà, organized a panel talk with celebrated puppets to discuss “Puppets in the Media,” talked a Christie’s auctioneer into selling the clothes off his own back and cast bronze sculptures from street performers mimicking famous statues.

Scheduled to have his third solo outing at Petzel in January 2017, the show got bumped by an impromptu group exhibition in response to Trump becoming President. Although he was fresh off his curatorial gig with Manifesta 11, Jankowski was ready to present his latest work, but when the show got postponed until the summer of 2018 the artist decided to offer an overview of all of the works that he made in 2017—and what a productive year it turned out to be.

Jankowski’s current Petzel exhibition, titled “2017,” features four new series of works in photography, painting, drawing, sculpture and installation, along with a miniature cinema for viewing three recent videos. The series Massage Masters presents Japanese massage therapists applying their expertise on public sculptures in Yokohama through still photographs and video installations, which are viewed while you are resting on actual massage equipment. For his drawing series Me in the Eyes of Another Actor, Jankowski had pairs of sketch artists in Paris draw one another with either the head of the actress Isabelle Huppert or that of generic celebrities—like George Clooney and Emma Watson—from sample images that they show to flaunt their skills.

Jankowski’s installation Walking Logic offers folk art walking sticks, hand-carved by a 77-year-old artisan from Bratislava, supporting internet images of celebrities—ranging from Rembrandt and Georgia O’Keefe to Rihanna and Fred Astaire—clasping walking sticks through the ages. It’s Jankowski’s series of paintings, however, that occupies the biggest amount of space and commands the most attention in the show. Starting photographs of people posing in tableau vivant recreations of famous paintings found on the world wide web, Jankowksi sends the pictures to a painting factory in China, where life-size imitations of the originals are made by professional painters that are skilled at simulating Western art masterpieces.

An installation of 10 different reinterpretations of Vincent van Gogh self-portraits, from 2015, make up some of the earlier works from the Neue Malerei (New Painting) series, which Jankowski envisions as a walk through art history. In these works, and in all of the paintings in the series, an area of the canvas is left blank to show the proportional difference between the found photo and the original. Another simulated Van Gogh presents a contemporary version of The Potato Eaters that was created as a poster by Ikea—complete with products that the mega-merchandiser sells—to encourage families to dine together.

The details in the works expose Jankowski’s sense of humor. For example, in the reinterpretation of David Hockney’s 1970 painting Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, the tableau vivant performers didn’t have a white cat like Percy, which sits on Mr. Clark’s lap, so they had a friend don a white robe and socks to imitate it. Likewise, wanting to recreate Yves Klein’s 1960 Anthropométrie—a performative painting, in which Klein directed a group of young women to transfer pigment to the canvas with their nude bodies—a group of students in Austria shyly restage the performance dressed in dance leotards.

Old Masters are not off bounds here, either. The painting of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in the show originated with a photograph from a tableau vivant festival in California that was reproduced in a New York Times article. The photograph captured the shadows of the players on the additional characters painted on a backdrop—a feature the Chinese painter naively left in his rendition. And Jacopo Pontormo’s 16th Century masterpiece The Deposition from the Cross is also made new again from an internet image depicting a similar, staged situation.

Ironically, the sole sculpture in “2017” has a relationship to one of the videos on view in the mini-cinema. Jankowski made Zeitgenössische Verabschiedung (Contemporary Farewell)—a sculptural installation of a stack of cast drum cases with sound equipment and a recording of a heartbeat and a speech—for a ceremony honoring Leipzig’s Museum für Zeitgenössiche Kunst director’s retirement and the 10-minute video What Could Possibly Go Wrong for the inaugural exhibition of the director of MSU Broad Art Museum in Michigan.

Having worked with Jankowski in the past, the new Broad director, Marc-Olivier Wahler, asked the artist to create something special for “The Transported Man,” the first exhibition under his leadership. In the video, Wahler is called to the podium to make some remarks when Jankowski tells the audience that the director is cornered in the museum’s Zaha Hadid building by an alligator. A television newsman and his cameraman follow Jankowski into the galleries to help, but the alligator attacks and swallows Wahler before they can intercede. The newsman proceeds to interview Wahler inside the belly of the beast—with the director stating that art is about risk taking and spectacle and that it needs to explore new ways to communicate and transport man to a new place—before giving a tour of the show and then going back to work in his new body.

Ever amusing, Jankowski is a wizard at making art about art, while showing that art is always there, just below the surface, in all of the things we see and do—it just takes a clever artist and the right medium to make it visible and known.

July 16, 2018