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Daniel Richter, 'oh la la', exhibition view, Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin

I wish I knew what I know now. When I was younger. Daniel Richter’s restrained show ‘oh la la ’ suggests new wisdoms acquired the hard way. There’s a resigned poignancy on display here somewhat in contrast to his previously more incendiary take on his country’s recent past. Take ‘Buffalo Soldier’ (all works 2009), where an old Rasta slouches in front of a pile of unspooled tape, a more benign brother to the scarred punk seen in ‘Lonely Old Slogan’, 2006, with his leather jacket studded with the succinct message Fuck the Police. Richter has been productive, there are 40 paintings here and all are significantly smaller in scale than the gargantuan canvases we have become accustomed to such as ‘Dog Planet’, 2002, arguably the most stridently impressive history painting since ‘Guernica’.


Four different themes emerge in the show, firstly a sequence called ‘Winterreise’ where cold black and white snow scenes are enlivened by flashes of lurid colour as figures batten down against the elements. There are also some of Richter’s favoured animal paintings—feral cats and scavenging dogs; he has a reserved pity for our four-legged friends, more trustworthy and trusting in today’s damaged environments.


Which brings us to politics: the two other groups of works refer to the present of Afghanistan and the past of the ‘Wall’ that fell in Berlin 20 years ago. In the former, a Taliban activist is shown in ‘Angel of Death Metal’, clutching a bright red Fender Jaguar, a lone figure surrounded by dark clad special forces, brothers of the riot police from ‘Dog Planet’. In ‘Bande on the Run’ we see another group of Afghanis as rock’n’roll rebels captured in Richter’s TM heat-seeking colours with America as the county judge, who held a grudge, and who will search forevermore.


The Cold War scenes of watch towers and road blocks are invested with a delicious ironic nostalgia. In ‘Erinnerungen an S.O. 36’ a delirious Kreuzberg scene shows a Zorro figure, much loved by Richter, being whipped by some green-clad goon up against the ‘Wall’. David Bowie as Pierrot á la the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video stares out from a poster nearby. Bemused, he’s packed a bag and moved on, he’s sucked at the decadent marrow of the city for long enough. In ‘Badender Russe’ a soldier’s hat and red star hang from the branches of a tree beside a light blue lake and a sky as textured as a Norbert Schwontkowski. Another stable mate Richter has learned from is Peter Doig. ‘Homesickblues’ sees a similar use of wet on wet streaks, but Doig’s pastorals are more happy and hippy, more James Gang in tone than Richter’s ‘Gang of Four’ post-punk sardonic leanings. Ensor is also referenced in some of the grotesque faces seen in ‘Mahnungen’, ‘Fans’ and ‘The Man’ which offers a scabrous image of hands being held out to a beaming, toxic, jaundiced-faced tyrant.


Oddly, and somewhat of a gamble, the show is also interspersed with large examples from a natural history museum of crystals and split tree trunks with jaw-dropping patterns and colouring. It’s as if Richter were being both modest and provocative, recalling his training with Albert Oehlen, by saying my paintings are good but reflect our vindictive, belligerent world, and can’t compare aesthetically to these products of our own poor, bedraggled, abused planet. And hence perhaps ‘Oh La La’ recalling the old Ronnie Wood song, a paean to the sad learning of life; ‘I wish that I knew what I know now’ when I was stronger.

John Quin is a writer based in Berlin & London