From the other side of the gallery window Lothar Hempel’s very mannered assemblages promote a sense of worry. Close to, evidence of his charming DIY aesthetic and humorous juxtaposition of materials softens but doesn’t altogether dispense with the concern that these are rather nice bits of nonsense. With the exception of John Hutchinson’s description of Hempel’s practice as sculptural tableaux within which everything but the kitchen sink is bound by the evocation of drama, the press release prose reads like the ramblings of someone firmly embedded within a fantastical existence. In the cool clinical container of the gallery such ardent and emotive expression seems totally out of place and doesn’t really fit with the physically awkward but specifically constructed elements housed within it.
But this is likely all part of the plan, especially given the critical implications of the title, Casanova and Other Problems, and Hempel’s past forays into deconstructing other people’s art objects. Taking his cue from Fellini’s visually stunning, but often criticised, 1976 film Casanova, the Berlin-based artist has developed a series of humanoid sculptural works (shown alongside photo collages and frieze-like paintings on the walls) that together appear as the absurdist ensemble cast of a Brechtian shop window display. This band of protagonists appear to have been partially re-configured from digital images mounted on board and include a cat-headed cyclist bride, a blue parasol-hatted lady and a pink bewigged chap punctured in the forehead with the lead from an earphone (both of which resemble pieces of a large puzzle positioned on a raft, perhaps escaping from something inexplicable that has recently taken a few bites out of them). Fellini’s troupe of jezebels, freaks and dandies, by comparison, appear positively conservative.
Hempel is known for his deconstruction of particular artistic conventions—the theatrical mise-en-scène, modernist sculptural and installation art traditions—as modes through which expression is read, arguably, in ways that critique the currently reference-heavy state of contemporary art in the age of digital reproduction. For there are nods in every direction to many other forms of making and study, from pop culture to the sciences. His refusal to comply with the perceived frameworks through which art and other forms of expression are experienced can leave one in a compelling but ultimately quite confusing narrative hinterland. There are many recognisable components of the theatrical production here (the prop, actor and set) and allusions to sculpture past (the monument, objet trouvé and the figure), often cut-and-shut into a singular object, but what do they all mean?
These works convey the anxiety of getting it wrong—as both maker and viewer. Hempel actively prevents the objects and images he chooses from fulfilling their innate functions. The structural and intellectual integrity of each component is always at the forefront of the mind, therefore, when looking at it. Borrowed images of 1970s actors, asymmetrically spliced from source (an almost aggressive avoidance of the square as pictorial framing device), appear precariously balanced on pilfered plinths and stones, the real instruments and objects attached to each virtual person unable to do the job they’re charged with. Actual candles flickering in front of an image of an actress clutching her own give the illusion of a mirror placement between the here and now and the virtual realm—Hempel heavily steering the eye in and out of two and three dimensions to acknowledge, beyond illusory shadow of a doubt, his blurring of the distinctions between image and object, truth and fiction.
There are undoubtedly many subtle correlations to be found amongst the structural mêlée —such as an umbrella-like hair accessory (a recurring Hempel motif) and the resemblance of his medieval-looking paintings to the decorative banners strung over the carnival scene in Casanova. Taking a more distanced view, in the palpable effort required here to achieve a seemingly indiscriminate yet really quite specific arrangement of material things, Hempel highlights the comic earnestness of particular forms of expression, particularly physical theatre and modernist sculpture—the distractingly overacted or too obviously narcissistic modes of which can often prevent serious engagement with the issue.
Hempel has left the associative door onto his theatrical world open enough to encourage some interaction with it, but not wide enough for entry without fear of intrusion. But there’s an obtuseness to his Luddite guide to the experience of info-overload that endears one to the current cleverly constructed mess he has created.
And it is, perhaps, not surprising that Hempel, an artist who actively eschews ‘logic and common sense’, has chosen to contextualise this work through the notion of Casanova as a highly stylised and very affected film depicting a period in history associated with the breaking of social norms and creative boundaries. The ‘problem’ here it seems is less to do with 18th century lothario Casanova himself—not that he wasn’t a bit of a problem, the randy syphilite—than what happens to meaning in the current age’s increasingly indiscriminate recontextualisation of actions and objects and ideas.
Rebecca Geldard is a writer living in London