Haunch Of Venison

German painter Jonas Burgert had his first solo exhibition in London this autumn, showing a brand new body of work, in the West Galleries of Haunch Of Venison. Walking into the space, occupied by Burgert’s various medium-sized and large-scaled paintings, the feeling that washes over you is almost one of uneasiness. You immediately notice the intense gazes emanating from Burgert’s characters; they capture you – although not necessarily always directed towards the audience, their stare holds you in their bizarre, grotesque and insanely isolated worlds. This abruptness you feel in the space is very immediate, and it really catches your breath. The curiosity that ignites in this instance is very alluring, and one that inevitably lasts throughout the show.

Jonas Burgert reveals to the viewer a fantastical cast of characters, a collection that encompasses lone figures, unruly groups and portraits set in among startlingly colourful atmospheres. But even in a cast of characters, every individual appears to be an outcast of some sorts, never properly engaging with others, obviously struggling with their own personal demons, which fully integrates ideas of isolation, stillness and timelessness.

The scenes that stand before us are massively epic. Each surface embodies a different narrative, or should I say, suggests a narrative. Every painting could be effectively analysed for hours, and every viewer will have different annotations on what they think the painting encapsulates. Lavish, intense, and vividly striking, they depict an almost apocalyptic feeling, or visions of a parallel world, where the human race has mutated from a toxic, illumining poison, or some perception of hell – a nightmare. Curator Christoph Heinrich describes the spaces in Burgert’s paintings as ‘theatre stages… He is not looking for a window onto the real world; he creates a world of his own, where figures are staged within metaphoric parables. They are never meant to be individual human beings, but allegories for the human existence.’[1] I read this quote after I had seen the exhibition, and it hit me like a bolt of lightning. That moment of realisation took me over, and I understood exactly what I was seeing.

Each painting is like a carefully constructed stage, elaborately permeating every layered scene is this intense, spectacular lighting – they are artificial worlds constructed from an imaginative make-believe, but with resounding realistic qualities. Wonderful, surreal costumes are played against dazzling, but quite dramatic make-up design evoking human-animals and animal-humans, shamans and conjurers, giants and dwarfs, imps and jesters, and creatures both dead and alive. It is a world of space and of lightness; of suggestion rather than actuality; of eclecticism rather than period accuracy.

This spectacle of theatrical qualities, which is so potent within Jonas Burgert’s paintings, I believe is very much enhanced by the space in which they were hung. The rooms in Haunch Of Venison were the perfect setting for paintings as powerful as these. Of course the space is white, unshadowed and artificial, but the sheer magnitude of space that was available was incredible. The huge, high-ceilinged spatial dimensions, which enabled a major breathing space for the work to strike up a dialogue with the viewer, were like constructed stage-sets in themselves. The echoing sounds’ reverberating off the walls was amazing – it totally captured the essence of the intense isolation radiating from these images. Also, being of course a “white cube”, the distillation of timelessness – that is apparent in every white space because it is stripped of place, of context – was purely relevant to the work. Having the work housed in these rooms emphasizes the emphatic, electrified atmospheres of the paintings, and almost allows you to live in their scenery, if only for a moment.

I think that seeing the paintings as a collective, and viewing these intricate and quite secretive narratives I subconsciously got the impression of the works resembling a life-sized storyboard. After viewing the first painting, I wanted to know the next phase of the story so I looked to the next one, intrigued to see if it was a continuation of the narrative. Physically moving through this storyboard-like exhibition I felt the narrative of this weird, surreal play move upside down, I saw it snake through destroyed scenery and around corners I wouldn’t even dream to go. Sometimes I couldn’t connect with one painting to the next, I would oddly be repulsed and would repel from it like how two positive poles of a magnet would repel. Maybe this effect is vital to the makeup of Burgert’s works; being drawn to certain paintings and repelled from others is probably the perfect example of how his paintings illustrate the existential feelings of human beings.

This idea of a storyboard makes you straight away think of cinema, where the camera puts light through celluloid and gives us pictures, which we accept as reality. But the images we’re presented with are very theatrical and powerfully arresting. Of all our senses sight is the sharpest – and one that is particularly alert in today’s world of exotic graphics. It therefore follows that some stage design quality in Burgert’s pictures provides an environment, which allows the work to resonate universally. ‘He is a protagonist of an approach which studiously avoids reference to current issues in society and cultural theory thereby actually drawing attention to them.’[2] This quote encompasses the concept of the universal as he manipulates his characters, as if they were puppets, into allegories for the human existence in variously shaped appearances. Apart from theatre being a reference, literature also comes to mind when evaluating Jonas Burgert’s work. Stories where human emotions and relations are heightened, where ‘the entire range of dramatic expression of an individual’s psychology can be observed’[3]. These fictitious based sources, with an abundance of motifs and intertwining allegories, establishes eye-grabbing stages that mediates between the real and unreal, between past and present, creating fantastical worlds that are seemingly preposterous, yet nonetheless reverberate with viewers. I believe you do feel this throughout the exhibition, because even though the huge scale of these painterly, luscious but very chaotic scenes overwhelms you completely, you can kind of relate to them. Because you can see rooted in these fictions, essential truths about what it means to be human. Burgert successfully probes into the human psyche in uncommonly meaningful and original ways, which, somewhat embarrassingly, raises the question, in the individual viewer; do these paintings truly reveal my inner self?

[1] [Essay] Heinrich, C. 2008. Jonas Burgert: Enigmatic Narrative. H. Myhren Gallery/Denver Art Museum Publication. USA.

[2] Falckenberg, H. 2006. Jonas Burgert. Hamburg: Produzentengalerie Publication

[3] Jonas Burgert in conversation with Claudia Stockhausen. 2009. The Creator of New Worlds & Strange Stages. [Essay]