Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Karl Nagel. Pain Things", Center for Contemporary Arts, 2007

“Artists of Estonia 3”, Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia, 2007

Pain things

PAIN THINGS – this ambiguous title on his web site is how the painter and video artist Karl Nagel introduced his work. In the context of writings on Estonian art, his works are an ideal beginning for a chapter dedicated to the problematic contemporary artist, who takes provocative stands on questions of ideology and politics.
  It is not easy to write an overview of Karl Nagel. His paintings are often impressive, but in a way that transfixes the mind and inspires words that die on ones lips. Nagel does not concern himself with the traditional approaches to presentation in the local art scene nor the expectations prevailing in society. The story of this contradictory artist often begins at the moment he manages to render the oppressive and desolate context visually attractive - using description he overcomes the viewers distance, which is a protective device, and throws sense and reason into opposition. In his best works, Karl Nagel achieves authentic descriptions of death, guilt and war, all under the guise, saturated with negative references, of a politically engaged artist.
  His position as an artist revolves around terrorism, fascism and nationalism, and until recently, on issues dealing with the repression of ethnic minorities he has taken a non-nationalist stand. Some of Nagel’s treatments are outside the framework of political correctness. Even his own biography is presented like the saga of a dissident in the new age, the hero of which develops through the fire of contradictory experiences. One could claim that the roots of his negativity and dissidence lie in the traumas of Estonian society in the 1990s, and he considers the criminalizing of the corruption of that time necessary from his position as a dissident.
  While the standard dialect of Estonia in the transition period of the 1990s was largely based on an almost futuristic vocabulary, which had wrapped itself up in the rhetoric of constructing a better world, then Karl Nagel’s narrative, deconstructing official ideologies, results from consequences and traumas. As a punk-anarchist he believes he is above all giving expression to a revolutionary spirit through his work, which he wishes to express via verbal as well as artistic statements. In 2003, Nagel launched a virtual organization, New Era, on his web site, where he talks about the importance of free social criticism and the need to politicise all areas of life. Yet I feel that Karl Nagel has failed in the role of an anarchist executing Realpolitik, and that he does not provide us with any answers as to the steps we should take or what is to be done.
  Karl Nagel is a painter who operates within the territory of radical existential experience. He is an artist who finds liberating impulses from politics in order to iterpret his psyche as well as social realities. According to the dominant belief, it is no longer possible nowadays to present brutal political facts with the mediation of painting. Those artists who do try to do it usually fall into the same predicament as those who use their art to disseminate religious views. Both groups are forced to construct their ideologies through rooted orthodox iconographic examples.
  In his work, Karl Nagel is searching for a solution from the position of a documentary artist. Yet, while documenting terrorist acts, it is impossible for him to remain a neutral spectator or a sincere propagandist in those acts because the actions of a terrorist, force every artist into a mesh of existential problems, which work against their ideologies and mission. The developmental features of Nagel’s work also unpredictably describe the mutations of his political attitudes, and his failure in the destructive conditions of the struggle between truth and lie. Instead of the apotheosis of the ideals of freedom, which drive the terrorist, we get credible descriptions of insecurity, fear and power fantasies, which in turn become more general treatments of death and domineering violence.
  From 1995 to 1999. Karl Nagel studied at the Estonian Academy of Arts in the department of painting. When talking about his years at school, he describes himself as a punk-anarchist, who studied Castaneda’s (1) esoteric writing and was interested in the mysticism of the New Age. His decision to focus his interest upon revealing the metaphysics of the outer world was already ripening then, but finding a specific position naturally took some time. In Estonia, the artist is traditionally forced into a situation that offers rather limited experience, yet in the 90s we witnessed the fracturing of this narrow--minded purely aesthetic approach to art. In local art schools this was partly replaced by punk culture, which filled the void with trash art. In those years, Karl Nagel was preparing to become a third generation painter ( following Kalju Nagel and Lemming Nagel ), and it is not difficult to imagine his complicated relationship with painting. All of the traditional directions in the history of painting were already closed to him from the start and the long tradition of art in the Nagel family represent a sufficiently convincing argument in his case for freeing himself from the shackles of art history and theory. Instead he began to search for idiosyncrasy from the narration of the suppressed stories by his group and learned to adapt to the anarchy of an uncensored society.
  In 1996, Nagel completed his first painting about the war in Chechnya. With this, the opponent, dealing with punk codes, found himself a more concrete political niche than the sub-culture close by. One of the artist’s musical preferences is the famous punk-group in Novosibirsk, Grazhdanskaya Oborona, and the texts by the lead-singer, Yegor Letov, belong to classical Russian punk-lyrics. In the 90s, Letov joined the Russian National Bolshevik Party, representing a vague Slavic interpretation of Fascism, which is very hard to define. The party fought against Capitalism in post-Soviet Russia and with its radical platform of social criticism gave Russian punk-anarchism a chance of becoming politicised. From the social confusion prevalent in Russia, which in turn amplified the concurrent theme of social chaos in Estonia, Nagel seemed to have found a voice for his punk-anarchism as a fan of the NBP. In the Estonian political context of the time, the choice undoubtedly let him see himself as an uncompromising agent of the counter-culture. We are immediately reminded of all those remarks about inarticulate Eastern Europe used in the West to describe the post-Soviet artist - not quite here, confused, somehow awkward, too physical, too romantic, not really present...
  Karl Nagel’s “official” biography starts with the series of paintings “Suffer Like Animals”, completed in 2000. Despite the works’ inconsistency in terms of quality, the series, to which he continued to add new works until 2002, is very important in regard to his subsequent development. “Suffer Like Animals” was made as a personal responce to his mother’s suicide and to the deaths of other people that had influenced him, the deaths giving the artist’s existence a zero-point, which it so far had been lacking. Julia Kristeva has dealt with death as the absolute zero of being - death in that point is devoid of its additional meanings and is realized solely in people’s fears and through the pain of the loss of these fears. Nagel has nothing to add to the positions held by the famous psychoanalyst, and the drama that emerges from his canvases is driven by the meandering journeys around the naming of the un-namable. Having been astounded by sensing the borders of language, Nagels paintings are based on graffiti-like fragmented texts drawn on canvas as a brutal environment of language taken to the border of comprehensiveness. He marks the lack of the word signifying death in his subsequent series through a raging and fragmental word-flow, which swirls around with paranoia in a vicious circle describing how diseases are named and the states of accusing someone. The uneven size of his letters and the screaming primitiveness of the fonts dramatises the co-existence of contradictory words and collides with the images seeking the absurd.
  Karl Nagel’s first paintings also represented a kind of code typical of the art of the young at that time, which transformed immaturity into privilege and exaggerated the desire to be ignorant, rash and shapeless. In the context of an environment of paranoia, Nagel also presents text-free images in the paintings from 2000-2002, which defy the punk-driven trash art and belong to the sublime. Although Nagel does not consider the aesthetic side principally a priority, and does not intend to repeat the mistakes of that which preceded him - instead, he has an astonishingly emphatic attraction towards a certain characteristic that the well-known American theorist of visual culture, James Elkins, calls the “dead seriousness” of painting. Elkins, who defines seriousness through the lack of irony and humour, uses the so-called old art of European museums as a comparison: “dead seriousness” is characterised by paintings that entrench themselves in the depth of the human soul and issue from the heart, with an extremely serious treatment of their themes by artists working from a position that is both idiosyncratic and original. The majority of the art created in Soviet Estonia belongs to this category, which in the eyes of Karl Nagel’s generation is a sufficiently compromising fact in itself. Yet his experiments in this direction do not necessarily signify “backsliding” into old cliches. In the works that could roughly be classified as landscape paintings, Nagel makes connections with an approach to a supernatural pictorial space, which is tied to the transcendental and alienating side of a specific environment. Some of his works have a majestic air about them, thanks to their meandering views leading us into the depth of the picture and its abhorrent subject. He gives life to the pictorial space via unrealistic games with perspective and a colour sense that is expressionist in the best sense of the word - sharp, bright and with a poetic capacity.
  From 2003-2004, Karl Nagel completed a series of paintings about terrorism in the war in Chechnya, and since then has been an addict of unsolvable political conflict. As an artist with a sense of mission he distanced himself at the first possible chance from the classical approaches to interpreting the depths of the soul and the sublime. Instead, since 2003 he has been active as a strictly political artist who expresses his protest via descriptions of society’s criminalized minorities. Though Nagel’s series about the war in Chechnya is a continuation of material already worked through, in the sense that it once again describes the stories of oppressed groups of people. Yet the group the artist is dealing with has now changed and is defined by their defiance. Nagel divides the Chechnya theme into dealing with victims among the civilian population in the conflict zone ( the cycle “Encore!” and “Birth of a Coalition” ) and terrorists seeking revenge. In dealing with the terrorists, he is keeping a generalising profile, taking into account the idiomatic quality of painting. He approaches them through the narratives of action movies, and through abundant militaristic nuances offering descriptions of masculinity, combat, killings and death, but not of heroism. In these unembellished depictions of death he does not give any room for the cult of fascist heroism, which would probably offer satisfaction for quite a few...
  If Nagel’s paintings express anything at all aside from the horror of death, then they touch upon the question of the bankruptcy of terrorism: wreathed in the noble goals of freedom-fighting, terrorism can offer moral satisfaction to the spectator only to a certain extent. From then on, repulsion and loathing take over. Nagel himself, as a person, is not terrorist enough to handle the Chechnya theme solely from the position of the guerrilla fighters. The artist’s expressive, yet principally documentary manner of painting is based on the media and press releases, which Nagel in turn neither softens nor compliments with subjective visions. On the surface of these paintings, his contribution is to create an emotionally complicated milieu, which shares with the viewer the trauma of the loss of humanity.
  In 2004, Nagel finished a series of portraits that deal with documenting the artist’s intellectual influences. The series includes colourful aggressive types from the music world, such as GG Allin (2) and Mitsouko (3), as well as ideologues like Castaneda and the founder of NBP, Limonov (4). Limonovism was the catalyst for the artist’s next construction as well - an art that attempted to oppose the establishment. As a documenter of the resistance of suppressed nationalities and minorities, Karl Nagel took part in the protest demonstrations by young russian limonovists in Riga in 2005, painting the portraits of incarcerated activists. Yet his effort to define himself through political activity and the Limonov party is a two-edged sword. In his works, he describes the lack of consensus and unity among nationalities and in a simple poster-like manner demonstrates how the majority; that is, the ruling power, criminalises the protesting minority. He idealizes his hero and the battle as such - but at the same time this knowledge says too little and has lost its punch in the modern world of controversy. With works like this Nagel sometimes gives the impression that he has left the word “fascism” out of Limonovism.
  Having taken a dissident position, the artist lives his life in danger, and is working under a regime of conflicting experiences. What is and has been created is summarized by a list of achievements and mistakes, as is the case with other artists. By today, Karl Nagel has burned several of his pictures. In a short period the artist has dealt with the theme of death and violence and tried to speak up in the name of expanding civil liberties. He has experienced mistakes and disorientation when separating truth from lie - yet what active anarchist has not experienced such deviations ? In reference to the issue of the polemic of social reality and art, Karl Nagel has taken a position that strives for zero-tolerance. Yet he does not compare art to reality. Rather, he burdens an image with un-aesthetic elements to the level where anti-art becomes art due to an overdose. He unleashes a kind of intensity that breaks the resistance of reality.
  So far, two paintings have been bought from him.

Eha Komissarov

1.  Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998) published several bestsellers, which described the shamanism of the American natives and were based on his alleged encounter with the shaman Don Juan Matus in 1960. - Ed.
2.  GG Allin (1956-1993) was one of the leading figures of the punk-culture in USA. He is largely known for his concert performances, which included defecating on stage and injuring himself with broken glass as well as insulting the audience and throwing feces at the viewers. - Ed.
3.  Les Rita Mitsouko is a French pop-rock duo formed in 1979, lead by guitarist Fred Chichin and singer Catherine Ringer. - Ed.
4.  Eduard Limonov ( real name Eduard Savenko; born 1944 ) is a Russian nationalist writer and dissident as well as the founder of the Nationalist-Bolshevist Party, officially unregistered in Russia. In 2002 he was accused with illegal weapon purchase and sent to prison for two years. In November 2000 Limonov supported the actions of the NBP activists in Riga, who barricaded themselves into the bell tower of St. Peter Church, threatening to blow up the church - wishing to draw attention to the alleged mistreatment of the minorities in Latvia. - Ed.

Eha Komissarov (1947)
Art historian and critic. Works in the Art Museum of Estonia as a curator of post-war art exhibitions and as an art expert in Vaal Gallery.

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