Friedrich Kunath at White Cube, London

by Echo Hopkins, May 2011

Stepping into the Kunath show at White Cube transports us into a world created by the artist and immediately draws upon all of our senses to set the tone for viewing his work. The usually airy, open space of the main gallery has been turned into a black box, making each piece take on a morbid energy despite the washes of neon color that appear on the canvases on the walls. Concrete or hard wood floors have been eschewed, replaced instead with a deep mauve carpet that, combined with the black walls and ceiling, adds to the feeling of encapsulation within this imagined world. A waft of incense and the sound of chirping birds, a tennis match and the Beach Boys on loop complete the sensory experience. The combination of these elements takes us out of the usual neat and tidy gallery atmosphere and embellishes the feeling of 70s psychedelia that pervades the room.

There is an ambiance that manages to succeed in winning out over the seemingly random hanging style and pieces that surround the space. Instantly we are confronted by an almost life-size sculpture of a banana playing horn, whose footprints are outlined across the carpet. A proxy of the artist himself, this theme of characters greeting the viewer is again echoed in a sculpture dressed in the artist’s clothing and carrying a bundle of gray balloons, as well as a Henry Moore-esque piece that faces a video installation of a man playing tennis with a violin. Haphazard stacks of records by Jimmy Buffett and Stonewall Jackson surround tables, while pineapple-shaped lighting installations illuminate the space. A leather couch sits next to a display of perfumes and becomes part of the pervading chaos; whether it is part of the show or is meant to be sat upon remains to be seen. A scattering of large red onions across the space and under tables complete the quirky elements that clue the spectator in to Kunath’s inspiration, drawn from Symbolism and conceptual art.

The absurdist qualities seen in the sculpture and video installations contrast the paintings that hang alongside them, which are more straightforward in comparison, albeit with somewhat random subject matter. The largest painting, Almost Summer (2011), takes up almost the entire back wall of the exhibition. It features the shadow of a hunched-over figure seen from behind in the foreground, amidst a wash of neon pinks, blues, oranges and greens and the words “Almost Summer” faintly outlined in block letters. This combination of what would normally be cheery colors is made somber by the figure and also by the setting in which it has been placed. There is a divide between two types of painting styles on display in the room, one half figurative pieces depicting animals and people and the others more abstract in nature. However, even the more surreal images such as Finally I walked away (Worth the weight) (2011), a piece that clearly draws inspiration in its perspective from artists like Dali, have recognizable elements. Kunath combines colorful backgrounds with instantly recognizable imagery and phrases or words splashed across his pieces. Toying with the viewer’s sense of humor, he uses familiar phrases such as “All the sleeves are brown and the tie is grey” seen in California Dreaming (2011), which takes its title from the popular song by The Mamas and the Papas.

Although Kunath is German by birth, his move to California pervades his choices, from the explosions of bright color to the distinctly American soundtrack. This appropriation of Americana works to the artist’s advantage, making the surreal work more approachable. At first feeling like an outsider when entering the space, quickly we are familiarized and suddenly gain access into Kunath’s vision. The artist has said of his new surroundings and the influence they’ve had on his work, “I guess the colors have gotten brighter and the topics got darker. Sunshine and Noir.” His work is simultaneously colorful, playful and somber without being garish, thought provoking without being overly contrived. The artist’s conceptual-cum-symbolist approach to his work creates an alternate reality that the viewer can step into and experience on a number of sensory levels. The success of Kunath’s immersive environment is made apparent upon stepping out into the lobby of White Cube, where we are thrown back into our own reality, a harsh contrast to the conceptual space that has been created.

Friedrich Kunath: The Most Beautiful World in the World
15 April—4 Jun 2011
White Cube Gallery
Hoxton Square, London