No, seriously. Never mind the bollocks — and the severed limbs, and the homicidal monkeys, and the ugly faces twisted into expressions of unimaginable pain, and the gnarled trees, and all of the other repulsive details that twentysomething German artist Ralf Ziervogel jams into his panoramic, apocalyptic tableaux. Not only will trying to absorb every busy inch of his black ink drawings lead to nausea, fever, and oily discharge, but other than us fat-cat art critics and international men of leisure, who has time nowadays to give a piece of art more than a fleeting, flirty glance? Besides, Ziervogel’s cartoonish depictions of horrendous sex and violence do more than shock. They also offer a swirling, lyrical, abstract-expressionist quality that leaps into focus — surprisingly and like a homicidal monkey! — but only when seen from a foot or two away.
On view until April 1 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, FOCUS: Ralf Ziervogel is entertaining but uneven. Contrary to the artist’s statement, the show suggests less a commentary than a body of evidence, leaving viewers to build their own arguments for or against the continuation of class and gender warfare, and environmental destruction. But rarely does a socially charged show afford viewers the courtesy of letting them chew on big issues in peace. We’re usually bombarded by toxic blasts of hot air. Stop destroying the ozone! Show your fellow man some got-dang respect! Clean up your room! The theme of social chaos and its botanical and zoological discontents has bested all kinds of artists. Some artistic ciphers don’t age well. Exhibit A: Planet of the Apes, which shares with Ziervogel’s punk art an irrational fear of super primates and which still appears on movie rental stores’ shelves only because it’s kitschy. Others, though, such as The Island of Dr. Moreau and “Cat Scratch Fever,” have done just fine. Somewhere in between may be where Ziervogel’s stuff ends up. Two things may help preserve its rabid bite. 1.) its obliviousness to current events. (Remember: Today’s news is tomorrow’s birdcage liner.) And 2.) the artist’s unbridled enthusiasm and the single-mindedness with which he persuades, cudgels, tricks, and encourages his millions of sweet, innocent fine lines to assemble into hulking, evil grotesqueries.
His obsession with repetition mimics an outsider artist’s compulsion for dwelling on single visual ideas. (Ziervogel, as far as we know, is not permanently deranged.) One of his only non-representational drawings, embedded along with two other pieces on a giant red faux-floor, looks like a peacock’s tail, fanning out evenly from a perfectly centered, dark point at the bottom of the rectangular page. Each slightly squiggly black line is nearly two feet long, and there must be at least a couple hundred of them. Another non-representational, untitled piece that likely demanded as much sweat equity is a gigantic spool of standard packing tape, about the size and shape of a manhole cover. Ziervogel produced it himself, piece by sticky piece. Lying flat on the roof of a suspended glass box, the roll’s odd grandeur can be fully appreciated only from below. The yards of tape resemble the rings of a rusty tree with a yellow corona and may indicate the presence of an artist with a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The epic scope of his work and his stream-of-consciousness approach also hark to legendary outsider artists such as Henry Darger and Martin Ramirez. Ziervogel’s hand, though, is more deliberate, less gauche, and his creatures more finely wrought. Along with Uruguay’s Ricardo Lanzarini, whose artwork is featured in the March 2007 issue of Harper’s, and members of the Pittsburgh collective Paper Rad, Ziervogel is an establishment version of an art brutist. His sordid content primarily serves as a point of entry into displays of technical pyrotechnics, which pulls the neat trick of restoring the unwashed’s faith in “real” art, not that abstract mumbo-jumbo that my 9-year-old honor student could do!, and generating mucho foot traffic for galleries and museums. The bloodthirsty paratroopers, inhuman pyramids, and exploding penises occasionally threaten to obscure Ziervogel’s draftsmanship, and to novice art appreciators, the gallows humor may appear to constitute the sum of his mad skills. But there’s an honest, idiosyncratic vision here, and if you look too closely, you might miss it.
FOCUS: Ralf Ziervogel
Thru April 1 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St, FW.
Viewer discretion is advised.