Paintings and drawings 1988-1999

Golub 9

The museum brings a number of keyworks dating from the period 1986-1999 of the American artiste Leon Golub, combined with some recent paintings.

In 1954, the American artist Leon Golub (°1922, Chicago) started painting realistic scenes of power, violence, and war, with a strong social engagement. In an age when Abstract Expressionism was at its peak, Golub chose not to apply himself to abstraction, but to paint figuratively, portraying individuals personifying society as a whole. Golub attempts to expose traditional representations of society, evoke chaos, and undermine the conventional symbols of our times. By means of paintings of battle, interrogation, torture, abuse, violence, and murder, he investigates socio-political notions such as power and powerlessness. One of the great stories of our age is the story of violence, in particular the violence that is used in the context of civil war and revolt, but also the violence that is present in the conti-nuous and omnipresent aggression that dominates our daily life. Leon Golub takes this violence as his subject, on such a scale that his works seem to hit you in the face. They exude an indefinable menace. His compositions comprise rough figures with a practised and often artificial smile, a penetrating gaze, and cool fingers resting on the triggers of their loaded guns. Here and there, they are accompanied by dogs foaming at the mouth, and the odd skull or two. His earliest work shows influences of primitive art and Art brut. These canvases depict naked men engaged in struggles and wrestling matches, as a universal illustration of violence. In the mid-sixties, Leon Golub put his political engagement into practice by taking part in protest actions against the Vietnam war. Later, he treated this subject in his canvases, giving the abstract notion of violence concrete form. In the eighties, his work became dominated by themes such as racism, apartheid, and the tensions of life in the big city. The Sphinx series which Golub made in the same period stands somewhat apart from his other work.

In this series, the sphinx is used as a metaphor for life (Yellow Sphinx, 1988). This mythological animal kills anyone who cannot solve its riddle: \'What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs in the afternoon, and on three legs at night?\'. The sphinx bridges life and death, and is always depicted as a creature that is half animal and half human. Golub connects this dual nature to polarities such as man versus machine and violence versus guilt. His life-size portraits of street dwellers from the nineties refer to urban violence. These figures stand in front of blind walls on deserted streets. Their gaze is defiant, they knit their brows, and stare mercilessly at their victims (The Site, 1991). Their expressions and poses are based on photos of bikers and machos Golub finds in magazines. The T-shirts worn by these young men, usually with a picture of an eagle or a dog, the American flag, or a shocking statement, often speak for themselves. Born Free (1992) shows a tramp against a wall covered in graffiti, including \'Fuck off Japan\' and \'Big Blond\'. These slogans are as ominous as the penetrating gaze of the vagabond himself. The painting entitled Try burning this one, Asshole (1991) shows two rough youths. One is wearing a T-shirt with the American flag and the statement of the title, the other, in an arrogant-provocative pose, is reaching for his groin. In these last two paintings, as in These colors never run (1992) from the same series, violence is tacitly present. The boys are all glaring insolently at the viewer, just waiting for an excuse to pounce. In a later phase, graffiti and comments on the canvas are integral parts of the general image, but they also have a specific significance. In the apocalyptic painting Strut (1994), for instance, we find the words \'Announcing the end of the world\', and Are you ready… (1993) contains the slogan \'Are you ready for Jesus - it just doesn\'t matter\'. These texts warn, threaten, and interrogate. In Infvitabile Fatvm (1994), the title alludes to transience. The image is based on a photograph of a Lebanese warrior. Beside him, we see a dog casually peeing on a skull. The type of dog that is integrated in various works from this period plays an important role, similar to the texts and comments. These mongrels symbolise man-turned-animal, a kind of extension of human cruelty. Beware of Dog (1992) shows a drooling dog beside a bright-red warning \'Beware of Dog\'. The work seems to caution against the kind of universal vice which everyone denounces and rejects, but also recognises in themselves. The dogs are a kind of animal versions of the wandering figures that haunt the outskirts of town and scowl at their victims, as in So Much the Worse (1993). They are paranoid and create the impression of a constant hostility in the air. The backgrounds of the works from this period are often bare walls, decorated with a few inscriptions. To suggest his fictional walls, he paints over frottages of the real brick wall in his studio. Especially the edges of the bricks can be seen clearly, as in Happiness… (1993).

In the works of the mid-nineties, metaphors of death and damnation replace the icono-graphy of violence. Golub\'s visual vocabulary now consists of inscriptions, tattoos, skulls, and animals, in which the separate elements are like players in a game played on the canvas, arranged on the surface according to their importance and function. Their greater fragmentation makes them reminiscent of Vanitas scenes. For centuries, Vanitas paintings, by means of metaphorical elements such as perishable foods, skulls, and wilted flowers, reminded their viewers of the impermanence of life. For Golub, the skull is also a symbol of the victim, as in Mission Civilisatrice (1996) and Mr. Amok (1996). In Prometheus II (1998), the artists illustrates the Greek myth of Prometheus. This Titan stole fire from the gods, for which he was punished with eternal torture: the never-ending pecking away of his continually-growing liver. An eagle is flying up to Prometheus, who, in this canvas, is reduced to a detached head with upward-looking eyes. His mutilated body is hidden behind a wall with a poster saying \'Guilty Titan Condemned\'. The accompanying message of warning, \'This could happen to you if you get out of line\', is clearly meant for the viewer. The Blue Tattoo (1998) shows an exhausted but proud lion holding a card that reads \'getting old sucks\'. In the bottom right of the painting, the artist has applied a yellow oval sign with the German text \'Garantiert, sammler-freundlich\', an allusion by Golub to the fact that the sale of his work was problematic for a long time. In art-collector jargon, a \'dog\' means a product that is hard to sell. The emblem guarantees that this painting is not a \'dog\', i.e., a product lacking in quality, but a lion, an animal that is traditionally associated with \'high\' values such as courage and physical strength. In other words, getting old may be a nuisance, but it also guarantees recognition and quality. In Golub\'s most recent paintings, the motifs are increasingly becoming vaguer and more fragmented, the figurative elements are interrupted by areas of bare canvas, and the inscriptions are growing in importance. In This day… (1999), the banner with the inscription \'this day is ours\' is the main element, beside the depiction of two fighting dogs and a shouting man clenching his fist. Bits of paper with the words \'Killed time\' and a drawing of drunk skeletons have been added as extra elements. A constant factor in Golub\'s oeuvre is his unpolished style of painting and the fact that his canvases are rarely mounted. That makes them look like animal skins, thin, scraped off, and with rounded corners. Golub depicts a divided society, full of contrasts and conflicts, with man as the central node in a network of information. Golub believes in the potency of art to change our personal experience and our perception of the world. His work not only refers to individual reality, but also to social reality. His canvases show \'life as we don\'t want to know it\', a culture and a society in a crisis. The complex metaphors of life and death, desire and mortality, which he uses again and again, refer, in a moving way, to the dialectical tension between the beautiful and the sublime on the one hand, and between human mortality and the omnipresence of violence on the other.

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