Exhibition at Bartha Contemporary until 18 August
It would be easy to dismiss Mike Meiré’s work. Blocks of colour in minimal arrangements tastefully framed – what could be easier? Their composition is determined by the sheets of newspaper onto which they’re painted – the shapes adhere to the newspaper layout, so the compositions are found and predetermined. The colour choice is mid-range minimalism, olive green, egg yolk yellow or cadmium red straight out of the tin, reminiscent of Donald Judd’s woodblock prints. They seem like amateur versions of Josef Albers or Imi Knoebel, but replacing the boldness and stridency of those artists with a tasteful tentativeness. Their materiality is charmingly fragile – the sheen of industrial paint contrasts delicately with the ephemeral newsprint that slightly curls at the edges. Their straightforward embrace of modernist aesthetics might be slightly exotic in Britain, but has been convention in Germany and Holland for decades – it is the official language of art in a culture that had to rebuild itself after the Second World War. Modernism in that context doesn’t have much time for the ambiguous grey areas – it is positively utopian, looking to be good, universal, and free of psychology – and best applied to architecture or design.
Contradictions start to arise, however, when you look at the floor. It is covered with crumpled screen prints of the front page of Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a daily newspaper from Zurich. The same page is repeated, as though there is a hidden significance in the choice of front page – and the ambiguity is intensified by the page being printed in negative on the back. Sure enough, the lead article concerns the plight of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, a public website in which whistleblowers have been able to publish classified government information, at the alleged risk of compromising the integrity and safety of diplomats and government agents. Assange is an ambiguous presence within the contemporary media. On the one hand he’s hailed by the likes of Jemima Khan and Slavoj Zizek as a martyr to the cause of free speech, a heroic champion of transparency and truth. On the other hand he’s seen as an egomaniacal sociopath, who in the words of journalist Jon Ronson, has put ideology above human life. Currently holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid extradition for alleged sex crimes, Assange is a big question mark- is he righteous or corrupt, an angel or a devil? Or something more ambiguous, that the media can’t encapsulate or define?
The reference seems to animate the paintings as one becomes aware of the invisible newspaper articles that are hidden from us by the paint. The paintings become a frustrating neutrality in which nothing is disclosed to us, as the content of the newspapers is being suppressed. At the same time we know what lies beneath could be meaningless and ephemeral – but we begin to become aware that the order of these paintings has been determined by an invisible hand – the hand that organises, controls and hierarchialises information. Though we do not know what the content is, each rectangle has a presence, a place in the overall schema, a meaning as part of the system.
The paintings are complicated further by the knowledge that the system, the way according to which the newspapers have been laid out, has in fact been designed by the artist himself! Mike Meiré is one of Germany’s most successful graphic designers, who with his brother runs the large firm of Meiré and Meiré recent in Cologne. It is apparently in a studio adjoining the floor of the design firm, which employs over sixty people, that Meiré executes his art. It was Meiré who was responsible, amongst other things, for the redesign of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a redesign that has been credited with transforming the newspaper’s ailing fortunes. So we have the irony of these paintings which reiterate as art what the artist has already created as graphic design. Meiré could very easily rest on his laurels as a graphic designer yet instead has forged ahead into the much more ambiguous territory of creating art. Does he see art as a way of elevating his practice as a graphic designer, of giving it a dignity beyond the contingencies and compromises of the commercial market? Or is art an escape for him, a way of releasing repressed negative energy, of being true to a latent ambivalence about his own work as a designer?
One senses in the materiality of these works, in their colour, and in the way the paper has been creased through the paint or the paint has been licked onto the newsprint, a tactility that must come as a relief to someone who works presumably for most of the time in cyberspace. Materiality and tactility – at last something real, I imagine the artist thinking, something that can actually be felt! If painting provides a relief for Meiré, then perhaps so does his work in ceramics. Unfortunately he has confused the show with the presence of some attractive but meaningless glazed ceramic sculptures. These have the appearance of being fun to make, but fall far short of the work of the artists that have influenced them, such as Richard Deacon or Thomas Schütte. They lack both those artist’s mad baroque grandeur, their utter indifference to possible disapproval of the space their sculpture takes up in the world. Meiré ‘s sculpture are completely domesticated in comparison, and seem formally disconnected to the rest of the work in the show. They seem like aesthetic experiments that muddy the waters and if anything detract from the astringency of the works on paper.
Whether or not Meiré is celebrating or critiquing his own work as a graphic designer by making art out of it is very hard to judge, and it is the lack of resolution to this question that suggests he is still at the beginning of his career as an artist. If the work is simply a reiteration of a belief in the healing powers of modernism – with its emphasis on materiality, purity, simplicity, and neutrality as an alternative to the nasty, contingent, compromised world of pain we all live in, then I am sure, like a modernist monk, he will continue to whisper these prayers in paint, in order to retreat from his real work, his livelihood. What I feel is at stake here however is something more interesting; a highly successful, worldly, sophisticated man who wishes to use art to take a step back and reflect philosophically on the true nature of what he is doing in the world. He understands the beauty and the aesthetic of design and wishes to use that, and to emphasise it, in his art. At the same time, he realises that design and beauty might be a ruse, a cover-up, an obfuscation and denial of what lies beneath – the mess of the world, its disorder, its chaos. In one sense, these paintings follow an artist like Gerhard Richter, in trying to find a way of making art outside of ideology, in search of pure form. At the same time, this desire is a dream that is fragile and ephemeral – like the hazy memory of a moment on holiday, a moment of freedom sandwiched between the commitments of work. In this sense the careful considered formal simplicity of these paintings takes on a poignancy.
What the paintings need to develop is the possibility of a real formal intensity – something the artist is beginning to achieve with the yellow painting that has been improvised on with masking tape. Perhaps by using a newspaper of his own design, Meiré’s model is too familiar too him, too close – in a sense the paintings take him to an impasse. The impasse may be the point, it may even be a pleasant place to be. Yet perhaps the impossibility of erasure, of correction and change in the composition is an indication that these paintings are at the moment more like statements of intent than fully fledged works of art. Appropriation may be Meiré’s choice, but it can be a too safe haven - invention and transformation also provide a way of taking art forward.
Art has to fail before it can succeed. In a sense this is the difference between Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. It wasn’t necessarily that Mondrian had a better sense of humour, or a wilder, more unexpected sense of composition (though he did). It was more that Theo van Doesburg was a success in the world, whilst Mondrian was brave enough to be a failure.