“7 Year Itch” Art Show at Strychnin Gallery Berlin

In Billy Wilder’s movie from 1955, the title “Seven Year Itch“ refers to the declining affection between partners after being in a relationship for seven years. I’m not the one to decide if this is a psychological phenomenon to be taken seriously or a mere cliché – in the case of the notorious Strychnin Gallery, whose Berlin branch was founded in 2003 by Yasha Young and whose best of exhibition was named after this quote, it surely gains different aspects of meaning. Strychnin, with their vast range of genres and styles is far away from a “monogamous“ relationship with any particular movement within the fine arts. Maybe this is why there is no sign of declining interest at all to bear. In some languages, „itching“ is also a metaphor for feeling restless about something, and it might serve as the most appropriate connotation of the phrase: Strychnin looks back on seven years of prolific and restless art shows and now presents their first retrospective.

The anniversary celebration started last Friday and presents a selection of about 60 international artists, who all have exhibited there before. When talking about various styles and genres, one shouldn’t ignore some obvious combining elements that are leitmotifs of some sort in the history of their choice.  I’m talking about a focus on phenomena usually labeled „lowbrow“, „pop surrealism“ or „fantastic realism“ – styles in which classical modernism, folklore and counter culture meet, where influences from comics, book illustrations and underground music are hard to overlook, and whose subjects are figurative and narrative in the deconstructive way of a Murakami novel or a movie by Julio Medem or Tim Burton. For example, this is the case in the works of two Davids from across the Atlantic Ocean, Hochbaum and Stoupakis, who can’t be missing among Strychnin’s greatest hits. Consider Stoupakis’ childlike fairytale set pieces, which are both kitchy and nightmarish and gained a lot of critical reputation in mags like Juxtapose and Hi Fructose; or think of the collaged foto and painting fragments of Hochbaum’s mythical dreamscenes full of mediaeval cityscapes and strange women with brushwood on their backs – they all appear like screenshots from a folk tale which follows a surrealist script and is accompanied by some punkish score.

Music, by the way, isn’t just a metaphor in the exhibition’s context. Whilst Stoupakis could easily illustrate a sexy dark cabaret outfit, Benjamin Vierling has actually contributed artwork for folk singer Joanna Newsom. His „oil and egg tempera on panel“ works belong to the most traditional ones on the Strychnin roster, comprise influences from the 15th to the 19th centuries and are of a highly symbolic nature. Ansgar Noeth’s prints under glass must be mentioned as well in context of a new symbolist tendency in contemporary art. The striking heads of his allegories, however, are a far cry from any pre-raffaelite contemplativeness. They subtly balance between earnestly showing and slightly mimicing the sins they deal with. More focused on the counter cultural element are the black and white images of Clive Barker-illustrator Richard A. Kirk (not to be confused with the composer Richard H. Kirk), the symetric “Devil’s Caravan“ by a certain Gothic Hangman, and the death metal-like fantasies of The Ring’s make-up artist Chet Zar, who contributed some canvas work – something monstrous with a strangely humorous twinkling of an eye. Another prominent figure from the movies is special effects bigwig Cliff Wallace. Confronted with his „Penitent“ and „Lamia“, my companion and I had the same association with Pan’s Labyrith, and indeed Wallace collaborated with Guillermo del Toro before.

Scott Radke’s almost decorative mixed media work, the human faced “Snowflake“, leads us to a neo-baroque focus that is chiefly represented by some wondrously strange dolls whose charisma ranges from shy eroticism to an implied mental derangement that is hard to describe. Some of the dolls are way sweetish in their melancholy appearance, like for instance Marina Bychkova’s porcellain “Agnetha“. Others, such as Virginie Ropars’ “Alba“ or Beth Robinson’s “She Caught Her Stallion“, which is made of clay, fabric and human hair, are rather recommendable to those who seek the morbid side of a decadent baroque scenery. Highly influenced by this period of cultural history is also art’s most (in-)famous dog Ray Cesar, whose ultrachrome print “French Kiss“ has been on display since last year’s “Magistrates“ show, from wich a number of exhibits are still hanging. It’s impressive how his works combine schemes of childlike characteristics with a touch of fastidious audacity and sometimes even wickedness.

When it comes to facial features, these childlike aspects inevitably evoke associations with the world of Japanese anime and manga art with its saucer eyed girls of willingly simplified design. This elements, however, have an independent tradition in Western lowbrow art in general. It is obvious in works of painters like Mark Ryden, children’s book illustrator Nicoletta Ceccioli as well as in Leslie Ditto’s „Rusty Memories“, which also shows her influence from hot-rod street culture. The anecdote says that some of her first artistic impressions came from helping in her family’s Harley Davidson shop, where she could watch her father painting the gas tanks and other parts of bikes with popular fancy images of powerful, sexy women. Many of her paintings represent a somehow melancholy side of rock’n'roll, show vital yet desperate scenes. Less melancholy are the lively pin-up variations of Berlin based digital artist and illustrator Mimi S., whose work derives from traditional animation and found various usage in poster-artwork and other music related stuff in the last couple of years. Graphics like these build a bridge to another kind of cult movement of 1950s popular culture – the funny and brightly colored phenomenon of Californian Tikki bars with their South Pacific flair that were highly fashionable at that time and can look back on quite a few revivals since then. In some corners of the gallery you’ll find pieces from a former show devoted to that subject: handpainted and artistically modified ukuleles, prints, sculptures and more.

There are also pieces that lack the vintage element that is very much in the focus of the selected work. Another local hero for example, “Jack“ from Manuel Cortez’ foto book “Berlin Calling“, is mainly rooted in contemporary urban art. The candy coulored plastic world of Michael Frojman aka Bijou, a French designer and DJ, may transcent the daily “here and now“ in the opposite way and plays with the stereotypes of a bubblegum fun society, apparently not disagreeable to the artist. It would be too much namedropping to mention all the other contributors, too much talking theory on subtle otherness and a new historicism without regress, too much cliché to go on babbling about weirdnes and joyful morbidezza. Needless, however, to say that I was excited and that I recommend you to drop in.

(U.S.)

7 Year Itch. Anniversary Group Show featuring over 60 artists
Opens February 12th at 7 pm.
Exhibition runs until March 7th.
Opening times: Thursday – Sunday 12 noon – 6 pm
Strychnin Gallery
Boxhagenerstr. 36
10245 Berlin
www.strychnin.com