Glove In Hand * Caren Golden Fine Art * New York City

Indicative of a restless new breed of artist, Serge Onnen (based in Amsterdam) shifts between being an artist, curator, “impro-rock” instrumentalist (in his band Oorbeek), and alternative book editor. In the process he negotiates the divides between outside and inside, high and low, light-hearted humor and clear-minded social critique.


The most memorable and tragically profound work in Serge Onnen’s recent solo show, titled Glove in Hand, at Caren Golden Fine Art in New York, is a large, frenetic drawing of a dense ball of hands fighting to surface, each grasping an item that is as banal and unspectacular as it is frustratingly necessary and important: a can opener, a lighter, a coffee mug, a comb, cheap jewelry—all the little things that, accumulated, make up human existence in the twenty-first century; 365 Worthless Things That Will Outlive You offers a glimpse into Onnen’s ideas about materialism, wealth, and the absurdity of contemporary life.


In Forks and Cameras, arms and hands are once again balled up in a cluster of destructive activity. This time forks are violently jammed into the lenses of cameras; the forks, it seems, are acting out a displaced frustration that manifests itself as torture against the cameras.


Disembodied hands take center stage again in Onnen’s limited action cell animations, this time performing repetitive gestures. Four of them (Stuff, Receiving, Break, and Applause) were shown at Caren Golden on small flat screen monitors mounted to walls covered in wallpaper of Onnen’s own design. (From afar, the wallpaper has an innocuously quaint look, but its pattern is actually one of symmetric, interlocking arms bashing consumer products against each other.) In Stuff, two hands marked with stigmata are simultaneously washing each other and stuffing items like books, alarm clocks, and cameras into their holes, as if their actions are dictated by a higher order. In suggestive ways, these objects are literally consumed by the stigmata—eaten as if the holes were mouths, or consumed sexually as if the stigmata were vaginas. Here, materialistic consumption is equated with vital human functions: eating and fucking.


The drawings, animations and wallpaper featured in the show are based on the idea of drawing as process, material and product—a concept that also informs Onnen’s music and curatorial work. “I don’t only want to be somebody who makes art, shows it, sells it, and then goes back in the studio. It’s also important to participate in a social way and have other ways to express ideas and not just deliver art,” Onnen says in regard to his multifarious practice.


In 2002, Onnen, in conjunction with zingmagazine, produced “Volume,” “an artist’s space on paper,” which brought together over 100 drawings of heads and faces that spanned centuries and disciplines. For example, the famous Gerber Baby shares space with a wild-eyed screaming monster from a Hong Kong manga, medical illustrations from the fourteenth century, massage instruction illustrations, and drawings by contemporary artists like Richard Prince. His Drawings on Geology (published by J and L Books in 2005) was an equally expansive curatorial project about the horizon line and includes drawings from geology textbooks, a Boticelli depiction of Hell, and a whimsical mountain landscape populated by a fish tank and a Rolex watch by Daragh Reeves. Onnen promises that an upcoming book, published with J and L, will be “full of text that is totally unreadable,” thereby raising the possibility that text, if it is illegible, becomes drawing by default.


Onnen’s animations (and cartoons in general) derive their captivating power through extreme stylization of reality. Or, as Dave Hickey puts it in his essay, Pontormo’s Rainbow, describing the effects cartoons had on him as a child: “It was funny because it wasn’t real! Which is simply to say that the intimidated, abused, and betrayed children at Santa Monica Elementary, at the dawn of the ‘50s, without benefit of Lacan or Lukacs, managed to stumble upon an axiom of representation that continues to elude graduate students in Cultural Studies; to wit, that there is a vast and usually dialectical difference between that which we wish to see and that which we wish to see represented—that the responses elicited by representations are absolutely contingent upon their status as representations—and upon our knowledge of the difference between actuality and representation.”


Onnen’s book projects extend Hickey’s argument to drawing in general, presenting it as a varied tool shared by many disciplines for the specific presentation of ideas. In any medium, drawing is spare and referential—counterpart to the ephemerality of thought before it materializes into an object or action. Therefore, drawings exist at a safe distance from reality and offer us windows into an artist’s perspective. Onnen’s drawings and animations are best seen as vessels of his thoughts and ideas.


Perhaps Onnen owes his openness to his unique training in art. As a young artist, he ignored the well-traveled path into the mainstream art world (undergraduate study then post-graduate or MFA work) and instead spent much of his early ‘20s committed to his studio, isolated and drawing. “I thought that the stimulation should come from me, and if it wouldn’t come from me I would probably not need it enough,” he explains. After years of voluntary detachment and a focused exploration of drawing, Onnen was accepted into the prestigious Rijksakademie Post-Graduate program in Amsterdam in the early ‘90s, and in 2003 he came to New York for a residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program. His drawings from the late ‘90s were populated with isolated, generalized figures in natural, serene landscapes. Exemplary pieces feature characters wrestling with heavy, floral-printed clothes as they struggle to dress and lone figures completely wrapped in loosely woven bags with holes where orifices would be. His most recent work exhibits a similar, spare quality.


In fact, with its casual treatment of violence, Onnen’s work owes more to ‘40s Fleischer Studio cartoons like Popeye the Sailor.   Fleischer Studios’ Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor series were popular during the Golden Era of American animated cartoons, when Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse captured audiences’ imaginations, and Warner Brothers cartoons featured iconic cartoon stars Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and Bugs Bunny. This style of animation started after World War I, when the country was experiencing its first taste of international power, both militarily and culturally. This era also witnessed the developments of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and the foregrounding of an Avant-Garde impulse in the arts. It was a time when the chasm between high and low art widened to a deep valley, as Modernist ideals, espoused by Clement Greenberg, emphasized the artist as exalted hero. Onnen’s loose, weightless drawing style, together with the animation’s overall clumsiness, disarms, and sublimates its lascivious suggestions. The relation to cartoon animation is enlightening.


When violence, sex, and religion are mixed together, the resulting stew carries the stench of taboo. When they become complicit in the project of Capitalism the effect is one of political pornography. To that end, political or not, Onnen’s work, and the work of his contemporaries, needs to be seen in the context of war as televised normality. America is at war again, this time armed with a fuzzy agenda against uncertain enemies. War has become a confusing state of normality and the globally uncertain state of affairs has led in part to an uncertain state in the arts. Art, in relation to this social context, has become stagnant or retreated into past mannerisms. The idea of aligning with an ideology, religious or political, has come under Postmodern interrogation. The conflation of high and low culture that began with Jasper Johns continues, but only to the extent that art has become another cog in the entertainment and tourist industry wheel.


Drawing may be a passive way to marvel at power and destruction, but for Onnen, a drawing possesses incredible potential to create dialogue, informing his activities outside the studio. “All the things I do come out of an idea I have about drawing,” Onnen says. Around the time of the release of his book Drawings on Geology, a tsunami caused massive flooding and death in Southeast Asia reminding us of the volatility of water and earth—the subjects of Onnen’s book. Onnen’s theories and practice remind us that, despite the art market’s continuing fetishization of drawings as decorative objects, it remains a vital form of thinking and reacting to the world.