Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, mixed media artist Werner Buttner was regarded as one of the Bad Boys of the German art scene along with Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen. Apart from their hell-raising antics, the trio were united in their conviction that their art should confront social norms with satire and wit.
They felt the need to depict the failures of human morality within society, cocking a snook at authority and rejecting Minimalist and Conceptual Art, especially any suggestion that painting was dead. Indeed, you could say that Werner Büttner helped ensure that it is still very much alive and kicking.
In No Scene from my Studio, Simon Lee gallery is showing some of the artist’s new and recent works, all paintings, ahead of a major retrospective at the Hamburger Kunsthalle later this year. A seam of art historical reference runs through his works.
The top image, from which the exhibition title is taken, refers to Matisse and his famous cut-outs painted in his studio. When discussing his works in the show Büttner said “I had never a nude in my studio. I’m not sure if I should regret it.” Büttner is famous for his humorous titles. It’s not clear if this work is a homage or not.
The picture above is definitely homage, this time to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Büttner has distilled a scene in a bar to a hat, a coat hanger and a glass to convey that similar sense of loneliness that Hopper achieved but with a touch of the comedic about it. Büttner says of it, “I used to be a nighthawk myself some good times of my life. So I know in this case what I’m picturing. We see just something like a scarecrow and a poorly filled glass.”
Though his oeuvre is subdued by today’s standards, Büttner, now in his late sixties, nevertheless continues to confront topical issues with a sideways swipe. He takes inspiration from the usual sources – books, newspapers, film and so on – and a hint of anti-capitalism appears every so often, a reminder that he grew up in East Germany. A plum tree is surrounded by barbed wire, for example, suggesting even parts of nature are off-limits to ordinary folk.
The picture above was inspired by Trump’s wall. To Mexicans, the north is vanishing. The painting is large, almost two and a half metres high, in order to give a sense of the scale of a wall. What intrigues me is why Büttner decided to paint a horse as opposed to a human figure. I like it because it lends the piece a sense of the absurd.
Animals of all shapes and sizes abound in this show. Apart from the horse, there are pelicans, a parrot, a toad and a pink dog with the title Wolf’s Offspring with the Substitute Bone. While this might be a wry comment on the egotism of certain dog owners perhaps, other animal depictions are less playful.
Büttner himself describes Tender Kill, above, as a cruel painting. “Look at the bad black wolf, how tenderly it moves up the leg of the victim. I fear it lacks morals. Maybe that’s not too bad.”
The ochre colours the artist uses here is reminiscent of his earlier work. He has broadened his colour palette more recently as the pink dog attests. There is more red blood in another animal picture referencing man’s capacity for cruelty in which a parrot is eviscerated with the word ENTERTAINMENT written above it.
Cherry red dominates this beautiful but funny work, above, with a delicious contrast between it and the grey. About it, Büttner says, “Most earthlings adore the sight of cherry blossoms. I wondered if I could picture their beauty. But cherries blossom approximately ten days. The rest of the year the world is not kitsch, but ugly and cruel. The ancient greek philosopher Theophrast told us: Beauty is dumb deceit . So I had to put a fallen goose under the blossoms as a reminder of that lousy fact.” Well you would, wouldn’t you.
It’s typical of the absurd, dark humour that has made Werner Büttner’s work so popular with collectors and museums around the world. His sense of irony exposing uncomfortable truths is very much of today.
Werner Büttner: No Scene from my Studio is showing at Simon Lee until 10 June 2021
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.