Martin Conrads

Unarticulated Pop

On Wouter van Riessen

My painted face is chipped and scratched

My mind seems to fade too fast

Clutching straws, sinking slow

Nothing lasts, nothing lasts

A puppet’s motion controlled by a string

By a stranger I’ve never met

A nod of the head and a pull of a thread

I can’t say no, can’t say no

(Visage – Mind of a Toy)

The ventriloquist Jerry Morgan has problems: secret plans have been hidden inside his dolls Clarence and Terrence, and two enemy agent groups are after them now. On top of this, Clarence is jealous of Jerry because of his plans for marrying Audrey. 

The film comedy Knock on Wood (1954), with Danny Kaye in the main role, shows in an exemplary way what confusion can arise when a person identifies all too closely with the puppets dancing around him. In his pictures, Wouter van Riessen surrounds himself with puppets as well—so persistently, in fact, that in the end no one, neither the viewer nor he himself, appears to know who is whose toy, who’s been made in whose image—no one, that is, besides the dolls themselves. While in Kaye’s case it’s the two ventriloquist’s dummies Clarence and Terrence, van Riessen is in continuous dialogue with Bert, Kermit, Pinocchio and similar figures. Van Riessen’s paintings, drawings and photographs are self-portraits with figures, some of which resemble him and which pick up on the difference between the “self” and the “ego” described in social psychology, thus becoming “ego portraits”. On one of his paintings, two identical Bert figures seem to be ensnaring him with hypnotizing words; in another image, van Riessen is holding up two long-nosed dolls resembling him next to his head; clutching knives or pins between their fingers, they’re tweaking his eyebrows and pulling them off as though they were the restorers of a huge Riessen statue and not just part of a painting. In this reproduction, van Riessen appears to have lost control of the puppets he himself has drawn. In a photographic work, he’s frozen in a wooden pose and looking mutely out of a window, while the frog Kermit, in the form of a fabric doll, is sitting on his shoulder, apparently with the intention of holding him back from the temptations of being alive. Van Riessen’s changing game with identity and with the animistic reversal of the relationship between “animated” and “inanimate” recalls the comic-like and Pierrotesque masquerades from the world of pop. From David Bowie, Kiss, Visage, Fad Gadget, Gary Numan and Marilyn Manson on up to, more recently, Mirvais, who portrays himself in reverse motion in the video to Naive Song, thereby twisting the circumstances around: he’s taking off his make-up, yet it appears as though he were able to apply the mask with only the lightest of dabbing motions. 

It’s not the supposition of the machine-like, the android, the automatic or even the virtual that is speaking out of van Riessen’s puppets. Rather, it’s the notion of the magical as we know it from voodoo dolls—a stylization into the artificially disconcerted, referring to both forms of magic described by J.G. Frazer: that of the imitative principle, according to which like produces like, or semiotically speaking, where the signifier and the signified are one and the same; and that of the transferring principle, according to which things that were once in immediate contact with each other retain a lasting influence on one another. The facade which van Riessen enacts and presents to the viewer is the “standardized repertoire of expressions” (E. Goffman) of Narcissus, who is so moved by himself that he seems both injured and indolent at the same time. That van Riessen, with this pair of emotions, is merely miming another superficial variation of artistic expression is something which becomes apparent when one listens to his music. The blues-singing and guitar-playing Dutchman portrays himself here as a macho and a charmer in one—naturally behind another, this time softer mask: “Let me tell you about my art—I’m a Napoleon of the Heart”. Whoever’s seen van Riessen at one of his performances knows that behind this mask, a mischievous, self-enamored, whiny, ironic, posing character is hiding, one who plays with the public and with the blues, who transforms Beatles’ songs back into blues songs and sings cover versions of Robert Johnson. Here, he not only addresses the artificial identity alone, but the cultural identity, as well: on the cover of his CD release “Napoleon of the Heart” from 1998, the artist can be seen, somewhat out of focus, wearing a dark sweater and a white shirt in front of a wood grain background. His face is painted in black, with only the neck and the eye areas left out, “white” and similar to the color of the wood in such a way that it looks as though the wood of the background were shining through in place of his eyes. Only the pupils stand out as two dark points. Thus, the cover poses the question: “How does a white painter from Arnhem come up with the idea of playing the blues, and why does this even present a question? 

Classified X, the documentary film by Mark Daniels with Melvin van Peebles as the commentating main character, tells the story of Hollywood’s long-time political practice previous to the Blaxploitation era of not giving black Americans any leading roles in film, and instead filling “black” roles with whites made up in blackface—leading up to the paradox that a white, this time without make-up, is called upon to portray an albino black. As a fan of Afro-American music, van Riessen reiterates these questions of imperialist appropriation with his cover photograph and presents them as an effect of cultural import/export. Whether or not his minstrel adaptation is capable of taking a critical turn remains, however, in the balance of image and music. A reflection of his own work is nonetheless supported and made transparent through an operation of this kind. 

Van Riessen’s most recent pictures reflect his cultural environment from the perspective of his Berlin sojourn: the paintings with illustrations of female models from fashion magazines or of Kreuzberg’s Turkish women in head scarves distance themselves from the Richard Lindner-like expression of his older works, drawing closer to a comic style à la Evelin through their colored shapes outlined in black. Here, at the very latest, the feeling confirms itself that van Riessen’s works are about something other than a tendency towards portrait painting and blues music: namely the passion for an unarticulated pop. 

So he’s lying on top again

Just like Gepetto with his doll

And he’s running around again

And I can’t get him out of this house

And if you bore him,

you’ll lose your soul to him

(Belly – Gepetto)

Translation: Andrea Scrima