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Machiavelli Plays Your Favorites:
Las Manos Gallery
Behold a very wicked art! University of Chicago scholar, Allan Bloom, once wrote: "Machiavelli dared men literally to forget about their souls and the possibility of eternal damnation, to do so in theory as well as in practice, as did those men whom he praised." [In The Closing of the American Mind, (Simon & Schuster: 1987).] 'To forget about their souls...' -- That thought at once seems both a fearful blasphemy, and an opportunity for a defiant and wonderfully Romantic indulgence. (And, in that spirit, John Milton in his Paradise Lost fashioned -- albeit unintentionally -- a heroic rebel of Satan him very self.) There is that elemental starting point of human will: impetuous desire -- the animal in us -- and it can also be an impetus for art. It stands at war with our beliefs and in the end denies a better world. Yet it is everywhere today, and powerful: 'The Way of All Flesh.' Machiavelli, suffering and yet brilliant soul, through subsequent ages went on to drive the writer Thomas Hobbes; the English Deists and their influential heirs, the French Encyclopedists, each to conclusions ever more extreme. But, as an artist, Friese Undine, obsessed with Machiavelli's testament, re-assesses his patron and practical inspirator for the public's scrutiny. "Machiavelli Plays Your Favorites: Paintings, Puppets, and Books" will be on display until August 28, 2000, at Las Manos Gallery, Chicago. Caveat Spectator!
In honest fact, the Italian patriot was never as evil as his heirs and readers delighted him to be. Nor is this artist, Friese Undine, quite as wicked or even cynical as at first might seem. We entering viewers, humanly, talk before we think; and first see before we feel. Friese Undine now offers us an exhibition of thoughtful art. And it is born of the artist's feelings for the world: as Voltaire once chimed, 'a tragedy for those who feel, a comedy for those who think.'
Among his many works, Friese Undine provides a focus. Undine's Installation in the back exhibition area was modeled upon what has become a universal staging for displays of power. Although strongly drawing from such as May Day reviewing stands, or rally and convention backdrops, there is even the allusion to altar triptychs: veneration finds a common form. In this Machiavelli puppet piece, a larger central panel iconifies Niccolo Machiavelli, two chess pieces wavering at his lower right. This is flanked by two smaller panels, each bearing mirror images of the Insegnante. At left, Undine cameos the teacher's caveat:
In like manner, on the right panel, Undine quotes Machiavelli's dictum:
And so, men judge by what they see, what they can know; and choices often appear to revolve about the Lesser Evil. All of which seems, at first, good 'Machiavelli.' But one also notes in The Prince, "...so far as he is able, a prince should stick to the path of good but, if the necessity arises, he should know how to follow evil." It is a sentiment that pervades Machiavelli the patriot; and subtly insinuates itself among the works of Friese Undine in this showing. Undine's art, at first sight so cynical, is at its roots a cherishing of human dignity, indignant at abuse, and in doubt of actual reform.
Within the installation, on a platform at the base of Undine's Machiavellian homage, one counts over a hundred hand puppets, each with the painted face of a political 'celebrity': Saddam Husein, Idi Amin... Presidents and Commissars, Prime Ministers, Fuehrers, El Duces, Potentates and perhaps a congressman or two. At the right hang banners, acrylic canvases, regalia. But their following is marshalled in the main gallery: the paintings and the artist's books.
Friese Undine has learned his lessons well, both in art and in life. One finds the artist aware of Weimar graphics; Soviet 'AgitProp' [Agitational Propaganda]; Post-WWII American advertising; even 'Underground Comics.' Undine communicates a direct visual impact; his content is more ambivalent. It must be: It reflects human nature in society.
Machiavelli and the Bottle (20"x16") could well be an emblem for this showing. It is fitting: one sees a laundry pole (suspiciously a cross) over which is draped a workshirt fluttering in the wind. Set on the horizontal beam of the crosspole, at left, an abandoned spirits bottle perches. Machiavelli and the Bottle, circa Anno Domini 2000 -- there is the cloth veneer; beneath, a symbol and a power; and, above it all, a token of human frailty and abuse. In all, it is a scarecrow of humanity, impaled on its beliefs, or, rather, the lack thereof. We have come to this, and with all the best of intents. Or so it would seem. Neither Machiavelli, nor Friese Undine are quite so cut and dried. No living, human heart could really be.
In all of Undine's art, there is intelligence: a discontent coupled with a dry wit, and, as well, a submerged acquiesence -- a world-weariness; and still an overt effort to resist both 'the Way of the World' and Machiavelli's voice. But the careful reader discerns that even Machiavelli, the 'New Realist' of his day, while distinguishing 'ought' from 'is,' deeply regretted surrendering how men ought to live:
A Rough Estimate (36"x24") strips bare the disparity inherent in the demands of structured society: there must always be an 'I' and a 'Them.' At left in this acrylic, a viewer is presented with a subordinate 'recruit' (perhaps merely to the world of work, or, symbolically, even more to life). He stands, shirtless, hesitantly estimating a thumb-and-forefinger measure of undetermined value; while at right, a suit-cuffed hand responds, answering with a smaller, a tiny increment. Beyond specifics, or even words, it is a gesture which approaches the obscene. A grid of measure, as background, graphically joins the two figures. If every man must be measured out, and that by only quantity, the standards will never be agreed upon: each will calculate according to their benefit. Either one is wrong, or both are wrong. Neither can be the impartial judge, and only one will prevail.
Machiavelli Plays Your Favorites visually draws upon the graphic conventions and compositions of commercial communication: record album covers, poster art, the old front pages of Look or Life magazine. Undine plays a graphic wit against the commercial bartering of such as "Mancini's [or anyone else's] 'Favorite Hits'." Undine, throughout his art, pits a rationalized, moral relativism against a fixed instinct, a desire for justice, here and now, whether natural or realized by man. In Undine's art, Machiavelli is the nexus through which several, conflicting realities collide. The artist's imagery foils against a Tartuffe pragmatic moral standard ("Men, although they are individually rascals, are collectively a most decent lot: they love morality." -- Thus, Moliere) as well as against an a la Candide (as per Voltaire) -- "It's all for the best, and it couldn't be better in this best of all possible worlds." These are the strains that the artist, with an acute yet popular visual vocabulary, brings before the eye. Friese Undine, in this specific canvas, Machiavelli Plays Your Favorites, interprets 'Machiavellianism' in a Paganini-like figure (that violin virtuoso was often said to have bartered with the devil for his genius). In Machiavelli Plays Your Favorites, the artist's carmine title box seems benign, a labeling of commodity for public consumption; but one notes the fiddler wears a laurel crown, a distinction awarded in the ancient (and now -- 'modernly' -- suspect) Imperium Romanum by its very Roman Senate. His instrument is, not a violin, but hybridized into a flask of wine, a pernicious pleasure. Friese Undine's 'decadence' is, like the collective lives of men, never quite as simple, nor as reducible as anyone would wish. Any perception otherwise is quick and facile.
In The Advent of the Bottom Line (36"x24"), a youthful, sporty, putative troglodyte (The Young Urban Professional 'Fred Flintstone'?) dressed in spotted animal skin, primps, adjusting his artificially (culturally?) acquired bowtie. There is a tentative insouciance about his face. The subject of this canvas seems the beast that, blundering, aspires to a humanity, the accoutrements of which he merely apes. Undine lays again before the viewer a disparity -- between a professed advancement, and a bestial residue which clings. "The common man is always swayed by appearances..." (Machiavelli). "We are all the common man..." (Machiavelli, as per Friese Undine's art.)
In many such works as these, Undine's art is heir to William Hogarth (The Rake's Progress), or Holbein (Totentanz): the exemplum functions as a cautionary tableau, much like the proverbial town drunk. In others, there is a bitter sting, which casts doubts on common humanity. In all, one feels a lurking fear: each might be a mirror.
He'll Thank Us One Day (36"x24"). A first impression -- Life is just -- 'Winners win, and Losers... simply, lose': each gets the life that they are willing to accept. He'll Thank Us One Day presents a dorsal view of a blue-collar worker, a painted target sign graphically scoring the seat of his pants. Invitation, or pre-ordained destiny? Undine, at first sight appeals to the viewer: If there is no consequence, even if no benefit is forthcoming, will you exploit an opportunity? But, here there is a further subtext, the question of identity with the subject portrayed: 'There, but for the grace of God....' Is it my very self I see; for a first time, in a new manner? Whether Undine's is a very wicked art; or a call to resist and reform, it is the viewer who must tip the scales.
Friese Undine's canvas, The Party (36"x24"), depicts a gathering, although its subject coterie, assembled as a party scene, seems wearied, if not drained of all vitality. At left a party hostess, in her gesture to speak no word, frames the assembled even more for critical regard. Undine noted at the opening of this exhibit, that this piece, together with Correction (36"x24"), forms a sequence and thus a consequence. The spirit of the Commodity Exchange, of Wall Street, enters in as inspiration. Correction (36"x24") wins its title from the vacillating marketplace. That Undine places his visual axis in each work askew, is no accident. Again, like his patron-inspirator, the artist seizes upon the intuition that "what goes around, comes around": acts and lives are choices, but Fortune, though it may favor the bold, nonetheless demands an accounting afterwards.
Friese Undine includes in this exhibition a number of small format acrylics: two at the South wall entrance, and seven in a set. Among the latter, Pre-Avenging the Counter-attack (10"x8"), is both exemplary and striking. In this piece, a suited, canine demagogue declaims with the studied gestures of a Generalissimo, a doctrine all-persuasive, and irrelevant of text: the gestures tell it all. The dog in human form has mastered all the voice, and language of the flesh, and it recalls Mikhail Bulgakov's tale, "Heart of a Dog." (In this latter, a dog progressively receives human organ transplants, becoming more human in behavior, until, at last, he receives the heart, and ends, smoking, drinking, cursing, a bastard in conduct and a full-fledged knave: Homo Homini Lupus est (Man is a wolf unto man).)
In the central gallery's walking space, five pedestals showcase Friese Undine's mixed media books. More objects than books, more theater than simple objects; each displays a clever wit in concept, an adroit dexterity in construction. If Undine plies a cerebral wit; a concrete and graphic cleverness; a quickening of conceptual fantasy, then these works reveal it all. They are, if frightening in their import, fun as well in sheer dexterity of hand.
Beyond The Pleasure Principle, a mixed media, (16"x20.5"x2.75":1995) presents a book format as fold-out case; the cover constitutes a theatre stage with six flat, and interchangeable, cutout figures supplied. The title references Freud's puzzlement at human acts which appeal to a purported 'death wish.' Undine lacerates a human urge, albeit felt by only many but not all (hence Freud's puzzlement), to submit to the puppetry of fate. It is, however, answered by another kindred work: You Should Know Better (9.25"x6.5"x3"). Neither Machiavelli, nor the artist, Undine, are as shockingly cynical as first might seem.
Certainly, in this showing, a viewer confronts a darker side to humanity: the artist wills it so. In Recidivist (10"x8.75"x1.75":1999), another mixed media (as are all the book-objects on display), a flat visage, both marionette and mechanical, sports a pull-chain jaw (a la water closet). Bloody Noses (8.25"x6.25"x1.75": 1999), a bookcasing with a complement of painted noses, each flat on cards, seems self-explanatory. And, as with Control Group (8"x6"x2.5": 1999) or Beyond The Pleasure Principle, there is reference to psychologies now unfashionable. Caesar's Gadgets (7.75"x5.75"x1.25": 1994) turns to an older, perhaps more durable critique, with its debunking, half in jest, and half in reverence of heraldic regalia: an eagle perched, its talons on shield in display of power. And, as finale, viewers are invited to sample the artist's exhibited Diary (8.25"x6.5":1999).
Throughout this exhibition, there is the tension between primal, immediate desire and governed calculation -- the 'rationales' of state, of ordered and restricted intercourse. Machiavelli understood the tension, and its creativity, far better than his heirs: even in recourse to the beast in man, there are choices, rules, calculation. A Prince "... should choose those of the fox and the lion, though the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox is helpless against wolves." The theme often stalks about the images of Undine's art.
The artist has noted his sympathies toward the 'Left.' To be a cynic, one must be cynical about something -- that is, really care. But -- neither 'Left' nor 'Right' -- Undine's paintings are not cynical about Capitalism, or even Socialism or Utopianism per se. It is rather a discontent with the Way of the World, and human nature. It subverts a misdirected current derived from Machiavelli; one noted by George Orwell:
And Orwell the writer, like Firese Undine the artist, is yet truer to Machiavelli. Undine does not acquiesce.
Machiavelli, betraying eternal secrets of statecraft; and Friese Undine, both decrying and yet fascinated by their consequences to modern society, knew that good and evil balance in appearance and act.
"...One without the other has no enduring strength." Machiavelli asserted that if necessity at times forced a prince into the bestial, it was only at times, and even then: "...it is necessary to know how to disguise this nature well and how to pretend and dissemble." Friese Undine, like Orwell, has seen that it is now become a way of life. "Machiavelli Paints Your Favorites" is an art of resistance and counterattack against what needn't be.
If in this show, there is any qualification or a Caveat, it is a cautionary word to all; and it is best revealed by a wise and gentle soul:
A Weimar sensibility pervades this exhibition: a very companion blend of George Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann.... The artist creates an AgitProp against Twentieth Century Life as lived, restructuring the vernacular of commercial graphics, ads, packaging, fine art; appropriating the palette of military camouflage: ochres, greys, soft yellows, black and dark blood reds. "Machiavelli Plays Your Favorites" is a showing of 21 large format paintings (36"x24"); 8 mediums (20"x16"); 9 small format works (10"x8"); and includes seven artist's books, as well as banners and installations. Friese Undine's art at times dismays; at times infuriates; and there are some belly laughs as well: A wicked art. It can be seen until August 28, 2000, at Las Manos Gallery, Chicago. Machiavelli would approve. He is there, in spirit and in art.
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: Many of the books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews are in print and can be purchased through this site's Barnes & Noble link. Friese Undine supplies his own text for quotes in his art, but this review cites from The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, (Harlan Davidson, Inc: 1986). Orwell's Essays and Pascal's Pensees are available in many editions.
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