Florian Meisenberg

Photography Jon Henry

By Kat Herriman

A foreign object pressed repeatedly into one’s forehead will cause the skin to tear and bruise, as New York-based artist Florian Meisenberg discovered while filming Idle idiot (Epiphany) (2021), the sole video in “A story is always told into two ears,” his solo show at Simone Subal. Looping on a small screen at one end of the Chinatown gallery, the short film depicts the artist, close-up, punching his head with a stamp reading Epiphany. Shoved into the giving facade of the face—flesh, fascia, fat, muscle and beneath that bone and brain—the reddened letters linger for a moment before the skin returns to neutral and the ritual repeats. For the artist, it is a meditation on a kind of swallowing, wherein “the canvas you are imprinting upon does not remain loyal so the statement vanishes no matter how much you force it upon yourself.” “The truth is there’s only a very thin margin to push into,” he adds, smiling.

The Sisyphean battle to stay in the small opening we are afforded for change, revolution, and personal growth is a sweet spot for the German-born artist, a self-described painter in an oversaturated market and an inventor returning to the same rooms for what is now his fourth round. “To show in the same space becomes claustrophobic, of course, but I feel that this speaks to the nature of my work in general,” Meisenberg explains. “I’ve been painting for 15 years, and in that practice, I’m always trying to consciously challenge myself to maintain my status within the material. [Paint] provides this constant, infinite world to explore and experiment with. It requires me to ask myself who am I? What am I doing as a painter?”

There is no definitive answer to be found at at Meisenberg’s Bushwick studio, which he shares with his partner and sometimes collaborator, artist Anna K.E.—but the same self-mythologizing winds that propelled Philip Guston and Alberto Savinio’s interior monologue-derived landscapes blow hard here. Along one wall is a set of stretchers at least twice the size of the artist. Working on them requires makeshift ladder construction: a chair on top of a table and then a careful knee.

Behind him a 12-foot, spray-painted rat not destined for the show looms. “[Paintings] live carefree in constant retirement, and when they are treated badly it's usually by their authors,” Meisenberg says. “I don’t have that impulse. When something is wrong with a painting I don’t want to destroy it, I want to get it therapy.”

The Seussian paintings on view in the Simone Subal exhibition could probably benefit from psychoanalysis. Meisenberg’s candy-dusted palettes do their best to hide their saturated contents, but they can’t sugar over the dark fairytales that emerge from compositions like The idle idiot (2021) [pictured], which depicts a man in white chunky heels being eaten by a lion. “I like to take nightmares and coat them in something palatable,” Meisenberg says. “It’s a loving way to force feed.” In The idle idiot, the combined ambiguity of the beast and the man’s expression leaves us in a gray zone in which it's not entirely clear if the man wants to be saved. From some angles, he looks like he’s rather enjoying the act as one might a romantic tousle.

Meisenberg revels in the paradoxical closeness of life-affirming euphoria and death. He sets them against each other in his paintings the same way he pits abstraction against representation and washy Helen Frankenthaler-like swatches of color against raised blotches of thick oil paint. This tension climaxes in A story is always told into two ears (2021), the eponymous centerpiece of the exhibition, which in Meisenberg’s studio occupies most of a wall, and in the exhibition acts as a physical screen between the gallery’s street-facing windows and its white cube interior. The massive eight-paneled painting appears at first blush like a surrealist vista with swirling fogs rising over the tropically spackled haunches of a buttock-shaped volcano, and then you blink and a meditation on colonization’s doomed premise takes the wheel. On one half of the semi-erotic mountain, fantastical creatures are ascending, establishing psychedelic camps as they climb. On the other side of the crevasse, unadulterated, undeveloped space sits quietly in all its peachy glory occupied by a lone snail that seems to blend into the clouds. But it’s between the cheeks where the red flag of mortality is most visible—a twill of smoke farts out—hinting at the future destruction of all we see. If there is salvation anywhere, it’s in the skies where Meisenberg drew two iridescent screens, which float like flattened angels amongst the clouds. The tableau conjures the anemic depths of our laptops where windows, tabs, and folders can lay on top of one another into eternity without even causing a lump.

This vision of the shallow abyss persists beyond A story is always told into two ears. The entire exhibition sets itself up like a mirrored movie theater with Idle idiot playing on one side and A story is always told into two ears dominating the other. In between these two screens, there are a series of smaller ones—double-sided paintings—that project into the gallery on custom armatures. Inspired as much by Windows 94 as the jumbled monolith created by Chinatown’s competing lit plexiglass signs, the installation evokes the feeling of somehow capturing infinity. “It’s something we are maybe used to virtually, but maybe it's not as natural in real life,” Meisenberg says. “I liked the idea that perhaps the large painting is the background but maybe it is also the mothership—a desktop that allows for all the different images to simultaneously inhabit the same space.”

Seriality is flirted at in Meisenberg’s new work but in truth they’re more about the nuances of recursive plurality (think Laura Owens not Christopher Wool). The saccharine palette unites the canvases but each painting has its own joke to tell, its own morning to share at dinner. Each feels like a tangent that might crop up while trying to drunkenly tell a good friend a linear story. There are references to Georigan folklore as well as Meisenberg’s first experiments with a CNC drawing machine, which he has lately being using to generate grids to paint on top of. Meisenberg is excited where this new process may lead, knowing it may well be back to square one.

Back at home, trying to keep the memories of Meisenberg’s paintings separate is impossible. Grasping for their siblings in the swirling vortex-like Loony Tunes, their contents keep bleeding into one another. You can keep impressing the demiurge's images into your skull but the chaotic neutral needs of reality always find their way back to flush your face.

Published: April 14, 2021

"A story is always told into two ears" is on view at Simone Subal Gallery, 131 Bowery, 2nd Floor, through May 22, 2021.