Josef Strau is an artist who writes and a writer who makes art. The printed and handwritten texts that cover his paintings and posters take the tone of intimate personal revelation, but, of course, we are not reading someone’s diary—the self that is revealed is a fiction framed by the art object into which it is incorporated. Cheap standing lamps, their shades and stands customized with a coat of whitewash, weakly illuminate the work, a mixture of easel-scale paintings and black-and-white photocopied posters tacked directly to the wall. Dense blocks of minuscule typewriting would defy the eyesight, if not the patience, of the most committed viewer, but they function as signs for narration more than as actual functioning narrative. A crowded hang of around 50 works encouraged this sense of a steady stream of text spilling between paintings and posters so closely hung that their edges nearly abutted. This stifling proximity and the works’ aura of decadent Romanticism combined to create a louche drawing-room atmosphere in the gallery’s ornate 19th-century interior.
Despite the found objects and the emphasis on printed material, much of the show consisted of avowedly hand-made objects. Paragraphs of text are transferred to acetate and glued to canvases coated with thin layers of oil paint and varnish. Most of the paintings have monochrome grounds, sometimes heavily scraped and overworked, usually a dirty white over which the fine print is applied. A string of beads drapes haphazardly over one canvas, half-sinking into the soiled adhesive and primer. Lines drawn with felt marker run over the jagged edge of unevenly cut plastic in a poster. These painterly details suggest a relinquishing of control to the contingencies of the materials, a sign of humility which is undercut by the self-reflexive texts. Similarly, Strau’s diaristic musings are juxtaposed with quotes from critical writings on the literature of confession, while texts taken from histories of the printing process are used as material for chaotic layouts and wild combinations of fonts. Such deconstructions expose Strau’s intimacies as a performance and his awkward paint handling as an adopted sign for sincerity.
The press release quotes Roland Barthes’s distinction (from his 1960 essay “Ecrivains et écrivants”) between two kinds of writer, the “author” and the “artist”—the latter a passive medium for the culture’s outpourings, as distinct from the traditionally autonomous authorial voice. According to these terms, Strau’s seemingly free-flowing production of text would define him squarely as “artist.” However, each “truth” is hedged by self-conscious commentary. As a consequence of this artifice, everything becomes attributable to Strau’s controlling hand, revealing him as the “author”-manipulator who masquerades as the drifting, daydreaming “artist.”
Photo: Josef Strau: Untitled, 2009, oil, Xerox transfer, ink and pearls on canvas, 271⁄4 by 391⁄4 inches; at Daniel Buchholz.