Weekly Update – Mantje’s Hitler Soap Opera at Pageant

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This week’s Weekly has my review of Aldert Mantje “The Otherwise Peaceful Island” at Pageant Gallery. Below is the copy with some pictures and here’s the link to the art page. I’ll try to come back to Mantje because I have more interesting tidbits about him from our interview. Look for that later. See more pictures at flickr.

Hitler’s Karaoke Club
Aldert Mantje makes you laugh and think.

Aldert Mantje
Aldert Mantje’s painting shows Hitler and his wife who run Karaoke Beethoven in what looks like a rough part of town. I love the idea here of Hitler the weak victim. Whiplash? Was his car rear-ended?

Dutch artist Aldert Mantje understands absurdity. The international artist has had more than 60 exhibitions, but he can’t get his fantasy Adolf Hitler paintings shown in his hometown of Amsterdam. So here they are in Philadelphia at Pageant Gallery. And now, he says, everyone’s calling and asking to see the works.

Aldert Mantje
Hitler doing the laundry for the first time.

Mantje, whose appreciation of life’s absurdities is matched by his ability to tell absurd stories, has made a suite of 12 Hitler paintings, 10 of which are on view at Pageant, each featuring the man with the unforgettable mustache reduced to an overweight shlub with aches and pains.

Aldert Mantje
Hitler loves modern art. Here he’s studying a painting by James Lee Byars.

In a show titled “The Otherwise Peaceful Island,” Hitler is the working stiff who owns a karaoke club and probably drinks too much. In one painting after another the dictator is whittled down to a little man with a broken arm or whiplash. He plays the TV too loud, does the family laundry at the Laundromat, has AIDS and is an art enthusiast enamored with the Zenlike paintings of James Lee Byars.

Aldert Mantje
Hitler on the beach, perhaps it’s Paraguay, Mantje said.

Depicted with snapshot-like realism, these iconoclastic images (and the mind that brought them to life) remind me of those other great art mischief-makers­­—the Russian emigre artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid—who created a monumental fantasy painting based on research data they collected on people’s favorite colors (blue, green) and subjects (mountains, people—especially heroes—and cute animals).

Aldert Mantje
Hitler the AIDS patient.

Art with a sense of humor often dwells in fantasy land. But the fantasy often masks a critique and social commentary. Take Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. It’s both slapstick comedy and biting political satire.

Aldert Mantje
Aldert Mantje, at Pageant Gallery, before the opening of his show. The artist is missing the top of the ring finger on his right hand. He’s got a story about that being part of his art but I understand from Pageant’s proprietor, Daniel Dalseth, that there are several versions of the story. Whatever the reason for the missing finger, the digit travels the world in an art project that is measuring its energy field.

Mantje’s other suite of paintings, also on view, is art critical. These self-portraits (he made 30 in all; about half are on view at Pageant) are a critique of minimalism and color field paintings. The portraits are all the same size and could pass for copies of each other. In this respect they’re like minimalist works. (Mantje says making them was boring—“like needlework.”) In each work the artist has a bright pingpong ball in his mouth—a different colored ball for each canvas. As the artist explains, the balls are his color field paintings.

Aldert Mantje green ball
From the self-portrait suite that mocks both Minimalism and Color Field paintings

Mantje’s connection with Pageant comes through another great iconoclastic artist, Philadelphia’s Terry Adkins, whose work also shows at Pageant (his second solo show opens next month), and whom Mantje has known since the early ’90s when the two showed together in Amsterdam, Chicago and elsewhere.

Aldert Mantje
Another self-portrait ala Minimalism and Color Field painting

Here’s something absurd: People love to laugh but tend to hate humor in their art. I think we could use more—especially humor that raises questions about values and mores.

Art can’t answer questions about why Hitler happened or why minimalism still holds the art world in thrall. But art that pops those issues into the discussion is crucial. And hardly anybody’s doing it.

“The Otherwise Peaceful Island”
Through Nov. 5. Pageant: Soloveev, 607 Bainbridge St. 215.925.1535.

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