The Traveling Riddle - by Jörg Heiser / Frieze / 2009

After having seen Belgian artist Leon Vranken’s first solo show, a variation of a Sol LeWitt sentence came to mind: artists are artists rather than home decorators, they leap to conclusions that mere tastefulness cannot reach. Here, the artist did leap.

Vranken had previously been known for intricately made and expertly skilled 3-D trompe l’oeil replicas, often of furniture or other household objects (he is a trained cabinet-maker). Sometimes these are identical twins of existing objects, at other times – as in a series of glass showcases – they involve precise geometric ‘ruptures’ in the structure, that is, parts cut out and protruding or recessing, as if a time-space fissure had occurred. Objects of that kind were also on display at Stella Lohaus – for example the wooden replica of a hi-fi speaker, cut into slices as if chopped by an uncannily precise machine, with the layers separated and exposed by thin wooden spacers; or the kinds of wooden trestles used for impromptu desks, but of an unusually smooth wood quality. But all of these objects were cast to be serving a ‘higher’ cause here.

Upon entering, the very act of entering becomes part of the piece: one has to go through a tiny wooden corridor built into the regular front of the backyard gallery space. At the end of it, there is what at first looks like a swing-door (that is, without a knob), but instead of moving sideways, it recedes like a drawer or a secret entrance; as you slip in, at first you only see an empty space. Once inside it becomes apparent that a whole set of objects is piled up behind that backwards-moving door, all of them placed on a rail dolly, in a way that allows the whole set-up to be pushed backwards before it automatically moves forward again to close the entrance off. In fact, every time the door opens, a paint roller, precariously balanced at the end of the conglomerate and dipped in green paint, rolls across a small area of a wooden plank leaning against the back wall, thus turning each visitor into a mechanical painter by default.

Vranken could have just displayed his well-crafted objects – which also include basic, painstakingly precisely constructed geometric objects such as a triangle, a sphere and a cube – in the usual way, that is, elegantly spread them throughout the space. That way they might have fallen flat though, becoming merely ‘good design’, as Clement Greenberg so disparagingly called Minimal Art. By ‘degrading’ the individual objects to elements of a hilariously dramatic construction, he rescues them from precisely that destiny; ‘piling up’ is shown to be a convincing alternative to the minimalist trick of serialization. This strategy recalls Hague Yang’s storage piece (2005), a conglomerate of previous works forming a new piece or installation, born out of necessity (the itinerant Yang had a storage problem at the time the piece was created).

So-called Rube Goldberg machines perform a simple task (e.g. painting a small area) in a very complex way. Through turning his eye-deceiving objects into elements of such a machine, it’s a little as if Vranken had fused two strands in Fischli/Weiss’s work into one: their trompe l’oeil polyurethane everyday objects and the absurd chain reaction featured in their famous film Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go, 1987). Maybe most importantly, Vranken created a succinct and funny allegory for the anxiety of the first solo show: the artist piling up his work against the door – another slapstick trope – as if trying to prevent the audience from entering and witnessing his possible failure. Which is the ultimate slapstick trope: turning failure into triumph.