Friedrich Kunath’s I Don’t Know the Place, But I Know How to Get There at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles situates the sublime in a world numbed by user-generated content
In a large canvas at Friedrich Kunath’s newest exhibition, the distended wing of an airplane hangs over an orange and pink sunset. It is a painterly articulation of a photograph made ubiquitous by social media, a shot taken by travel influencers to announce their journeys. Kunath is as prolific as the ‘creators’ he parodies: on view are 24 new paintings and one installation, all created in the last year, each of which wryly comments on a world defined by user-generated content. Beneath the artist’s humour is an enduring critique of aesthetic experience; his paintings capture an oversaturated visual landscape marked by boredom, irony and exhaustion.
The paintings on view recall those of Kunath’s Romantic forebears, but here modern technology mediates evocations of the sublime. Romantic Times (2022), a recreation of Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (1808), features the same dark-cloaked figure as the original, this time hunched over an iPhone, taking a picture of the familiar seascape. In In Memory Of My Memories (2022), a black-and-white postcard of a figure hanging limp on a tree completes a lakeside scene; a cartoon puffin weeps in front of a vivid sunset in I Need Solitude But I Also Need You (2022). These referential canvases anticipate – and mourn – their own reproduction, envisioning Romanticism through the lens of contemporary media.
Words occasionally emerge from dense networks of brushstrokes and marks, forming phrases that connote an overworked, overstimulated subject. ‘I’m Officially Tapping Out’, reads one canvas, its letters buried in an orange cloud marred by the painter’s textural swatches. In Looking Back, I Should’ve Been Home More (2022), the titular phrase breaks apart across a stippled skyline. This first-person speaker oscillates between regretful and morbid: in I Could Easily See Myself Spending A Whole Month This Way (2022), an unmoving swimmer lies facedown in the water, seemingly drowned. Under Kunath’s hand, images of relaxation become depictions of burnout.
In Ugly Feelings (2005), cultural theorist Sianne Ngai describes the experience of ‘stuplimity’: a combination of ‘shock and boredom’ that accompanies present-day encounters with the sublime. Such a word is apt for Kunath’s artwork, where scenes of lush beauty pair with statements of alienation and disaffection. When humour emerges from these juxtapositions, it feels appropriately stupefying. Leaving the gallery, I thought to myself just one weak expression of commiseration: haha, so true.
I Don’t Know the Place, But I Know How to Get There at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, through 25 February