Kunsthalle Bern, 18 February – 30 April
This exhibition, comprising 55 works created between 1986 and 2016, is a reduced version of one shown at the end of last year at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, Porto. Even without that major show, Michael Krebber’s reputation precedes him, though that reputation is fuzzy. Though he’s now in his sixties, his practice remains light-footed and difficult to define. Sometimes he is described as a conceptual painter; curators and galleries hesitate to pin down his visual practice in words. Survey exhibitions are thus welcome opportunities to consider the umpteen facets of the Cologne-born artist’s work, and the spaces in the Kunsthalle Bern discreet and compact enough for his unshouty paintings to stand their ground.
Opening the exhibition is Contempt for One’s Own Work as Planning for Career (2001), a white canvas featuring a head and shoulder outlined in apple-green, one side of the face bathed in a blue shadow, an implicit statement of modesty. The scrubbed lines of the shadow recur elsewhere in other paintings, as do a toolbox of shorthand motifs, such as snails, keyholes and the outline of a rocket – or is it a spanner? This latter occurs in each of the untitled works in the three-part The average, edible fish says ADIEU series from 2001, twice like the pins through circular brooches over a deep purple spotted print, once entering a topsy-turvy environment on a white canvas that may be an office or a toolbox, the faint pen lines left cryptic given the work’s hanging well above our heads. Elsewhere Krebber paints on a variety of grounds, such as synthetic blankets and patterned cotton, and there are also a handful of sculptural works. Paint is applied in spare, agile strokes or sprayed, sometimes through patterned templates. En masse, the works show a range of approaches to the construction of paintings: reference, manipulation, recontextualisation, interrelation or sampling, for starters. The same can be said of the installation, which purveys several different approaches: standard white-cube showcasing; chopped-up windsurfing boards laid out as if components of do-it-yourself sculpture; paintings creeping up the wall as if to break out of a single hang into salonlike density; and three smallish canvases propped in one corner testing visitors’ observation. By this point, other artists’ focus on a single strategy seems laboured and lacking in intellectual curiosity.
Krebber, meanwhile, just keeps innovating, reworking his vocabulary and refusing to settle into a recognisable style. His zigzag scrub from the opening 2001 work pops up again in the recent five-part group MK/M (2014/15), with their blocky green shapes applied in broad perpendicular paint strokes on white canvases; here the zigzag, a grace note to the rectangular shapes, tails off like a sunset reflected on water and thus an abbreviated cliché. These canvases are poorly stretched, their surfaces buckling slightly, and given the intelligence at work elsewhere, this too may be by design. He conjures a return key and space bar, the access keys to virtual spaces, with an L-shaped block and a solid band at the base of one painting; and yet, with the stretching, concurrently underlines the materiality of the painting itself. Krebber knows what a risky business painting is, how little room is left for manoeuvre; after all, he studied under Markus Lüpertz before working for Martin Kippenberger and Georg Baselitz. In answer to the challenge of what painting can mean today, it seems he doesn’t acknowledge the question, just keeps mining its referential and communicative potential, sometimes sincerely, sometimes ironically. It’s an approach that allows him to make the gloriously cheeky Miami City Ballet IV (2010), the aforementioned propped stack. Three primed canvases lean against the wall, unified and coloured by the patterned dust cover he has slipped over all three, a single dab of black acrylic lacquer on top showing that the painter was present.
First published in the April 2017 issue of ArtReview