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LE CUL MÉCANIQUE by Moses Langtree
Catalogue essay from the exhibition 04 October — 28 October 2006
Esa Jäske Gallery, Sydney


Fallen Skateboarder (detail)
2006, ink and collage on paper, 76 x 56 cm
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMXXVI

Le cul mécanique
The mechanical arse


Schranzer’s creative expressions naturally (and convincingly) convolve and oscillate. His subjects weave and intertwine, or sit at opposite ends of a room; his various protagonists and personae gain episodic or periodic favour. Formal appearances fluctuate as a minimal, abstract aesthetic seeks voice alongside semi-figurations, or as we find in Le cul mécanique, his more figurative impulses. Yet, in whatever formal, material or technical way his drawings, collages, paintings, or objects present themselves, whichever play, turn or bent of mind directs them, they are, undoubtedly, united by constant themes — from the esoteric to the sexual — and by an individual, reduced and linear style. Indeed, evident over many years is his signature use of an 'industrial' line and form; a way with and a reliance on line and edge that preferences the ‘clean and clear’ over a painterly, expressive approach.

In Le cul mécanique the viewer is presented with a reduced yet figurative modality, and as Schranzer’s focus is the male body — not culturally and politically allegorised, but personally and sexually charged — it does beg the question of its appropriateness; whether his ascetic style linked to the vernacular of architectural drawing is counter-expressive, and what its purpose and meaning might be. Where the erotic drawings of artists such as Jean Cocteau and Jean Boullet are rich in freehand elements, nuance, ‘sensuality’ and ‘candour’ of line, Schranzer never loses his controlling interest in where a line leads and when it stops, and rarely allows the line to deviate in weight and emphasis, limiting its emotive and expressive potential. There is, in stark contrast to Cocteau’s or Boullet’s drawings, no sense of warm flesh, raw meat, hot semen, or romantic sexual possibility: no bedfellow invoked.

In William Burroughs’ Soft Machine one reads of “street boys… [with] smiles and translucent amber flesh, aromatic jasmine excrement, pubic hairs that cut needles of pleasure…” and “asshole[s] fluttering like a vibrator,” but no such street boys are to be found in Schranzer’s work. There is eye-candy and there are arse-holes to be sure, but Schranzer’s young men don’t speak of a Dionysian spirit, an organic fecundity; rather, on appearance they are relatively ‘cool’ — removed, largely travertine-fleshed, oiled, machined — despite what pleasures they seem to offer. Again quoting Burroughs: “So the boy is rebuilt [I’ll add, with a mechanical arse] and gives me the eye and there he is again walking around some day later across the street and ‘no dice’ flickered across his face….”(1) Georges Bataille’s phrase also comes to mind, that “naturally, love’s the most distant possibility.”(2) Such a ‘detached’ line is surely an invocation of a lack of interaction; a physical detachment between the object of desire and the artist, or subject with viewer.

From this we can at least opine that — through his line work and aesthetic frameworks — Schranzer is not attempting to primarily arouse the ‘senses’, despite his naked subjects! We might divine that his youths are not simply sexual conduits and — in the light of their mechanical arses — sexual apertures, but psychological channels; or, returning to our opening line, that there are oscillations present, even an ambiguity between the psychological and sexual.




Fallen Skateboarder (detail)
2006, ink and collage on paper, 76 x 56 cm
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMXXVIII


                    

As we begin to touch upon the anus (!) and the body, it might do well to interject and reflect on the way these drawings principally align themselves with Western and Eastern erotic art in a fashion that is not historically or contemporarily outré. They are mediated and given context by the visible (and sometimes invisible) traditions of both ‘sanctioned’ high culture erotica and underground graphics, yet they can still cause shock or ‘unease’ amongst a presumably informed, Twenty-first Century audience.

It is insightful, and an indictment, that as a dominant culture we still have few (or misaligned) entry points into works such as Schranzer’s, or consciously choose to marginalize it; ask that drawings such as these remain in the cabinet, the ghetto, or the gallery that caters to the interests of those homo-erotically inclined. Courbet’s woman in The Origin of the World — explicitly posed and strong in sexuality — might cause some embarrassment (the American tourist, flush-faced, shifting uneasily from one foot to the other), but it is acceptable within the erotic paradigms established by and for the male viewer and most curators (on this subject there are analyses by feminists, and insights by contemporary writers like Thomas Waugh on the erotic gay visual subculture and its relationship to sexual and cultural hegemonies). The decidedly fetishistic scene of a woman ‘strumming’ a young girl in Balthus’ painting The Guitar Lesson of 1934 can also be made sense of and receives acceptance within this sexual-politic of the gallery. This extends to the sensual, mythological, theatrical or comic idioms of Picasso’s erotic etchings and drawings, for — however on the brink of or indulging in fornication or relaxedly post-coital his figures are — they are heterosexual, conventionally masculine, male-centred imaginings that don’t challenge the sexual orthodoxy.

A toy car shines its headlights onto the genitals of a hollow-eyed girl in I was a little surprised to observe the mid-wife drive up in a hot-rod, a 2002 drawing by Del Kathryn Barton, friend and contemporary of Schranzer. Barton is also faced with some of Schranzer’s challenges. Though she acknowledges the sexual element of her artworks and their titillative potential, how does she 'convince' some viewers that her drawings are not risqué- or explicit-for-their-own-sake; not mere 'fantasies' giving the public a sanctioned voyeuristic adventure; that her works do move beyond the semiotics of ‘rather weird’ Playboy illustrations (I mention the latter as Barton's nudes have a kinship to Egon Schiele's emaciated, awkward, sometimes psychotic figures, though at her more romantic and florid they evoke the sensual androgyny of Mel Odom's illustrations for Penguin Books, and Playboy and Blueboy magazines — straight and gay respectively — that are referential to the Art Nouveau, and late C19th Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist and Decadent paintings). How does she express to 'the few' or to the many that the drawings are autobiographical and offer visual ruminations on ‘self’; explorations that assist her to make sense of her ‘journey’, her deep (and as it is for many of us a questioning and sometimes problematic) connection to the physical world and all its modern paradigms, nature, humanity, and spirituality. In her favour, beyond the aesthetic and stylistic merits of the works, her subjects are female, and the broader societal and gallery concord we have alluded to permits them legitimacy; frames them sexually and artistically. In contrast, if Schranzer’s more sexual drawings suffer under the public gaze, it is not because they lack meaning, style, or beauty, but that they suffer from phobias about male-to-male sexual expression and objectification, or in the case of these specific drawings, the depiction of the anus. Both still threaten social convention.



This said, these anuses are far removed from the realism of pornography or scientific illustrations. They are collaged sections from mechanical, not sexual or medical treatises. In many regards they are inventions, caricatures of, or embellishments on the anus — sometimes whimsical (a ‘shunt-series’ anus or a meter measuring ‘frequency’) and at their most sexually provocative, über-anuses far removed from any daily function: so why the anxiety or embarrassment around these representations? They are, after all, just one of many elements and signifiers within Schranzer’s work, and like Barton’s, the drawings have a great authenticity in the way they speak of ‘self’ — the physical and the psychic — the ‘other’ — and of broader human conditions (we will return to the subject of authenticity later). Like those gathered under the banner of ‘Transgressive Fiction’ — Georges Bataille, Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, et cetera, though admittedly with none of the emphasis on violence, drugs, religion and politics that can be attached to the genre — both Barton and Schranzer use the body as a vehicle for gaining knowledge; searching for self-identity, inner peace, ‘freedom’ and resolution.
Skateboarder (detail)
2006, ink and collage on paper, 76 x 56 cm
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMXV

                    

In conversation with Schranzer, it was established that many of the studies for these drawings began their life in Sydney in 2003, before a move interstate. This in itself might not warrant a mention, but his relocation to the Gold Coast gives a context and currency to these works. The fashion (well entrenched before Versace’s provocative advertising of its low riding jeans) is for youths — particularly surfers, skateboarders, and labourers — to wear their pants without underwear, carefully whilst ‘carelessly’ low, half down the buttocks and just above the penis. This has been jokingly referred to as the P&C, the ‘pubes and crack’ look! It is a sexually charged and socially transgressive act that inspires few complaints from those with a voyeuristic predisposition, but even for those without such tendencies it is nigh impossible to halt the passage of the eye from the iliac line or the navel down to the pubis! With such a high degree of exposure, they might as well be surfing, skateboarding, or walking the streets and beaches naked. The fashion suggests sexual confidence and availability, but there is an accompanying coolness and self-awareness, meaning these youths are unlikely to deliver up anything beyond their precociousness and bravado.

If contemporary skateboarders, surfers, and athletes are icons of youthfulness, idealism and faultless body development, it comes as no surprise that Schranzer’s figures make reference to classical sculptures, from the striding or steadfastly planted colossus, to the semi-reclining or slain warrior. In many regards, a reference to the Fallen Warrior (East pediment of the Temple of Aphaia) is quite appropriate, for as the soldier has valiantly battled and fallen against a foe, so has the skateboarder battled to perfect a new trick or jump and in the process landed arse-up or on all fours; a ‘toppled’ hero of sorts. Classical sculptures are venerable, ideal, yet usually broken — missing heads, arms, hands, and feet — and as so many Gods, Immortals, Satyrs, Lapiths and Centaurs have found, their fate of being sans penis unites them (Dionysus from the east pediment of the Parthenon, Apollo on the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus, Praxiteles’ sculpture of Hermes). Schranzer’s youths also suffer from amputations, or their exposed buttocks and pendulous scrotums are displayed without sight of their penises. The erotic parts are mechanical or absent, and any sexual readiness and heroic prowess is slightly countered or refigured.

In respect of this, it is worth noting that in Schranzer’s 1997 publication Dichter-Zeichner his subjects are often described as either ‘functioning’ or ‘maimed’, enabled or disabled: “Ships float calmly out to sea, or are beached or sunk,” and “sexual youths confront alter-images of the malformed and sexually dysfunctional.”(3) So we can recognize these skateboarders, machinists, athletes, and cyclists in Le cul mécanique as handsome sexual archetypes, athletic provocateurs, and ‘differently-figured’ transgressive outsiders. We also sense in them metaphors for Freudian displacement, transference, introjection, and sublimation. They have psychoanalytical and psychosexual dimensions.



Cyclist with a Wheel-Repair-Kit (detail)
2006, ink and collage on paper, 76 x 56 cm
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMXXIV

                   

But his asshole sucked me right in…(4)


Alongside gloves, meters, probes, pumps, springs, and ambiguous apparatus — inserted or imminently so — are the anuses themselves. Quite the novel invention, they might calculate, click over, whir and bop, and occasionally take the form of plugs or stoppers. Certainly, in aperture form, they not only give a fresh perspective on the term sphincter but, as working and playing pieces of technology, they have the pulling power to draw through, the capacity to shut down, clamp around, dismember, grind, pulp, or extrude. This raises many questions about the safety of inserting a finger or penis, and despite the romanticising and fetishizing, they remain in Schranzer’s works unknowns: pleasure centres or danger centres; ‘sex-buddies’ who can be trusted or Loreleis who lure men (literally) to their final end.


It might be tempting to tease out this pleasure/danger paradigm and suggest a metaphoric relationship to our current viral world and appropriate sexual behaviour and its consequences; however, I cannot imagine this as part of Schranzer’s moral or psychological scheme. It is more in keeping that these anuses represent his usual polarities: the erotically fleshed versus the macabre and mechanical, the working and the redundant, the functional and dysfunctional, the nurturer or maimer, the loved and the unlovable. As the arses and other objects are sourced from industrial treatises one hundred years old (“books covering electrostatics and electrochemistry; …generators and motors; railway construction and equipment; steam-, gas-, and water-powered electric plants; telegraphy and telephony; transformers, converters…”(5)) this position is strengthened, for in their very ‘existence’ and appropriation they are presented to Schranzer as precious utilities and resources or as antiquated and obsolete representations.

Collage is a useful media for Schranzer as there are potential shifts, ambiguities, and changes in polarity and meaning when source material is transposed. He has said: “There is… beauty in the characteristics and metaphysical qualities that are inherent in these elements… which are not operational within the source material while still in book form,” and that “elements are disassociated from their original contexts to give… overtones of original meaning” or a complete “displacement of meaning, semantic transformation.”(6) It is obvious this shift occurs in his representations of the anus: what were once machine parts for engineer and plant speak of a new kind of sexual industry, performance, and function.




Two Skateboarders (The Crooked Truck)
(detail)
2006, ink and collage on paper, 56 x 76 cm
Signed and inscribed reverse with
title, date, catalogue no. MMXXII
Max Ernst expressed the sentiment that collage created "an electric or erotic tension” by bringing into mutual proximity elements that were foreign and unrelated, and that “discharges, high-tension currents would result. And the more unexpected the elements brought together, the more surprising… the spark of poetry that jumps the gap.”(7) The use of mechanical parts for anuses (marrying ‘machine technology’ with flesh) and creating occasional conglomerate sexual props (from unrelated ‘mundane’ parts) brings such erotic tensions. It is the choice of elements, how and where they are placed and mixed, and what they newly assume and signify that transforms the poetic and ‘electric’ function.

                   

As Schranzer’s youths blur the line between flesh and machine they present to us as possible boy-automata. The concept of an automaton whose actions are, by definition, repetitive and routine — showing few emotions and performing without thought — again elicits questions on the character and capacity of these invented youths. In Young Skateboarder, the protagonist with his one leg raised might well be caught in a private, playful, and unselfconscious moment, but he might equally be assuming the conscious (and oft repeated) sexual pose of the peep-show performer, automatically waiting to be showered with silver dollars. His exposed wares come, according to taste, with a fast or slow function!

Does sexual self-awareness and confidence lead to a deliberate stance or attitude; does it lead to ‘repetitive’, even banal, exhibitionism? Does a mechanical arse imply emotionless sexual appetite? Presented faceless (when facial expression can often be a key to decipherment), our Young Skateboarder’s unpretentious romanticism, or his seasoned, conceited, narcissistic, even contemptuous attitudes are difficult to establish. Having earlier discussed the ‘coolness’ of Schranzer’s line work and the implication for his figures, this last reading could well be accurate — that his youths are detached, knowing, and impersonal — but there is still some ‘grey’ in the way that Schranzer represents, and perhaps we, and he himself, cannot fully establish whether or when they are warm or cool, hot or cold.



Young Skateboarder
2006, ink and collage on paper, 76 x 56 cm
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMXIX


The surrealists were fascinated with automata because of the animate/inanimate conundrum, and the ‘slip’ between the perverse and the banal. The theme was well developed in Hans Bellmer’s photographs of assembled mannequins, and a brief look at his work can establish some differences, confluences, and possibly locate, from a Freudian perspective, the genesis of Schranzer’s men.

In Bellmer’s photographs his dolls are female and figured as a “skeletal automaton, a coy adolescent, or an abject pile of discombobulated parts.”(8) They are variable material amalgamations, complex and often disturbing. His drawings (for example, Iridescent Cephaloped, 1939) also express perverse and sadistic undertones: ‘dolls’ and ‘Lolitas’ are subjected to contortions, superimpositions and reorganization of their erogenous zones, and are clearly framed within a world of erotic experimentation — vaginal, anal, and oral. They are thus presented as hyper-sexualized if not voracious hybrids, or inert mannequins and dolls in a state of suspended psychic and physical power. Schranzer’s youths are post-adolescent, expressed as active, idealized (given their status as skateboarders and athletes) and retain a humanity of sorts, in that they have not been the subject of gross distortion and bodily reorganization; will never be composites in the same astonishing vein — nor reach those perverse heights — of Bellmer’s figures. In the parlance of Blade Runner they have a sense of the ‘replicant’. Even amongst the most feverishly pitched works of Bellmer, what they share in common is an outsider’s fetishism; a sense of voyeurism rather than participation. Further, in both bodies of work there are elements of ambiguity in the degree and combination of emotional, psychic, and physical function, innocence and corruption, normality and abnormality.

Sue Taylor speaks of Bellmer's dolls developing out of a “series of three now legendary events in his personal life,” one of which was the “reappearance of a beautiful teenage cousin. …Overwhelmed with nostalgia and impossible longing, Bellmer acquired from these incidents a need, in his words, ‘to construct an artificial girl with anatomical possibilities... capable of re-creating the heights of passion even to inventing new desires’." Given a change in gender, is a type of longing and nostalgia a conditio sine qua non for Schranzer’s development of his youths? Bellmer “imagined little girls engaged in perverse games, playing doctor in the attic; he meditated… on… ‘the casual quiver of their pink pleats’; and he despaired ‘that this pink region,’ like the pleasures of childhood itself enjoyed in the maternal plenitude of a ‘miraculous garden,’ was forever beyond him.” Are Schranzer’s youths with their pleasure zones — engaged in sport or playing doctor (the Cyclist with a Wheel-Repair-Kit) — beyond his reach, and if in reach, are they truly, wholly available? Taylor also reminds us in her analysis of Bellmer’s dolls that the “capacity for displacement and the acceptance of surrogates, Freud stated, enables individuals to maintain health in the face of frustration.”(9) Are these drawings then the result of frustration? Are these youths surrogates? How do the psychosexual fictions and mythologies converge with the lived reality, and how do the imaginings and the truths ‘fire’ the art?

                   

If these drawings have an apparent sexual element, it is also clear they have a strong spatial dimension. This statement is advanced to remind the viewer that Schranzer’s drawings have many attributes that make for gainful discussion, though we have largely focused on the sexual and psychological nature of his work. Of course, space is not just about formal placement and distance; space is about psychology.

Schranzer employs an intriguing spatial system — a fusion of systems — that brings to mind De Chirico’s anomalous spaces. In his essay, Wieland Schmied suggests that “the pictorial means that de Chirico employs are all directed towards a single end: to disconcert, to delude, and unsettle the viewer. He begins with a space that apparently cannot exist, achieved by reversing such classical organizational principles as linear perspective in a disruption of the spatial continuum of Renaissance painting, [using] several vanishing points within one image…. Often foreground, middle, and backgrounds are undetermined planes that have remote relationships with each other; perceivable as a sequence of planes in depth, but arbitrarily stacked with no connecting space between them. …Such devices give rise to discontinuity and disequilibrium, incongruity, and incoherence.”(10) Schranzer looked to De Chirico’s paintings in the 1980s and 90s, so it not surprising to find vestiges of influence. Schranzer’s drawings have subtly conflicting perspectives, made more apparent by trying to marry the various ‘convergences’ of objects he has sourced for collage. There are indeterminate spaces between elements in fore, middle, and distant ground as his linear style does not allow for atmospheric perspective, and passages left empty — ‘white space’ — come into spatial play. There are ambiguous or subtly competing scales of objects.

It is, however, not just the use of contradictory vanishing points, but also the use of parallel projections (axonometric for instance) alongside them that creates a degree of incoherence. There are also Oriental views with a high viewpoint, producing strong diagonals and flat though slanted ground planes, and there are Degas-like low viewpoints (worm’s-eye views) that allow the spectator to voyeuristically take in the body, the buttocks and the anus. When Schranzer does use a middle-level Albertian view, he still creates spatial diversions and plays, even if subtle.

Perhaps Canaletto would be disappointed by Schranzer’s artifice — though all spatial systems are an artifice of sorts — and an engineer highly critical of an object’s plausibility and structural integrity, but they are deliberate misrepresentations that further the metaphors of disquiet and dysfunction.

                   

In closing, Schranzer’s drawings have an authenticity. This is not meant as a statement on their originality, though they do have uniqueness, charisma, and a signature aesthetic and use of line. They are authentic because Schranzer has the conviction and trust to explore his personal world in the largeness of things — to express the sexual and psychological ‘known’, and the ‘mystery’, to establish a truth, however that truth might shift, mutate, or blur with fantasy. In this search, he does not bow to fashion, norms, moral impositions, and the fear of how others might read, respond, dismiss (or blush and shift feet). Authentic is creating without an audience in mind. Authentic is about truth, essence and core. Authentic is not a function of the ordinary.

Moses Langtree
Hulme, Lancashire, and Sydney 2006



NOTES
1. William Burroughs, The Soft Machine, Paladin, 1986 London.
2. Georges Bataille, “Alleluia,” Vol. 2, sect. 4, La Somme Athéologique, Guilty, 1944.
3. Kurt Schranzer, Dichter-Zeichner, exhibition catalogue, 1997 Sydney.
4. William Burroughs, op. cit.
5. Kurt Schranzer, A Gentleman’s Fancies, artist’s statement, 1999 unpublished.
6. Kurt Schranzer, Ibid.
7. Werner Spies, Max Ernst: Collages, Thames and Hudson, 1986 London.
8. Sue Taylor, Hans Bellmer in The Art Institute of Chicago: The Wandering Libido and the Hysterical Body, Department of Art History, The University of Chicago http://www.artic.edu/reynolds/essays/taylor.php
9. Sue Taylor, Ibid.
10. Wieland Schmied, “De Chirico, Metaphysical Painting and the International Avante-garde: Twelve Theses”, in Emily Braun (ed), Italian Art in the Twentieth Century, Prestel-Verlag, Munich and Royal Academy of Arts, 1989 London.



Fallen Skateboarder (detail)
2006, ink and collage on paper, 76 x 56 cm
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. MMXXVIII




NOTE: Due to the low resolution of computer screens, the lines of these drawings will present as slightly pixelated. A 'jagged' quality will be particularly evident on some diagonals and curves; fine black ink lines will appear faint and tend towards grey on screen.


© Moses Langtree and Kurt Schranzer 2007