Article from Out: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Art, No.1 Spring 1990


Compressed Harlequin
1990, pen on paper, 23 x 16.25 cm
Signed and inscribed front with title, date, catalogue no. CMXXV


The Harlequin The Box
Conceits of Alienation in the Recent Work of Kurt Schranzer

Kurt Schranzer's recent paintings, on view during July at The Works Gallery, are small, meticulous still-life and landscape-referenced tableaux composed of odd objects and geometric and architectural constructions that structure ironic, open-ended inquiries into the problematic of an obsessively self-reflective sexual identity. These works are tiny, precious; they are presented within ornate escalloped gold and faux-marble frames which situate their object nature as parodic of bourgeois decorative preferences. A deliberate, exaggerated 'tastefulness' allows these works to be envisioned in rich, comfortable surrounds, under their pretext as decoration. At the same time, their surrealist-informed content undermines their formal placement. These works function as fetishistic accumulation, in which libidinally invested forms supplant the more apparently ''neutral'' forms in de Chirico, one of Schranzer's sources of parody and appropriation. Picasso's surrealist distortions of the human form, such as the Anatomy series of drawings and the etching Model and Fantastic Sculpture of the 1930s, in which body members are substituted for others as well as distorted and phallicised, provide a closer correlate and model for Schranzer's organization of form (1). His concern with quizzical sexual and literary object metaphors overloads their object bearers by hyperfetishing them: by forcing more readings than the objects can sustain, fetishism is parodied while at the same time its materiality is indulgently portrayed.

Harlequin, Metamorphosing
1990, acrylic on wood veneer on panel, 23 x 18 cm
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. DCCCXVII
Salut Matelot!
1990, acrylic on canvasboard, 19.2 x 16.4 cm
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. DCCCXXVI

In Harlequin Metamorphosing, a small still-life of architectural Platonic solids rests upon a truncated torso-figure which, Archimboldesque, is constructed almost wholly of collaged cubist and surrealist derived forms. Flattened checkerboard patterning refers to the Harlequin, whose hand can be seen inserting a cylindrical penis-form into the composition over a stylized Picassoid scrotum. Repeated scroll or G-clef shapes, while referring to the cubist use of musical instruments as subject matter, can also signify the anus, according to Schranzer. Sets of curved or straight lines are equally referential to Picasso's calligraphic shorthand for hair or features in his surrealist-influenced figurations, as they are to pubic hair, and body hair in general.

A similar clustering of devices occurs in Salut Matelot!, titled after the French for ''hello sailor,'' as a reference both to Genet's Querelle of Brest and to the positioning of the sailor as a male culture stereotype of the sexual. The central figure, composed of still-life groupings, body parts, and opened-out box forms, was originally conceived as a suspended mobile, according to Schranzer. The logic of such an organization, coupled with Schranzer's appropriation of Picasso's surrealist approach to the manipulation of the body, dictates an organic, clustered structure of accumulated parts which is never completed, but can accommodate new growths, polyps, permutations.

The Architect's Failure alludes in title and structure to an authorial desire for closure, which is never attained. The hand of the author or architect, and, by implication, the hand of God, seeks to organize and contain an ordered landscape of wood veneering and Harlequin motley, which extends infinitely off the panel in all directions. Yet, a gaping hole, created by the absence of the pattern itself, punctures the ordered world (to the surrealists, the world of social nicety and repression) to reveal a limitless sky and a phallic smokestack. Within the level of the ordered pattern, only small doorways are provided as an escape from the relentlessness of regulation, but they too are devised by the author, which seeks to cover up the irregularity of the hole to the outside. From the title of the piece, and in the terms in which the surrealist project of releasing the unconscious from its Oedipalised constraints is phrased, the architect (wearing Harlequin motley) would never conclusively define the subject it attempts to order.

In its literal shallowness, veneer is used to refer to the contrast of the fictive, illusionistic space of the painting, with the decorative actuality of surface: this liberalizes the nature of repression as masking, parodying the surrealist project as simplistic. Schranzer's love of surface, whether as actual veneering or as carefully rendered faux-marble in painting or frame, contributes self-consciously to a positioning of the fetishism of order against the chaos of the felt experience of the fragmented self. But, more than this, his project specifically investigates the subjectivity of the gendered, male, self, as it attempts, from a decentred position or range of positions, to define itself, and to perceive itself in tentative relation to a love-object.

The Architect’s Failure

1990, acrylic on wood veneer on panel, (size not recorded) cm
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. DCCCXV

In his drawings, Schranzer's use of line is reminiscent of early Warhol (2). It is arch, deliberately imprecise, and eloquently obsessive. Schranzer's blotted-line drawings are posed and playful, like Warhol's, though their serious-but-innocent-treatments borrow style from Klee. His figurative posings are loose, like Klee's line, but highly self-conscious as in Cocteau. All pertain (and, as it were, are stripped bare by the skeletal, definitive line) to the problematic of selfhood: Schranzer's device of the box-emblem for his self enables him to literally skirt around the perimeter of this problematic, without attempting to fix or concretise it. In a sense, these pieces are organized around open-ended narratives which hint at melancholy tales, romantic meditations upon love longed for and lost. But the narratives end at their beginnings: the stage is set, the Harlequin has been given his lines; but the remainder of the scene is unclear, informed by a pathos which foresees a sad ending anyway.

Conversation Between Many Fish
1990, ink on paper, 16.25 x 23 cm
Signed and inscribed front with title, date, catalogue no. CMXV
Francis Slips with the Fret-Saw while Sculpting
1990, ink on paper, 16.25 x 23 cm
Signed and inscribed front with title, date, catalogue no. CMXXXVII

Boy with Muscles
1990, pen on paper, 18 x 12.7 cm
Signed and inscribed front with title, date, catalogue no. DCCCLXXX
The Seven Deadly Sins: Steel-Plated Pride
1990, pen on paper, 18 x 13.3 cm
Signed and inscribed front with title, date, catalogue no. DCCCXXXI

Box drawings which show a literal opening-out of the box to signify a receptive opening of the self, such as in Opened Out Self-Portrait with Francis, posits an equation of containment with reception: both box-forms and architectural conceits are devices that function to order, restrict, and contain, and are thus congruent with signifiers of repression in the surrealist lexicon: but, as Schranzer's project adds the nexus of subjectivity/ sexuality/relation-to-another (which can be seen as the terrain of the sexually marginalised), these devices make the boxes and architectural forms reinterpretable as not simply machines for repressive constraint and containment, but as containers, receptacles, receivers. The prompter in Still-Life With Prompter's Box is gagged — filled — with a penis-cylinder which his mouth receives and which renders him mute. In the love relationships Schranzer's work speaks of, the partner who receives, who appears to be acted upon, is caught in flux, without the definitively demonstrable act of doing to fix his identity: his position is elusive, changeable: perhaps it is up-speakable, mute. To call this position ''passive'' is to miss, first of all, the subtleties of exchange, in favour of the certainty of a dichotomous structuring which mimics the supposed complementarity of heterosexual relationships. Secondly, such a position can be adopted strategically, playfully, or ecstatically: it does not necessarily or ultimately stand as a subservient position of humiliation, lack, or even of alienation, though this last is part of Schranzer’s project.
Opened Out Self-Portrait with Francis
1990, pen on paper, 13.3 x 18 cm
Signed and inscribed front with title, date, catalogue no. DCCCXIX

Still-Life with Prompter’s Box

1990, acrylic on wood veneer on panel, 13.5 x 24.5 cm
Signed and inscribed reverse with title, date, catalogue no. DCCCXXI

Both in his paintings and drawings, Schranzer offers up colourful, beautifully rendered image-playthings to distract us from the pain of self-distantiation and its corollary, self-scrutiny. This examination of the self — a look at once fascinated, fixated, and pained; oblique, and precise — speaks of loss and melancholic abandonment. The need to articulate and fix the self is paralleled closely with the desire to be hidden, to become an object, a box, or a toy. This dialogue of the seeking self with itself — or the self with an objectified other persona which speaks in the guise of a (fragmented) other, such as the Harlequin, Minotaur, or schizophrene — desires the establishment of an identifiable integrated self, at the same time that it denies that this is possible, and seeks to obliterate the inauthentic self that is posited in the authentic self’s absence. Ultimately, all that is left is the false and familiar; the known, fragmented self of everyday knowledge, which, to this sensibility, preserves enough of prelapsarian perfection and wholeness to be an intolerable reminder of what one is not, yet which one longs to be or to love in one's own sex, as in a mirror.

Decapitated Man as a Greek Temple
1990, ink on paper, 23 x 16.25 cm
Signed and inscribed front with title, date, catalogue no. CMXIX

Harlequin Disguised as a Tudor House
1990, pen on paper, 18 x 13.3 cm
Signed and inscribed front with title, date, catalogue no. DCCCXXXVIII

Harlequin in a String-Bag
1990, pen on paper, 18 x 13.3 cm
Signed and inscribed front with title, date, catalogue no. DCCCXXXXIV

For Schranzer the aesthetic ideal, for which the fragmented, imperfect self yearns is one of a classical purity, an originary unity and wholesomeness: the boyish, fresh, yet precocious beauty of the ancient Greek kouros and Roman profile, whose posture is strong and heroic; whose torso is triangulated, classicised, as in the photography of Bruce Weber, and that of Herb Ritts; whose mouth, over a curving jaw, is pouty and voluptuous. Like the Diskobolos, this figure must be graceful and lithe; must be mercurially charming and elusive like Puck; and stylish, fey, yet potent, as are the hommes fatals of Cocteau's drawings. Though this figure of aesthetic perfection is integral to Schranzer's conceptualising as a whole, it can be seen to inform his work most obviously in terms of its effects upon emblematic structures signifying Schranzer's self, which are implicitly positioned as its opposite; and its manifestation in various ''youth'' drawings whose subject is the sprite-like, palpably erotic presence of this knowing, precocious boy. Columns and other architectural conceits of ''the classical'' are used emblematically throughout Schranzer's paintings and drawings to indicate the pervasiveness of this aesthetic which functions as a reminder of this idealised beauty, and as a reproach to the subject, which always falls short of perfection according to this scheme. A true love-relation, by this logic, can only exist between idealised equals:

Thus, I began as a romantic idealist, seeking only the perfect love. I looked for a companion who would be both brother and lover, who would be a fellow explorer and sufferer, a playmate to laugh and cavort with, a like-minded philosopher to muse over humanity’s plight with. (3)

In Querelle of Brest, Lieutenant Seblon keeps a diary in which he carefully records his most minute observations of the matelot, Querelle. It is a litany of love, a hymnal of yearning desire to the grace of Querelle's unthinking, animal beauty; to the manner in which Querelle so easily and naturally inhabits his own body. When Querelle meets Gil, he feels as if he has met a ''minor Querelle'' an ''embryo Querelle (4), and it is like kissing himself, his equal, when they embrace. The Lieutenant is a man of duty, of artifice: he marvels at Querelle because of his own self-consciousness. He would never be a suitable lover for Querelle in terms of this narrative of idealised love as mimesis; and indeed, though Querelle is aware of and exploits the lieutenant's love, it is never consummated. In fact, non-mimetic love in the narrative is characterized by the exploitation of a power relation. It is this inequality of power relations which the subject in Schranzer's schema fears, in its longing for an authentic love, and thus an authentic self.

The personae of the Harlequin, and to a lesser extent, the Minotaur and the schizophrene, operate in Schranzer's work to elaborate upon the project of the speaking of the fragmented self. These figures in general conflate to signify the ridiculousness and monstrosity of a self that must perform at the periphery of social discourse.

In his Rose period, Picasso combined attributes of the Harlequin, originally a theatrical figure, with that of the saltimbanque, a street acrobat, and the jester or fool, the medieval court figure of entertainment and ridicule. The resultant figure, sometimes portrayed with Picasso's facial features as in At the Lapin Agile, served as an alter ego signifying both his peripheral position in society as an artist, and as a barometer of his domestic happiness or alienation (5).

Picasso's Minotaur, unlike the terrifying figure of classical mythology, is a vulnerable figure, a playfully comic grotesque who, just as he is sexually potent in some representations, is portrayed as vanquished and wounded in others, his symbolic castration all the more pathetic because his awe-inspiring strength. Picasso's inspiration for this alter ego figure came from his frequent contact with the ritual of the corrida, or Spanish bullfight (6). In the ring, the bull's natural strength and courage were used against him, such that the greater his fight against his fate, the greater would be his eventual punishment by the toreador, whose role was to ritualistically exhaust, wound, and kill the bull. According to Gloria Fiero, Picasso saw himself as in this situation, as a bull-man or Minotaur (7). In a stage curtain design for Le Quartoze Juillet, Picasso portrays a limp, vanquished Minotaur, dressed in Harlequin's motley, slumped in the arms of a muscular, bird-headed monster. This defeated creature, conflated with the alienated role of the Harlequin, stands for Schranzer as a significant embodiment of the separate spheres of alienation in which the fragmented self moves and finds itself. In an earlier painting of Schranzer's he renders the Minotaur as an armless, horned boy. The figure is maimed incomplete, broken. Clearly, to operate at the periphery of subjectivity, particularly sexual subjectivity here, is to risk dismemberment: to risk not only the perception cast upon this subject as incomplete or grotesque, but a symbolic castration that removes the subject from membership in the symbolic order. The marginalised subject perceived thus is not allowed the space in which to speak.

The marginalised subject, negligibly placed at the fringe of mainstream social exchange, is thus estranged from himself just as he is excluded from the socius. The disallowing of a legitimised signifying framework impacts in several ways. Only mainstream, and therefore dominant, discourses are couched in terms of transcendental universalisms, characterised at their normative point of origin by heterosexism as well as other privileging determinants. All frames considered worthy of evaluation (and the application of connoisseur-based objectives) must be seen to occur within the mainstream for criticism, as such, to remain operative. To step outside this, to make work labelled ''gay art'' is to risk its perception in terms of a categorizing of experience generated by mainstream tactics of excising otherness from the body politic. An internalisation of such projections upon the marginalised can generate work in which stereotypes are investigated in terms of the problematic of subjectivity. Such a self-reflective project risks, in mainstream perception, being regarded as kitsch. Thus ''authenticity'' becomes, if the term can be used divorced from an absolutist context, a measure of the extent to which one can speak ''marginality'' with the tools at hand — recognizing its construction as such — and yet still articulate the conditional truths of felt experience.

Schranzer's work engages with this problematic by perceiving appropriated forms, conventions, and personae as strategic devices which can be utilized to establish a range of positions from which to speak his particular subjective and social disenfranchisement. This usage should not be considered completely isomorphic with concerns articulated in the current ''mainstream'' of post-structural art practice, as it engages as well with an aesthetic of male subjectivity that lies outside it. What Schranzer's concern for the inner and the outer of subjectivity indicates in these terms, is a need for interpretive systems and forums which can accommodate the complex relations among multiple mainstreams and margins, and provide an alternative to extant dichotomising models.

1. See John Golding's essay, ''Picasso and Surrealism,'' in Roland Penrose and John Golding (Eds.), Picasso 1881/1973 (London: Paul Elek Limited, 1973).
2. See Rainer Crone, Andy Warhol: A Picture Show by the Artist (New York: Rizzoli International Publication, 1987), originally pub. as Andy Warhol: Das zeichnerische Werk 1942–1975 (Stuttgart: Wurttembergischer Kunstverein, 1976), for a thorough look at Warhol’s early graphic work.
3. Gary 'Wotherspoon, ''The Loner,'' in Gary Wotherspoon (Ed.) Being Different (Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1986), p. 117.
4. Jean Genet, Querelle of Brest (London: Paladin Books/Collins Publishing Group, 1987: first pub. in UK in 1966), p. 205.
5. For a discussion of the iconographic uses of the Harlequin figure in Picasso, see the following by Theodore Reff: ''Harlequins, Saltimbanques, Clowns, and Fools,'' Artforum (10:2, Oct 71): and, ''Love and Death in Picasso's Early Work,'' Artforum (11:9, May 73).
6. See Roland Penrose, ''Beauty and the Monster,'' in Penrose and Golding, op. cit.: and Gloria K. Fiero, ''Picasso's Minotaur,'' Art International (26:5, Nov 83).
7. Fiero, op. cit.
© Meredith Morse 1990 & Kurt Schranzer 2007