These are exciting times for figurative painting. Promising new talents keep turning up. Among the latest arrivals is Florian Krewer, until recently one of Peter Doig’s students at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Like the work of his teacher, Krewer’s eccentric explorations appear by turns hysterical and catastrophic. His pictures of adolescents hanging out in indeterminate urban locations show them caught in a kind of relaxed, abject splendor. Their faces, with Edvard Munch-like contortions or Francis Bacon-like smears, suggest they live a lifestyle founded on nihilism, caught in a state of existential and moral anomie. With their portentous and menacing informality, the ten paintings in “Car Park Godiva” looked surprisingly at home in the austere setting of Michael Werner’s Mayfair space, especially with the works downstairs hung irreverently over an ornamental dado rail.
Two seated figures hover on a pink ground in grey, 2019. One confronts the viewer face-on with his legs and arms spread and his left hand on the other’s thigh, while behind him the second grapples with a hooded top he’s pulling off. Smoking what looks like a joint, the foreground figure smiles with what seems an unhealthy mixture of empathy, paranoia, and threat; it’s as if we’re being lured into an impending physical assault. Similarly, the main character in one and only, 2019, glances in our direction as he walks across the picture in front of three youths with their backs turned. The main man—his bald head and the paisley pattern of his shirt being the only relief from the grisaille that dominates the painting as a whole—is a kind of scarecrow with black smears for eyes. The tension is palpable as these feral youths walk the earth like the living dead. With arms outstretched like something out of Danny Boyle’s 2002 horror film, 28 Days Later, the tracksuited, hooded oddball in nice dog, 2019, stumbles over his awkward pet, a savage white mongrel. Meanwhile, in here we go again, 2018, the protagonist clenches his fists the moment before he jumps into the fray with a couple of shadowy, black-clad figures.
If nothing else, such works provide a new take on the well-worn term zombie formalism—meaning, in part, an appropriation of historical styles—this time translated into contemporary figuration rather than abstraction. As Krewer reanimates familiar modes, traces of indolent figures from previous artists populate his canvases: from those of Edvard Munch and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to those of Francis Bacon and Georg Baselitz. Krewer combines these with elements of Doig’s knowing naïveté to form a composite informality that brims with life.
Writing about Bacon, Gilles Deleuze once posited a transformation of the figurative through what he called the chaos of the “diagrammatic order.” The diagram for Deleuze is “indeed a chaos, a catastrophe, but it is also a germ of order or rhythm. It is a violent chaos in relation to the figurative givens.” These words seem just as apposite to Krewer. His distorted faces enact an optical catastrophe that surfaces from the rhythm of his painterly marks. This is a situation in which, as Deleuze said, “a new figuration . . . should emerge from the diagram and make the sensation clear and precise.” Krewer’s veiled yet manic figures seem caught in a fixed yet distracted temporal no-man’s-land: They are “already there,” as Deleuze put it, but “always delayed”—beyond or beneath representation, in a post-zombie era.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, rough pentimenti charting the inner history of the artist’s rhythmic experiments gave the work its nervous, animated edge. The finest example of this effect was the coming, 2019, showing an atypically vulnerable young man clasping his hands, an expression of uncertainty on his roughly hewn face. Beneath and around his arms we could see the half-hidden traces of their previous positions; it was as though they were struggling to escape their confinement in the picture. Productive agitation and frenetic energy take Krewer’s youthful figures to their abject limits.