During his career, the work of artist Michel Majerus (b. 1967) balanced an uncomfortable feeling of familiarity with the certainty of experiencing something fresh, original and groundbreaking. The artist sampled from popular culture and the history of art, with layers of different visual references. Adopting the quintessentially postmodern instrument of appropriation, Majerus inserted himself into a tradition of artists who made the borrowing of visual languages and images from other contexts their trademark. In the 1980s, artists the likes of Louise Lawler, Sturtevant and Sherrie Levine based their practices on appropriation; in the same years Richard Prince re-photographed advertisements and media campaigns challenging ideas of originality, market value and linkage.
Majerus was pioneering in his ability to juxtapose the spirit of the late 1960s with the now all-familiar iconography of the digital. He also had his own unique take on the readymade. He appropriated images from 1990s popular culture, such as the characters from the 1995 film Toy Story, and the two-dimensional environments all too familiar to those grown up playing Nintendo and Game Boy. In Tron 3 (ocker Pantone 143), (1999), the artist positions an identical print from the titular movie’s poster atop a large-scale monochromatic wall painting. The latter is reminiscent of the much smaller samples of the Pantone Matching System (PMS), a standardised classification of colours used by designers to identify specific chromatic combinations. Movies and advertising graphics meet manufacturing; these two usually undervalued realms invaded Galerie Max Hetzler’s space on the occasion of Open Source: Art at the Eclipse of Capitalism.
Majerus’ reference to consumer culture imagery refers to Pop Art’s most established artists. In o.T. (collaboration Nr.8), 1999, the artist intervenes with a few brushstrokes over a silkscreen print of a famous General Electric work by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Majerus’ art-historical sourcing does not limit itself to Pop culture. Germany in the 1980s witnessed, with Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, a resurgence of painting. Majerus worked under the tutelage of Conceptual Art’s key figure Joseph Kosuth, whose influence is particularly apparent in the artist’s wide use of language. Billboard graphics meet the visual flux typified by the Internet in video works such as Michel Majerus, 2000. Here, the artist’s name is endlessly repeated, fragmented and scattered around in Disney-like colourful letters.
Curator and art historian Daniel Birnbaum recently described Michael Majerus’ practice as ‘painting in the expanded field’, quoting Rosalind Krauss’ influential essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field. The artist’s oeuvre questions the historical baggage of his medium, incorporating print processes, video and ready-made material in works which showcase the ‘expanded field’ of the digital, something that goes well beyond the stretched surface of a canvas. According to Birnbaum, the hybrid vocabulary of the ‘Information Age’ is efficaciously translated by Majerus in artworks that replicate the openness of the Internet’s infinite supply of imagery. The artist is a DJ who mixes elements of our world to the sound of the technological era. Everything is simultaneous with a swift overlap of noise and image.
Birnbaum explains to Interview Magazine: ‘Majerus was interested in everything new, and I do feel that his own personal sense of time and omnipresence was very much in line with how we think of the World Wide Web, in terms of everything happening now. For him, it was a strangely new temporal experience that he had to express in his art. It’s almost like he was trying to translate that into something hopelessly old-fashioned—not oil on canvas, necessarily, but a painterly practice.’
Majerus’ critical position towards the digital era’s aesthetics and advertising techniques remains ambiguous despite his continued use of appropriated materials. More overtly political, Majerus’ 2002 exhibit Sozialpalast saw the artist covering the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin with a huge image of the 1970s housing project of the same name. However, Majerus usually favours the uncertainty of subtle humour. Untitled, 2001, presents an abstract black and white pattern of curvy shapes which imitates the language of advertising design. The charm of psychedelic billboards saturated with pigment is nullified, the flatness and dullness of their visual language finally unveiled. Majerus’ untimely death has left us wondering whether the artist’s practice was about to take on a more politically engaged direction. Nevertheless, the ambivalence of his oeuvre is what makes and will make it always compelling, foreshadowing many scenarios that have only been recently discovered.