Karl-o-gram #3, 2009, pencil on paper
Value, Where Quality and Price Meet, pencil on paper
How to Have a Socially Responsible Orgasm and Other Life Lessons
Karl Haendel’s exacting graphite drawings cull imagery from personal and cultural sources that touch on Americanproduction, consumption and conservation, as well as his painstakingly labor-intensive studio practice. The artist has likened his working process to that of a political commentator or editorialist, and this exhibition provides both a meditation on authorship and a cautionary tale for these recessionary times. Finding the recent national interest in recycling to be framed by a particularly American consumerist mindset, Haendel revisits World War II propaganda that encouraged the rationing of gas, food and other materials. Slogans like “Food is a Weapon: Don’t Waste It!” hang alongside renderings of barking dogs, Humpty Dumpty, steam-engine trains and police tape, offering a potent set of symbols for industry and conservation alike.Haendel accompanies these images with suggestions of a depleted economy too long dependent on overproduction and overconsumption, from his largely unframed, rough-hewn, teeming installation, to the graphite and spray-paint drawings that interpolate abstract patterning with representational crumples.
Karl Haendel is a drawing machine. He has filled this gallery with more works of graphite on paper in more different styles and dimensions — from letter-size to near-mural scale — than you’d think any one person could be capable of. Yet it all comes together as one big installation that meditates on the perilous state of the planet. Among the 86 works covering the walls are photorealistic pictures of snarling dogs and objects like clothes pins and pencil stubs blown up to many times their actual size, exactingly made copies of New Yorker cartoons and images of military missiles extending from floor to ceiling. Several patriotic World War II-era posters are reproduced, including one illustrated by a hand holding a rifle that announces, “America Needs More Meat.” Interspersed among all the precise drawings are Cubist-style abstractions made by stenciling and spray painting on sheets of paper that have been crumpled and smoothed out. Mr. Haendel even breaks into three dimensions, with room dividers covered by illusionistic penciled bricks and a pair of trunk-size blocks elaborately drawn on to resemble giant boxes of Morton’s Kosher Salt. Several images of Humpty Dumpty based on found illustrations and photographs offer a clue to what this is all about: the world is teetering on the brink of disaster. If the worst happens, it will be hard to put back together. Impressive as the exhibition is, in pieces and in toto, all that gray graphite can be a little tiring. Two words for Mr. Haendel: colored pencils.
MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE PRODUCTION. The slogan appears on a rendering of a World War II–style poster urging American industry to ever-greater fertility, but might equally be applied to Karl Haendel’s artistic approach. Stuffing the gallery with dozens of his meticulous, often vast, graphite drawings—augmented by a few large sculptures and a scattering of spray paintings on paper—Haendel places himself firmly, if ironically, in the maximalist camp. Juxtaposing his interpretations of vintage propaganda with depictions of rockets and steam trains, Charlie Chaplin and Humpty Dumpty, pencil boxes and scalpel blades, the artist offers commentary on the culture of excess via an aesthetic of overload. And if the total effect is oppressive, the feeling is at least consistent with the point. The temptation to make art about current events is ever powerful, but often yields work that dates quickly. Haendel’s project, with its allusions to consumerism and waste, conflict and danger, might suggest a response to the recession, but sensibly maintains a broader ambition. The artist incorporates historical references, but mixes them with enough iconography of a broader stripe that viewers are unlikely to leave with a sense of having been lectured. Formally, this is an absorbing blend; the exactitude of the drawings is at odds with their rough-cut presentation (many are unframed or stapled to boards), and stands in contrast with the experimentation with crumpling, stenciling, and overpainting that characterizes the exhibit’s works in other media. Sometimes, more is more.
Andrea K. Scott:
Haendel mixes one part Pop, one part Pictures Generation, and adds a dash of neo-Constructivism (thanks, in part, to Walead Beshty, whose photogram appears in the show). Large-scale graphite drawings are arranged in a staggering floor-to-ceiling installation. Works that are evocative of American Second World War propaganda (a cross between James Rosenquist and Barbara Kruger) suggest straight appropriation, until you read their satirical messages: “Save waste fats for explosives—take them to your meat dealer.” Haendel’s debt to the media distillations of Jack Goldstein, the graphite stylings of Robert Longo, and the grisaille deconstructions of Troy Brauntuch are obvious. But he brings a fresh and funny approach, as evidenced by his show’s tongue-in-cheek title.