A review of
Operation Harmony by Folkert de Jong
James Cohan Gallery
ʻOperation Harmonyʼ is an exhibition that is consistently surprising and new for all of the repetition that it contains. De Jongʼs strong suit is a kind of advanced form of myth construction, more powerful than any of the stereotypical, navel-gazing sort (think Terence Koh and Ryan McGinley). One of his strengths throughout not only this show but his entire body of work is his capability to produce works that feel dated but entirely contemporary, almost as if they exist in a really prescient, relevant time warp. Similar to the likes of Kai Althoff, De Jong is perfectly content for his own persona to linger in the margins and for his characters to do the work, like some perverse puppetmaster jonesing for a dose of gnarly Edwardian ultra-violence. Like Althoff, he builds a world from his own eccentricities, creating entire narratives from a set of interests that have outward implications but ultimately gaze inward. His crusty construction and scribbly drawings feel like they have been culled from a basement or a long untouched estate where years of weather and neglect have had time to set in. The true success, overall, is De Jongʼs uncanny ability to produce objects that demand (and receive) enough attention to convey their message in the face of his own abstraction and opacity.
Before one can fully investigate De Jongʼs work, it is important to place it historically. He works in part from a specific period in Dutch history known as the Dutch Golden Age. The Dutch Golden Age was a period in Dutch history, roughly spanning the 17th century, in which Dutch trade, military, science, and art were among the most acclaimed in the world. Essentially, it was a time of growth and intellectual and monetary affluence for Dutch culture. The Dutch East India Company, established in 1602, not only became the worldʼs first ever multi-national corporation but its growth prompted the birth of the first modern stock exchange. The idea of trade, empires, and affluence occupies a strong current in De Jongʼs work.
The title piece of the show, ʻOperation Harmonyʼ, comes off like a rosetta stone for breaking apart the totality of the exhibition. Constructed from industrial foam and polyurethane, the piece is a large grid-like structure comprised of decapitated bodies being disciplined. Taking inspiration from ʻThe mutilated Corpses of the de Witt brothers, Hanging on the Vijverberg in the Hagueʼ by Jan de Baen, the piece feels as though we are witnessing the tail end of a cathartic destruction, both in a physical and a conceptual sense. Looking past the piece, I noticed that the faces on the sculptures were of a similar time period, ruffled necklines, gristly corpse-like teeth, and facial expressions that reek of a certain schizophrenic insanity. With that, ʻOperation Harmonyʼ becomes a kind of esoteric suicide. De Jong murdering his own persona straight away and then re-building.
The idea of suicide in art has a deep and ongoing history. From Bacon to Baldessari, artists have effectively destroyed their past works to re-build and re-define. If we can assume that De Jong builds a persona, which he does, then the violence depicted in ʻOperation Harmonyʼ serves as a small suicide. He is orchestrating the show like a connected narrative rather than a series of singular events. As you dig further in, the idea of building, growing, and dying off becomes apparent, not only physically but conceptually. His works are, at the outset, grimy analogies to empire building and greed combined with a moralizing respect for history. De Jong plays with quasi-contradictions, namely thoughts of progression and stagnancy at once.
With history in tow, it becomes easy and interesting to break down the other central installation in the show displayed in gallery one, ʻThe Balance:Traderʼs Dealʼ. It is a tableaux of four blacked out, jester-like traders dancing and gesturing on top of barrels and moving palettes. They simultaneously repel and invite the viewer, creeping you out in a way that makes you cock your head to one side. Like the bust paintings in Scooby Doo cartoons, their eyes follow you as you navigate the space, creating a visceral environment that makes the assumed aggression of the scenario all the more plausible.
ʻThe Balance: Traderʼs Dealʼ is De Jongʼs most overt analogy to Dutch history. He not only invokes it in the name of the piece but clearly alludes to it in the action. However, the piece is also the point where his conflating of past and present becomes most apparent. De Jongʼs characters dance atop a mix of moving palettes, oil barrels, and what appear to be maybe whiskey, beer, or spice barrels. These become symbols that initially work to represent only themselves and their function, they are platforms on top of which the action occurs. However, on further investigation, they are surrogates for our own, contemporary versions of imperialism and commerce. All three of the forms evoke transportation, motion, and, at the same time, archiving or storing. They are pedestals that are inherently anti-static forms, essentially soap boxes with a stock value. Mutable bases that propose a decidedly mutable endeavor. ʻThe Balance: Traderʼs Dealʼ envisions a crass, small-scale barter that sets the wheels in motion for De Jongʼs holistic analogy.
ʻThe Balanceʼ, however, is the point where De Jongʼs real message starts to become cloudy at the same time as it reveals itself. It is impossibly difficult to crack his language and come to any kind of concrete stance. Sure, it is not incredibly difficult to see the work for its analogies and comparisons but all of these realizations serve only to complicate the point...and it seems he wants it that way. If there is a critique of (or even just a reference to) imperialism, it seems relatively vague and murky, exploring it more as a facet of world cities and a globalization than as a concept to be deconstructed. De Jongʼs interest is not in breaking apart but rather utilizing conceptual systems. His implication of imperialism and commerce exists to drive his narrative and re-iterate the point. It holds the mirror up instead of pointing the finger and for that, his work is monumentally brilliant. Not brilliant because he refrains from pandering to an already saturated audience, but brilliant because this methodology allows him to use history as a conceptual device rather than a static touchstone.
Elsewhere in the burned out, creepy-eyed time warp of Operation Harmony is what appears, at first glance, to be a proverbial sour note. ʻBusiness As Usual: ʺThe Towerʺʼ is a sculpture consisting of the three ʻhear no evil, see no evil, speak no evilʼ monkeys on each others shoulders, perched atop another whiskey barrel. An overused, hokey maxim for sound mind and behavior that has come full circle with a role in Pokemon and on the t-shirt of everyone that shopped at Indian Weavings in 1997, the three wise monkeys hardly seem like a reasonable inclusion. Aside from their visual congruence, they are a fucking square peg. However, it becomes apparent that the inclusion of this totemic oddball is to employ some form of contradiction. The wise monkeys and anything they might espouse is entirely wasted in the world of violence, derision, and swindling. They are a monument to the 21st century use of faded out maxims and back patting at a time when much more is necessary.
If there is a weak point in ʻOperation Harmonyʼ, it resides in the back gallery in the form of De Jongʼs drawings. Let me be clear, these are not fundamentally bad drawings and one might even go so far as to say that they are an interesting compliment. My main complaint is I think that their potential is slightly lost in this context. Here again we see De Jong following in the footsteps of Kai Althoff, referencing his own work, drawing unknown but slyly familiar faces (Abe Lincoln?), and creating a general vibe of eccentricity and creepiness. They fall flat as the reliable old model for works on paper, that of the sketch for a larger work. Frankly, that is boring and De Jong is above it, so what the fuck is the point of these things?
It seems that, again taking a page from Althoffʼs book, De Jong intends to position his drawings as something to be regarded almost as a joke. They are crude and their forms are too simple, the characters are ambiguous and involved in strange rituals. They have all the kitsch appeal of the TV show ʻGhost Huntersʼ, that is they highlight and falsely propose to understand or exemplify everything we will never know. In this way, they are a funny inclusion. The issue is that the point (if that indeed is it) isnʼt sold through. His drawings are brilliant as another facet of the Folkert De Jong experience but laughably cheesy as crafted pieces.
In the end, I feel welcome in De Jongʼs ʻOperation Harmonyʼ and came out with a wry smile on my face like someone held a perfect lens up to my experience. The exceptional part of this show is that it is never directly critical of its viewer, almost as if that methodology is too low brow. Instead, it positions things we already think and know in a way that is new and strangely de-contextualized. Like any good argument, it forces one to look inward and re-assess rather than leave perplexed and angry. Folkert De Jong is building a subtle empire that analyzes our day to day practices and intricacies. It is a fascinating prospect to think about what he will do next and having another de-stabilizing experience of looking oneʼs self in the face.