Contemporary art is often criticized for its lack of autonomy when it comes to selecting concepts and ways to express them. The use of pre-existing forms or ideas is in fact one way to create art during the age of Postmodernism. This may take the form of a reflection on themes raised by acknowledged masterpieces of classical art – a rewriting or expansion of these themes in the artist’s own manner. Or it can be deliberately provocative imitation whose point is to make one doubt. Or sometimes it can simply be jokes. Often art from previous ages is painstakingly concealed in a contemporary work of art. Modern authors neatly stitch good old art history into their works. You could call this a way of addressing the viewer. Like saying: ‘Go find these Easter eggs and references for yourselves. And when you find them, generate new meanings.

If you want to create a strong work of modern art, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, think of a new form for the wheel and a new way of presenting it. As Boris Groys has written,

… today’s artist is not a producer but an appropriator… ever since Duchamp we have known that modern artists do not produce; they select, combine, transfer, reposition… ’

The methods it uses have in effect turned contemporary art into design. Only contemporary art is not about giving an aesthetic shape to functional objects; it’s about creating endless variations and interpretations in a distinctive style. This is literally design of a thought, concept, or idea served up as contemporary art.

What distinguishes Jonathan Edelhuber from the above approach is his directness. Directness of figurative language, directness of colour and form, and directness in how he alludes to the historical material he assimilates. He does not conceal the act of borrowing, does not try to demonstrate to us qualitatively new art (rational intelligence suggests that such art is practically impossible to create at the present moment in history). He is frank in disclosing his sources and in revealing works, themes, stories, books, albums, catalogues, pictures, and sculptures by those who have influenced his views and his art. From this he creates own method, which consists in combining an old-style, handmade component – a part of the process that now seems craftlike – with the postmodernist practice of ‘designing an idea’. In fact, he goes even further: by listing numerous tributes he reminds his fellow artists and viewers of names and images that have formed, and continue to form, our view of all art in general.

Express(ive) biography

Jonathan Edelhuber was born in 1984 in Hope, Arkansas. He seems to be a case of how even the place where you were born puts you in a cheerful frame of mind. He took a BA in art, specializing in graphic design at Harding University. Currently, he lives and works in Tennessee, where his studio is located.

After graduating from university, Edelhuber spent the first few years working as a graphic designer and practising the skills he had picked up during his education. His experience of working as a designer clearly influenced the style in which he began developing as an artist.

Absolutely all works by Jonathan Edelhuber make active use of the theory of colour and show confidence in working with open and concentrated colours that, for all their bright variety, do not get in each other’s way or overload the image. Bright colours resembling the primary colours in children’s books or freshly squeezed acrylic paints create a feeling of cheerfulness and fill Edelhuber’s work with energy and vitality. For the viewer this is like a session of chromatic therapy. The bold borders of the objects depicted – thick black outlines executed using a thick brush – are clearly borrowed from the art of the illustrator.

Hypnotizing everyone

Edelhuber started exhibiting his work in 2007 – at Grand Opening Group Show, a group exhibition at Carmichael Gallery of Contemporary Art in California. The show offered a first look at prototypes for his wide-smiling hypnotic skulls. The laughing faces full of optimism immediately found favour with audiences and art critics in sun-bashed Culver City. A few weeks later, the same gallery gave Edelhuber the run of its entire exhibition space for his first solo exhibition. This tactic bore fruit: now that his work was free of the awkward presence of neighbours sharing the gallery space, the public had the chance to look at it properly. Edelhuber’s career as an artist was launched; his work could now be scaled up to be seen by thousands of eyes all over the country.

Edelhuber soon began taking part in group exhibitions all over the US. This gave him the chance to get to know artists from the latest generation of contemporary American painters (mainly figurative, by the way). He made some highly profitable new contacts in the art world, including, for instance, the American artist Katherine Bernhardt, famous for her expressive aerosol painting. Bernhardt’s works pulsate with the bright colours of African textiles and with images taken from pop culture. One of these motifs became the object of a collaboration between the two artists.

In 2020 Bernhardt and Edelhuber presented a joint object: Panther Panther Rosa Rosa, a two-sided wooden figure of the Pink Panther on a stepped pedestal and made in a limited edition of 35. This sculpture combined two portraits of Inspector Clouseau executed in the signature styles of each artist. Bernhardt created a fuchsia head with primitivist, contrasting brushstrokes. Compared with the latter, Edelhuber’s graphic version in a Neapolitan pink even manages to look restrained and minimalistic – however improbable this may seem in the light of the general mood and style
of his works.

Edelhuber has progressed smoothly from small-scale collaboration to exhibitions outside the US. First, he took part in Quixotic, a group exhibition at Ramp Gallery in the UK. Then he went on to show several ‘skulls’ at an exhibition of new figurative painting at Nassima Landau in Tel Aviv. His works began to reference art from all over the world – a good example of effective commercialism.

In Edelhuber’s works lack of affectation goes hand in hand with the transcendental feeling – a feeling which has yet to be properly articulated – of the ‘art object’. This arises when an ambivalent thing passes the threshold of subjective personal attribution and each viewer answers for him- or herself the question, ‘Is this art or not?’ The familiar comics style, the possibility of using a painting as a piece of interior decoration, the clear array of meanings, and the craft-like manner of execution (something which puts most art aficionados at their ease) all play their part here. But there is more to Edelhuber’s fame than mere affordability, conceptual clarity, and the refreshing freshness of his visuals.

Quarantine skulls

It often happens that when an author creates a work, it initially receives no attention or recognition. Several years later, however, the work turns out to have been prophetic; from this moment forwards it is regarded as an omen and its author is honoured as a wise seer. In 2020, when the whole world withdrew into total isolation in response to the coronavirus epidemic, Edelhuber’s brightly coloured skulls, which he had tried to launch at the very beginning of his creative career, became a symbol of the universal response to the new reality. That November, Edelhuber brought together an array of skulls in all kinds of combinations of colours and proportions to create Quarantine Skulls, a solo exhibition at Ampersand Gallery in Portland.

Surrounded by frightening statistics, social shocks, and mass death, Edelhuber created his own interpretation of the classic memento mori motif.

The memento mori is a genre of painting whose traditional semantic and figurative focus is a human skull. Allegorical still lifes that remind us of the transience of life and the inevitability of death were especially common during the Baroque age in Western Europe.

An essential ingredient of the vanitas still life, the skull was a reminder that human beings are mortal. Or, as Voland, the great villain in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, said, ‘Yes, human beings are mortal, but that’s only half the problem. What’s really bad is: they’re sometimes abruptly mortal – that’s where the trick is!’ Looking at a picture and seeing a shape associated with a creature that had once been alive, viewers were supposed to perceive the skull as their own inevitable reflection subject to the universal law of the universe.

Quarantine Skulls is a rare example of an interpretation of this symbol that refers to the fundamental dichotomy of life and death. Like Erich Fromm in Man for Himself, Edelhuber sets out to draw attention to the fact that recognition of death’s inexorability should remind us of the opposite side of the scales: life, its values and brevity.

Edelhuber’s skulls radiate vital energy even in the way in which they are made. The expressive strokes of pure colour are barely restrained by the thick outlines of the geometrical forms; the lines pulsate and form patterns that are visual illusions; the sprawling mask-like faces are covered with splashes and generous, thick layers of paint; the details have been scratched out; and the hard wooden basis of the skulls could easily have been scooped out from whole pieces of solid wood. In this context Edelhuber’s painting and objects may be compared with works by members of Neue Wilde (New Savages or New Fauves) such as Kiefer or Baselits.

When you come under the shaman-like hypnotic gaze of Edelhuber’s skulls, you sense the vital force bursting from these mono-compositional, totem-like pictures. They exist to generously share this energy with us – observing us with wide-open eyes full of optimism, enthusiasm, even drive. The point of the memento mori motif here is not to oppress but to give us back our joie de vivre and sense of the value of life.

Leaving Eden

The gardens of Eden are another common classic art motif that Edelhuber has ‘redesigned’. In December 2020 at a solo exhibition titled Leaving the Garden he presented his own interpretation of the biblical story of Adam and Eve being tempted by the snake, eating the fruit of the Forbidden Tree, and falling into sin.

In Edelhuber’s treatment the expulsion from the garden of paradise has been almost entirely stripped of the religiousness which invariably accompanies Old Testament subjects. Adam and Eve are shown as consciously sinful, obsessed with the idea of tasting the forbidden fruit right now, steady-eyed, with tongues hanging out – like the snake which has tempted them. The captions in the works sound like a dialogue: ‘I don’t have to explain myself to you’; ‘I stood where you’re standing now’.

The characters’ communication with one another comes across as tense and superficial. But their monologues with themselves seem even more strained and full of contradictions: thus Edelhuber prioritizes the existential meaning of the story and makes his characters more like each of us, like ordinary people whose motives and actions are comprehensible to all alive today.

At the same time, Edelhuber’s playful figurative language removes any pompousness inherent in the philosophical context: his characters resemble characters in comics; their outlines recall primitive illustrations; the snake could have been drawn for a cartoon (and subsequently sold out as merchandizing in the form of a soft toy) or taken from the artist’s children’s colouring book. The bright and bold colours and naïve scribbling that mimics a child’s writing make these works easy to look at, allowing us to relax while discussing a topic that often leads to disagreements.

Easter eggs and references

The Postmodernist method culminates in an undisguised tipping of the hat to the entire history of art. This is not just a paying of respect but a direct and unsophisticated use of art history as the basis – or literally the construction material – for the artist’s own works. Edelhuber first demonstrated this technique at his solo exhibition The Library, held at Galerie Sébastien Bertrand in Geneva in March 2021. Subsequently, still lifes consisting of exceptional fragments of art history were shown at Contemporary Art History, an exhibition of work by Edelhuber and José Lerma at Channel to Channel in Tennessee in July 2021.

Edelhuber’s stacks of books – painted or sculpted – reflect his longstanding love for books, and especially for literature on the history of art. As a child, he spent all his pocket money in a small bookshop in Arkansas buying books on art. These were collections on the old masters, miniature square publications that fit easily into the palm. Looking for a way to work in the still life genre, Edelhuber has combined his childish obsession with books and his mature obsession with contemporary art. Towers of books, catalogues, and journals on art look as if they have been accidentally placed on top of one another, layered by a series of carefree impulses to pull a particular thing out of the general pile. Edelhuber gathers together references to create a new object. It’s as if he is staging a classic Dutch still-life with fruits, vases, and other symbolic objects.

As we glance over the famous names on the bindings, we can try to find in Edelhuber’s choice of books regular relationships between the artists and their works, between critics and artists, and between authors and critics, all of them literally placed on top of one another. Fortunately, Edelhuber spares his viewers this ungrateful intellectual labour: his piles are created intuitively, and buried in some of them are books which do not exist at all. They are simply beautiful and made up. And even then, when you’re looking at Basquiat’s Venus, placed on top of a book by Cy Twombly, which in its turn stands on top of a collection by Brice Marden, followed by de Kooning, it is impossible to get away from the thought that you’ve discovered a historical link here – but, then, Edelhuber has done everything to make sure you’ve noticed it.

You’ve probably seen monuments to everyday objects: Jasper Johns’ bronze beer cans on plinths, Andy Warhol’s tins of soup. But has anybody ever put art-history books on a pedestal before this?

For Edelhuber, piles of books on art are a tribute, executed in the manner of the latest art, to all authors and phenomena that have influenced him and his creative method. In these works, for instance, you can often make out traces of Rauschenberg, whose ‘combines’ made a big impression on Edelhuber. Edelhuber likes to combine different sections of time – by, for instance, simultaneously citing Picasso and Philippe Gaston, Robert Motherwell and Yayoi Kusama, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, Basquiat and Katherine Bernhardt, or Calvin Markus and Richard Serra. These combinations occur in different variations.

He places the great classics of art together in colourful three-dimensional mutants decorated with ornaments taken from all fields of the arts. The influence they emanate is clear – and powerful enough to paralyze creativity perhaps. If, however, we study them, get to know them in all their depth, these modern totems from the world of art can inspire us to create new art that is liberated from the need to compete with everything past.

Could there be a better way to relate to the good old history of art?