Henning Straßburger’s A Kansas City Shuffle

Ve.Sch Verein für Form und Raum in der bildenden Kunst - Vienna, Austria
July 23, 2009

I’d like to believe that I am an astute judge of character. I’d like to think that I can see someone’s intentions and know their next move. I’d know if I was in for being swindled - if I was in for a Kansas City Shuffle. In his recent B-movie, Lucky Number Slevin, and with his hokey smile, Bruce Willis explains this little-known phrase by saying, “When everybody looks right, you go left.” It is the modus operandi for confidence men, swindlers, or anyone trying to get the better of you. The debonair gentleman that you come to trust, only to find he’s actually someone else, someone that has left a trail of fools behind him.

Henning Straßburger opens his fist, turns toward the camera, and showing the whitest teeth imaginable, lets out the first verse of his beguiling Schlager ballad “Die Neue Härte”. He sings, ”Deine Haaren und Deine Augen, so wunderschönes…” and as he moves toward the song’s chorus his charm is insidious. No matter how poorly the song is played, how flat and atrocious the tuba sounds, one can’t help but watch Straßburger and start to smile back.

Given how deplorable the Schlager is, it’s easy to assume that who we watch is certainly satirizing the celebrity and disposition of famous German Schlager singers like Roland Kaiser. The gestures and suave dress as well as the radiant smile and graceful movements of Germany’s most adored Schlager singer have not been lost on Straßburger. Even though the performance is overwrought, we can see that he knows what he is doing as he looks quite natural singing “Die Neue Härte”. In the duration of the song, we become convinced that Straßburger is a Schlager singer, not an artist acting as one. His video, a satire and homage to what is arguably one of music’s most kitsch forms, leaves one uncertain as to whether Straßburger enjoys or is digusted by his own sappy serenade. Regardless, Straßburger effortlessly shifts this toying with sincerety into the visuality of painting, bringing his criticism to weigh on the historical character of the abstract or expressive painter.

Among the works exhibited are a set of printed-then-painted posters sporting generic and computer-drafted texts that read ”Easy Listening” or ”für Hippies”. Like an oversized and low budget ad covered with consecutive brash gestures, the text presented exists in stark constrast to Straßburger’s style of painting. The result is a conflicted work. As bad as it is excellent, the paintings are a variation on the question of intention and taste posed by Straßburger’s Schlager. Also shown are works from the artist’s series of commissioned portraits, perhaps the most literal works in the exhibition.

Working with five leisure painters, Straßburger has created a suite of images representing others’ interpretations of himself. With each painter shown the portrait that was made before their commission, they go on to interpret who Henning Straßburger is again. Their palette, background, and individual style, allows each successive work to add to the virtual image that asks the begs the question of who is this artful dodger, Henning Straßburger? Through out the exhibitions we find our answer in numerous variations. Simply, Straßburger is someone who goes left, when we all look right. In the moment when the viewer is about to put their finger on the artist’s aims, we are misdirected, allowing Straßburger to slyly change the rules and name of the game. One is left without any indication as to who the artist may be really be or what the work intends to do; the entire process not just simply lampooning Straßburger’s own specific taste or intentions, but showing the absurdity of these notions in general.


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