Ooook-lahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain
And the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet
When the wind comes right behind the rain.
Oklahoma, Ev’ry night my honey lamb and I
Sit alone and talk and watch a hawk
Makin’ lazy circles in the sky.
For Franz Kafka, the American fantasy culminated in the liberation of the body and psyche amidst amber waves of grain and a world isolated from its polluted, machinist urban jungles. His incomplete novel, Der Verschollene(literally translated as “The Stoker”, published posthumously as Amerika) abruptly ends with its protagonist, Karl, leaving New York to take up a position as a “technical worker” with the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma; traveling by train, the open arms of the mountainous frontier, itself, becomes a house of spectacle, a theatre. For the Postmodern observer, it is unironic that Kafka’s vision of that arena “has some bearing on the truth of how the United States of America was actually functioning as a social system.”* For artist Cole Sternberg, this state of socio-economic disarray is rendered in a series of re-worked photographs (pushed to the last possible outpost of figurative imagery) intimating a simultaneous refusal and communion with such a fine madness. Pulled directly from Kafka’s text, Sternberg’s new exhibition is titled all his strength was concentrated in his fists, including the very strength that held him upright. Spoken through the mouth of enlightened disillusionment with The American Dream, Kafka (and now, Sternberg) have witnessed free pursuit funneled into an impenetrable system, a struggle with each and every reward in the slippery hands of a middleman, and the pulp fiction imagery of wide open spaces perpetually tarnished with bloody histories and deeply-concealed injustices.
Sternberg’s consideration of Kafka as primary source material is informed through his experiences as a creative instrument and an instrument of the law. With a B.A. from Villanova University and a J.D. from American University’s Washington College of Law, Sternberg approaches the tangled mass of Kafka’s work (to date, its intended conclusion and aims upon publication remain shrouded in mystery) using a scientific method solidifying formal examinations of justice and moral axioms (as a lawyer might do) and an experimental set of painted and written strokes possessing delicate, almost invisible bonds to those ends (as artists do and continue to do). He offers viewers a sense of what displacement, paranoia, persistence and aggression might look like if it inhabited a flat surface. Heavily applied acrylic paint in short sweeps coupled with angry, shorthand-like scrawls across wood panels and inkjet photographs serve as the tangible presence of these impossible concepts. These are not works that Kafka, himself, would have produced were he known to engage in art-making. They are tactile simulations of Kafka’s inability to find solace or belonging in his surroundings, opting for the protective shell of his own work. To shield the coherence of his craft (and of his consciousness), Kafka experienced his own activity of writing as a mournful necessity to which he was bound in the same manner as a madman is bound to his delirium (sein Wahn): “were he to lose it, he would become ‘mad,’” as he says in a letter...**
Sternberg’s studio production values run closely parallel to this psychological balancing act. While this ‘mad genius’ persona has been widely discredited as nurturing an artist’s most significant output, Sternberg focuses on the middle ground between despair and hope for Kafka’s literary hero: rage. There are hints of Romanticism with Sternberg, as he often presents transcriptions of classic and stream-of-consciousness texts laid out with the fearful passion of a conspiracy theorist. But Sternberg does not, for a moment, exhibit symptoms of suffocating sensibility in initiating a dialogue with his viewers. Poetic scribbles and nostalgic photography notwithstanding, Sternberg maintains a safe distance from emotional immersion by selectively arranging abstract elements alongside literal gateways.
Sternberg’s new work is an exercise in the bending of time to unite two artists harboring very similar suspicions and hostilities against an often bureaucratic, industrialized world that transforms flesh and blood into pithy articles of total insignificance. Lightly treading the territory of the embittered hermit, Sternberg elects to present his work with a keen awareness of its explicit and implicit effects. This stark realization is no different than that of Kafka, who seems to have dwelt at the threshold between sanity and a kind of illuminated non-sanity.*** Too young to be historic and/or too old to be innocent, Sternberg amalgamates collage, graffiti and painting with each respective technique exhibiting traces of Twombly, Prince and Basquiat. For the first time in the course of his practice, Sternberg fuses traditional wall paintings with video into an installation fully integrated into the gallery structure. After early trials with video and live performance (most recently in his project you’ll miss your riding lesson tomorrow (2012) in collaboration with Primary Projects, Flaunt Magazine and David Caruso during Art Basel Miami Beach), Sternberg initiates this latest setup with substantial confidence and less external distraction. Anchored with the existential severity of Kafka’s unfinished immigrant tale and the ever-treacherous, ever-evolving platform of digital technology, this exhibition explores the realm of the highly intellectual, highly volatile artist with new rigor and vision.
For Franz Kafka, his “Amerika” was always beyond his reach, leadened with a belief that those who sat in the thrones of power were the gatekeepers to scenes of majestic freedom in a limitless democracy. The grandeur of an unfettered life was, for him, unattainable and undeserved. For Cole Sternberg, “Amerika” accelerates its cycle of alienation, drowning in digital data and eroding the core of the human being, altogether. For both men, separated by nearly nine decades, “America” is a manufactured dream. “Amerika” is the face of greed, corruption and mistrust…to the Republic, for which it stands.
by Shana Beth Mason
* Dix, Douglas Shields. “The Man Who Disappeared: Kafka Imagining Amerika”, The Kafka Project. Accessed 2013/02/27 - 20:19, http://www.kafka.org/index.php?id=195,239,0,0,1,0
** Spurr, David. “Paranoid Modernism in Joyce and Kafka”, Journal of Modern Literature. Vol. 34, No. 2 (Winter 2011), Indiana University Press, pp. 178-191. p. 184
*** Spurr, David. ibid. p. 186