I first met the identical Enger twins, Mark and Matt at the well-known artist’s bar Max Fish, on the Lower East Side of New York. They were wearing civil war dress that shocked the Northern sensibility, but their rebellious style was a trademark that made the twins into an embodiment of their work. They were soon producing murals and installations for the bar to cement their presence in the downtown community.
When I heard Mark Enger had died this spring after his battle with throat cancer, I went to my dresser and took out one of my favorite tee-shirts. I considered its label, “Exploding Sky,” the name of the company that stood for the outrageous and often controversial work of the Engers. My tee, a white mini-shirt, trimmed with red cuffs bears “Satan Racer” in day-glo green on the front. As I held it up for closer inspection, the light shone through wear-holes. I thought of the twins who had made their home in New York far from the Southern army bases where they were raised as children of an officer and how that world of ceremony and proud service had always remained so dear to them. Later that morning, various friends called to tell me that they had slept in their cow-skull shirt, or were going to work in their gun shirt or iron-cross hoody. The twins’ unique high art rock and roll sensibility had permeated our lives. After the sad news, it was strange to think how a creative community, self-identified by an Enger tee-shirt uniform, might be at an end. I sadly surmised the company would now comprise one twin.
The Engers left Oklahoma to arrive in New York in 1989, first Matt and then Mark, and by the following year they had founded Exploding Sky Worldwide on Avenue B of the East Village. They pursued their fine art careers, curated shows and performed with their band the “War Hippies,” all executed with their typically audacious energy. Their company took off as the vehicle for their limited edition clothing line, fine art objects and public collaborative identity. Further, the meticulous nature of their silkscreen work earned them a reputation as skilled printers, which made them a premiere resource to produce limited editions for important artists such as Kiki Smith, Donald Baechler, Keith Haring and Robert Rauschenberg.
In many respects I was wrong about Mark’s departure from our creative circle, since when I spoke with Matt Enger at his show at the Christopher Henry Gallery, he informed me that prior to his death Mark had continued to create images for clothing and art, as witnessed by the exhibition. Matt further claimed that since they were identical then Mark remains essentially alive in the replication of his twin brother. The show reflects this absent presence as one encounters Mark’s face printed onto an under-lit, clear day-glo pink box that contains his ashes. His eyes glow from the surface, animating the work with an uncanny yet compelling command. However, though the eyes follow the viewer as might a traditional portrait, there is nothing of conventional classicism here. Even as at first glance the work is a hyper-updated pop-art, at a second look, it is a thought provoking conversation about identity, memory and how death engages history and art.
The symbolic dialogue between the twins inevitably invites the viewer to guess at the boundaries of their internal discourse and in an exhibition that presses the limits of the viewer’s position as spectator, it forces one to reflect on romantic and modernist mythologies of the dead artist. The Engers press one to revisit issues of consumerism in a way that recalls Picasso’s famously disruptive painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, here even more concretely. The Enger’s defiant gaze back towards the viewer though dramatic, is ironic. Irony is always close in the work of these brothers whose symbolism taunts our expectations.
The two-story gallery, housed in a renovated chapel is an appropriate site for the split-level show of the twins’ works. On the ground floor are the paintings of Matt Enger, while above there are works by his brother Mark, along with the metaphor of their shared vision in the form of two circular mirrors with skulls in the center that suggest eyes in two pieces entitled “ Skull Mirror 1” and “Skull Mirror 2.” They remind of the relationship between the men and of the complexities of their unity and individuality as identical twins. Yet more, the mirrors allow us to see ourselves reflected in their eyes, while we are metaphorically brought inside the thematic skulls to see ourselves through the siblings’ eyes as we are transported into Engerland. From this position, the world transforms into one driven by artists who adhere to ancient classical values of duty, honor and glory brought into present time through contemporary style and composition. The show is a pact and an affirmation of the transcendence of Art between a living and a recently living twin that places a supreme value on the artist as object of his own artistic production. Art and artist are indivisible. Duty to each other and to art is at stake.
Matt Enger’s colorful paintings contain images of roses, skulls, crushed cans, of the American old west and George Washington’s splatter-distressed likeness. In the painting “Shadows,” the individual elements work together to bring the past into proximity with the disposable present, as the ethereality of a pink rose sits below a crushed beer can and a similarly pink skull rests beneath a purple tire that seems to rush forward from the canvas.
At first one is tempted to understand the works as symbolic of the transitory nature of the world and to see a depiction of modern life as ephemeral and relentless, consumed and disposable. However, in proximity to other paintings in the series, such as “Commanche Moon,” in which a spattered pink ground underlies a blue George Washington before an a row of multi-colored Commanche riders, the juxtaposition of American history with symbols of modern excess, instead appear to contain and stabilize a way of life, for better or worse. There is nostalgia for an America caught in the imaginary of the paintings, a sentiment encased in the flawless cast resin surfaces that covers the canvasses.
In “Junior Prom” the crushed beer can fills the canvas in a linear rendition that overlays bright areas of loosely applied yellow and blue with textual inscriptions that forefront the inverted word “gold”. The rendition is afforded such care that the empty, broken container cannot but suggest something more poignant in relation to the container of Mark’s ashes. It speaks of pleasures spent but guarded in remembrance. The everyday elements of the past gather importance in Matt Enger’s often intriguingly contradictory analogies. The paintings carry both universal and personal ambivalence about American values, while there is a love of its history that is again both personalized and made collective. This richness of possibility makes Matt’s work compelling. Ironically, the lavish, crushed beer can mocks our sobriety, our pompousness in the company of death.
Mark Enger’s paintings speak to a somewhat different set of temporal and spiritual concerns than those of his brother, despite their many common points of reference.
A small painting contains a pigment-spattered silkscreen version of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” in bright colors that seem to confront the religious narrative of the original with its implicit spirituality and history. Below the “Supper,” an industrial style production mark is screened that reads “come and take it.” “Come and take it” was a slogan used in the Texas Revolution in 1835, but this surface reading that might suggest a standoff, in this painting creates a textual and imagistic ambiguity.
The narrative offers considerable room for reflection as it continues to juxtapose numerous complex variations of meaning. The piece is a striking example of the artist’s challenge to his mortality and perhaps offers a glimpse into his thoughts during his fight for his life.
Nearby in another painting, several sweeps of paint fill the canvas as the artist (Mark) simplifies his gesture to a purist statement of his work. The piece, whose strokes are instant, fresh and sure, though full of kinetic energy and promise, presents a strangely complete comment. Again, there is an ambiguity as one senses the artist draw breath as he moves to his next work and next state of consciousness. The physicality of this painting in proximity to the “Last Supper” piece, invokes the interaction of the body and the spirit.
Elsewhere Mark’s paintings reference battles, “The Alamo,” The Battle of Trenton” and perhaps these historic challenges provide a subtext for his personal battle. These paintings contain a fluid line that again overlays a dynamic palette. The small painting “Battle of Trenton” with its blue and green hues is especially successful for its beauty and sophistication, however more frequently in the work Mark’s painterly thrust elucidates his move towards simplification and essentialism. This is the ground upon which he makes his painterly stand. For both men the show calls upon their “duty and honor” in the face of adversity, which they engage with “glory.” These are battles that shall not go quietly, rather they will be engaged with the roar of a motor bike; the pair’s favored mode of transport.
The twins articulate their common history in the lexicon of their language, but the paintings are universal in their appeal to the viewers shared past, even as the Engers challenge what it means to be an American and to engage in modern life.
A final and impossible-to-ignore element of the show is a life-size day-glo green faux-fur bear stuffed and mounted on an empty Russian ammunition box. It stands in opposition to Mark’s sculpturally contained remains in defiant kitsch. It forces a smile in the midst of an intense presentation. A parody frozen in time, this time in three dimensions, the bear is another a replication in a show that is propelled by multiples and the desire to affirm the world through insistent repetitions. The reiterations struggle to establish stability. These are the images culled from the joint psyche of identical twins. They are beautiful and profound. They dialogue sublimely into infinity.
I could not help but reflect on the Engers’ love of the multiple image and their affinity for silk screen as its vehicle; twins who made multiples and mirror reflections pulled me into an endless train of thought about the mimetic qualities of art and left me with questions about our mortality and the boundaries of our individuality. What does it mean to be disposable and yet reproducible? Near the door, I passed the rack of tee-shirts with the twins’ iconic designs printed on them. They hung empty as the pink day-glo box sat full of ashes. I hugged Matt goodbye and as I stepped out into the mundanities of the street, I glanced back to see the images in the paintings move back and forward through the layers of glazes and through time. The varnished surfaces gleamed. Elevated, I was reminded of the fluid nature of temporality, reaffirmed by the strength of the work and oddly reassured by the knowledge that there are more tee shirts.
The show is extended into the fall.
Christopher Henry Gallery is located at 127 Elizabeth Street, Nolita, NYC.
212. 244. 6004
Mark Enger died of throat cancer on January 7th 2011 and will be greatly missed. Sincere condolences to all his family and friends.