LOS ANGELES — As was preordained, the opening night of Anne Imhof’s “Emo” at Sprüth Magers, the German artist’s largest exhibition to date in the United States, was a disaster.
A charcoal gray pickup had apparently careened off Wilshire Boulevard — past the 10 chunks of Berlin Wall on permanent display outside the 5900 Wilshire tower, up a flight of stairs and into the gallery’s pillars. Unfazed, a pair of lanky, lethargic runway Goths performed on the wreck. One shaved his abs, the other emptied water from jugs, then sang “Lake of Fire” by the Meat Puppets at the top of his lungs. Puffs from a smoke machine issued from the truck’s crunched hood.
The scene was incongruous, compelling and a little funny — it wasn’t meant to be convincing. It was meant to flaunt its coolness, where you’d expect gore. The truck, nuzzling up to the building without touching it, a crash without fluids or debris, was staged (and an actual stage) for the overperformance of angst. Theatrical, dramatic — inappropriately emotional: “emo,” in a word. Imhof holds out the nihilism of teenagers — doomers even in the bloom of youth — as relief from a tortured world.
Now enjoying her midcareer, touted in promotional materials as the voice of a new generation, Imhof developed her exacting style of choreographing everyday actions while studying fine art at the Städelschule and dwelling in Frankfurt counterculture. Her achingly slow, deceptively well-rehearsed ensemble performances resemble the deconstructed modern dance of Simone Forti or Yvonne Rainer cut with the flinty ennui of youth subcultures. Imhof’s “Faust,” a slacker opera staged in the Nazi-era German pavilion for the 2017 Venice Biennale, with glowering models under glass floors and barking Dobermans behind chain link fencing, earned the Golden Lion and secured her notoriety as a cryptic antifascist.
At Sprüth Magers’ Los Angeles outpost, the opening’s relatively brief taste of Imhof’s durational work won’t be repeated. Instead, the exhibition showcases recent examples of the artist’s visual vocabulary: defaced shiny surfaces; photorealistic paintings of clouds or club kids in red and blue 3-D; videos and architectural arrangements of mass-produced storage units; bongs and jagged fonts. Without the performers, in the clarity of the next day, Imhof’s “Emo” has the unsatisfying reek of aftermath found in empty nightclubs.
In a reprise of a work from last year’s “Youth” at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the first floor of the gallery is divided into rooms built with caged IBC totes, a standardized, forklift-friendly container for bulk liquids. Paintings on glossy aluminum panels peek through openings in the grid-like walls. Round a corner and out pops a slick airbrushed portrait of a demonic clown, or a biohazard symbol on a green and black gradient, scratched like a school desk. Like the “crashed” truck, the paintings — the décor of an industrial fun house, complete with a soundtrack of autotuned laughter and overdriven guitar dirge — depend on the drama around them. Stacks of tires block the windows, red and blue lights blend with the gallery’s green exit signs to bathe the space in violets and browns.
Past the tanks, Imhof continues her habit of installing rows of brand-new school lockers. Several of her charmingly hairy drawings hang over their gray ranks — groups of anime-inflected figures with gigantic, draping hands, embracing, and, in a moment of interspecies mysticism, hanging out with dolphins.
In an exhibition where even the affect seems stamped from prefab parts, the drawings glow with personality. Yet the artist’s fascination with adolescence plays as both parody and critique: Imhof’s scratchy way of rendering figures, clouds, and heavenly bodies, especially compared with the precision of the paintings, seems faux, if not sarcastic.
The emo genre is a modern branch of punk’s family tree (and a remote sprig of Wagnerian romanticism), but where punk rock’s anger radiates outward, damning authority, emo’s whiny invective points inward, dwelling on individual heartbreak and despair. Broadly speaking, it’s aesthetically self-indulgent and politically selfish, and Imhof knows it. She uses “Emo” ambivalently, embracing art’s emotional range while mocking the expectation that art, in the end, should express something sincere.
Upstairs, in a theatrical nod to Americana, a full-scale billboard serves as a movie screen. Two videos alternate on view; both were recorded in Russia in 2022, in the icy days before Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine, for a show at the Garage Museum for Contemporary Art in Moscow that never happened. “Youth” pairs a Bach oratorio with footage of horses cantering through the snow of a Muscovite suburb. In “AI Winter,” Imhof’s partner and collaborator, the painter and model Eliza Douglas, strides bare-chested and pale through a Soviet ruin in Gorky Park. The camera follows over her shoulder as she presses paths into the snow, grins darkly, or mimes suicide by gun. It’s opaquely menacing, but slippery — are there militaristic undertones? veiled appeals to whiteness? echoes of Stalingrad or raves in Eastern Bloc bunkers? Or is it just fashion?
As with haute couture’s quest for the next shock (Douglas and Imhof often wear Balenciaga, recently criticized for mixing bondage gear and children in their ads), Imhof’s doomy aesthetic leads to muddy politics. The artist’s #YOUTH24 fund-raiser, an online sale of 24 prints of red-blue 3-D clouds (from explosions?) to help children affected by the Ukraine war, happens Feb. 24, the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Once a day throughout the month, Jumbotrons around the world, from the Sunset Strip and Times Square to Tokyo and Milan, screen “Youth,” with an ad for the benefit tacked on. It’s ironic to raise money for Russia’s victims using images of young, beautiful, Russian animals. It’s also on brand, capturing the wild contradictions of global youth-driven culture. Imhof’s work isn’t empty, but it’s built around emptiness — even when it’s for a good cause. It feels powerful in the moment. Then the movement stops and the models slink away and the emptiness is all that’s left. Just like youth.
Anne Imhof: “Emo”
Through May 6, Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles, 5900 Wilshire Boulevard; 323-634-0600, spruethmagers.com.