The Pursuit of Happiness is an exhibition of selected new works by painter Enrico Freitag (b. 1981, Germany). The paintings explore the promises and hopes surrounding free market capitalism, depicting those working their way in fraught pursuit of happiness.
These works on canvas reveal the labour and sedentary action behind this pursuit, in all its bleak irony, reflecting the artist’s concerns with the mechanisms of higher powers, both political and economic, that drive the masses towards this longing for supposed happiness.
In the suite of works from the series LabOra, we are presented with several harmonious yet ominous compositions of uniformly clad (and poised) workers sitting at benches, desks and tables. With its title fittingly borrowed from the Latinised Christian monastic phrase Ora et Labora (Pray and Labour), the figures in this series evoke an aura of both contemplation and of action. Solemnly and yet actively engaged in an anonymous craft, these figures fix their gaze on what could be the last vestiges of handwork not automated by technological advancement.
The series of paintings ThePromise conflates the biblical reference of the ‘promised land’ with the 19th – mid 20th Century phenomena of ‘company towns’, where a housing estate and its surrounding amenities are built and administered by a company for its employees. Here, what could be seen as a utopian ideal of security and prosperity can also appear as a ploy to attract, exploit and retain cheap workers. Freitag is drawn to the faintly paternalistic and strangely dystopian nature of these phenomena, portraying rows of identical houses reminiscent of New World ‘kit-houses’, military villages, and housing schemes such as those from the artist’s childhood in GDR East Germany.
This subject matter, along with Freitag’s oeuvre as a whole, departs from the dramatic shift in European painting of the 19th Century from portraits of noble men and women of the aristocracy, to the heroic depiction of the workers, the people. It is these same people that Freitag presents to us. Only now, however, our 21st century world is far from a heroic celebration of the worker in the act of heavy physical labour. Rather, we see today an image of exploitation of the weak, as they pick through consumer waste products in less industrialised, ‘automated’ nations, along with the mechanisation of the individual through repetitive gesture in generic, homogenised factories and interiors. Freitag creates for us a silent, humanised void in which to contemplate the quietly hanging expectations of a ‘good’ life, of the promised satisfaction and sense of fulfilment that is perpetuated by the very culture of consuming that fuels such industries.
As we can see in the work Need from the series the bad dream of happiness, there exists in modern society a fading disparity between what we need and what we want – and as our beloved possessions disappear into the void of our own fickle grasp on happiness, all we have left really is our love for one another. As Freitag reminds us, we are not wholly responsible for our own happiness as individuals, but rather as a collective.
Enrico Freitag’s paintings reveal us to the pacification of the people through our material possessions and the trappings of our consumer culture; that the false hopes, dreams and happiness of which are shaped not by individual desires, but in turn by certain global, industrial mechanisms we find ourselves beholden, and largely ignorant to, today.
David Ashley Kerr