‘A Matter of Touch’ in Berlin

Exhibition opening on July 16, 2020, from 5 – 9 pm            

Touch is an important aspect of painting. The temperaments of the artists in this exhibition can be felt through the way they have worked and touched the canvas, be it with a firm, decisive brushstroke, a light touch to create transparency, or the sanding off of layers to create flatness or roughness. A whole range of sensibilities can be stored in a painting, speaking to us even before we identify what is actually depicted.

Though keeping distance has become the norm in public life, in the realm of paintings, we can be reminded of physical encounters and intimacy, and enjoy a close perspective. The artists in this exhibition embrace the tactile and are interested in paintings as physical matter. Yet their focus is also on less tangible aspects of the artworks, such as luminosity, wonder, or absence. The importance of light can be felt throughout a range of different motifs and vocabularies.

The works have been collected from studios on both sides of the Atlantic. Due to the pandemic, not all artists are able to be present for the opening, yet their works offer us an artistic dialogue across borders. The paintings find a temporary home in the ruinous beauty of the Kunst- und Projekthaus Torstrasse 111. Located in the center of Berlin, the space evokes the time when the city offered itself as an artistic Freiraum.

Participating artists: Nikos Aslanidis, Thessaloniki; Thomas Brüggemann, Berlin; Michelle Jezierski, Berlin; Joseph Kameen, Aiken, South Carolina; Kiki Kolympari, Athens; Adrienne Elyse Meyers, Chicago; Grit Richter, Hamburg; Rubica von Streng, Berlin         

Curated by Jurriaan Benschop for Kunst- und Projekthaus Torstrasse 111, 10119 Berlin. Project management: Ulrike Seyboth & Ingo Fröhlich, www.torstrasse111.de

Image: Kiki Kolympari, Cross City Interior (2019) acrylic on linen, 110 x 140 cm

Restless by Nature. Anna Tuori in Paris

The first word that comes to mind when I look at the works of Anna Tuori is restless. There are restless “walkers” populating her paintings, ready to go but also wanting to stay. A restless hand made the paintings, moving over the surface, adding scribbles and patches in different places. And the resulting works never rest; they appear active, vibrant, and alive.

The Walkers is a series of paintings that Tuori started in 2017. Having seen them in different situations, I started wondering why they work so well. At first, they look quite simple in composition and casual in execution. There is a human figure whose head has been chopped, cut by the frame of the painting. Yet the figure is not entirely headless: a face turns up at another, rather unexpected place, for instance between the legs, or on the jacket of the walker. This series makes me think about movement, about having or lacking direction as a human being, and about grace and speed. But these works also evoke contrasts between burden and lightness, roughness and delicacy. They are open figures rather than specific characters, which enables us to identify with them. The longer I look, the more details appear on the surface and the more sophisticated the paintings become, in terms of having nuance of expression and balance in composition. The individual paintings cannot be grasped all at once, each as an overall image. Only through time, through putting together the pieces that are spread over the painting, does the scene become a whole in the mind of the beholder.

Painting is, among other things, about looking and seeing. For that reason, it seems quite relevant that the walking figures are not looking at us. We don’t meet their gaze; we are looking at a moving person from an outsider’s perspective. For Tuori, reflections on the impact of seeing have a special place in the works she made for her Paris exhibition. This goes for the Walkers, but also for the different portraits of women that are on display in the show. In Dissociation (2019), there is a face with many eyes, or actually multiple faces within one figure. In Off on an Adventure (2019), the facial expression usually accentuated through eyes, mouth, and nose is almost absent, hidden under light paint. In the details of the figures, a lot can be noticed, about eyes for example, but also about how hair falls, how an arm is lifted. Just like in daily life, in the way people look and move, a lot is happening and can be read as an indication of somebody’s well-being. A gaze can be unpleasant, experienced as offensive or even as an act of aggression, while looking can also transmit love or care. In the dense traffic of looks, flirts, or meaningful gazes, Tuori seems very alert and redirects the sight lines to where she thinks it is necessary. The women in her works are certainly not just there to be pretty and admired. They are complicated, hard to read, or hiding behind smoke. They seem independent from what beholders might want to see in them.

The way Tuori paints the portraits looks like drawing with the brush – sketch-like, with energetic lines. Despite the restlessness of the figures, or even their neuroses or anxieties, there is generally an upbeat quality to the work. There is pleasure in the drama that unfolds. The artist seems to enjoy the whole range of expression that is possible in painting, as well as the ability to loosen things up through lines. She doesn’t feel like an expressionist, though, instead mixing an expressive gesture with other things. “In the painting, emotional or intuitive and conscious or intellectual approaches do not exclude each other. Just like expressive or conceptual ways do not exclude each other,” the artist commented.

During a dinner in Helsinki with the artist and some friends, we spoke about the fact that Finland was listed as the happiest country in the world for two years in a row, according to a United Nations study. How do you measure happiness? Apart from economic indicators such as gross domestic product, aspects like life expectancy, corruption in government, and the ways communities interact with each other were included. The locals at the dinner table made jokes about Finnish happiness, knowing that the long, dark winters do not exactly bring out the cheer in people. Yet I could also detect joy in the ironic self-reflections. Similarly, in Tuori’s paintings, there is a mocking, light touch, while at the same time nothing less than the struggle of life is what we are looking at. And this light note comes not just from being Finnish, but also from painting, from the transformative power that painting has over life.

Tuori’s mentality behind painting is not one that gets too comfortable with itself. The artist has changed and developed her approach over the years. It started from a dialogue with a romantic conception of art. The figures in some older paintings create their own imaginary world as a hideout. Tuori was shaped by modern ideals as well, by belief in progress, and the confidence that we can design our own lives. In the recent works, I sense a reluctance to tell too much of a story, and the artist also doesn’t lead us to wander around in an imagined, painted world. There is a rougher edge to the work, and less usage of effect to impress. Painting now seems to spring from the wish to balance believing and being skeptical, being empathetic and not caring so much what others might think. You just need to be alert, open, and flexible. Tuori’s figures appear to be in a permanent process of loosening up. They are as restless as I could hope for.

This text was published in the catalog of the exhibition Anna Tuori ‘Never seen a Bag Exploding,’ scheduled to be on view till 2 May 2020 (but currently closed because of covid19 restrictions). For information and obtaining the catalog contact Suzanne Tarasieve Gallery in Paris

Nikos Aslanidis in Emsdetten, Germany

Nikos Aslanidis can hardly be called a pleaser. His paintings can look rather grim, leading us into dark ages, showing people in the battle of life. The question coming up while visiting his exhibition in Emsdetten is how much of our own era, and our own lives, is reflected in the paintings. The artist’s goal is to make timeless painting, and he is not worried about ‘being contemporary’ or introducing props that refer to current issues. Yet, the situations depicted aren’t that far from home. Timeless means here, that it also suits our time. In each painting there is a figure engaged in some kind of work or activity, as can be figured from titles like The Gardener, The Alchemist or The Hunter. The good news is that Aslanidis presents his vision always with an understanding of order, with nuance and also with beauty. As a painter he seems to find a task in making situations of life presentable and worth looking at with curiosity or wonder, no matter how uncomfortable or tense they are.

The Thessaloniki based artist currently has his first institutional solo exhibition in Germany, ‘Corpora’ at the Emsdettener Kunstverein, up till 15 March 2020.

Image: The Dancer (detail) 2014-16, oil on linen, 180 x 200 cm

‘Trees’ at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf

A visit to the exhibition ‘Trees’ with works by Carroll Dunham and Albert Oehlen made me think about the difference between motif and subject matter, or even ‘content,’ in painting. The fact that both artists paint trees was taken as the glue for this duo presentation in the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. Yet, one should not get too philosophical (or ecological, or symbolical) about that. The tree here is a formal motif – a vehicle to construct a painting, and as far I can see it does not connect the painters in a deeper way. What I like mostly about the show are Oehlen’s large paintings where the shapes of a bare, winter tree counteracts with geometric color fields. At times the trees resemble human or animal figures in their dynamic shapes. The exhibition becomes interesting where trees stop to be just trees…

The exhibition is up till 1 March 2020

Helmut Federle in Basel

The first thing that strikes one about the six large paintings on display at the Kunstmuseum Basel and made over a span of 25 years, beginning in 1980, is that their scale feels American. Few artists paint this monumentally in Europe. Yet the sensibility of Helmut Federle’s work is also European, melancholic in tone and subtle in its application of paint. Even though these notions are generalised, they lead to an important transatlantic quality of Federle’s painting. The Swiss-born artist, based in Vienna and in his mid-seventies, has travelled the globe often and eagerly. He has absorbed notions about scale and colour, values and beliefs, from different cultures. A four-year stay in the US from 1979 onwards was important to his development, just as the discovery of postwar abstract American painting made an impact, during the 1960s, on the very museum in which his work is now showing.

You can spend a long time looking at these works without getting a clear idea as to what they are ‘about’. In Untitled (1990) a large dark circle appears against a background of grey brushstrokes, half transparent. A tilted U-shape enters the right side of the painting, delivering a second formal focus. A greenish-yellow light shines, as if the work was lit from behind. Without any narrative or action, this and the other canvases refuse to be boiled down to any specific subject matter or statement. They’re just there, as presences you want to be with: complex characters with conflicting parts. They are not necessarily pleasing or beautiful, most are rather dark in atmosphere, but they appear sincere and dynamic. The uneven paint application, as well as the play of layers, invite one to keep wandering over the canvas. Some forms are clear and decisive, like the circle; other areas are vague and unfinished. The division between yellow and grey in Untitled (1980) feels strict and firm, while the repetitive pattern of lines in Death of a Black Snake (1999) is subtle and mysterious. Collectively, with all their contradictions, these seem like existential paintings: this is how it feels to be conscious, to be human, to have fear and hope, highs and lows.

Asian Sign (1980) produces a push and pull between negative and positive form. Are the grey blocks in the foreground? Just as this appears to be the case, they recede, and disappear behind the yellow, meandering bands. The yellow is bright and enlightening here, more than in other paintings. The fact that the painting, acquired by the museum in 1982, created public uproar – it depicts a swastika – indicates that people did think there was a subject matter or statement in the work. More particularly, an evil one, even though the symbol is not presented clockwise, as the Nazis used it, but counterclockwise and thus, according to a Hindu interpretation, stands for the setting sun. Of course it can raise eyebrows to discover such a form, huge as a flag, that mirrors (not depicts) a symbol appropriated by fascists. The real question, though, is whether or not Federle’s work should be taken as symbolic at all. An auxiliary selection of works on paper shows further engagement with signs and symbols, but they are not about reproducing fixed meanings. Rather they spring from an interest in seeing form free from preconceived ideas. What kind of expression does this produce? Amid its push and pull, Asian Sign is a work concerned with the moment that form becomes meaning, just as Federle’s work in general is about the moment that form becomes a manifestation of inner life.

This text was published in ArtReview, October 2019

Louise Bonnet in Berlin

Seeing a reproduction of Louise Bonnet’s painting The Pond (2018) on the invitation to her exhibition made me both curious and skeptical. It shows a woman posing in an uncomfortable, if not impossible, backbend curve, her form conjuring a shortened bridge, with her hands and feet under water. What we mainly see is a large body against a dark background. Face and individuality are hidden behind physicality. Firm, outsize breasts point straight up toward the sky. It is certainly a weird scene—but I couldn’t decide if it was weird as in interesting, or more like a cartoon or a forgettable gag.

I got my answer from the exhibition itself, which included six large oil paintings on linen, along with five smaller, colored-pencil works on paper. Most of these works had a single body as their protagonist, stretching, bending, or hiding behind hair. These bodies were voluminous, twisted, exaggerated, or reduced to just certain parts: giant feet, a massive hand, a blown-up nose. The recurrent appearance of bare skin did not mean the figures were fully exposed; in most instances they were rather trying to hide their intimacy or were prevented from showing their real selves. The reason for this could be the pressure of the public eye or another force: In Bed shows a figure being pressed down by the enormous hand of a second figure, floating above.

Bonnet was born in Switzerland in 1970 and, after attending art school in Geneva, moved to Los Angeles in 1994. While some regard the Californian city as the epitome of superficial body culture, for Bonnet it was the opposite. She has said that as a woman she felt more at ease there, less preyed on or dominated by male eyes. Such observations on cultural habits of seeing are important to her work. Clearly, being or having a body was one of the main themes of the works on view here. In both the drawings and paintings, there was a kind of smallness and vulnerability inherent in the figures, despite their exaggerated dimensions. They were constantly being squeezed or rendered faceless.

In the works on paper, a discomfort with the body was rendered with a light touch, the white paper visible underneath the pencil lines, while in the oils something more happened, bringing further layers of expression that led to a greater degree of ambiguity. In the paintings, the impression that the artist was aiming at a twist or a quick laugh tended to disappear. Sure, the bodies in these paintings seemed absurd; they were equally comic and tragic. But the way they were painted, along with the way they were staged in isolation, rendered them ambiguous plastic shapes that invite longer contemplation: The figures generally looked smooth, plastic, and volumetric, but details such as wrinkles of the skin or the tension of the muscles were worked out precisely. They seemed sculptural: the result of a thoughtful exercise in bending curves, showing folds, creating depth, and working on surface expression.

Bonnet started to use oils only recently, in 2014, and the medium turned out to be the perfect way to attain plasticity. Her painted figures possess solidity and stillness. They are abstract in the sense that they become placeholders for forces that play out across the canvas as a whole. The shades and folds of skin in The Finger, or the tears or waving hair in The Rock, were resolved in such a subtle and beautiful way that they resembled the lovingly described surfaces of objects in a classical still life. As a result, the sensations of discomfort, disproportion, imbalance, or pressure were transformed into something paradoxically celebratory. Bonnet’s paintings are weird in a serious and monumental way.

This review was published in Artforum, February 2019. The exhibition was on view at Max Hetzler Gallery, Berlin.

A Kind of Escape. Peter Doig in Basel

After the work of Peter Doig was exhibited in the 1990s, a lot of young painters started to paint ‘Peter Doig-like’. Apparently he had struck a chord, inspiring a new generation of artists. He legitimized a new romanticism that had been impossible, and even suspect, for years. A show in Basel brings together a selection of Doig’s works from the last 25 years, and offers a chance for the visitor to comprehend the ingredients that make up his attitude as a painter.  

There are few such perfect locations in which to host a Peter Doig show as the Fondation Beyeler. The museum, situated in a rural setting just outside of Basel, is surrounded by a sculpture garden. While walking through the building there are moments when nature enters: a view of the surrounding hills or a tree that’s losing its leaves. Such impressions interfere with the exhibition in a meaningful way. They give context to the question of Doig’s relationship to nature. Does his work address what is ‘out there’ or is it, rather, a painted reality in itself, as the artist suggested in a talk at the museum: “A painting has to be convincing, in the sense that it provides a kind of escape and has a kind of reality of its own.”

Doig was born in Edinburgh, grew up in Trinidad and Canada, and studied art in London. His years spent in winter landscapes as well as in tropical ones, have informed his work. Observations from such different parts of the world can actually be seen mixed within single paintings. A recurrent motif is nature and man’s reflection on (and in) it. One can see, for instance, a single figure aside a lake, a figure in a canoe on a vast expanse of water, or somebody walking over the ice. In all cases, the reflection in the surface is important, and creates a painterly double, or extension of the figuration. According to Doig, “Reflection is a device to create space in a painting. It opens the whole thing up.” The mood of these landscapes is not only transmitted through the actual scenography and posture of the figure but also through the differences in paint application and mark making.

In Doig’s eyes, “Painting is about working your way across the surface, getting lost in it. The large size of the paintings is about getting absorbed in them.” A project made specifically for this exhibition is a long mural, Cat of 9 Tails, a collaboration with some of Doig’s students from Düsseldorf. It shows an ongoing wall of colored bricks in which different windows appear, offering a vista of the blue sea, an island, and the horizon. It’s not entirely clear whether these windows are really windows or rectangular images or paintings on the wall, and thus an illusion. As Doig says: “It’s a play on making a painting.” The mural is an extended version of his 2004 canvas called House of Pictures.

As do many contemporary painters, Doig borrows freely from art history. His appreciation of early modern artists, such as Daumier, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Munch can be discerned in the way he draws silhouettes, enacts a starry night, or lightens-up white snow with pink. What is crucial is that the re-takes of these predecessors are incorporated in a new atmosphere. Unlike many of his followers, Doig succeeds in digesting his source material, resulting in a painterly language that can be experienced as current – if even in the work the sense of historic time is ambivalent. The present appreciation of Doig’s oeuvre doesn’t necessarily mean that it depicts our era; it may instead point to something that is lacking or that people are longing for at present. His paintings enable the viewer to establish a vivid connection to memories and internal landscapes.  

In many ways, Doig’s work is informed by photography, as can be seen in his image archive (presented as a slide show), while in his paintings he moves away from photography and looks for expression that can only be achieved through paint. “I use photography simply as a way of imaging memory”, claims the artist. Also exhibited for the first time are the graphic works that Doig has made over the years, which often contain images he would later use for his paintings. Even though the effect of these ‘experimental prints’ is modest in comparison, it’s interesting to see the pictures in black-and-white and at a small scale. It makes one aware of the importance of contrast in the compositions – before any use of color or virtuosity comes in. Doig’s credibility as a painter has to do with layering. Many paintings balance between multiple competing forces, moods, and notions. Parts of the works are executed with an obsessive emphasis on color, while other areas are hardly touched, being more sketchy or pale. Some areas are very precisely drawn, while others seem sloppy, the result of indifferent brush strokes or dripping paint. There is the notion of skill, but there is also the understanding that art is not about mastering technique. As Doig sees it, “You can make a painting plausible by having areas of focus, and then have other areas that are completely out of focus.”

The only thing lacking in Basel is a good insight into Doig’s recent production. Apart from the mural, there’s only one work from 2014, a figure on a horse – which looks like a battlefield, in terms of figuration. This doesn’t shed any light on which direction Doig is now moving in. What the exhibition teaches us, though, is that Peter Doig is not just a style or a look, it involves an internal quest. That is what distinguishes a real Doig from his epigones, who are enchanted by the surface treatment or the romantic imagery. As he put it in an interview: “I think you have to be connected to your subject, for your own sanity, really; and, also, to feel grounded.” ‹