Light Bodies

The exhibition ‘Red Yellow Blue’ by Berlin based painter Mark Lammert has reopened at the Leonhardi Museum in Dresden and is on view till 20 June 2021. For the catalog I contributed the essay ‘Light Bodies’ from which you can read a fragment here.

Mark Lammert is not the kind of artist who allows a lot of visitors into his studio. His paintings develop slowly over time; layer after layer is applied before the works are finished. Strange eyes gazing upon them during this process of making could interrupt their growth, destroy their integrity. Such is the power of sight. Yet, one could still state that the artist’s studio is densely populated, as human figures loom in many of Lammert’s paintings. Usually there are several paintings on as many easels, each work hinting at some kind of human presence. So encounters between people do take place in the studio, even if it is on a different level than that of strictly in-person visits.

To discuss Lammert’s work, one has to decide whether to start talking first about color or about figures. The two seem equally important. In a drawing-like way of painting, the human motifs develop and appear in fragments, suggestions, and gestures – not in whole bodies. A turning face, a bending back, a breathing chest. They appear on color, or ​in c​ olor one could say, as there is a vast field of one single color around them, into which they are engraved. Usually this would be called “background,” but that word feels inadequate, because it is actually the first thing that catches the attention, and much work has been spent on it; it is as layered and meaningful as the figurative motifs are, though in a different way.

The work has strong abstract qualities, but there is always at least one figure, and often several, so we are dealing with figurative painting. We can see parts or traces of living beings. “You are looking at asses,” the artist says, when he shows me one of the new works in the studio. It seems that he wants to provoke me with a banal description of a work that is delicate and hard to capture in words. Formally he might be right: we are looking at a black painting, where four figures appear bent over, and we do indeed see their behinds, lighting up in yellows and white. Yet looking at the painting did not make me think for one moment about buttocks, or any other body specifics. It is actually never the depiction of human flesh or skin that I see in Lammert’s paintings, but the transformation of flesh into painterly shapes which have their own physicality. Light bodies you could say, intangible as they are.

“A good painting should shine,” the artist once said to me. We were actually discussing the exhibition of another artist, and the question arose of what makes a painting work or not. It was clear that he used a criterion that he applies in his own studio practice. Shining is what his figures are about, and the test they have to pass, before they can leave the studio, or before a visitor is allowed to see them. First the mystery of creation has to happen; the motif has to catch fire, so to speak. And this happens through lighting. Only after that is there time for talking and polishing, editing and accentuating. The paintings give variations in glowing, in casting shadows, in glittering, and also in hiding. They can only do all of this and exist as they are when they are touched by light.

(…)

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 first published in ArtReview October 2019

By the Sea. Report from Marseille

For its first edition in 2007 the Art-o-Rama hosted only five galleries, under skeptical observations from the Paris art scene about the chances of a fair in a poor city like Marseille. Sixteen years later, the fair has become a significant end-of-summer event with an international program, and cooperation with other institutions in and beyond the Provence. Even Parisians leave their city to enjoy art ‘by the sea’ and see what France’s second city has to offer.

Read my impression from the Art-o-Rama fair, edition 2019, on DAMN magazine.

Maria Capelo in Lisbon

The publication ‘The Things of the World are Rock’ brings together recent drawings and paintings of Lisbon based artist Maria Capelo. They were shown in the Pavilhão Branco in Lisbon in 2019. The title of the exhibition s borrowed from words by Cesare Pavese. The artist shares with Pavese a deep interest in landscape, and in the traces of life that can be observed in nature, and the sense of time it evokes.

I visited Capelo’s exhibition in Lisbon and wrote in response the essay ‘Rock Solid Vivid’ which was published in the catalog, along with texts by Tobi Maier and João Pinharanda. The book is published by the Galerias Municipais in Lisbon.

“All the drawings bring our attention to the surface of things, and show structure, strong contrast. They are refined, we see the thinnest of lines and folds, like in a hand palm. What the works share is a transformational unpredictability and suggestiveness. The depicted motifs seem to be willing to become something else. A tree is a bone. A branch is a leg. A bush is a vulva. Stepping into the work, causes a chain of associations. “My work has always that approach, of observing, contemplating and reorganizing what you can see.” Capelo remarked. So she makes landscapes – but she also makes something else.” (from the essay ‘Rock Solid Vivid’)

Book Launch in Riga

On June 5th, 2019, Salt in the Wound was presented in the Latvian capital Riga with a talk and discussion at Careva Gallery. With this event the gallery launched its art book store in the city centre, at Kalku Iela 24.

One of the chapters of Salt in the Wound is conceived in Latvia, as I was a resident at the International Writers and Translators House in Ventspils. From there I started to explore the Latvian landscape, history and habits, and the cultural environment. The result can be read in ‘Notes from Latvia,’ which recalls, among others, a meeting with painter Janis Avotins in his studio in Riga.

“‘Art shouldn’t be sentimal,’ Avotins says – partly because we’re talking about the relationship between his work and the history of Latvia. The figures he paints are based on photographs from magazines of the Russian era. At his studio I see folders full of neatly ordered cuttings, all images from a time gone by, the time in which he was born. He is interested in the postures of the people in the photographs, not in the individuals themselves. Or, you could say, he looks at the way people are specifically not individuals.” (fragment from ‘Notes from Latvia’).

Next Book launch: University of South Carolina Aiken, 30 Sept. 2019

Come Close & Step Back

Pia Krajewski, Irina Ojova

Exhibition at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin

Curated by Jurriaan Benschop
Opening 11 April 2019, 7 pm

This exhibition brings together the work of two painters who were selected for the 2019 Winsor & Newton Residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin: ​Pia Krajewski​ (Cologne, 1990) and ​Irina Ojovan​ (Chisinau, 1988).

While Pia Krajewski maximizes the presence of a figurative motif through monumental close-ups, Irina Ojovan seems interested in the opposite movement, reducing the clues that could identify the motifs underlying her paintings. What the artists share is an interest in taking images from the exterior world, isolating them, and transforming them into a reduced painterly vocabulary. To grasp the paintings in their full scope, the viewer has to move closer to and further from the canvases, collecting sensations of texture and touch from close by, or seeing the overall image from a more distant perspective.

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, back bend 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.

Gerlind Zeilner in Thessaloniki

Gerlind Zeilner ‘Line of Thought’ exhibition at Donopoulos IFA, 2 Feb – 11 March, 2019, curated by Jurriaan Benschop

The paintings of Gerlind Zeilner are the result of both attentive observation and a vivid imagination. The Vienna based artist collects impressions from what she calls “the theatre of life” as she observes it in bars, on the streets in her hometown or outside in a mountain village. First she makes quick sketches of scenes; later in the studio, things start to change shape as the artist looks at them, and this transformation is intensified in her paintings.

The characteristic colorful lines in the paintings are not only there to indicate the shape of an object, a person, or building – they also act by themselves to transmit a variety of expressions, ranging from fragility and hesitation to firmness and wonder. As a whole, the paintings embody a sensibility and a way of looking, more than a specific scene.

Meeting with Rachel Whiteread

In 2018 I met with British artist Rachel Whiteread in Vienna to talk about her exhibition in Belvedere21. For her it was the first come back to the city after making the much discussed holocaust memorial. The full interview was published in DAMN magazine and can be read online here

There is something about plaster that is incredibly special. It is really ancient; it comes from rock that is turned to powder, you add water it becomes liquid, heats up and dries, and pours the surface away from the object you are casting from – every minute detail. It is almost like alchemy.”