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.

(…)

Gerlind Zeilner

painting by Gerlind Zeilner artist from Vienna

Till February 26, 2021, Gerlind Zeilner shows in Los Angeles. Her first exhibition at Nino Mier gallery is called ‘Open End’. For more insight into the practice of the Vienna based artist, there is the book Gerlind Zeilner, Cowgirls, published in 2020 on the occasion of her exhibition at the Halle für Kunst und Medien in Graz, Austria. A fragment from the book you find here:

“What do lines express, apart from being an instrument to depict an object or landscape, or connect things?  Do they have an expression of themselves? There can be something nervous about the lines in Zeilner’s painting, just the way they are drawn expresses sensitivity for nuance and contradictions. There is often change of color in one ongoing line, there is hesitation in the execution, the artist did not want to look things all straight and doubtless. While the world can presents itself as busy and overwhelming, the task of the artist here, seems to be to cope with that, to brings things down to a manageable and insightful level. Painting could be: to show some kind of order within the multitude of forms and phenomena. To slow down the endless threads of stories that surround us, and can easily carry us away.  

Zeilner’s way of ‘drawing painting’ evokes proximity, it gives a sense of immediate touch. As if we can feel, through the lines, that the artist touched the material, while defining forms. I see a special power of Zeilner’s work in this haptic quality, combined with her typical gesture that provides us with a kind of thinking out loud of the hand. The resulting aesthetics is active and vivid; it makes what we usually regard as solid forms (the structure of a café interior, with all its furniture for instance) as an open, moving, transparent and energetic situation. This vividness is underlined through the fact that the works remain unresolved. There are always areas where something still needs to be to filled in, to be completed by the beholder.”

From the essay ‘Walking the Line’ by Jurriaan Benschop published in Gerlind Zeilner, 2020, Verlag für Moderne Kunst, Vienna. You can visit the website of the artist here. To see views from the exhibition at Nino Mier gallery in Los Angels, click here.

Studio Talk with Daniel Richter

For his new series of paintings, presented in the exhibition So Long, Daddy, Daniel Richter has plugged into a timeless motif in painting: the figure. Yet this description immediately comes with questions. Who or what are the beings that appear in these colorful and dynamic paintings? And how would we label the environment in which they appear? Both the figures and the spaces around them are ambiguous and impossible to identify in one single way.

If we follow the complex play of lines within the paintings, enforced by marks of color, we get a sense of the complexity of the figures. Their outlines and gestures seem familiar enough to interpret them as fellow human beings. Yet within them, there is also the suggestion of something animalistic, an instinctive energy. Maybe humans are crossed here with their natural roots, the paintings bringing out the monkey inside us, or the bird that screams and wants to fly. (….)

Jurriaan Benschop spoke with Daniel Richter in his studio in Berlin about the paintings for his exhibition in Salzburg at Thaddaeus Ropac gallery. Below you can see a fragment of the conversation.

Video interview

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.

–Jurriaan Benschop

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 has his first institutional solo exhibition in Germany, ‘Corpora’ at the Emsdettner Kunstverein up till 15 March 2020. Jurriaan Benschop will introduce the work of the artist at the opening on 2 February 2020.

‘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 on view from 30 November 2019 till 1 March 2020 at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf

Lecture Rethink Painting at HBK Essen

On December 3rd, 2019, Jurriaan Benschop will be at the HBK Essen, Germany, for a talk in the series ‘Rethink Painting’, initiated by Nicola Stäglich and Sabine Bartelsheim. He will discuss the work of some contemporary painters, among them Kaido Ole, Bernard Frize, Bridget Riley, Janis Avotins, Béatrice Dreux and Paula Rego. Included will be reflections on the question How to write/speak about painting in the current era of stylistic pluralism? View details and announcement HBK here

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

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.

Interview with Marc Trujillo

In Los Angeles I met with painter Marc Trujillo to talk about his ambivalent appreciation of American culture and his interest in the Dutch old masters. All American consumer places such as retail stores, gas stations and fast food restaurants appear in his work, painted with precision, in a way that no camera could capture.  “I am American. I have mixed feelings about all this stuff. I am ashamed of Pizza Hut; I feel bad about it and meanwhile… I’m starting to get a little hungry. If you would have shown up with some slices, I would have probably liked that.”

You can read the full text in the autumn edition of Elephant magazine (Elephant #36, 2018) or here.