Taking Root at KIT Düsseldorf

In a world full of conflicting interests and beliefs, how do artists root themselves? Where do they find their sense of direction? These questions underlie the exhibition Taking Root. The assumption is that the eleven artists presented here did find some roots. They have developed a clear and insistent focus in their practice, and that is what gives their work depth.

For a tree, life without roots is not possible. It needs a stronghold, right underneath, in order to grow and stay firm, to endure storm and thunder, and to maintain resilience. One can assume that similarly, human beings find some “nutrition” in the places where they grow up. Yet, those places are not the only ones where developing roots happens. Artists can pick their roots, collect them on their way through life, or search for them in places where they are not yet familiar. After all, humans are mobile beings. And for humans, roots are not just a matter of physical circumstances; they can reside in thoughts, memories, beliefs, and traditions.

Taking Root brings together the work of eleven artists. Some of these artists grew up close to nature; for others, the city has been their natural environment. Some of them are young artists, who in recent years have started their own studio practices. Others have been working for decades already, and have had more options to develop their roots. Together, the participants span two generations of contemporary artists. Most of them come from Europe, yet in terms of landscape and cultural climate, their backgrounds are diverse. One is from the USA, which is itself a country with roots in Europe. 

In times when God is declared dead, or has been hijacked by terrorists, when political leaders can be liars and fakes, the question is where to find understanding and beliefs, and additionally, where to find the confidence and context from which to act? The answer goes inside, into the imagination and reflection of the artists. And it leads into the traditions that have shaped them. These eleven artists have been selected for this show not necessarily because their work is about roots, or depicting it as a theme, but rather because their work has roots. The artists have been able to ground themselves in the present, and find a sense of direction through anchor points in nature, religion, art, or culture. They have developed an interest that brings their work into focus.

The artists in Taking Root do not usually find their artistic incentives in the daily news or in politics. Their knowledge is more indirect, coming from stones, stock photos, walks, landscapes, icons, paintings, plants, children – from all possible sources. There are many situations and observations that guide them. They do not preach or illustrate a particular belief. They make their work as artists, through searching and delving and developing their own discipline – that is enough of a statement. You can sense in their work that they know something.

Even though art is not necessarily sacred territory, it offers stretches of land where a different world is possible – not corrupted, and not adrift. It can offer an environment where you actually want to spend time, a place that is nurturing for the mind, body, and soul. The Kunst im Tunnel offers a good shelter, with solid walls, to create some distance to the physical and digital traffic around, to the hustle of city life, to the problems of our times. The generous tunnel space filled with the works of eleven contemporary artists allows a time out – and offers itself as a place to reconnect and take root.

KIT, Mannesmannufer 1, Düsseldorf, exhibition runs through 26 January 2020 and is open Tue-Sun 11 – 18 h

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

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.