COLORSCAPE II – Sabine Elsa Müller

The parallels between the eight artistic positions are obvious – with all of them seeing their passion for color as the justification and vehicle for as well as the subject of their pictorial compositions. For them, color determines the pictorial narrative. This means that what we are contemplating is definitely not merely an area filled with a block of this or that color. Instead, we are talking about is engaging in activities or, to put it more clearly, in a process which takes place, both spatially and temporally, in a pictorial context and which can be made sense of through close inspection. What we see is the actions to which this painting testifies. The pictorial space is the scene of interrelated endeavors in which, in the alternation between expanses of color that are opaque and transparent, washes and deep, and, without exception, nuanced in any number of different ways, the full subjectivity of the person engaged in painting can be identified, a technique that is great contrast to a concept-based approach. 

The title Colorscape is definitely to be understood programmatically. Although landscapes painted in the illusionist style are nowhere to be seen, the pictorial formats used here open up sweeping expanses with great depth, places in which the eye can wander as if in the countryside. Comparisons with inner landscapes, with landscapes of the soul might be appropriate here. And it is, in fact, their attempts to use color to express inner processes, feelings and moods, in other words subjective feelings in all their complexity that these eight artists have in common. Focusing on color, nothing but color with all its possible delicate nuances requires a maximum degree of attention. These pictures challenge the viewer’s perception. They demand nothing more and nothing less than to be scrutinized extremely closely. However, looking without making a value judgment is one of the greatest possible challenges to the human intellect. We are expected not to require any interpretation in the sense of an answer to the question: What does this mean? What is it supposed to be portraying? Color does not represent anything apart from itself. It does not convey anything else, does not constitute a face, an object. Instead, it remains what it is. We see a color event and start to observe ourselves looking. Basically, what we experience is something about ourselves.

What we are talking about is, therefore, highly subjective painting. However, this should not be equated with gestural expression. Admittedly, the gestural application of paint that conveys the movement of the brush and thus the movement of the hand does play an important part in many of the works here. That said, equally often the application of paint is very polished and sometimes even completely smooth, meaning that there are no longer brushstrokes of any kind to be seen. In such cases, the light comes into play as a congenial factor in its own right. Color is light and when transparent color glazes are applied on top of one another surfaces that appear glassy can result and these perfectly reflect all incident light. The materiality of the paint is played down. It dissolves, to be replaced by a vague glow, a gleaming. Color is perceived as light and the experience of color becomes a highly emotional experience, one of spatial penetration and contact. The color space becomes a pulsating light space that transcends the boundary to real space, i.e., the exhibition or gallery space in which the viewer looks at the picture. This can have the effect of a transcendental or transboundary event.

In every one of these cases the surface of the picture appears to be in motion, both when the paint has been applied in sweeping gestures and when the technique for the works of art in question makes it appear almost lacking in substance. Movement and the resultant agitation are our main impressions with all the works on show here. It is in the paintings of Michael Toenges that this movement is communicated most directly as the controlled spontaneity of gestural expression. Here, painting is physical exertion. The application of the individual paints is clearly recognizable as such, but they can disappear partially under the various layers of paint applied repeatedly during the process of pictorial invention. New colors are combined with and linked to the existing ones by means of gestural brushstrokes until an electric pictorial context has been achieved. Depending on the predominant color hues used it really is the case that associations with landscapes spring to mind, particularly since the craggy relief created by the surfaces reinforces this impression. For instance, color tones primarily in browns or grays can be reminiscent of stone or rock formations. Radiant shades featuring a wide range of colors, are, in turn, reminiscent of a verdant garden. Michael Toenges’ color eruptions with their heavy materiality have a sense of nature about them – particularly when the paint exceeds the boundaries of the surface to which it is applied, the painting itself appears to have been transformed into a slice of nature.

For Peter Tollens nature and landscape are important in that what he experiences out there as an avid walker and rambler is always incorporated into his painting. His pictorial impressions of the great outdoors are transformed into an impression of colors which assimilates all these experiences and moods, all this agitation. Tollens’ gestures are slight but specific. He applies his paint in regular strokes to form a cohesive tissue. Comparable to the painting technique employed by Paul Cézanne, countless little color fields coalesce into a vibrant ensemble. We are confronted with a body of paintings in which the physical is combined with the emotional and intellectual, as is the case when rambling through the countryside. The skin of the paint appears to have captured vast quantities of energy. Occasionally it opens up at its edges, revealing its vulnerability. At such times the pictures’ compact cohesiveness falls apart and a smooth exchange takes place with the surrounding space and the person examining the artwork.

In the person of KP Kremer, the artists are joined by a color painter who works with the most delicate of tinges. This is obvious simply from his choice of works for this exhibition. Two pictures using very similar colors downright challenge our perceptional habits. Here, the paint has been applied in a smooth, uniform fashion so that nothing might distract viewers from their appreciation of color itself. The format of the picture makes an important contribution to the viewer’s perception of the various specific shades. When Kremer opts for a square format, he places it on one of its corners in order to undermine the extremely closed impression made by the square, thus allowing the painting to radiate dynamically into the room. Color and its actual expansion on the carrier medium – these are the given factors that always produce completely different results each time. The outer skin of the paint is the result of the way paint has been applied. Its structure has been built up all over the picture, producing a large number of thin layers, in such a way that occasionally the color of one of the lower layers is visible on the surface, thanks to recessed “holes”, and is able to activate the latter. In what he has dubbed the “gray pictures”, images he has been producing for about the last year, he usually starts with a yellow, onto which other shades of yellow and blue are applied, producing a greenish-gray shade. The artist has produced meticulous records of his pictures, recording the sequence of the individual colors applied. Contrary to the latter’s factual reality, the light and the viewer’s mood reveal impressions of the picture that change constantly – a self-contained truth anchored in the senses.

In the person of Ulrich Wellmann, we come to a painter whose position is characterized by an even lighter touch and a striking openness. The whole surface of the picture is seldom completely covered in paint, which allows the whiteness of the surface used to make a lively contribution to the overall impression. The paint is applied in sweeping gestures. As an extension of the artist’s hand, the brush encourages the paint and thus the eye to execute loose, sweeping movements and to loop its way across the surface. The linear application of the paint describes not only the process of spatial movement but also the temporal sequence, particularly since traces of brushstrokes reveal a clear progression from a color that is completely saturated to one that has been allowed to drain away – a process that is repeated after the application of new paint with the brush. This conscious act of guiding the paint over the surface conveys painting as a means of expression resulting from the direct experience of the person painting. Onto this base coat the artist has applied lines or bundles of lines as a second coat, acting like a kind of trigger to activate the pictorial space. It is frequently the case that an independent figure is developed from this. In recent years a shape has asserted itself here, a shape that Wellmann describes as a “form of laughter”. With this a narrative element is introduced into the artist’s color painting, one that investigates a means of expression that is existentially important as far as man is concerned.

The interaction between the figure and its background often plays a part in pictorial composition in the work of French painter Claire Colin-Collin. The odd line or object crops up in the middle of her cloudy, diffuse color spaces which otherwise manifest absolutely no figurative traits and have the feel of some kind of luminous entities. A single line can be embedded in these cosmoses, one that is traced out rather slowly and very consciously and can either seem like a fading memory or can erupt from the painting like a beacon. These fleeting, highly subjective traces tell of concentrated emotionality. And although anything subjective and physical is absent from her fluid cloud of color, echoes of the latter rise up to the surface from the depths of lower layers in a compressed form. Each isolated sign develops its own electric impact with their ambivalent quality, between appearing and disappearing and particularly in the contrast they make with their indifferent environments.

With Maria Magdalena Z’Graggen, an artist who lives in Switzerland, creating pictures becomes a performance. The scene of this performance is the wooden panel, something which initially requires careful preparatory treatment. It is primed with finely ground gesso so that the paint has a smooth base. Z´Graggen pays a great deal of attention to her choice of pigments and to the quality of the color consistency by mixing her colors herself. Z´Graggen works in pastose oil paint applied with a spatula. In this way, traces of her movements in vertical stripes, centrifugal circles, circles in general and oval movements remain visible on the surface she has used. This is a performative, highly focused approach to painting, as can be seen from her results. Our gaze glides past the lines between the shape and the primer which are distinctly separated from each other, and which form a relief of great plasticity. Spontaneity and chance play an important part in this since the reaction between the pigment and the binding agent is impossible to predict or correct. The contrasts and rhythms, the disparity between coalescence and repulsion, make a statement about the vitality of natural processes and their ability to change and adapt. 

Color as a luminous phenomenon and color as a material reality – these are the two opposing poles that Raymund Kaiser plays off so strongly against each other. Although in English we differentiate between “color” and “painting”, in German one word is frequently used for both in the context of art and the distinction is often not clear. Over the smooth, wrinkle-free surface of the skin of paint, constructed from many transparent layers of paint, there is a second level of paint in the same color, but one made of a different kind of materials. This second level makes it more difficult for us to take everything in and here we can lose ourselves in the nuances that can exist within a certain chromaticity and the structures of the material that goes to make up the paint, whereas the smooth, mirrored layer of paint resists our gaze. On the boundary between the two realities of the paint/color in particular, this conflict becomes particularly clear when the information about the picture is suddenly interrupted and our gaze plunge into a bottomless abyss. In his most recent panel pictures, Kaiser contrasts this abrupt and unexpected change of perspective with movement within his oeuvre. In this way the contrast between the different “color worlds” is lessened and they enter in on a dialogue with one another. The movement within the pictures frees the paint from its stiff, rigid state, lending it a baroque lightness.

Finally, with Andreas Keil we come to an artist who makes a new decision, on an individual basis, in every single one of his pictorial works, about just how he is going to apply his paint – to make it impasto or transparent, monochrome or multicolored. It is the image carrier he uses that forms the basis of this decision and it confers unusual degree of individuality and self-reliant presence on the work. Keil favors the kind of surfaces that have already been used before in a different context. It is particularly in the case of the irregularly shaped objets trouvés that have been washed up like flotsam and jetsam that careful preparation is important in the form of sanding down and priming prior to the application of paint. The artist pays his surface this kind of alert attention and treats it as is necessary to appropriate the relevant object and to provide himself with ideas about a first application of paint. The latter can vary as much as the surface he uses itself. In this case, painting is seen as a compacted concentrate in which the worldliness of the surface used is linked to the subjectivity of the artist. These color pieces too are both pictures and objects at the same time – they act as a kind of time capsules in which echoes of the previous existence of the surface, that before it was used for painting purposes, cannot help but reverberate.

As with all the other positions in this exhibition, the different levels of spatial and temporal experience can grate on one another to a certain extent in order to – as Ulrich Wellmann once put it in an interview – “to place something corresponding alongside the complicated human relationship to the world in which we live.”     Sabine Elsa Müller