Redefining Convention:

German Art Now

June 20-July 29, 1995



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This exhibition is not meant to be a survey of the depth, com­plexity or diversity of art being made in Germany. Our aim is to open for discussion the point at which traditional art making practices meet the advent of recent technologies.


I would like to express my gratitude to the many art profes­sionals: curators, gallerists and artists who gave of their time, expertise and support to make this exhibition possible.


Cheryl Haines Director















If it is anything, art is the measure of humans' response, individually and collectively, to their environ­ment. By "environment" is meant both the natural and the social contexts that act upon the artist; and by "response" is meant both expressions of reaction and manifestations of feedback, of engagement with and implied desire to act upon the conditions that affect the artist. In this light, the emerging elec­trotechnical age has been provoking a delayed but delighted response from artists. Even painters, guar­dians of the quintessential pre-mechanical technology, have put aside their fears of the unknown and the unrecognizable, driven by their enduring thirst for new possibilities and their realization that new electronic media afford them, too, a range of forms, methods and subjects perhaps vaster than anything available heretofore.

Among German artists, the question of addressing and engaging electronic media and the ways in which such electromedia are impacting society inevitably takes on a dialectical dynamic. This dynamic results not just from the philosophical heritage of Schopenhauer, but from the artistic heritage of Dürer and Beckmann, and from the scientific heritage of Einstein and Gutenberg. Germans are keenly aware of technology's double edge; every new invention, they know, modifies society, and no modification is without its perils.

Thus we see in current German art an embrace of new technology-driven formats that is more circumspect than in many other places (even Austria). New forms and techniques are applied to traditional genres. Time-honored subjects recur in up-to-the-minute media. The dictates of tradition have as much impact on the application of new tools and substances as the other way around. Portraiture, religious and mythic images, genre subjects, landscapes and still lifes now comprise a notable portion of the content in German art shaped in practice or in conception by (quasi-)electrotechnical means.

The mirror of this irony is that recent painting in Germany has been the practice least oriented towards traditional subjects. The evolution over the last three decades of German painting, represented here by Albert Oehlen's work, emphasizes a questioning of painting's function. In the wake of mass-mediated camera-recorded information and the resulting cycle of crises in traditional artistic disciplines, what is to be painted, and why? The responses have been manifold; but, in good postmodern fashion, they have been knowingly and deliberately inconclusive, open-ended, compromised from within. Oehlen's gesturality is not a reification of Abstract Expressionism's existential defiance, but a contemplation both intellectual and sensual of the act of mark-making, mark-making against an implied background of mass­mediated Pop noise. Can anyone paint what Oehlen - or any abstract artist - paints? Rather than answer­ing yes, as Gerhard Richter seems to, or insisting not, as an American abstractionist might, Oehlen begs the question with deft but deflected brushstrokes, color decisions that flip-flop between tasteful and gauche, and a shifting, elusive pictorial presence, flickering like a television screen.

Matthias Groebel paints, too; but in engaging the computer to process the images (as well as a mechanized airbrush to apply the acrylic) Groebel effaces the particularity of paint - not just to ironize the relationship of canvas to camera, as a generation of Photo-Realists did earlier, but to marry old and new media in an attempt to transcend issues of medium altogether, the better to examine the subjects. Thomas Ruff takes a similar approach, although he exploits the photographic medium directly: while Groebel demonstrates technical mastery of the airbrush, Ruff commands mastery of color photography itself, mastery that must maintain at a billboard scale unprecedented in the gallery (although com­monplace on the street). Groebel's subjects and Ruff's are people - normally the easiest subjects with which to gain viewers' attention, but the hardest with which to withstand scrutiny. The complexity of detail by which Ruff and Groebel invest their images with psychological depth contrasts emphatically with their technical slickness.

In his recent video installations Klaus vom Bruch has also engaged the human visage, as a signal within the construct of a part-mechanical, part-electronic device. Such human presence, however, does not always indicate a humanistic presence. If in his War Requiem installation of I987vom Bruch presents con­tinuous close-ups of his own face and his father's - both a calling to reconciliation and an admission of the reconciled's enduring unease - his 1993 lam-lam Projekt features clips of dictators addressing televi­sion audiences. These images project not humanity, but personality - a manufactured personality, of stern but benevolent strength, around which a cultish polity can be fabricated. Ute Janssen also employs video to examine aspects of human behavior. She does not focus her examinations on individual faces, however, but on social functions and rituals involving groups of people. In Weddings and Mines, Janssen intercuts a Russian Orthodox ceremony (itself superimposed with stock footage from the 1920s and '40s of playing children) with the process of quarrying for granite.

Social history is examined in similar detail in Martin Honert's laser prints. Through computer manipulation Honert collages and de-collages both religio-mythic and commercial imagery, creating composite pictures out of individual images and, more often, isolating individual forms from their original contexts. Focusing this way on various subjects, be they figurines from a depiction of the Crusades or the patterning on a modern tablecloth, Honert considers with a mix of engaged nostalgia and distanced criticality how young people are socially conditioned through visual stimuli. Manfred Stumpf also exploits the com­puter for its imaging abilities, and is similarly concerned with the resonance of mythically invested imagery. But while Honert manipulates extant visual material, Stumpf renders his figures from scratch, albeit in a starkly simple, uninflected manner which underscores their archetypal properties. In this way Stumpf evolves a taxonomy of human transcendence, whether the transcendent conditions are defined through religious belief, cultural projection or personal fantasy.

In the electronically mediated world that permits Stumpf's and Honert's collage-commentary a subversive seamlessness, mechanical devices survive as poignantly pathetic remnants of a dying era - although, as vom Bruch evinces, the machine still helps define our world. Rebecca Horn and Rosemarie Trockel, the two artists here best known in the United States, reflect the burgeoning era of electrotechnology not by exploiting its wonders but by reflecting on the means and mores of the machine age as it slips into dotage. Horn, in fact, allows herself some machine-age nostalgia by referring in a number of recent constructions to early 20th century cultural icons such as Buster Keaton films. In truth, however, Horn's citation of the classic cinema and its antic and sentimental stylists are mostly part of her examination

through absurd robotic ciphers of intimate human sensations and relationships, in which the viewer is often directly inculcated.

For her part Trockel refers to the lingering presence of mechanical means not through actual mechanisms but through their impotent doubles (as with her inoperative stoves) and the consumer objects (including those stoves) which are still fabricated by machines. It might be argued that those machines are now driven by computers - and also that some of Horns flapping, splattering constructions, at least, require rudimentary computer components to operate. But that only underscores the passing of the technological baton from the mechanical muse to the cybernetic. Trockel's famed knittings, most often read as feminist assertions of '"women's work;' also reflect the replicative character of mechanized production reflec­ting it ironically, of course, as it manifests here not in the normally ''hard'' materials of heavy manufac­ture, but in soft materials that are indeed associated with handicraft (although that handicraft now goes on worldwide mostly in dehumanizing sweat shops).

Walter Benjamin mused decades ago on the artwork in the age of mechanical reproduction, and his con­cerns are echoed in Horn's and especially Trockel's works. By knowing inference, however, the two artists also consider the artwork in the age of electronic production as well as reproduction, a consideration impelling their countrymen and -women to varying extents as well. No one, in fact, will leave the 20th century with feelings more mixed than German artists. Their confliction will be gravest over the social and political history of their country and continent, but will be the most intricate and delicious over the technological history of their civilization. If at the outset of the century Rilke wrote, Du müsstest dein Leben ändern, at the century's close, they can answer, Unser Leben ist jetzt ganz verändert.

- Peter Frank Los Angeles May 1995

MATTHIAS GROEBEL "Untitled"" 1994 Acrylic on canvas 38 x 38 inches
'Untitled'' 1994 Acrylic on canvas 38 x 38 inches