Frank Popper

Chapter 3 - Materialized Digital-based Work - (p. 95 - 99)


Turning to Matthias Groebel: His system of making computer-robotic-assisted paintings involves unifying painting and computer techniques. The artist initially choose television images as an image source ( and makes small alterations on them). Thus, his approach is the incorporation of the contemporary experience of television perception altered now by digital media recognizing itself in painterly terms. Groebel also makes extensive use of text elements, normally taken from the television screen – or as for his american beauty series, Chinese script ripped from video CDs (figure 3.3). Moreover, there are several elements that contribute further to the complex structure of Groebel’s work. On the one hand, there is his obsession with traditional painting techniques – an obsession that allowed him to develop his system of applying layers of color, which give a convincing sensation of traditional painting to the television-based images with which he works. His use of an airbrush delivery system also results in the blurring of points of color, and this too conveys a painterly aesthetic. At the same time, the recognizable line structure and pattern of the television screen remains evident, and so the viewer is reminded of the images´ source.

The choice and manipulation of the sampled television images, however, makes it clear that Groebel´s work is not about media theory or even really about television. First, it is an aesthetic composition; none of Groebel´s canvases ever match the precise proportions of a television screen. Also, even though the television images  come from different television sources, they are never identifiable. There are no politicians, no actors, and no familiar faces (figure 3.4). The original context of the already obscure material gets lost completely during the production process. Groebel´s working penchant for watching television with the sound turned off so as to accumulate huge, unsorted files of still images on his hard drive does not permit a proper tracing back of the image source or context. There is no process of identification left. All that remains is a feeling of a bleached-out memory around these images – a feeling that is not committed at all to the knowledge of their original context or meaning. Hence, Groebel uses today´s capture technology to forget specific context so as to address the cultural memory in general – in the abstract.

As for his background, Groebel was born in 1958 in Germany. He was first trained as a naturealist. It was through this scientific training that he initially developed his art ideas, within the isolation of a German province. At that time, he continued painting using traditional hand techniques, the results of which were never shown in public. Through this period of growth, Groebel intensely studied painting procedure, photography, chemical reactions, and computer programming.

When Groebel decided to move to one of the centers of the contemporary art scene in the late 1980s, Cologne was the judicious choice. During that move, Groebel brought with him his first version of a painting apparatus that he had been developing. This machine, which became completely functional in 1990 and subsequently has turned into an ever-more-sophisticated tool over the years, applies pigmented acrylic colors onto traditional canvases. Groebel built this robotic apparatus from scratch, hacking together bicycle components, parts of an airbrush, and a big glass window that kept clouds of color from floating  throughout the entire room. Groebel´s basic idea for this robotic apparatus was to use it in the movement of the television images from their television context onto paint canvases. In this respect, then, Groebel´s claim that he had to become a hacker to go on as a painter is justified. Indeed, it is through hacking that he takes the position of a painter to an immanently contemporary level.

While Groebel has kept to the basic parameters of his work, he has come up with different groups of compositions within the last few years – for example, his use of the human body. The human body (or parts of it) occurs in Groebel´s work not only as a subject but as a scale device within the virtual space of the paintings. The body is never less than life-size.

Groebel´s representation of space, as related to the physical size of the canvas, is another one of the intriguing aspects of his work. His perspective is that of a low-resolution television camera – the view that has changed our idea of the world more than any other development over the last fifty years.

He also produced a whole series of abstract-looking paintings called Hacked Channels that come from encrypted satellite channel transmissions. The illegal hacker software Groebel uses for decoding the signals fails to completely restore the images to their state of legibility, resulting in a strange whirlwind – a sort of semifigural milieu.

When one visits Groebel´s studio, one sees him working on a new device that uses a laser beam to virtually burn wax color into the canvas. So, all told, while the modus operandi for his art remains primarily technologically conceptual, there exists an element of undisguised intuition about his work – mixed with a deep-seated scientific indoctrination and a love of good painting. As cultural critic Helen Sloan puts it, “What makes Groebel´s work so refreshing is its odd positioning between the underground and the traditional. Groebel uses the device of computer subculture to place them firmly within the language of art and its history.”

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