At first glance, the current show Zephir at Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle seems like a patently traditional painting exhibition. The whole arrangement exudes the kind of banal, apolitical, and out-of-touch aesthetic that you might expect from an art institution funded by one of the country’s biggest banks.
Romanian painter Victor Man was awarded “Artist of the Year” 2014 by the Deutsche Bank Global Art Advisory Council for his dark – both conceptually and in hue – paintings, exquisitely backlit with an unparalleled (and visually mystifying) lighting technique.
Many of the paintings demand a kind of intimacy from the viewer, either because the canvasses on which they appear are small, or because the subject matter is obscured by black overpainting that produces a kind of inaudibility.
They are not imposing or emphatic, and this might account for the first impression. The paintings seem to silently melt into the background. But given some time and consideration, the intensity of the works is unmistakable. They have some of the subtle power and divine buoyancy associated with the Dutch Masters. The gallery rooms of the Kunsthalle are dimly lit, gloomy, and the only thing framing the paintings is a subdued light from an unknown source. It seems to come from the back of the canvas, since no strong beams that would penetrate the darkness can be detected emanating from the ceiling.
Because of this lighting technique, the paintings merge conceptually with the central and eponymous piece in the show, the stained-glass window installation Zephir. The shades of blue radiating from the work give it an icy feel, bringing together the overall murkiness of the show, punctuated by soft beams of light.
The triptych series the Chandler (2013) was one of the more stunning works on paper, created using watercolours. Again, the series is framed with a prism of light and the paintings – all three more or less the same in subject matter but using different materials – look like a surreal empty stage set. The sitter holds their head in their hands, daintily, as though posing for a routine portrait.
While the exhibition is by no means unpredictable and the award recipient Man does not stray far from the canon of typically lauded Western painting, the works themselves are entirely worthy of the title fine art. They are masterful – and while that may no longer be a marker in much of contemporary art practice, the quality of the works still resonates from a not-so-distant past.
Alison Hugill has a Masters in Art Theory from Goldsmiths College, University of London (2011). Her research focuses on marxist-feminist politics and aesthetic theories of community, communication and communism. Alison is an editor, writer and curator based in Berlin. www.alisonhugill.com