Article by Jessyca Hutchens; Thursday, Sep. 19, 2013
Aside from the art fairs, the largest and most publicized event at this year’s Berlin Art Week is Painting Forever!–a joint-venture by Berlinische Galerie, Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, KW Institute for Contemporary Art and Neue Nationalgalerie, where each institution will offer-up an exhibition addressing the title-theme. For some reason, every time I go to describe the project, I switch the two words so that it becomes forever painting—a phrase that has a far less enthusiastic ring to it than painting forever. Painting Forever! suggests a sort of optimistic call to arms for painting to persist and endure, despite being long-maligned as traditional and archaic. And yet this idea in itself is starting to get old. Shows themed around traditional mediums seem to have proliferated in recent years, abc made its own attempt at the painting theme in 2011, and they always seem to centre around a need for revival, reassessment or at least renewed enthusiasm. That said, writing on the show she curated at Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Eva Scharrer points out that it is, “less concerned with the general discourse about the medium, the much-vaunted presumed death of painting, but more about a lively dialogue within the medium.” Perhaps Painting Forever! simply celebrates painting’s healthy status, taking for granted its assured longevity.
Berlinische Galerie has given over its entrance hall to the world of Franz Ackermann. With the walls painted in colorful geometric shapes and adorned with Ackermann’s large panel paintings, the hall becomes one large cartoonish installation. While the wall mural has a clean graphic quality, the paintings include more disruptive components, with splats and splurts of paint, or cut-out holes with photographs, disturbing the straight lines of Ackermann’s color planes. In some ways, this made me feel that the murals were too simplistic of an extension of the more dynamic paintings, but there is also no denying the immersive effect of the entire space. Ackermann’s series of paintings, Mental Maps, are a highly idiosyncratic rendering of the places that Ackermann has experienced. His installation, Hills and Doubts is a circuitous journey, and one that provides insight into Ackerman’s personal mapping techniques.
KW’s Keilrahmen (“stretchers”) exhibition occupies a single wall, albeit a very large wall, with seventy-four works by contemporary painters. Curator Ellen Blumenstein has described how the viewing arrangements emulate a sense of the specula: “a prominent place from which to observe and understand relationships and contexts.” While it is possible to scan the wall and identify connections, the diversity of positions presented can feel overwhelming. Such an arrangement may be less revealing of the relationships between the artworks, than it is of the most aesthetic way to arrange the largest number of them on a given wall, the overall effect a sort of Tetris map of canvases. And yet this style of presentation, in its candid refusal to provide space and clarity, may render viewers less passive.
While shows that feature only female artists always seem to get described as such, all male shows go generally unremarked upon, mostly because they’re just considered the norm. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I feel slightly uneasy about the gender divide happening across two of the exhibitions in Painting Forever! “Deutsche Bank KunstHalle presents four women painters” is the opening description for To Paint Is To Love Again, a show purporting to re-discover the work of Jeanne Mammen through the perspective of three other female painters. Meanwhile, press for BubeDameKönigAss (JackQueenKingAce) at the Neue Nationalgalerie never makes explicit reference to its all male cast despite seeming to revel in its own maleness. Under ordinary circumstances, both shows may have gotten away with their gender politics, but being thrown-together in this joint-venture has created a wealth of cringe-worthy comparisons: romance v sex, emotional v removed, modest v bold and so on. Even the fact that one show presents a communal project, promoting another female artist’s work, while the other presents four very disparate and singular positions, seems to conjure every stereotype about women being inclusive and men being lone-riders. Side-by-side, these exhibitions serve as a reminder of the trend for shows with women to be about women, while shows with men can simply be about art.
As the title of the exhibition suggests, To Paint Is To Love Again has a sort of romantic quality to it, most notable in Antje Majewski’s work. In her series titled Zwillinge (Twins) Majewski matched objects from her own studio with ones she found in the preserved studio apartment of Jeanne Mammen. After the nazi-regime labeled Mammen’s style of painting degenerate, she cocooned herself in her studio, home also to her odd collection of tactile objects. Each of Majewski’s paintings depicts her hand holding out one of the “twin” objects. Together, they form a kind of affectionate portrait that connects the two painters through their shared sources of inspiration.
Katrin Plavcak’s strange figures bear something of a relationship to Mammen’s Neue Sachlichkeit work, evincing both a topical engagement with the world and a surreal rendering of it. In one of her smaller canvases, a man’s face has been reduced to a white smudge, and yet the title, Wikileaks (Julian Assange) (2011) makes his identity explicit. Somehow, Pavcak’s portrait of a faceless, be-suited man beside a window distills an essence of Assange who has appeared to us, since his retreat to the Ecuadorian embassy, as a white talking head in a small room. A similar effect is achieved by Whistleblower (Bradley Manning) (2013), where the face has been spliced and re-positioned, an almost comical interpretation of Manning’s bifurcated public persona.
Plavcak’s works seem a milder counterpart to the Martin Eder works on display at Neue Nationalgalerie, which also depict mass-cultural motifs in surreal arrangements. But in contrast to Plavcak’s smudgy edges and blurred faces, Eder renders his scenarios on an epic scale in exquisite neoclassical detail. His work is often described as juxtaposing opposing elements, say the beautiful with the trashy, but Eder’s motifs also show a great degree of slippage. In a particularly typical Eder piece, Ein Jahr ohne Licht – Une Année sans Lumière (2005), he depicts two female nudes on a bed cradling a kitschy stuffed lion against a bleak sky. No one element stands out as particularly confronting, yet they combine to form a disturbing image that is both repulsive and strangely enticing. In a sense, it is this alluring quality that pervades the disparate positions shown at Neue Nationalgalerie. To stand in front of Anselm Reyle’s work, for instance, is to luxuriate in them—to take pure pleasure in their shiny materiality.
It would seem, that the four exhibitions that comprise Painting Forever! do not attempt to propel painting into the future, but take pleasure in its present-day status. While the over-arching theme invites comparisons, these are still very separate shows with complex internal dialogues. For that reason, they are perhaps most accessible when viewed as individual entities, rather than taken-in as a whole.
DEUTSCHE BANK KUNSTHALLE
“To Paint is To Love Again” – JEANNE MAMMEN, ANTJE MAJEWSKI, KATRIN PLAVCAK, GIOVANNA SARTI
Exhibition: Sep. 18 – Nov. 10, 2013
Opening Reception: Tuesday, Sep. 17; 6-9pm
Unter den Linden 13-15 (click here for map)
“BubeDameKönigAss” – MARTIN EDER, MICHAEL KUNZE, ANSELM REYLE, THOMAS SCHEIBITZ
Exhibition: Sep. 06 – Nov. 24, 2013
Opening Reception: Thursday, Sep. 05; 8pm
Potsdamer Straße 50 (click here for map)
Jessyca Hutchens is an art writer living in Berlin and an editor at Berlin Art Link.