Additive Elimination

Martin Prinzhorn

A rather sad aspect of the current discussion of painting is that this medium is frequently regarded only as a historically charged symptom, as a frozen component of a discourse, in which the only significance left to it is to be, in fact, painting. No further differentiation is even considered here. The debates and developments that have taken place in the past within painting, in other words everything, to which specific features and media-relevant elements inhere, seem to be obscured or replaced by mere quotation. In this perspective, painting can only serve an art-historical nostalgia or a conceptual strategy, but is actually dead as a medium, because its internal strategies are now only retrospective. Here the medium withdraws into a pleasurable corner, of which the reference points can also be, from today’s perspective, completely reactionary realisms. Those who continue to belabor these internal strategies of painting, however, unwilling to believe that these have arrived now at the end of modernism at a terminal point in a monochrome surface and that there is nothing more to be gained artistically, in a narrower sense, are presumed to be naive, absurdly in many cases, or even suspected of having a reactionary attitude. And yet they still exist, a small scene whose members continue to deal undeterred with the problems of painting and its history, continually uncovering something new. This involves issues of perception and its constantly changing conditions in a historical context. However, this does not mean regarding painting as an isolated island and ignoring the fact that it has been divested of its hegemonic status within artistic media. This engagement is carried out with the means of painting.

Doris Piwonka’s works are an outstanding example of this ongoing pursuit of a discourse and the existence of the possibility of constantly generating new results at the same time. Concentrated strands of problem complexes permeate her painting, leading from color fields to structures and overlaps, recombining these again and again. In the older pictures there are initially amorphous, monochrome outlines on an equally monochrome background. What first appears clear and simple, becomes increasingly complex with a closer look. Then the rectangular canvas becomes a space, upon or within which a sculpture seems to stand like an abstract object. This effect is not achieved with an actual sculptural expansion of the canvas, but rather through the positioning of the color field that seems to somehow not come to rest in the two-dimensionality of the panel picture. Although one feels certain, at first glance, of having often seen these kinds of compositions throughout the long history of modernism, a tension evolves from a minimal change, breathing new life into aspects of an artistic past, for instance the transition from abstract expressionism to minimalist painting. Here Piwonka does not yield to the pressure of having to make radically new inventions, but instead very delicately turns the screws of a complex wheelwork, so to speak, generating with minor deviations ultimately major effects, which appear even greater, however, in a historical context.

Over the years, this strategy has increasingly grown in complexity. More and more painterly means are taken into the pictures like set pieces, which do not presume to be anything new when viewed in isolation, but which overwrite what has already been seen by continually arranging and re-arranging the impression, so that they begin to radiate a fresh force and autonomy. The overlaying of different visual concepts results again and again in a displacement of the subdivision of foreground and background, as well as that between figuration and non-figuration or between focus and blur or between inside and outside the picture. As one looks at the works, a recurrent mechanism is set in motion: in a first round, you think you can grasp the works completely and quickly, but then tensions and shifts crystallize, which make up the quality of the works. Everywhere we look, we are prevented from extracting a uniform whole from the picture, something closed in itself, and thus from being able to put aside what we have seen as something familiar. When, for example, white geometric points extend from the edge of the picture into a spotty, blurred color field, a composition emerges that has no beginning and no end, and in which the picture thus becomes a pure idea, overcoming its objectness in a much more radical way than was the case with American painting in the middle of the last century. Instead of reduction, here overlay and imbalance are brought into play, and overcoming objectness occurs precisely because the object emerges in perception, only to vanish again immediately.

In Doris Piwonka’s most recent pictures, the old problem of figuration and non-figuration is emphatically thematized again. At first it seems that the inventory has not really changed much: forms ranging from amorphous to geometrical are depicted on the canvas and form a strong contrast to the background at least in color. But then further dimensions are brought into the picture. Almost as though glazed, the clarity of the earlier pictures is partly made to vanish again, but not entirely, because it can be recalled again by our image memory at any time with its references. This surface then mingles again with the lowest layer, so that the abstract monochrome colors land somewhere in an in-between area. Through this surface, however, gestural moments also come into play, which we associate with a completely different form of painting. This juxtaposition (or layers over and under one another) of a gesturally expressive and an abstract minimalist language of forms newly unfurls the old problem of abstraction. Indeed, both procedures are classic strategies of abstraction in the twentieth century. Now, however, their juxtaposition dissolves, to a certain extent, the directed path from the figurative to the non-figurative. The gesture and the expressive brush stroke tell a different story here from that of the flattening to the outline, its monochromy and the gradual deformation of the outline to an abstract form. Both stories in one and the same picture result in blocking the frequently cited effect that a figure is perceptively to be reconstructed behind every abstraction. The reconstruction works because we can read a figure, even if it is a fantastical one, into a picture from our visual memory when viewing it and in awareness of an artistic strategy. This mode of reception is no longer possible in Piwonka’s pictures, because one path between two strategies is predetermined. The other path is erased by this mix of media that takes place within the painting. What is also important here is that Piwonka’s procedures do not lie obviously on the surface, but only first become comprehensible over a certain period of time. This painting is not contemplative, it only gradually reveals its tensions due to its complexity. Thoughts on visual perception are astutely conjoined with historical references, which makes it impossible to directly read the pictures. Here it is quite evident, then, that the medium of painting has by no means already been exhausted, or that it can only serve as a playground for purely historical references, in which the aspects of perception become secondary. Painting can be very much alive, if it wants to be.

Martin Prinzhorn, 2011