Figure and Ground – Ground and Figure

Sabine Folie

Yes, I am influenced by everyone, but every time I stick my hands into my pockets (my own hands that only belong to me, into my pockets in order to better feel them as mine), I encounter other fingers (fingers that remained after the bodies they belonged to had left).

Édouard Manet

I am an eclectic painter by chance; I can open almost any book of reproductions and find a painting I could be influenced by. It is so satisfying to do something that has been done for 30,000 years the world over … If I am influenced by a painter from another time, it’s like the smile of the Cheshire Cat in Alice; the smile is left over even once the cat is gone?

In other words, I could be influenced by Rubens, but I would certainly not paint like Rubens.

Willem de Kooning[1]

Eclecticism is a characteristic that is as undeniably bound to the discursive landscape of contemporary painting as the dissolution of the confines of genres. Consequently, there is no such thing as “pure” painting. Alongside trends like “bad” or “deskilled painting” and “painting against painting”—see Duchamp, Picabia, Picasso, or Kippenberger, among others—a movement towards a more sincere, rather than merely ironic-parodistic examination into the possibilities of painting has reemerged for some time now that is characterized in part by eclecticisms. Doris Piwonka examines the boundaries of what a given medium is capable of achieving, what idioms are worth appropriating and transforming, and what forms, textures and materials are left for her to seriously operate with.[2]

To fully understand her semiotic painting index, it is best to first look at various individual paintings comparatively to her other work made during more or less the same period of time. The artist works, in fact, on five to seven pieces at any given time; a fact that renders it compelling, if not obvious, that there are real connections between the works. Upon closer examination, we notice that the artist revisits and continues to develop certain formal motifs, giving way to the occurrence of transformations as a result of the translation process from one painting to the next. Thus, she iterates parts of sentences, if you will, and sets them within new syntactic contexts—for example: an abstract frottage in two similar small paintings serves as the basis for the development of two distinct abstract compositions that is built up on top of them.

The term “composition” is of interest, as it suggests that the pictorial space has actually been composed, organized by the artist’s subjective decisions. Regardless of whether the painting she is working on happens to be abstract, informal, or semi-figurative, Piwonka is constantly making compositional decisions. Undoubtedly, these fundamental parameters are what Jacob Burckhardt referred to as equivalents within the image in his 1898 book Erinnerung aus Rubens, namely “the symmetrical handling of all things divergent but similarly-significant.” What he is referring to is the light and dark areas in a painting, the distribution of color and surface, and perspectival arrangements. He even mentions a “comparison of optical and idealistic values” [3] within the image, or ultimately, a balance of idea, concettismo and colore. In reference to the work of Matisse almost exactly one hundred years later, Yves-Alain Bois spoke of the “relation of dynamic forces.”[4] One gathers the impression that it is important for Piwonka to explore a broad range of compositional and stylistic possibilities, testing the borders of possibilities altogether. In so doing, Piwonka’s work suggests that ascertaining what the individual image subjects within her “series” are capable of achieving is more important than developing a self-contained more-or-less consistent formal inventory. The experiment—with its consequent flashes of discoveries and (tentatively, balancing) image conceptions that have existed since modernity—remains in the foreground. Piwonka accepts the fact that this generates eclecticism and, if anything, forces this quality with near scientific meticulousness and a kind of masterfulness in the application of color and line.

A certain branch of avant-garde, conceptual, and post-conceptual painting has disavowed the term composition all together in order to distance itself from the “power” of the creative subject and to reach a more fundamental state of pure materiality referencing itself as witnessed in work from Piet Mondrian to Morgan Fisher. Another branch referred to the dual mediation of reality translated through photography onto the canvas, and accompanying difficulty of precisely this representation as witnessed in the work of Gerhard Richter. Doris Piwonka contemplates various conceptualizations and -isms before reaching into the basket of painterly tools.[5] Although play, ease, randomness and paraphrasing all play a part in her work to a certain degree, the viewer’s primary encounter is not with a kind of postmodern irony but rather with a sober pursuit of potentialities—“despite of everything.” These are investigations into boundaries without the noise of “painting against painting,” thick paint application, heavy canvases, or stout rallying cries, and void too of naiveté regarding what remains, or is not longer, possible in painting.

In order to achieve a sort of sprezzatura, an ease or almost lightness, in her approach and materiality alone, Piwonka relies not on the classical canvas, but rather makes use of light cotton. Her color application, using primarily oil, is light and thin rather than impasto, which suits the translucence of multiple layered images, and her stretcher bars are also on the more delicate side. In the past, Piwonka has often used gesso as a primer as well as a medium, and more recently even as her only medium, but generally in combination with oils, inks, and heavy turpentine washes that create (streaking) effects.

Her aforementioned serial approach is informed by reflecting on digressions within her series or groups of works, a method by which she develops variations. This assumption, however, does not quite hold true, as the reintroduction of motifs into later works is not always obvious. It is only after thorough examination of the multiple paint layers and applications, shining translucently through to the image surface or laying in some areas like an opaque shroud, that motifs, a kind of afterlife of other paintings, become visible.

In order to illustrate this argument, we must take a look at some of these works. The painterly strategies that the artist has perused in the course of the last years unfold before us. The at times abrupt, nonchalant changes in painterly attitude and application—from open and informal, to dripping, all the way to abstract and more rigid compositions—often accompany a provocative, playful, and inventive drive to conquer new terrain.

Piwonka’s sprezzatura, the apparent ease of her brush stroke and painterly method, does not conceal the fact that a procedural, if not strategic, concetto, which allows itself to be carried away toward digression, underlies her nonchalance. Indeed, Piwonka applies this very consciously in order to avoid any clearly identifiable formulas, providing clues rather than an overt reading. Her deviation, fraying of the line and use of color nuances that seems to adhere to various schools, lends the impression of discontinuous research that remains perpetually open to new input, and even to exploring the reintroduction of that which appears somehow familiar.

As previously mentioned, it is possible to distinguish phases in which the artist has worked on several paintings at the same time and address one or several themes that she is processing at any given juncture. We could easily state that the paintings are pervaded by basso continuo, or certain base structures in paint application or layer treatment that remain similar, but motifs from one painting to the next vary in other respects, and solve questions by variant means. When all possibilities have been exhausted, Piwonka creates a new series out of her previous series. She applies her newly-found vocabulary within these experimental arrangements in a way that connects the new and former series, or seemingly adopts an entirely new rhetoric. Nevertheless, one notes that her series are not set up as such, even if her production process leads one to believe they are. Each of her pieces are individual works, created within a discrete set of ideas over a specific period of time.

It would not be incorrect to borrow the visual studies concept of capriccio “deliberate, sensuous breaking of rules. The imaginative, playful, breach of academic norms, without decommissioning the norm” to describe her process as a whole, and the way she organizes her compositions, her painting styles and tools.[6] And it is in precisely this way that Piwonka’s paintings feed themselves from the history of painting’s repertoire. They use its “grammar” to interpret steadfast conventions experimentally and against the grain, thereby finding new syntactic contexts. She also applies to her work new practices that stem from the digital world, and with it the implication that genuine painterly strategies—be it following an open-ended and rambling or contained procedure —are combined with artificially generated serial shapes. David Joselit has coined the term “network painting,” which is apt in this context, and signifies the diagrammatic condition of contemporary painting demonstrated by “a proliferation of pathways on many registers.” This type of approach to painting imagines “heterogeneous articulations, embodying a wide variety of receivers, channels, and modes of connection.” [7]

In series of works from 2009/10 and 2011-2013, we witness the artist layering formulaic and digitally generated shapes above or beneath a layered painting style that is achieved through the application of several translucent coats. In these series, Pollock’s network challenges “network painting” eclectically. While some of her appropriated techniques trigger art historical associations, they in truth have little to do with these—at least not in a way that we would describe as discursive or ideologically “rooted.” Rather, they behave as Diedrich Diederichsen once described in reference to Rebecca Morris: neither affirmatively, nor negatively, not postmodern ironic vis a vis the canon of modernity, but rather as “solely [occupied] with pure material practice”—the plain act of “doing.” Void of any libidinous entanglements with traditions or modernity—be it by reverence, epigonism, critical distance, or resistance. [8]

Piwonka’s 2009/10 series introduced a dripping effect generated by applying thinned out paint and briefly soaking the canvas in a turpentine bath. Once set up, the paint ran down the surface of the canvas, painting by itself. This led to an “impure” tonality of rather loud colors in the spectrum of pink (magenta), turquoise (cyan), and yellow as well as orange and light green—the latter two as complimentary colors running between—settling on its surface. At times the artist interrupts the flow of running paint by turning the canvas, causing a kind of grid structure to take shape (only seemingly a reference to the minimalistic grid). The application of visible drip and trickling traces combined with the use of “commercial” colors found in design products generates a rather gothic-like uncontrolled picture dynamic that undermines the vision of a self-evident image or subject. The opaquely painted serial, template-like “codes” that the artist applies over the whole of the surface is a final shape that breaks up the informal tone that dominated the painting up until that point, introducing the logic of the non-handwritten, of a designed surface, and of comic-like undertones. Elements of chance, the artist’s subjective color palette, and her scarce subjective form(ula)s overlap with relatively little conflict.

In 2011/12 Piwonka’s canvases became airy and cloudy. Several layers of colors cover entire surfaces painted with broad brush strokes, in some cases paint is smudged with turpentine, and creates an oily patina. Another thin layer of paint then shrouds the monochromatic figures that have been layered upon one another. Sometimes mis-en-abyme situations pop up in her paintings. These take the form of images within image compositions that reappear in later works, or suggestions of perspectival space that are otherwise absent from the artist’s oeuvre, like when she introduces a detail of stretcher bar, a window, or a door into the picture surface.

In the following series, created around 2013, Piwonka makes use of the line, not only on the pictorial surface, but to create shapes as well. She comes up with loose amorphous blue and red forms drawn upon often overpainted backgrounds. Line is a dominant element here, even if rather unproductive if considered in the classical sense since, as it generates no recognizable figuration, at best making allusion to known shapes, silhouettes of shadowy figures. The artist places a final, opaque shape over these layers of doodles, scribbles, and drippings. A shape, for example, like the silhouette of a shadow, the contours of which suddenly suffocate or engulf the painting. Equipment, if any, that the artist uses serves as an intermediary between the object of the painting and the artist as the subject, these shapes are generated digitally and subsequently transferred onto the canvas; tricks and twists such as these suggest repeated figurations and narrative elements in the midst of abstraction.

In the works that were created in 2013 and 2014/15, Kandinsky appears to have passed the torch to Mondrian. I don’t mean to suggest, with this, that the artist appropriated Kandinsky before moving on to Mondrian, but rather that she examined two distinct principals of the painting process. The emotive expressionistic qualities she “cites” from Kadinsky’s Point and Line to Plane, with its fantastical explosions of color and delirious digressions of line, soon make way for highly concentrated canvases in both small and large formats laid with abstract horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. This idiom recalls a slight departure from Mondrian’s neoplasticism and the constructivist a-subjective image composition associated therewith: “In its essential expression, pure plastics is unconditioned by subjective feeling and conception. It took me a long time to discover that particularities of form and natural color evoke subjective states of feeling, which obscure pure reality. The appearance of natural form changes, but reality remains constant. To create pure reality plastically, it is necessary to reduce natural forms to the constant elements of form and natural color to primary color[9]. Although Piwonka opts to implement a strict image composition, whereas her use of masking tape provides crucial deviations in regard to the occurrence of a variety of colors and lines.

Using this as a basis, and with an increasing sense of reduction, Piwonka constructs a completely unique system of signs that at times gives way to a diagrammatic image. In the absence of symbolic ideograms, there is the presence of language on the semiological level, communicated through pervasive linear cross hatching throughout the image surface. Like written lines, these conjure up imaginary scripted impressions that are supported by a kind of notebook shape here, a frame there, a blank white piece of paper or one containing amorphous forms, that provide a pictorial element that contrasts with the otherwise illustrative graphism. Script-like forms and textures turn Piwonka’s surfaces into spaces for notations, writing surfaces (lines), and books. What Louis Marin calls the textuality or textual quality of the image is illustrated here in the very structure of her paintings.

Another transition took place in 2014/15—a transition characterized by the challenges of abstraction, a textual drawing structure, and a darkening of the images surfaces to tones of grey and black: the grisaille. The underlying structures of Piwonka’s paintings had already grown opaque as a result of the application of multiple layers of paint in previous years. This time, however, these grey surfaces—through which several layers often shimmer through—deny the delimitation of individual lines or color fields. The artist experiments with alternating washes of ink and color—originally an illustrator’s medium—and oil, often thoroughly smudged and clouded with turpentine. By virtue of the darkening process, opacity serves not least of all the purpose of reference to its own fabrication and representationality.

Lately, Piwonka’s palette has grown even more reduced. She often applies only gesso, and this straight onto the cotton canvas, which she has more and more often been leaving untreated. In this way, her image surfaces are beginning to appear almost dematerialized, at times crossed by variations of white stripes running across—a lattice structure that recalls, among other things, the form of a window. This abstract kind of chiaroscuro provides yet another subject for investigation: an exploration of light and shadow within the image, the theme of painting as a window to the world (Leon Battista Alberti) and as a lattice and frame structure.

Piwonka appropriates the principle of painterly research, in other words, she appropriates investigations into the principals of organization in the painted spaces of images and the respective conceptions thereof. She is less interested in the category of “style” in combination with her artistic subjectivity, as in exhausting the possibilities of the very limits of the disposition of painting—painting as medium. Nonetheless, Piwonka never leaves the confines of her paintings, and in so doing she holds fast to certain parameters that define the painterly tradition. The artist engages in a “multiplication of styles,” like Picasso or Picabia, and this not merely within the sequence of her paintings, but various styles converge to create a unity even within one and the same painting.[10] Since her repertoire is ambiguous, variable, and in a constant state of flux, her sprawling pluralism of styles paradoxically represents a moment of deprivation in the commodity cycle as well as a moment of exuberant accessibility, a result of the strategic “randomness” of her pictorial program.

This condition could be described using a term that Louis Marin has made exhaustive use of and that was often invoked by David Joselit: transitivity. For Joselit, this signified a mode of transition facing both contemporary painting as well as the painting in the year 1918. Often invoking the “end of painting,” artists of that era posed the question of what challenged the framework of representation in painting, the mimetic image within painting itself: In part using the ready-made—the “paintbrush” (which was in fact a bottle brush), for example, raging out of Duchamp’s programmatic final painting Tu’m—or through the “multiplication of styles,” for example Picasso’s overlapping use of cubism, realism, and his prioritization of the line within one and the same image. [11] With his promiscuous sequence of style changes and his overlapping of various layers of figures in works like those of his Transparences series, created during the 1920s, Francis Picabia followed a similar principal, and one that, mirrored his belief that “our heads are round so that thoughts can change directions.”

According to David Joselit, “modern painting could not sustain itself without confronting the alterity of the picture. To survive, it had to move beside itself in space (through objects) and time (through styles).”[12] This brings to mind, in other words—Marin’s term transitivity is applicable here again—contemporary art’s liberation from having to point to something in order to exist within the function of representation. [13]

Piwonka negotiates the inclusion of various theses and achievements of painting—overlapping these in images built of layers, or developing a turnaround, a new drive with new sets of layers and challenges in new, subsequent series of paintings—and in an almost scientific way, albeit that in her subjective choice of resources and decisions the artist as the subject naturally remains out of the question.

These historical positions and their elemental theorems form a matrix within which a pastiche of a new image conceptions develop from the vantage of a reality that is characterized by ever-reimagined conceptions of visual culture.

In her paintings, Doris Piwonka undertakes a “semiological adventure.” Piwonka’s works evade, to some extent, an all knowing all deciphering reading, for her work, even in its reduction, offers resistance, remains excessive—as is the fundamental fate of painting. Piwonka operates within an oscillating space, an espace intertitiel as phrased by Marin or, to close with Till Bardoux and Michael Heitz in reference to Marin,

“Textuality had moved away from the surface of the painting, with texture we return to it. However, it seems as if the surface has also been intrinsically everted, transformed through this back and forth motion between seeing and thinking. It no longer lets itself simply be set against a background. It remains translucent into its depth and at the same time opaque. A quasi-space such as this is able to open up between two surfaces, canvas and ground, which is perhaps only thinkable and expressible in paradoxes (‘translucent density). Every decision for only one of the possible ways of approaching an image—referential illusion or pictorial abstraction—must remain in limbo; the dualisms (illusionistic depth of the perspectival space vs. sensual experiential materiality, or the wealth of senses vs. the flatness of surface lines) creates space for a possible shift into a realm of possibilities.” [14]

Perhaps Piwonka relates with de Kooning, who thought that he must deny himself a “style” because to him, “style” seemed like a bourgeois and therefore uncontemporary convention.



[1] Both quotations from Willem de Kooning, Willem de Kooning: Pittsburgh International Series, October 26, 1979-January 6, 1980, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, 1979, p. 148

[2] Ibid. Isabelle Graw, Peter Geimer, Über Malerei. Eine Diskussion, Berlin: August-Verlag, 2012.

[3] Jacob Burckhardt, “Erinnerungen aus Rubens,” in: idem. Die Kunst der Betrachtung. Aufsätze und Vorträge zur bildenden Kunst, Cologne: DuMont, 1984, p. 450.

[4] Cf. Yves-Alain Bois, “Matisse and ‘Arche Drawing’,” cit. David Joselit, “Reassembling Painting,” in: Manuela Ammer, Achim Hochdörfer, David Joselit (eds.), Painting 2.0. Expression in the Information Age, exh. cat. Museum Brandhorst, Munich, mumok – Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna, Munich-London-New York: Prestel Cologne: 2015, pp. 169-181, 172.

[5] Chritoph Menke’s essay on power refers to an 18th century theory of aesthetics: “Sie faßt das Ästhetische nicht als sinnliches Erkennen und Darstelle, sondern als Spiel des Ausdrucks – angetrieben von einer Kraft, die nicht wie ein Vermögen in Praktiken ausgeübt wird, sondern die sich verwirklicht; die nichts wiedererkennt und nichts repräsentiert, weil sie ‘dunkel’, unbewusst ist; einer Kraft nicht des Subjekts, sondern des Menschen im Unterschied zu sich als Subjekt. Die Ästhetik der Kraft ist eine Lehre von der Natur des Menschen: seiner ästhetischen Natur in Differenz zur übend erworbenen Kultur seiner Praktiken.“ in: Christoph Menke, Kraf. Ein Grundbegriff ästhetischer Anthropologie, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2017, p. 20.

[6] (accessed on April 6, 2017).

[7] Joselit 2015, p. 175.

[8] Diedrich Diederichsen, “Modernity’s Secularized Monastery: The Relaxed Painting of Rebecca Morris,” in: Rebecca Morris: Paintings, 1996–2005, exh. cat. The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Chicago: The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago 2005. pp. 70–80, 74.

[9] Piet Mondrian, “Toward the True Vision of Reality” (1942), in: idem. Plastic and Pure Plastic Art 1937 and other essays, 1941–1943, San Francisco: Wittenborn Art Books, 2008, pp. 11–17, 12.

[10] Joselit 2015, p. 172.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Cf. Louis Marin, Kunstgespräche, Zürich-Berlin: Diaphanes, 2001, p. 66

[14] Till Bardoux, Michael Heitz, “Nachwort zu Louis Marin” in: Louis Marin, Texturen des Bildlichen, Zurich-Berlin: diaphanes, 2006, pp. 161–172, 168.