In the exhibition Self Similarity, the medium of painting forms the common denominator between Austrian artist Doris Piwonka and Czech artist Josef Achrer, who was a guest artist this year in April and May in Krems at AIR—Artist-in-Residence Niederösterreich. Formally speaking, both the works of Piwonka and Achrer share an abstract, reduced approach that is on the surface non-referential. Nevertheless, the exhibition raises the question of a potential “archetype,” of a painting reference where not only a link to something external, something real is intended but which also—from a process-reflective viewpoint—includes definitive aspects of self-referentially and “feedback.”
Formally observed in the works presented in Self Similarity is a reflecting on painting’s fundamental parameters. In their paintings, both artists reference the medium’s simple forms and structural elements. The thematizating of the stretcher bars, of the painting as subject, etc. are indices for a reflexive approach to image and painting that shifts the meaning away from what’s depicted or the purely pictorial toward the conditions of form genesis and image creation. Both artists thematize the stretcher-bar framework, its iconic form (Piwonka) or its significance structurally for the painting canvas (Achrer). Whereas Josef Achrer visually reveals the painting’s construction with a kind of shaped canvas, allowing the viewer to literally peer behind the painting or behind the surface in a manner that critiques the medium and illusion, the stretcher crossbar in Piwonka appears in certain paintings as a geometric figure visible through the canvas or even, as in O.T. (2018), rotated 45 degrees and transferred and incorporated into the pictorial occurrences by means of a few color stripes. The paintings’ reduced aesthetic, such as Achrer’s presenting of a black painted surface, or Piwonka’s “erasure” of the center through over-painting or wiping away, can also be described as a shared formal and process-related attribute, although the semantics of pictorial erasure within individual works are of a different nature. With both Achrer and Piwonka, an expanded definition of the concept of image and painting can be identified. Here, Piwonka is committed in particular to the pictorial dimension of surrounding phenomena transcribed and transferred into the painting, whereas Achrer aims for an element of disillusionment, of subtly infiltrating aesthetic expectations.
At first glance, the works of Josef Achrer seem minimalist but his simple painting- and object-forms are not based on the minimalist ideal of a simple, self-referential, geometric shape such as a rectangle or cuboid, nor is he interested in negating subjectivity, expression, or gesture. The reference to reduction and simplicity articulated here has an entirely different origin. On closer inspection, Achrer’s paintings and painting-objects are rather profane and rough in their material vocabulary; for minimalist standards (in the historical sense) they would be far too imperfect. It seems as if the work is less interested in asserting itself as an aesthetic object than as a thing in the here and now. Although Achrer makes use of its own presence, of the autonomy of color and form since no direct external references to the painting can be identified, he still consciously chooses a certain degree of incompleteness and imperfection that disrupts and makes impossible a reception of the work that is purely aesthetic or contemplative.
In the painting-object 3D Information No. 1 (2015), Achrer confronts the viewer with a slightly warped, square canvas. When viewed frontally at a certain distance, the viewer faces a highly reflective, roughly painted, black canvas. From this perspective, it could still be considered a classic, flat-surface painting whose reduced aesthetic offers viewers little visual information. The painting gives away almost nothing visually: in fact it reflects the viewer’s gaze back on himself, nearly deluding him in the process. When approaching the painting, however, the torque of the canvas becomes incrementally more critical to the visual occurrences. The painting now reveals itself as a painting-object, the flatness of the painting giving way to the object-like presence of a rather profane construct of image and space. Contrary to its initial minimalist impression, this painting-object generates a sublime pictorial spatiality discernable beyond, or more precisely, behind the painting. When viewed from the side, a kind of illuminated spatial fold appears between the painting and the wall that emanates a striking and luminous orange in contrast to the work’s absence of color when viewed frontally. This hidden color space seems to be virtually self-luminous and is the result of an illusion: neon paint the artist applied to the back of the canvas indirectly “illuminates” the white wall.
Achrer’s painting consistently references actual visual phenomena. His painting is essentially an examination of how reality is perceived under present-day media conditions. The group of works presented in the exhibition Self Similarity was preceded by a critical examination of the medium and technology of the screen image over several years. In a kind of transcription, Achrer converts the basic colors of additive color mixing (RGB) that are indispensable to pixel-based images into the analog, comparatively fully anachronistic medium of painting, thereby confronting canvas, stretcher bars, and paint with pixel, light hue, and light-hue mixing. This conversion yields a desired dysfunctionality, since, when converted to analog, RGB light hues no longer play useful roles. Achrer’s approach is essentially anti-illusionistic, but here it is not just about the individual painting, what it references or its representational ability, but about the screen image and its visual-ontological predominance over current modes of reality perception. Here image quality is less critical than quantity, i.e. the volume of images that leads to an erosion of the image. The image has long since preceded reality. The image of reality has turned into the reality of the image, which fundamentally influences one’s own perception, one’s own construction of reality.
In 3D Information No. 1, the construction of the painting is revealed behind its surface—which not only holds true for 3D Information No. 1 but can also be described as an essential aspect of Archer’s examination of reality. However, the artist is not merely trying to betray or deceive the viewer with regard to the perceptual reality of the media-generated image, he also snubs his audience in systemic-referential terms by undermining the initial “hope” for an autonomous (non-referential) or potentially minimalistic work of art. To a certain extent, Achrer uses the medium of painting against itself. His painting-object contains an element of deconstruction and disillusionment, yet his approach is not purely conceptual or even didactic. 3D Information No. 1 does not provide any interpretation; the various ways of reading it—be it as minimalist painting, installable screen, or simulated light space—are not mutually exclusive. Achrer creates a semiotic, composite painting that oscillates between seduction, an implicit critique of image and media, and painterly self-referentiality.
For Achrer and Piwonka, painting functions neither as a medium of subjectivist expression nor as a medium of pictorial erasure and abstraction. For both artists, painting reveals itself instead as an aesthetic operational framework and dispositif that seeks to negotiate questions of intentionality and directionality in the painterly process. The temporal unfolding of perception per se as well as the temporal dimension of the creative process form central aspects within each artist’s individual aesthetic practice. Achrer’s exploration of the process-oriented nature of perception and image generation is characterized by a fundamental skepticism regarding the perception of media-conveyed reality. Doris Piwonka’s paintings, on the other hand, take an autonomous approach given their medium-immanent qualities. Her works are based on a consciously nonlinear form of the painting process. The artist does not always work on multiple paintings at a time, a painting can also be developed at a later date, sometimes years later, or sections are rubbed out and reworked. Here painting assumes the form of an aesthetic operational field in order to call into question the “being and becoming” of forms relative to their support medium, to their essential constitutive elements (color, canvas, stretcher bars), but also in relation to the influence of the surrounding space.
Doris Piwonka’s paintings are not characterized by their formal recognition factor, that is, by a particular vocabulary of forms. In terms of formal vocabulary, her paintings are heterogeneous and employ—in an authentically simultaneous manner—various concepts of pictorial spatiality. The pictorial space appears in places to be structured linearly and geometrically by means of a few color lines or strokes, and in others to be constructed in an atmospheric and diffuse manner from a multiplicity of layered, un-contoured, or blurred image planes. The works are not connected through analogies of form or color; rather Piwonka’s paintings generate inter-pictorial links that are revealed to the viewer during the act of looking. Hence, the works’ formal heterogeneity does not indicate an “I am many” as theoretical subject—a juxtaposition of different “styles” or pictorial concepts the artist employs—it is inherently always based on Piwonka’s use of her own repository of paintings. In responding to the question regarding the origins of her painting forms, the artist explains: “What I have are my paintings.” The artist develops forms and structures—contrary to the initial impression that these are entirely non-referential and abstract—not independent of context, but by examining forms, colors, and their aesthetic “feedback loops” within the realm of possibilities she creates and stakes out through her painting process.
The reworking or repainting of earlier works delineates a constitutive aspect of Piwonka’s aesthetic practice. The decision whether and how she continues working on a painting always stems from a questioning of what is presently visible on or within a painting—the artist asks: “What should I keep as is, what should I open up, what should I paint over or get rid of?” Here the process of creating a painting is not purely intentional or directed but at times completely accidental and is influenced by situational and unplanned factors such as the immediate surrounding space.
In the large-format painting O.T. (2014), the viewer is confronted with a black color mass, a dynamic color field. Piwonka’s approach here was not about design or even creating gestural form. The abstract form in the painting, a mass of color that appears to be fraying and in motion around its edges, owes its pictorial presence to an unconventional method: while priming the canvas, the artist began by applying the paint as usual from the edges toward the center of the canvas. The empty center, i.e. the area left unprimed in the middle, is then in a second step—which would have actually been the completing of the priming process—turned into an agent for evoking form and pictorial space: Piwonka fills in the blank, not-yet-primed area with black gesso—counter to the initial intention of merely priming it—so that the black begins confronting the white as a counteractive force in the form of an abstract, dynamic pictorial shape.
As such, the painting is not created solely on the canvas, but largely in the process of viewing. It is up to the artist’s active gaze and relational vision whether a non-intentional, peripheral visual occurrence is granted aesthetic weight. The artist therefore assigns the initially vacant area, the empty middle that remains unprimed, potentially the same level of meaning as an intentionally placed form. In this respect, it would be inaccurate to speak of coincidence as part of the decision-making and form-finding process here. Rather, Piwonka incorporates the painting’s peripheral zones, such as the showing (bleeding) through of color or even surrounding spatial phenomena from the ground up. Also, the narrow, somewhat imperfectly masked brown color stripe along the left edge of O.T. (2014) is in actuality derived from a banal scenario, specifically from the presence of several wooden risers the painting was propped up on during the working process (rotated over 90 degrees) and which then, upon removing the wood pieces at the end of the working process, would have in a certain way been missed from the painting compositionally so that the artist added them back into the overall aesthetic occurrences in an abstract form, as a beige color stripe along the edge of the painting. This embedding of a peripheral element (wooden block) is not a referential or “un-semanticizing” occurrence, but happens on a purely “retinal,” then abstract, and finally painterly level. The premises of this transference are due to pictorial nature, i.e. aspects of the coloration, of the abstract, illusive form, and potentially also the expressive content of an abstract form.
Piwonka’s painting process cannot be understood and described as unidirectional. It is not the imagination or will that precede a form and its placement. Instead, the artist operates within the tension between building something up and destroying it. She creates forms, but then in a countermove strips painted elements away again just as radically, be it by over-painting or by removing and rubbing the paint off with a cloth soaked in turpentine. The small-scale painting O.T. (2017) is part of an open-ended series of small, predominately black, white, and gray paintings, which in essence deal with the painting’s refusal to reveal—or, in other words, with the refusal of a form to reveal—itself pictorially. Piwonka examines various forms here, even modalities of a fundamental, inner “disunity of pictorial space.” The viewer is unable to take hold of the painting in a contemplative, authoritative way. Rather, the painting puts him in a type of perceptive disquiet; he is gently compelled to relinquish himself to the conflicting forces generated between forms, painting surface, and the viewer’s retinas, thereby calling into question his own point of view within this interplay of antagonistic forces.
In the second large-format painting O.T. (2018), Piwonka turns the painting support material of unprimed canvas into an aesthetically autonomous painting subject. Here, the canvas is not merely the reason for the presence of a painting support in a functional sense, but whether its material properties are the subject of pictorial qualities. The vertical folds in the canvas, which are essentially due to the fact that the last, innermost part of the canvas roll is used, are integrated into the radically reduced visual occurrences as expressly pictorial presences. As in Piwonka’s earlier paintings, the stretcher crossbar, i.e. an element essential to the structure of the painting canvas, is reflected in the visual occurrences in a quotation-like and abstract way in the form of a structure comprising a few colored lines rotated 45 degrees. These several intersecting lines of color represent the only true painterly decisions on the otherwise unprimed and “empty” canvas. The pictorial space is determined by the coexistence of two different aesthetic as well as pictorial-ontological positions. The play of light and shadow from the folds becomes a visual occurrence that enters into a relational, even compositional relationship with the orthogonal stripes of color. The pictorial/painterly (color cross) and object-like/sculptural (creases) are not simply juxtaposed, but brought into dialogue. Ultimately, the viewer observes himself looking here and observing what is transformed at what point in time from a peripheral event into an aesthetic event—and vice versa. The seduction of the pictorial is achieved via the simplest means. It is this very subtle way of reevaluating and reinterpreting that gives Piwonka’s work the powerful ability to gently induce the viewer to consider and reflect on one’s own looking. Her work alerts the viewer to the creative power of one’s own looking, bringing seeing alive in its phenomenological dimension as both a sensing and constitutive instrument.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Erik Smith