26 Aug - 08 Oct 2011
26 August - 8 October, 2011
By Hans Jürgen Balmes
The visible lives within its own shadow. Our gaze ranges over it like the beam of a lighthouse, briefly, as it turns, illuminating the sea, the landscape behind it, perhaps a ship, a buoy, a house - for a split second. In passing, a moment, a gaze, perhaps seen, perhaps forever unseen. There is no doubt; the visible surrounds us like air. We walk, we travel through it, fly up and away over it. It appears to us like an unending carpet from which we snatch countless images; yet how much of it is actually seen?
The images that Erik Steffensen shows to us seem to live in this borderland: between appearance and being seen, between the shadow from which they emerge and our eyes. In a world where there are more images than gazes, he fixes our eyes on events unfolding before us.
His images seem not simply to go beyond the threshold between shadow and appearance; they seem to linger there - as if the shadow will just not let them go. Or rather, as if Erik Steffensen mistrusts the simple fact of their visibility, the exteriority of their light. As if visibility could take several paths out of the shadow, with each path a gaze.
One can collect gazes, superimpose shadows over one another: a diagram of what is seen becomes a map made up of gazes. Eyes scan this map over and again; they fold it up, tuck the paper over on itself, until the paths lie over one another, cross over one another: double exposures, reflections, origami consisting of gazes. Light is not thrown into dark areas; instead shadows collect within them, as if in pools. Pathways crossing here become entangled and multiply.
In his images the visible does not reveal itself to the eye starkly, as in the form of a digitised tableau on which the viewer can feast his eyes. Instead, his images are reminiscent of the early days of photography, when the subject had to be enticed onto the plate with devious ingenuity and chemical artifice. Light and time were protagonists in a process that was both initiated by an individual and gazed at him as its witness. Without his agency nothing would have occurred, and yet the entire process was characterised by unpredictability, which the photographer had to take into consideration.
Every movement was a disruptive factor because of the long exposure time and so, for this reason, Henry Fox Talbot at first laid branches and leaves directly onto the light-sensitive plate. In the negative, they anticipated the appearance of X-ray images. He, therefore, primarily used inert statues for the photographic studies that he presented in his book, The Pencil of Nature (1844). Nonetheless, they shed their rigidity in his pictures, the effect of movement being achieved by the modulation of light and shade in their modelling, and the surface of the stone on the coarse paper having the appearance of human skin due to the mineral plasticity of the print. The static nature of the statues were dissolved and in the folds of the visible - the blurred edges, the vague depth of the background - the viewer's eyes filled in details never captured by the camera's lens. Photography has become a membrane upon which the outer and inner worlds touch one another. The individual responds to the objects photographed via his imagination; he searches within them for his memories.
Only a few years after Henry Fox Talbot's oriel windows, houses and haystacks appeared on photographic plates, it is no coincidence that lost images that could only have been drawn from the longing of man - silhouettes of the deceased and shadows of the past, spiritual emanations and invisible phenomena - should be retrieved by the viewer in the suspended present of the photographic moment. In its velvety darkness, photography has arrested time and presented posterity with a moment. In its hunger for ever more time - more past, more future - however, posterity, has imagined that there is a dimension in the photographs which was never present. The promise of photography has become a seduction. The image has become the site of the mood and the dream. The visible is not an enclosed terrain, but rather an open space.
In the same way as a writer exploits the language, tradition and expressive possibilities of his genre, Erik Steffensen employs not only all aspects of the imaginary space of photography, but he turns them inside out in his work, so to speak. For sculpture, instead of Roman busts, he chooses bronzes by Degas in The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek - standing and jumping horses - which he photographs in their display cabinets. He does not alter their location. How ever, he does make visible the conditions under which we see them in a museum. There is no neutral background like one finds in the series by Eadweard Muybridge, of which they are reminiscent. The latter wanted to show with the greatest exactitude every moment of a horse's walking, trotting and galloping, thus discovering for the first time in 1878, how a horse really moves when it is galloping.
These were analytical images, the documents of an engineer of movement. Steffensen, by contrast, places several exposures one over the other, in the dark room turning the contours of the statues into the negative, until light has consumed the physicality of the bronzes. A spectral mounted army is created, over whose phosphorescent gallop the creator watches. His reflection is thrown back by the glass panel that exhibits the visible before us, and so his selfportrait is the dark centre point of a pictorial space which, with its luminous cabinet edges, seems like a fantastic cube. In his horse series, Steffensen varies the coloration of the prints - still images from dream sequences are produced, in which the same subject shifts from mood to ever differing mood with the changes of colour.
The postcard photographers at the start of the last century knew it. Before the discovery of colour film, they photographed their subjects in black and white, as Erik Steffensen does today, but produced prints in a variety of tones. When one today compares their prints, which can still be found at flea markets, the reddish sepia ones (in Steffensen's palette, 'aubergine') seem the closest to nature. Where a little black has been mixed into the sepia, the depth of field ('umbra') is extended; in green ('olive'), by contrast, the subject almost looks as if it is in colour, whilst the shadows in the postcards with blue ink are denser. The sublime metallic gleam of moonlight seems to cover the mountainsides and crevasses. This reminds cinema goers of the 'American night', those daylight images given the appearance of images taken by night with the application of a blue filter in front of the camera lens. The postcard photographer lent a hand, of course, with brush and pen. In many of the images one can still see the smearing of the retouching and the imprint of the clamps from the fixing tray.
Steffensen's working practice is not so different today: he takes his photographs with a Zeiss Ikon on black and white film, completely analogue and traditional. These images, however, are just the starting point of the alchemy of the dark room, which no longer operates by means of retouching brush and colour plates in front of the lens. Filters, negative inversions, the blurring of a distinct viewpoint, the cross-fading of visual layers, inking, multiple exposures; negatives copied one over another, until, for instance, the face of the photographer over the horses becomes unrecognisable as a reflection in the scattered light. And with every attempt at visualisation, the face disappears further.
The facial features disappear into the shadows: identity seems to be the blind spot of this multi-perspectival photography. Therein lies Erik Steffensen's romantic irony. His depiction of reality is never simple, but is folded over on itself several times like a map, dissolving the unique identity of the artist. Many of the images also appear unintentional, as if the photographer, taken off-guard by the subject, has pressed the button quickly. The work takes the lead and it seems as if the subject matter has unleashed many of the processes which have taken place in the dark room. For Steffensen making images is not about control. And by eschewing this, his gaze seems to become untethered. His gaze wanders around unrestrictedly.
Where the edges of the images lie over one another, the present meets the past. Steffensen exchanges a handshake with Degas, Manet, Louise Bourgeois and an anonymous sculptor from Ancient Egypt. Hans Christian Andersen's little mermaid meets models from Vogue. The vegetable Art Déco of poppy seed heads seems to thrust itself before Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase or Gerhard Richter's Emma - Akt auf einer Treppe (Nude on a Staircase). At the same time, these images function, following their titles, as homages to Picabia, who produced picture puzzles by means of superimposing things in his drawing, which had the effect of sketches for fantastic friezes. A layer of irony can be added to these titles: if the homage turns out to be blue, an association with Picasso's Blue Period comes to the fore. A work in the colours of the sunrise is called, House of The Rising Sun, and an image featuring flamingos is named after a song by Manfred Mann: Pretty Flamingo.
Erik Steffensen's art is romantic not only because of his predilection for the hidden and the shadow and his adherence to the meanings of dreams and desires, but also because of his stance towards understanding art as second nature. He does not approach art solemnly, but rather playfully, obliquely: High Five, a greeting consisting of slapping someone's hand above the head, or Blue Note as the name of the instructions for a game. Blue Note: it is the distortions and interferences which make up his art, the finger that slides the strings over the fretboard on a blues guitar, to push the sound higher. Blue, blue, blue, sad, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell and Novalis, "Everything is blue in my book." Through the fissure that opens up between the shifts and distortions, we see an infinity. In this art and nature, image of the external world and projection of the inner world, subject and eye observe one another in an unending play of reflections in a room of possibilities. Here seeing constantly finds new forms but never comes to rest in one place. The gaze remains hovering.
Despite all the details, layers, objects, shadows, the images seem tantalisingly to be empty. As if the real event has yet to happen. As if the woman will lift herself out of the armchair in which she sits and show her full figure; as if the girl on the beach will turn her face towards us if only someone would call after her. These spaces seem to be characterised by a kind of absence, an absence, however, that is not empty but is instead full of possibilities. The image leaves the present with a step in the direction of the future: perhaps the woman will receive a letter and then stand in the window like a Vermeer figure. But not yet. The image seems to observe its own fullness of possibilities. That may well be the reason for the stillness that permeates Erik Steffensen's images - a stillness like that between the branches of a tree Sculpture, on a still day.
This pictorial space not only invites us to contemplation, it can also be an arena in which almost discursive themes are negotiated. Sometimes that occurs polemically, for instance, in Black and White, where the contradictoriness of ancient plasticity and its awkward sculptural execution causes one of the noble female figures to metamorphose into one of the nymphs in Lewis Carroll. On another occasion this occurs with aphoristic melancholy, such as, for instance, in the male nude, Blue Marble, where, despite all athlete strength and tactile softness of skin, the irreconcilability of the ancient ideal and the open eyes of the model are all too obvious: ancient statues are blindly exposed to our gaze. In contrast, in Blue Marble the figure gazes back: the ancient world has opened its eyes.
The serial nature of the repeated motif in a variety of colours, the flatness of this coloration in Duoton - all of that has been inherent in Steffensen's work from the beginning. The same goes for the art historical cowboys and Indians game, the way he insinuates himself into classical visual images and compositions. The present becomes a pivotal point from which the gaze backwards develops into a perspective in which the artist sees himself as representing the most recent position: Steffensen is looking over his shoulders at Hammershøi, who is looking over his shoulder at Caspar David Friedrich, who is looking over his shoulder at Chardin, and so on to Vermeer ...
This gaze never seems nostalgic, overfamiliar or even glorifying - the image is always clearly marked as contemporary due to its execution in the medium chosen and its reflectiveness. Steffensen's technique and contemplation of the subject, its serial nature and coloration may well be reminiscent of Andy Warhol's screen prints. Steffensen's irony meets the light-heartedness of Pop Art. And yet his iconography feeds on other sources, and despite his confidence in the possibilities of art, what is foreign to him is the two-dimensional optimism with which Andy Warhol believed he could derive an iconography for the present day from the images made by the mass media. Instead of being an iconoclast, Erik Steffensen dreams up images.
The place from which he decamps in order to explore the imaginary space of the visible has the effect of a reflective surface. He exposes his images on a gleaming metallic paper, as if he wishes to bestow his project with an analytical accent by means of this coolness. The contrasts and acuities are accentuated in this manner; nothing is given higher definition with a coarser graininess. Instead the lines and planes of the various exposures are clearly lifted andseparated from one another by a transparent paint. The crystalline gleam of early oil painting is repeated on the surface of his images. Indeed, his images seem to rest somewhere between photography and painting. As if the camera had painted them: the colour is thrown transparent over the entire pictorial surface; there are accretions, pauses or impasto passages, transitions between two colours - red or yellow, for instance - are imperceptible. Only the shadows and dark areas are opaque islands within them. Alongside them there are light-coloured silhouettes reversed into the negative, which sometimes become lines and run over the image like rivers, branches or twigs. From his unfocused gaze, with his dreamy and yet so steady grasp of motifs drawn from the history of our gazes and from art, and by means of his precise and resolute technique, Erik Steffensen has developed his unique method of creating images by amalgamating of photography and painting. In ever larger formats, he handles this image creation with ever greater virtuosity. The opaque transparency of their luminosity which enfolds the viewer as he gazes at his murals is both very beautiful and full of still grandeur and concentration.
And there is more: the space that Steffensen creates in his images is fixed in the form of a mirror due to their metallic surface, in which the viewer can see himself. The pictorial surface is the jumping-off point for the gaze of the viewer, who in his turn finds himself reflected in the surface - his facial features settling on the blind spot in which the identity of the photographer disappeared. Now he must take the measure of that place with his gaze, order it anew, unfold it again, find its co-ordinates. He now follows for a second time the process, which led to the image in a reversal of the work in the dark room.
There is a lot to see in this process: appropriation and irony, humour, polemics and melancholic approachability - in every gaze the viewer will recognise Erik Steffensen's serious intent and humour, which find a Zen-like balance in several images. In the large nature panorama with the fallen tree, in whose shattered roots Caspar David Friedrich's composition, The Icy Sea, reappears, there is an unrest come to rest, a brief moment of pause until the gaze crashes within again. The visible is unlimited and the gaze never stops.
Translated from German to English by Wordmaster