Kunsthalle Zürich

T.F.T. Müllenbach

22 Nov 2014 - 25 Jan 2015

Installation view
22 November 2014 - 25 January 2015

Thomas Müllenbach (born in Koblenz, Germany in 1949, lives and works in Zurich) turns our everyday perception of familiar things on its head, and subverts the collective understanding of the sense, purpose and value of the visible. These shifts in the everyday are the focus of his attention. In the process, he also repeatedly scrutinises the history of art and explores the possibilities of painting. The exhibition in Kunsthalle Zürich presents the first comprehensive overview of Thomas Müllenbach’s paintings and drawings with a focus on works created specially for this show and recent works, complemented by a selection of earlier works.

Thomas Müllenbach’s interest is constantly aroused by the normal and familiar – be it a jug, a bunch of flowers, a flat screen monitor, the numerous exhibition flyers sent to him, a bank lobby or a bedroom. He does not merely reproduce these things and their surfaces in these works, but captures the everyday, almost imperceptible shifts associated with them and the accompanying moments of irritation. These are the motifs that refuse to leave him alone. When selecting details from images, he omits the apparently important element only to refer to it through a supposedly unimportant one. With his images, the artist presents the viewer with fragments, in which he refuses to follow the traditional conventions of representation, allows the edges of the image to crop heads and objects, and mixes different perspectives in one work so that the viewers can discover the unknown in the familiar, and the familiar is transformed into something uncanny.

The drawing assumes an independent place in Müllenbach‘s œuvre and offers practically unlimited scope for experimentation. A group of large-format works revolves around places in which state-of-the-art technology is used – and frequently also fails. Illustrations from the daily press and specialist publications, from which he reproduces a detail provide the template for these works. Strong graphite lines outline cables, tubes, control panels and complex structures, uniting chaos and functionality and drawing the viewer into the world of high technology. Tschernobyl 1 (2004) symbolically presents one of the rooms in the eponymous nuclear power plant and thereby refers to the nuclear disaster of 1986, which resulted in the explosion of the reactor through the exposure and ignition of the reactor’s graphite moderator. A connection is established here between the hazardous nature of the material used in the reactor and the drawing medium graphite. The ominous occupation of space also plays a role in the works 3 x door to NSA (2014). Müllenbach does not provide a view into an office at the American security authority, but instead shows the closed office door, thereby conveying the importance of the location through a simple, trivial object – the door. The economic and currency graphs which Müllenbach quotes in the work DAX, 26.9.97 (1997) are also something we encounter day in, day out. The artist depicts the course of the German share index in a large-format painting and presents the graph on a green-yellow background, prompting interaction between abstraction and figuration.

In the series of works entitled Halboriginale (‘half-originals’) (2005–2013) Müllenbach transposes the numerous invitations he has received to exhibition and art events since 2005 as objects representative of the ‘everyday life’ of the art world into works of his own. The watercolours, which are presented in a comprehensive space-encompassing installation, reflect their models in their size and motifs: ranging from Dürer to van Gogh, from national to international artists and from figurative subjects to abstract fields of colour, these works play with the idea of recognisability. Müllenbach’s ‘half-originals’ are neither plagiarised nor copied, they involve the individual interpretation of technical reproductions of works of art to form new works.

The small-format series Xenakis (2012) centres on the Greek composer and architect Iannis Xenakis (1922 – 2001). Müllenbach does not focus on the visualisation of Xenakis’s musical work, however, but on his photographic portraits, in which the left side of the composer’s face was always concealed by shadows or turned away from the camera – a personal decision by Xenakis, whose face disfigured by a grenade in a street fight in 1945. Müllenbach reconstructs this hidden half of the face with fine pencil strokes as a careful approximation for public presentation.

Although there is no stylistic correlation between Müllenbach’s works on paper and paintings, there is in terms of content: they all revolve around the normality of the everyday and refer to time as a quality that can be provided by prolonged lingering and the boredom of the everyday. Space is provided for Müllenbach’s paintings in the recently built additional floor of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Whereas, in the past, the artist applied motifs to wide-ranging supports using expressive and sometimes pastose brushstrokes, his more recent works are based on a reduced pallet and are characterised by the thinner application of the paint. This work is consistently pervaded by the exploration of interior and exterior space. In his Wall series, Müllenbach transfers the exterior to the interior and introduces the brick façade of the Kunsthalle’s Löwenbräu building and dry-stone walls into the museum space on large-format oil paintings. His depictions of interior spaces, be they private or public, are borne by an aesthetic of the inconspicuous presenting familiar objects in their original environment – they depict an armchair, a bed, the artist’s parental home and the standard lobbies of banks and insurance companies. The banking hall in Pictet (2007) and the view into the hotel lobby in Hotelhalle (2007) show places free of all decorative embellishments. By voiding them in this way, Müllenbach reveals the architectural structure and allows the intrinsic function of each space to emerge clearly.

Müllenbach repeatedly engages in a highly individual dialogue with the history of art. Most recently, he explored the dumbness of electronic media like monitors – and, hence also, Kasimir Malevich’s black square, the iconic work of the zero point of painting. If the black surfaces of the switched-off screens in our homes, of display boards and bearers of information in the reception area of the Kunsthalle Zürich do not immediately remind us of Malevich’s square, they do when translated into painting. In contrast to Malevich, who established Suprematism in 1915 with the painting Black Square, Müllenbach depicts the black squares in their spatial environment and returns them to the realm of figurative painting. In more recent works, Müllenbach adopts the theme of the non-finito, the unfinished work. In these works he presents blank white figures against a developed background and thus links to a visual tradition of Henri Matisse and Paul Cezanne. These “reversed figures”, as the artist calls them, populate their environment like ghosts and provide a space for projection by the viewer.

Thomas Müllenbach has had a formative influence on both the art and the cultural landscape of Switzerland since the 1970s. In his capacity as professor at the Zurich University of the Arts, he has made an important contribution to the contemporary art discourse for many years. He played a major role in the establishment of the association Verein Kunsthalle Zürich in 1985. The association will mark its 30th anniversary in 2015 with this exhibition among other events.

Tags: Paul Cézanne, Kazimir Malevich, Henri Matisse, Iannis Xenakis