07 Sep - 31 Oct 2013
7 September – 31 October 2013
this exhibition could also have been called no no, or no to the eternal no. It could also be called yes to color yes to light yes to emergence. yes to desire yes to choice yes to perspective yes to illusion yes to vagueness yes to clarity yes to beauty yes to materiality yes to shadow yes to depth yes to the resources of painting.nonchalant, not careless, light, not heavy, no to no. yes to painting!
And, one is tempted to add: yes to the history of modern painting! When viewing the new pictures of Christoph Schellberg for the first time, one is reminded of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, Magritte, Rothko, Newman, Polke, Richter, Kippen-berger, and perhaps others as well. One for his motifs and placement, another for his sense of humor, still another for his pictorial space and the metaphysical effects he generates by means of painting. This illustrious series of forebears forms the background (to speak in the language of painting) against which this well-schooled painting unfolds and propels its sense of play.
Like soccer players engaged in header training, these paintings seem to bounce eagerly back-and-forth between the poles of history and play. Take his “Grünes Bild, vier Rauten, Schatten und ein X mit Schatten”, for example. The overall configuration is reminiscent of a playing field – not unlike the soccer fields Schellberg painted a few years ago. Recognizable here is the green turf, the center line, four players on one side, and a cross shaped marking on the other, perhaps a subdivision of the playing field. The roof of the stadium shelters the grandstand, offering protection from the elements and shadowing the fans, while the players are exposed to the floodlight that streams in from all sides. The players and player markers seem to be in motion, hovering, impalpable. It is a mysterious match, one whose rules we do not know, but which we observe from a bird’s eye perspective. This is the first, the literal form of play, yes to illusion.
The other one is a play (yes to materiality) with wholly concrete elements from the history of painting: the perspectivally foreshortened squares are reminiscent of Supremacist compositions, for example those by Kasimir Malevich, the cross perhaps evokes Richard Hamilton’s crossed-out Marilyn photos, the X of Wade Guyton’s “X Sculpture”, and the Saint Andrew’s cross François Morellet’s “Croix” (including the shadows cast by these two sculptures), while the picture as a whole recalls one of Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart’s placid constructions, and the background could be a saturated color field painting by Mark Rothko. That which previously resembled the stadium roof now appears to be the stepped, gradated picture frame. The individual elements, then, establish links with history, at the same time transferring them into the realm of play: nonchalant, not careless, light, not heavy.
Like many of his predecessors, Schellberg works in series. Individual elements are continually recombined. Shadows and areas of blur or indistinctness, meanwhile, are treated as autonomous elements, just like geometric forms. With the dryness that is signaled by the titles of his paintings, but not without an occasional wink, Schellberg joins his elements together in perpetually new ways, isolating or combining them, enlarging or reducing them, rotating and turning his forms, bars, and edges. Playfully, inquisitively, with little fear of infringing the rules. “Blaues Bild, rotes Dreieck, gelbes Quadrat, schwarzer Kreis, Ei” which is distantly reminiscent of Sigmar Polke’s painting “Modern Art”, transgresses virtually every unwritten law of serious painting: the shapes are not composed dynamically, but instead positioned at the center of the picture surface; the shadows seem unmotivated; the geometric model of Constructivism is lampooned by an ordinary egg; and finally, primary colors are set – irritatingly – against a turquoise background. This is no abstract painting, but instead a joke about abstract painting. Or even a painting of a joke about a painting. For its prototype is found in a children’s book, where such a painting is seen hanging above a sofa. Schellberg, for whom there is to be no no in this series, breaks the rules deliberately, as though wanting to say: “Even that which should and shall not exist, exists nonetheless.” A parody on a work of art is itself a work of art. Art can no more be evaded than the yes. Which is why this show says simply and forthrightly yes; it says yes to color yes to light yes to emergence.
But all of this is anything but a cheeky pose. Nor is it as ironic as it seems at first glance. Schellberg’s yes not only bears witness to lighthearted affirmation, but also to a delimitation, for through his basic artistic decisions, he dissociates himself – perhaps neither intentionally nor polemically, but with an emphatic yes to choice – from a gloomy, a heavy conception of painting. Perhaps even from his own dark portraits, which were dedicated to a punk aesthetic that was familiar for naysaying. no to no.
This does not necessarily mean that these pictures belong to the past, or that Schellberg now disdains the attitudes associated with them. But it does mean that he wants to keep the ball in motion, to play the game, to keep it going. It also means that the naysayers are fundamentally mistaken if they believe that their no is an especially audacious or consequential word. Certainly not. Like the word nothing, the word no is one that no one can utter without necessarily contradicting him or herself. Whoever says no necessarily also says something, had inserted something affirmative in the world despite all of his or her resolve toward negativity – a word, a sound, a gesture, an image. Whoever says no also and necessarily says yes, if only to say yes to no. Regardless of what we do, regardless of what we originate, regardless of what we say, we also always say yes, with every breath, to the last gasp, simply because we are there, simply because we get up in the morning, simply because we are breathing. Even the hand that grasps the rope in the act of suicide says yes to the rope. This realization may annoy us. But we can also take it in stride. We can make something of it. We can move onward. yes to desire, yes to choice.
The fact that there is no authentic – or at least no practical – alternative to yes does not make either life or painting any easier. A declaration of intent can hardly produce a good picture, and an emphatic yes to painting does not make one a master. Yet mastery does seem to be one of the objectives of these paintings, and a yes to color perspective illusion vagueness clarity beauty materiality depth is not only proclaimed, it is downright celebrated. When backgrounds, shadows, and indistinct zones are composed of countless finely glazed layers of pigment, when undercoatings are visible along edges, and a shadow emerges from a finely-tuned color spectrum, viewers may recall the opulence of Ad Reinhardt or Brice Marden – not that Schellberg ever imitates either, nor cites them. He is not saying yes to his forerunners, but instead yes to the resources of painting.
Here, it is not a question of following some great role model, but instead of the way in which the resources that are available to the painter are to be deployed. These are the resources that Schellberg has adopted for his own paintings, with their characteristic compositions, colors, materials. Rothko, Newman, Malevich, etc. lie beneath the surface of these paintings like sunken ships under the waves of the sea. We can locate them there by means of sonar. For the beholder, this engenders a peculiar double sense of recognition and new discovery, of concealment and recovery, one consequence of which is that it is not always easy to specify the time to which these pictures belong. We find ourselves simultaneously in the history of painting and in the here and now of the concrete work. Confronted with the painstaking execution of these paintings, yet another temporal level becomes implicated, namely that of the genesis of the painting itself: paint layers that are visible along the edges or compositions that show through the work’s uppermost layer allude to the time required to produce these fine nuances. This is also why, for example, an earlier and ultimately discarded composition involving four triangles and a cross remains visible in “Dunkles Bild mit zwei Pinnen und Schatten”. yes to emergence.
Schellberg – who paints a virtuoso background and some “modern art with an egg” in the very same painting – affirms classical, old master painting, and at the same time, everything that toppled it from its throne.
He positions himself, so to speak, simultaneously in the traditions of Sigmar Polke and of Mark Rothko, of Martin Kippenberger and of Kasimir Malevich, thereby linking seemingly irreconcilable aesthetic worlds. That is why his pictures seem familiar on the one hand, yet utterly foreign on the other. They seem familiar because they convey a narrative with which we seasoned museum visitors and readers of art books are quite familiar. Seemingly foreign, however, is the way in which they playfully appropriate this prevalent narrative while violating all of the rules of the game. Schellberg plays his own game. To be sure, we could dismember his compositions theoretically into their individual elements, identifying their double entendres with precision. But as physically present paintings that hang before us on the wall, they remain complex, unresolved, suspended between playfulness and seriousness. They express that ancient law of life and of art according to which everything, even the most furious rejection, the most determined obliteration, even change and ambivalence, and above all irony and allusion, absolutely everything that presents itself, possesses its own existence, und hence pronounces an incessant yes, one that can be neither thought nor argued away.