Like Quicksilver. Shifts between Model. Hans-Jürgen Hafner
Basically, we ought to distinguish between two fields that are joined together by a de-claration. This declaration, I imagine, could read: "because I am a painter". And that would quite precisely point to the heart, the basic motivation of Thomas Werner’s art project. He is a painter, and he works like one. And that brings out a whole series of implications with regard to the contemporary way of painting. We shall get to them later. At the moment, it is important to note that, when confronted with Werner’s works, we are (once again) dealing with pictures that–from a technical point of view–are paintings: paintings that are almost sensational, and not only at first sight. They are light and opulent at once, rich in colours, and yet cool, almost bleached, appearing with a grand gesture that, however, is interlaced with the canvas or ground into the wood, almost to the point of disappearing. There are mighty tableaux, side by side with more intimate formats and iridescent tablets. Especially the latter are genuinely paintings: pictures that gain from the way they were processed and grow from the masterly handling of a reservoir of formal techniques. This text, however, is focused on the grand cinemascope formats with their compositions that almost make the limits of the screen collapse. But piling up adjectives (the preferred linguis-tic tools of critics) will not get us much closer to these pictures, nor can it outline the sensations they represent or cause, let alone explain what leads to them. For, these sensations are only experienced first hand and cannot be reproduced by commenting on them or by any other means.1
Obscured: disegno and colore
Of course, Thomas Werner’s pictures can be looked at aloof by discussing what (that is, the picture’s object, motif, and composition) is shown on them, and how (via the composition, technical implementation, and materials). The two fields mentioned above shall now help determine and classify them better. To simplify matters, I shall call them ‘model’ and ‘effect’. The pictures Thomas Werner makes are the result of a highly complex artistic procedure that includes not only playful conceptual moments of finding or constructing a motif, but also pleasant, patient execution phases. As far as the material is concerned that could serve as a motif, there seems to be no end to the possibilities from the artist’s point of view: apparently, legible elements settle in next to non-referential ones, melting figurations, a hotchpotch e.g. of man, mussel, motor vehicle, and bird representations, but also seemingly gestic brushstrokes clash with what looks like liberally developed banks of colour fog and streaks that simulate spaces. Quotes from art history merge with references to everyday life such as the Aldi logo that has mutated to a colour surface, or constructive ornaments blend with florally softened typography elements. The aggregate condition of these compositions appears to be fluid on account of forms that undergo a metamorphosis and outgrow their own contours and their constituting colours that mutate to milky pools that are hardly held together. The soft surface of the pictures is almost wafer-thin, despite the radiance of its true colours, and yet it develops its own dynamics. The cool tension of the paintings that enwraps each ever so dissolved and isolated element in its totality makes any attempt at a hierarchical order questionable. Despite their sensational appeal, these pictures suggest that the media sources from which they are supplied, the contexts of their contents, and their references are suspended. But that does not mean that all these constellations of motifs would simply coexist incoherently. In fact, (largely stripped of the silently agreed obligation to impart meaning and become an ordering and structuring principle) they are homogenised in the uniformly skimmed surface, or they form this surface themselves; thus, they are distanced in an elegantly balanced manner. They are distanced from the burden of their respective source, origin, or even textual pre-coding, but also from the trouble of production and the mercilessness of monopolisation.
Jupiter vs. Pandemonium
In order to create this fine distance, a quantum of non-authenticity or even anti-authenticity is also added. (For that matter, I would like to point out that it might be interesting to analyse the techniques Werner often uses to create a distance from a historical and biographical perspective, especially in view of his complete works. After all, his career started from the flashpoint of ‘New Wild’ German painting, following his study of art in Karlsruhe under Georg Baselitz, of all people: at a time that had a reputation for craving for pictures. Such a situation calls for a statement and forces the artist to position his own painting project. In this respect, I believe Thomas Werner has traded pandemonic powers and unfailing creativity for a mixture between meander and metamorphosis, between finding and refining). Yet, creating such a distance requires a multitude of refractions which accelerate the breaching of the gap between ‘model’ and ‘effect’ considerably. The homogenisation of heterogenic elements and the sophisticated spin into distanced non-authenticity does not only take place during the painter’s intervention on canvas, however. On the contrary, the act of painting (as an ideologically pre-guaranteed added value) is dimmed to a simple act of colouring (as a subordinate technical process). The process of designing a model is technically and conceptually derived from painting, and it is followed by colouring as a necessary manufacturing process, a kind of hand-made reproduction. Yet, the road to this model needs to be specified as an individual work phase. This phase includes conceptual as well as formal operations, and it leads to, I’d say, maquettes 2 that are far more than plain models, but already include all the information of the picture, from its composition to its colours, in nuce. An additional aspect is added by the fact that all maquettes are made on the computer. With the help of the technical scope 3 offered by the computer program ‘Photoshop’, they are designed on the basis of arbitrary visual information resources that can reach from an appropriation of foreign pictorial sources to extensive self-references 4, as mentioned above. Thomas Werner feeds the program with this material and generates digital collages. In doing so, he experiments with all Photoshop tools–apparently with a great deal of pleasure. He manipulates and filters, morphs and stretches his material until it is hardly recognisable. In colour and com-position experiments, he tries them out by trimming them up with free patterns designed on the computer, until he feels that they have reached a state of artistic validity as pictures or originals. Instead of improvised painting, a continuous process of mixing, improving, and refining takes place. And once a model has been chosen, the question of whether and when it shall be painted is, above all, a numeric one. As far as ‘creativity’ is concerned, Werner willingly rejects the clichŽ of the high operating temperature of the ecstatically inspired creative processes imagined to take place in the studios of painters. Instead, he installs an upstream technical corsage that brings an almost unlimited field of manipulative design possibilities into play. Recently, even Georg Baselitz apparently started liking the idea of such a remix-based image machine: a rather ironic confirmation of Werner’s distanced construct.
The Birds are Chirping the Old, Familiar Story: Theory... and Practice Of course, now would be the perfect time to obstinately discuss the relation between models and their implementation, especially as Thomas Werner uses a mimetic procedure for his paintings, despite his indifference to historical trench wars between figurative and abstract painting: they are copies (mainly changed in size) of the highly referential models he develops on the computer. That might suggest that his painting was media critical, like that of Eberhard Havekost who is remarkably successful at present, adapted from Peter Weibel’s–rather short-sighted –opinion that such painting was no longer merely about "cutting the bonds to reality, as with abstraction, or weaving mimetic bonds to reality, as with figurations, but about creating bonds to the media and, hence, to an observation of the society’s cultural production."5
The thematically productive part of it is beyond question. But as far as the formal and ideological apparatus ‘painting’ is concerned, such an approach runs the risk of boiling down to a somewhat disoriented attempt at marking out a part of Gerhard Richter’s territory, and somehow that deprives us of the best part of it: its masterly and disrespectful dead-end humour that is put into effect, again and again. Especially with regard to the paper works during the Photoshop phase (1998) and the loosely composed Tafeln [Panels] (2001) with their carefully ‘copied’ painting gestures that obviously allude to the ‘cut and paste’ technique are structurally linked to mimesis and repetition concepts such as the ones Klaus Merkel or Jonathan Lasker use to clarify picture-theory and painting-specific problems. Werner seems rather relaxed as he distances himself from a legitimisation of painting through a conceptual crossover of a discursive and painting practice. For him, a concept is more accurately a strategic allusion, a contre-jour course to the declaration "because I am a painter". That brings this text to an end.
The fact that this declaration does not only implicate a certain production and reception mode, but is also coupled to a very specific life-style component and artist’s concept is a different story 6, and it takes a different framework to understand it. As long as ‘models’ and ‘surfaces’ are at issue, like here, one bird chirps ‘theory’ while another tweets ‘practice’.
1. As far as reproduction difficulties are concerned, Thomas Werner takes the offensive in his catalogues and publications by trying to discuss the medium ‘book’ and its interaction with his pictures.↑ top
2. The term ‘maquette’ is quite appropriate because, on account of their compositional precision and formal completeness, Thomas Werner’s drafts are not merely preliminary sketches or layouts, but can serve as originals or even stand for themselves. Accordingly, the artist integrates them in the exhibition displays and publications.↑ top
3. Funnily, a series of Photoshop applications imitate painting means (and effects) digitally. Hence, (re-) painting a Photoshop design is always a kind of short-circuit situation.↑ top
4. The systemic-autopoietic character of numerous groups of works and operational strands in Thomas Werner’s artistic project has already been pointed out several times, e.g. in Stefan Berg’s Der Text der Bilder als Bild ihrer Texte. Zu den Arbeiten von Thomas Werner, in: Menue (AK), Freiburg 1999.↑ top
5.Quoted acc. to Raimar Stange: Unter/Druck, in: Eberhard Havekost. Graphik 1999-2004 (AK), Dresden, 2004, pp. 57-61, p.59. ↑ top
6.A story to which I would like to add Thomas Werner’s stable mate with Bärbel Grässlin, Albert Oehlen, for instance, albeit the other way around.↑ top