The Image and its Images. Hans-Joachim Müller
If somebody walks past a shop window and sees the display and at the same time sees himself reflected by the window, looking at the display and looking at what is reflected by the window–the street, the people passing by, the traffic, the billboards on the other side of the street–and he cannot distinguish what is behind the shop window and what is in front of it and where he stands amidst all the images that mingle, move, and cross-fade, and he feels as though he was in a cinema with light pouring out of projectors all around him, beaming at a screen–if that happens, that person is in the middle of the world.
Being in the world means being amidst images. Perhaps there are places in the world where seeing does not exist. But we cannot imagine a world that cannot be seen. Even the invisible is included in our perceiving and realising participation in the world, in the experiential processes we call ‘images’. An image is what happens by being seen. The world is at once an image of the world.
Images are like mirrors that show more than one sees by looking in a mirror. Images are like mirrors that reflect the other images, too: those that surround a person who looks in a mirror. "The city is reflected in a thousand eyes, in a thousand objects", as Walter Benjamin observed in Paris. "Paris is the city of mirrors: The asphalt of its roads is like glass. There are glass panels in front of all bistros: the women see themselves here more than anywhere else. The beauty of the Parisiennes has come out of these mirrors. Before any man sets an eye on them, they have already been scrutinised by ten mirrors."
With Thomas Werner, the mirrors seem to be slightly clouded, the shop windows slightly breathed-on, steamed up by the many people who stop to look at the display, as though the things had become soggy and blurred while their images move, one in front of and into the other, piling up and congesting, and the soggy, blurred image signals would congeal to an opaque image. Never can we see all the way down to the bottom of the window display, neither can we see where the elements of the image that seem to be reflected by its focus come from.
If we look at the images from their edges, it seems as though the painter had placed transparent layers of cloth on top of each other to form a velvety foundation on which the objects of the image float rather than form clear impressions. Never does the painter cut the objects of his images out of the world along their contours; never does he release the objects of sight from their background completely. The colours that fill the bodies and make them three-dimensional run off and flow away, as though they wanted to disembody the bodies again at once, take their thing-quality and objectivity away from them and only let them pass as conditions of dynamic sight.
The act of seeing does not actually see ob-jects. That is a popular assumption, but it does not describe the complexity of perception adequately. The act of seeing does not see something. The act of seeing sees how it sees something. Along with the objects, it always sees the signs and images that belong to the objects as well. It sees how the objects start to whirr amidst their signs and images. What the city walker in Musil’s epic novel The Man without Qualities sees is more than the archi-tectural and social reality called ‘city’. He sees a city "made up of irregularities, changes, gliding ahead, not keeping up, collisions of things and matters, bottomless points of stillness in between them, of paved and unpaved ways, of a great rhythmic blow and the eternal misalignment and discrepancy of all rhythms against each other."
What the city walker has observed might also be noted by a stroller sauntering through Thomas Werner’s recent works. The irregularities, the changes, the gliding ahead, not keeping up, the collisions of things and matters, the bottomless points of stillness in between them, the discrepancy of all rhythms. In the nineties, ornamental structures that integrated the images in the abstract design of city settings prevailed. Cool and yet hot, they exhibited their premeditated and fabricated nature, marked a clear distance to the world that had been made accessible as a system of signs, and still they were somewhat familiar on account of the flashing colours that were applied to them like advertisement letters, alluding to the garish layouts of our aestheticised ordinary life. Be that as it may, the colour platforms remained uninhabited for quite a while after the two ‘guardians’ had withdrawn who stood in front of it in 1984 like the spirit people in Mondrian’s Evolution triptych.
Quite rightly, the sovereignty with which painting paints its enlightenment and demonstrates its critical relationship to itself and its genre here is incessantly being pointed out. Seen from a distance, knowing that figures have come back over the past years, it is still worthwhile undoing the knotted phrases once again. Most certainly, painting has thoroughly penetrated the history of representation; as conceptual painting, it is as little interested in the assertion of meaning as in a meaningful appearance, it is neither keen on intimate betrayal nor on a brilliant feat, neither on a great topic nor on a great ceremony; there is no painting unless it is combined with the act of reflection, as a wilful undercutting of the utopian hope for salvation that stems from the myth ‘image’. And most likely, paintings gain their dignity mainly from the stringency with which they organise their worldless signs.
And still, that does not fully explain their sensual distinctiveness, their persistence. It would be quite humble of us to expect nothing from images but for them to expose their virtuality. Painting as a technically slow, pedantic medium, steeped in history, offers inexhaustible opportunities and ever new incentives to triumphalise its own conditions, as it were, and to transfer the logics of the idea of the image into its surprise. What else could cause the insatiable pleasure and fascination of images? The only way to do justice to the pretended and premeditated nature of Thomas Werner’s pictures is to accept their visual surplus as well and not confine them to their discursive role. Painting as a treatise on painting would not need painting. The fact that painting insists on painting means that it would rather narrate than explain what it knows of itself. Thomas Werner’s pictures narrate the impulses, spurs, conversions, liberties, possibilities of contemporary image awareness.
At an early point in time, we have noticed the piled-up nature of the image platforms that were designed to be flat, the strange facework of an ornamental or representational figure, its isolation and precision on the velvety background of the image where all details seem to be absorbed like in an aphonic room. It is as though the steamed-up shop window had been wiped dry here, enabling us to see the inside of the image clearly–the background of the eye of the image, as it were–through a rectangular or irregular form. Sometimes, picture notes stuck or pinned to the picture wall are called to mind, as though someone was trying to see if the decorative elements suited the surroundings.
Is that the old collage technique developed by early modernity–the newspaper clipping in a Cubist picture? The term ‘collage’ would not aptly describe the genesis of Thomas Werner’s pictures. A collage counts on the magic the picture is given by adding foreign ingredients. A collage is a strategy of increasing stimuli.
It only works as long as the idea of a picture as a non-arbitrary sum of arbitrary pictorial elements is still intact. Not much of that idea has been left by the fate of modernity. Together with the coherence of the world, the coher-ence of pictures has also irretrievably broken to pieces. No metaphysical ultimate justification will account for fragmented life, and pictures can only be seen as an arbitrary sum of an endless number of available picture modules.
The epoch has long found its instruments for its experiences. The advanced image editing programs correspond with the referentiality of the images, the unbroken, unbreakable emergence of images from images from images and their netlike, subtle dispersion. And ‘Photoshop’ is actually much more than a sophisticated user tool. It faithfully executes the graphic inputs, but that is not all, and it is not what matters. Pixels and algorithms supply us with images that did not already exist in our imagination, images we had not seen until then. In a way, it is like in the old days, when Hieronymus Bosch populated the Garten der Lüste [Garden of Earthly Delights]. The painter needed no type book for the strangely grown fauna and flora, no historically developed collection of samples. In the act of painting, the delight and pain manikins and their demonic entourage welled up from the graves and dungeons of fantasy, just like Thomas Werner’s mask-like faces, the elongations and distortions of the bodies turn out better on the screen, mouse in hand, than if they had methodically been planned. At any rate, preparing an image on the computer is a matter of invention rather than design.
What is actually new about the new images by Thomas Werner is their compositional history and not the fact that they have become figured, that the flowers and birds are now followed by composite creatures with Renaissance heads and present-day torsos, that one character comes along wearing a football dress while another is wearing an eighteenth century court costume and the airs of the species yo-yo between those of Cyborgs and photo album characters. What has also troubled many is the question how come the non-representational, signless work of a decade stabs itself in the back in a representational manner, as it were. But we would not come to terms with this way of painting if we would not let it basically lay claim to all image options. After all, Thomas Werner does not paint ‘football’ pictures like those recently shown at the Berlin exhibition Rundlederwelten, or ‘Mozart’ pictures like the ones at the exhibition of the Gesellschaft für Gegenwartskunst in Augsburg. Even the new large-scale works Monument, Musik [Music], or Jupiter-Monde [Jupiter Moons] mainly deal with themselves, with the conditions of the medium ‘painting’, with the remaining and undreamt-of possibilities of the images, with the origin of the images from images, with their boundless availability.
‘Photoshop’ simulates such boundless availability. It has no command of painting. Only the painter has a command of painting. And the intelligence of his works is partly rooted in the fact that the painting tools ‘hand’, ‘arm’, and ‘body’ do not compete with the technological means, nor do they even fuel the age-old cultural clash between the gesture of a genius and an artificial electronic limb.
The images evolve by layers made up of individual pictorial steps, and so do the complex events of the images. They have a picturesque history. These small-scale images curiously watch the colours flow and skim by. They are more interested in this flowing and skimming itself than in the objects that might develop from this flowing and skimming. They are intimate expressive works that do not inhibit the freedom of colour, but do stay in charge of it to a certain extent. Such images bring forth the moss-textured foundations of the pictures. They form a reservoir of pictorial elements that can always be drawn from; Thomas Werner does not wish to qualify it as the atmosphere of the pictures. Such a liberal way of painting does reveal a certain mood, and it keeps the secrecy of a moment. But the utilisation and handling of the scanned material does not aim at the secret of the background images, but at their fittingness for the architecture of the picture.
Gradually, in long chains of experiments, the final model develops, along with the reservoir of figures. During the act of painting, it is left unchanged. Thomas Werner’s pictures are definite before they are painted. Painting is merely an aggregate condition of the picture. Painting is not a fulfilment, superseding all the previous pictorial work. Perhaps the act of painting is like standing in front of the shop window, amidst the polychrome images of the city, the mingling, moving, cross-fading particles of sight. After a while, the patchwork of advertisement aesthetics is ground down to urban folklore. After a while, the whirr around Musil’s city walker, the irregularities, changes, the gliding ahead, not keeping up, the collisions of things and matters, the bottomless points of stillness in between them, the paved and unpaved ways, the great rhythmic blow, and the eternal misalignment and discrepancy of all rhythms against each other creates an impression that settles, a wording that aptly expresses the experience. Then, the city walker strolls on, and the stroller at the exhibition stands still. What is keeping him? What is so captivating about Thomas Werner’s pictures? Is it the astonishment, the added-value resulting from an experience that no longer takes place when we see a shop window? Is it the painting that turns us into witnesses of transparency suddenly becoming non-transparency and all the determinable images from images merging to a mysterious picture? Even if the Monument merely looks like the banner of a Mozartesque icon, the handsome boy kneels before the shadow as though it were his reflection. In the old days, when Narcissus bent over the water, all he saw was himself and his own beauty. Today, his mirror is full of other images he also sees, he has to also see. Today, his mirror is as clogged with images as the image folder of his image editing program. That might not cure him from falling in love with the images, but it makes them all the more loveable.