The Text of Images as the Image of their Texts.
The Works of Thomas Werner. Stephan Berg in Menue, Freiburg 1999
Since the early modern era at the latest, the concept of the image has been inseparably linked with that of its mediation. This means that images in the process of representing present themselves at one and the same time, as a reflection of what they represent and as a reference to the mode of their representation. What is shown, is shown as something described, while at the same time drawing attention to the act and the specific mode of description. The moment of mediation thus has a dual quality: it articulates the possibility of a direct link between image and observer, and it also undermines this possibility by focusing on the fact that this mediation is mediated, thus classifying the image as an expression of its own self-referential system. Seen in this way, images are manifestations of a constant transition between representation and imagination, the realisation of description and the realisation of their own reality as paradoxically a sign without reference. In a variation on Derrida who, in his Grammatology, claims that "what impacts is not the body of the sign, for that is completely sensation, but the signified that is expressed, imitated or transmitted through it" 1, one could say that what has an impact on and in the images is the idea of the simultaneity of a sign context that is not only autonomous and without reference but also laden with reference. This quasi-fantastic status thus attributed to images has to do mainly with the natural restrictions imposed on them as panel works. Their character as extracts separates them from the world, while also making them an element in their context, that is to say, forcing them into an act of mediation in which they transfer external information to the pictorial level while at the same time having to make this transfer recognisable as a self-mediation of their internal pictorial strategies, if they are not, that is, to get caught in the trap of a mechanical imitation of reality.
Against this backdrop, Thomas Werner's works can be seen as exemplary models of a mediation which poses the dual question of how images function both inwardly, i.e., with reference to their own productive logic, and outwardly, with reference to that which an image provides in terms of visual information. The artist deliberately pursues his work on the image against the backdrop of the development of the theoretical and practical concept of the painterly image in the 20th century, particularly the postulates and works of Abstract American Expressionism in the 1940s and 50s and the Minimalist tradition of the 1960s and 70s. He also subverts their idealist-utopian postulates of solipsistic absolutism and purist clarity in a manner which strikingly demonstrates that these reference points can certainly no longer be the goal of the work.
For Thomas Werner, questioning and re-evaluating the ornament is the prerequisite for the production of a non-hierarchical pictorial text. Without striving for their rigidity, his pictorial agenda betrays similarities with autopoeitic systems such as that drawn up by Luhmann: "These systems produce the elements of which they consist through the elements of which they consist. They are therefore self-referential, closed systems, or more precisely, systems that base their grasp of the environment on circular-closed operational links. This kind of self-referentiality is concerned not alone with reflection, with the fact that the system can observe and describe its own identity, but also with the fact that everything that functions in the system as a unit acquires that unity through the system itself. This applies not only to structures and processes, but also to the individual elements which cannot be further resolved within the system itself." 2
The first thing that strikes one about Thomas Werner's works is their insistent splendour. Instead of being closed inwardly, which is so important to many pictorial agendas of the last century, they display an opening to the observer of a pictorial plane that vibrates with presence, whereby opening is too mild a term, given the retinal attack that occurs here. Admittedly, Werner's works consistently reject the window function which the painted image has assumed since the Renaissance. Instead, the forward thrust is sustained less by an opening onto the world and more by an opening onto itself. This oeuvre too, like that of Klaus Merkel, no longer believes in the unconditional success of the aural individual painting, and yet still holds on to painting and the panel-painting form.
To succeed in this balancing act, Werner organises his art as a structurally ambivalent project. What we see is presented in an attitude of simultaneous confirmation and vigorous denial. Werner's point of departure is the idea that paintings are to be seen not as closed entities, but as extracts from a continuum. This extract character applies to the individual painting, which itself seems to consist only of superimposed extracts. The main tool which Werner uses to render the fragmentary process of his pictorial concept visual is the ornament, whose importance for contemporary art in the more recent past has become increasingly clear. 3 If the ornamental is understood as having more than the merely decorative function which caused it to embody all that the Bauhaus movement saw as sullying the real idea of art, then it in fact emerges as a structure that fulfils many of the demands made of a pictorial concept today. After all, the characteristic features of the ornament, for example, the aspects of repetition, transformation, redundancy and variety 4, can also be understood as the fundamental parameters of current post-mimetic and post-autonomous pictorial strategies. Furthermore, the ornament as a potentially infinite rapport entails an absence of hierarchy, which means that its respective form can be easily networked or linked with other ornamental forms.
Thomas Werner's two most recent groups of works, Photoshop and Menue, illustrate paradigmatically the at once open and systematic method which the artist avails himself of when using the ornament as a pictorial idiom. The two series are similar in content but significantly different in form. The Photoshop works are on vertical paper panels on which strongly coloured ink has been poured and to which ornamental shapes cut from other painted paper panels have been applied. This collage aspect is absent from the Menue series. The paint and the shapes are applied directly to the work's cotton carriers. Interestingly, the shapes in the purely painted works look just as cut-out as those in the actual collage paper works. Part of the inner self-sufficiency of Werner's project is that the titles of the series allude to the availability and permutability of all pictorial material, made possible by digital technology, while on the other hand subverting this by the fact of being deliberately and anachronistically produced by hand. However much the image seems to correspond to a user interface whose constellations could fall apart any moment, in reality this is less the case.
The module approach of his paintings, with their patterned shapes apparently quite at home in any and every pictorial constellation, his pouring technique, which expresses not so much a signature or an emotion as a serial method, indicate that the artist has learnt his lesson on his path through the century. The works are formulated as cool pictorial clones created from the principles of serialism, repetition and indifference: not so much paintings as presentations of the method of making paintings after the loss of the painting as icon. In their observer-generated reality, however, they are both subtly balanced and delightful compositions which seen as individual paintings do not include the possibility of presenting a totally different view the next minute, but have been precisely calculated so as to achieve their compositional balance and fine tuning.
The title Menue also expresses that ambiguity by not only alluding to the computer's user menu, but also implying the sequence of courses in a visually and tastefully opulent festive meal. So are these paintings simply a delight to the eye? Yes and no. Yes, because in terms of their composition and graphicness they actually aspire to being successful individual paintings. No, because they make clear on their surface that this is only possible if the aura of the panel painting is abandoned in favour of a processual-synthetic structure. Their force thus lies in the fact that they admit to their helplessness, while in turn using that helplessness as the source of a concept of the painting which is forced to take a distanced stance from itself in order to approach itself.
1. Jacques Derrida, Grammatology. ↑ top
2. Niklas Luhmann, Das Kunstwerk und die Selbstreproduktion der Kunst in Stil, Geschichte und Funktionen eines kulturwissenschaftlichen Diskurselements, ed. by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, Frankfurt/Main, Suhrkamp 1986, p. 620↑ top
3. Cf. Markus Brüderlin,"Das Wiederschreiben von Malerei oder der gemalte Diskurs", quoted in Thomas Werner: Decorum, Cologne 1997 pp. 12f.↑ top
4. Niklas Luhmann, "Die Ausdifferenzierung des Kunstsystems", quoted in Thomas Werner; Decorum, loc. cit, p. 19↑ top