Images of Society. Contemporary Painting at Kunstverein Hamburg, 27.09. – 31.12.2007.
By Wiebke Gronemeyer
The concern of the exhibition Images of Society. Contemporary Painting is expressed as “to explore the relation of painting to society”. More precisely, the question Yilmaz Dziewior posed in this recent show at the Kunstverein in Hamburg/Germany is one concerned with the political dimensions of recent paintings. The exhibition features several works by Minerva Cuevas, Eberhard Havekost, Victor Man, Corinne Wasmuth and Wawrzyiec Tokarski, among others, including easel paintings, murals and installations, that suggest relations between art, society and its politics, ranging from representational to repudiative characteristics. Thus, according to Dziewior, the works in respect to society advocate – referencing Jacques Rancière’s “aesthetical regime of the arts” – that in political matters there is no outside, since art and politics are but two different modes of articulating and dividing the sensory world; any hierarchisation of methods of productions becomes irrelevant.
Johannes Wohnseifer’s Spam Paintings present an attempt at a critical engagement with low-culture consumerism. For this exhibition he subscribed texts from Spam E-mails, offering Viagra, penis enlargement procedures and university degrees onto previously patterned aluminium plates. These patterns appear as cracks on the surface that disrupt any reading of the superficial words and sentences. Hence, Wohnseifer visually transports the de-coding system of the e-mails onto the surfaces intending to emphasize on their exemplary characters for the relationship of today’s society with those dangerous accidental by-products of digital communication.
Gunter Reski’s paintings of images and words introduce proverbial peculiarities: images could be read as literal and words strike through their visual figurativeness. Both elements complement each other in these works, where Reski ambivalently relates images and words without asserting any correct interpretation of that relationship, thus enhancing an oscillation between the painting and the viewer, ascertainment and doubt, identification and critical reflection.
Caroline von Grone’s way of countering the social is literally one of underpinning. The artist chose to work for several days in the subway of the underground station “Steinstrasse” in Hamburg; a highly frequented place, not so much as a tunnel for commuting passengers, as a home to drug- or alcohol-addicted women and men. The site-specific portraits, executed as “plein-air” paintings, picture the characteristics of the passage offering a correlating reality between the site as it is and the moment when one goes through it; usually this is one where the aesthetics of the site seem to be the reduced to their functionality. As the artist translates the three-dimensionality into the plane surface of the canvasses, she suggests an encountering with the site and the social circumstances it provides and/or evokes. Forasmuch, is the artist’s work for the exhibition to be understood as calling into attention an underpinning of social behaviour and attitudes or is it, far more, blaming us, as we seem to need a portrait of it on a canvas to actually encounter with real aspects of social life, whose issues we usually try to avoid?
The choice of working within the topic of contemporary painting seems to be not very obvious, as contemporary painting is deemed to feed art-market driven commodifying processes or conceived as attesting intellectual tediousness in the absence of any criticality whatsoever. However, in this case, the choice of painting was one that very well corresponds with the suggested Rancièrian set of ideas. Most of the works in Images of Society. Contemporary Painting follow the line of thinking of a conflict between politics related to and concerned with the social sphere, as thematised in the works, but at the same time encountering the politics of the social cultural context in which they were produced. Hence, in Rancièrian terms the lines between spectator and stakeholder, the sensible and the intelligible, art and politics, fade, enabling a discourse in which hierarchies within communication become irrelevant. According to Rancière’s definition of the Sensible communication is no longer pertinent to a system of truth and lies but offers possibilities of examining and observing that operate across the grain from usual narrations. So do the exhibited paintings, as they question an an encounter with the social sphere in a medium, to which the comeback of Realism was heavily attributed in recent art history. However, the relationship between image and its application on the canvas is one that – exposed inside the gallery walls – no longer awaits reality to position against it, or attack it; more so, the works depict tendencies of reality, in some cases proposing changes, but in no cases executing them through their own medium. They remain tendentious, as Walter Benjamin would have called it.
In a similar way does the curatorial approach, as some critics have emphasized, arguing that political matters remain in the realm of re-presenting social motives, rather than presenting an encounter with them. However, this could have been the intention, one that is a subtle, but no less provocative, if contemporary painting is understood as re-investigating its relationship with realism, which implies a comment on the existing characteristics of social reality and their politics, which are themselves tendentious. In this sense, the exploration of the relationship between painting to society was a fruitful one, communicating against the established narration, insofar as remaining within the boundaries of contextualising political issues, not raising new ones.