Compression Abstraction: Michael Krebber, Sergej Jensen, Luc Tuymans

Giorgio Morandi was possibly the greatest abstract painter of all time, albeit, he didn’t know it. Morandi focused on nature. If something was observable, it was knowable (insofar its form), and therefore an “accurate,” or interpretive rendering could be executed. The level of interpretation of how the eye perceives form, or discards it altogether, subjectively delineates realism from abstraction. Looking at Morandi’s paintings, it can be reasonably argued that he strove for realism. He admired Cézanne who was focused on form and structure as well as color. However, Cézanne was flattening the space between foreground and background allowing form to nudge closer toward yet unnamed Cubism.

Morandi painted the same bottles and vases in different compositional arrangements again and again, day after day. Whereas Cézanne’s paintings exploded in color, Morandi’s limited palette only added to the poetry. The fact that Morandi focused on the physical world and strove to depict the essence of its true nature (and form) precludes him from being a true abstract painter. He wasn’t looking to eliminate form for emotive color or the dissolution of formal rules for explosive or interpretive brushwork. However, Morandi is the forebear of much innovational figurative and abstract painting seen today. Some of the most interesting contemporary painters seek to unify form with an emotional, sensorial inner life—marrying imagination to nature—departing from figuration as the only descriptor of realism toward what I’d call, Compression Abstraction.

Compressive abstraction doesn’t seek to destroy or negate the physical world, as say a monochrome might. Moreover, lyricism and geometry aren’t central to the execution of these paintings even if elements of both are present. Luc Tuymans roomful of portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, 2016, is an example of how the figure is used as an armature to break up the picture plane. These portraits are a continuation of what has become for many painters a moribund fascination with provisionality in painting.

It was shocking, circa 2005, to see a bleached out, cropped close-up portrait of Condoleezza Rice at MoMA. Then secretary of state Rice looks out, past the viewer into the distance toward yet unknowable wars. We can surmise the scenario because Rice had just left her position as national security advisor to replace Colin Powell for the new position within the Bush administration. Tuymans also says of his work, “Violence is the only structure underlying my work.” MoMA’s description of Tuymans’ Rice is worth repeating. “Rice’s likeness is heavily cropped and faded in color, as if she has already been relegated to history, but her physical presence is undiminished.” Tuymans isn’t interested in the psychological underpinnings of his subjects, he is interested in the presence of paint; lines that excavate recognizable mammalian ancestry serving to demarcate and compress subject and object toward a structural fusion with plasticity.

To further the logic of structural compression, Michael Krebber resists stylized brushwork, instead he focuses on form, and “research,” to evince compositional reduction and further negate depth of field. The fact that Krebber is firmly grounded in the world make his marks so important. Devoid of effete brush marks that plague so much of the Williamsburg scene, Krebber carves knowing into seeing, which curtails unnecessary detail. As a student of Markus Lüpertz and assistant to Georg Baselitz and the late Martin Kippenberger, Krebber throws cold water on much of the hot headedness found in his teacher’s over emotive contentions. Almost calligraphic, Krebber’s marks fill in as much as they leave out. Stops, starts, and negations are his modus operandi. While there is underlying cynicism, Krebber resists the temptation to be enveloped by its repudiation.

Remarkably, Sergej Jensen’s paintings couldn’t have been painted (or constructed) just fifteen years ago. They are read through a digital lens that is ubiquitous to our experience. Born in 1973, Jensen is old enough to have been born prior to the Internet, but its pervasiveness almost certainly impacted the type of images he creates. Almost pixilated, lines are suffused with sewn offcuts from past works, reapplied to canvas, linen, jute, or other interesting materials such as moneybags. While his titles give meaning to those in search of linguistic anchors, it is far more interesting to examine his cool, calculated, oftentimes unfettered placement of line in relation to ground. Unlike Krebber, who still hints at depth and the recession of space, Jensen brings the viewer to the surface of his textured, bleached, bucolic paintings. It’s hard to call them paintings as they act more like placements. Fabric, paint, and line placed jaggedly, pointedly, haltingly, with trepidation, to bring to the surface the destruction of illusion, replaced instead with human interaction.

Wolfe von Lenkiewicz | Riflemaker

Walking through the throng of bodies in London’s Soho is at once invigorating, as it is unsettling. Stopping isn’t quite so easy as the pulverizing force of bodies advancing from behind move relentlessly onward. Ducking into doorways, making a sharp left or right turn, dodging behind walls are almost the only options for avoiding getting crushed. Navigating the crowd becomes a skill. What at first seems daunting becomes exhilarating. The multitudes coming together in shared synchronicity. Personal boundaries are modified to suit the onslaught of movement.

Beak Street. Riflemaker. Encountered by accident, the gallery is instantly recognizable as the antithesis of the typical sleek, whitewashed walls of contemporary art presentation. Instead, Riflemaker’s wooden floors, unfinished for the past hundred years or so, deluged with the groan of time, flawed and scuffed, creak and rasp underfoot. Walls are paneled, off white, piebald, mottled and bespattered from past shows. No attempt is made to hide pencil marks, scuffs and scratches that become part of Riflemaker’s show history.

For Riflemaker’s December, 2016 show, Wolfe von Lenkiewicz presents as modernist. Emphatically. However, on closer inspection, it’s clear that earnest genetic lineage is at play. There’s no aping of style, no fawning over the master’s brushstrokes, no gushing evocation of bygone eras and name–dropping. Instead, Lenkiewicz is a subtle pioneer, employing the tenderness of figuration found in the renderings of John Singer Sargent, Manet, and Mary Cassatt. Then there’s the seamless integration of Russian Constructivism—enveloping and blotting out the figure, which in turn, reasserts itself on the very structural systems intent on enacting themselves somatically, emotionally, and sensorially on the body.

Lenkiewicz hints at struggle from the perspective of art history, as well as the artist’s search for meaning and subject. This struggle does not leave the viewer in disarray, on the contrary, Lenkiewicz’s work asks for a quiet re–visiting of the past while firmly situating itself in the present. Therefore, the polarity of time is compressed and brings the conversation about abstraction’s possibilities and figuration’s validity into the present. Lenkiewicz struggles to let go of the figure. He’s a master in rendering sympathetic representations of human want, greed, jealousy, and desire. Lenkiewicz’s figures sometimes include Rodin–like contortions amid indefinable, sometimes fantastical, and almost always imagined structural environs. What once was is lost to history—adamantly—unabashedly reasserts itself into contemporary consciousness.

Janet Sternburg: Sensuous Ethnography, Cultural Migrations, Inimitable Praxis

Depending on the city you live in, there are any number of ways to traverse the cityscape. If living in a major metropolis with sound infrastructure, there are numerous options: public transportation, overground and underground, ideal for longer trips without the hassle of parking, walking, or, if you so dare, unfold a trusty Brompton and cycle the congested streets. The crush of activity, the sensory overload, our determination to get from point to point, oftentimes override the time it takes to take a closer look at the very environment that supports the foundation of what we call culture. While organizational structures are invisible to retinal perception, ethnographic observation, for those who care to engage, is practiced, learned, and exhibited. Exhibiting perception may be construed as the domain of writers, artists, and academics. However, perception is shaped through complex filtration systems made up of marketers, entrepreneurs, and pundits. Everyone is exposed to the myriad ways information reaches us, how it’s processed is dependent on any number of personal variables.

The trouble with Janet Sternburg’s work is there’s nothing to see. Confoundedly so. And so we look again. The closer you look, the more the images dissipate. Depth of field is expansive and at once compressed. There’s the realization that it’s not about formal composition, or looking, or knowing, or acknowledging the image’s subjectivity, it’s recognizing our own perceptive near misses. Sternburg isn’t interested in verisimilitude because there is no such thing. It’s about placing the body in relation to fleeting glances, a mirage, reflective dissipations that occur often but are uniquely underscored by location and date stamp. A passer by who catches our eye, no matter how hard we try, within minutes their features dissipate, ephemeral glimpses of unknown objectives that mark the passage of time.

The strength of Sternburg’s work is that she never tries to be clever, cajole for the sake of reaction, or teach. Her images are like being simultaneously underwater, above ground, and looking back into the abyss without oxygen. They’re disconcerting, distracting, nebulous and at once painterly. A glimpse of life unfolding, caught in the memory of touch—redolent—and the remembrance of familiar sounds that place the body in specific historical contexts. The edges of objects are blurred, mercurial, inky. Photographs are taken with disposable cameras and iPhones. Point and shoot. Zero manipulation. Instant gratification, without fussing about over or under exposure, depth of field, or focus. A collection of lucky glimpses that we all have but few actually notice.

Overspilling World, is a monograph documenting Sternburg’s last two decades of work. As an accomplished writer, Sternburg first picked up the camera in 1998 while visiting San Miguel de Allende. Since that time, Sternburg reinforces Wittgenstein, “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” When the limits of language limit the world in which the author can no longer express through words what may be better stated through images, she placed her body in the environment and into culture. The return of the body is not an exaltation of its sensuous functions, but rather the placement as documentarian within a world of fleeting moments.

When thinking about Sternburg’s work through an ethnographic lens, it is Dwight Conquergood who emphasized the importance of rigor, especially through length of time spent in the field and the “depth of commitment, and risks (bodily, physical, emotional) taken to acquire cultural understanding.” Fieldwork, as Conquergood states, is always “open air,” rather than “arm chair.” In other words, Sternburg’s documentation is always through the placement of herself within culture rather than researched cerebrally. What becomes evident, and differentiates her work from investment and placement in one particular location, is that her images are collected from many different cities throughout the world over a twenty year period. What is perhaps an unintentional observation is the timelessness of her imagery. Sternburg’s interest in old cars, their reflections in shop windows naturally superimposed on naked mannequins, becomes a guessing game as to when and where the images were taken. Sternburg’s participation is clear; her investment is measured both in volume, but perhaps more importantly, corporeal exposure over duration.

Arnold Van Praag at 90 | The Redfern Gallery, London

Timelessness in painting, poetry, performance, music, and playwriting is found in works that emphasize the human condition devoid of date–specific events and artifacts. When Pina Bausch raised her hand and touched her face while stumbling to collide with chairs in Café Müller, Bausch was inherently expressing what Edvard Munch composed statically in the thematic through line of his work—the inexpressible yet genetically encoded Erinnerungsfragmente, or fragments of memory.

When Van Gogh painted a self portrait, a sunflower or chair, he painted universal objects known to all and transcendent of time. The elements of figurative painting, painterly mannerisms — “brushmanship” — value, compositional expansiveness, unorthodox cropping, and memetic practices, are all indicators of date.

It can be argued that Odd Nerdrum paints like Rembrandt; Jenny Saville’s imposing canvases are looser versions of slightly more diminutive Lucian Freud’s, and while Cecily Brown doesn’t share the same palette as Catherine Goodman, both employ a disfiguration of form that is violent, disorienting, and disconcerting.

Born in 1926, Arnold Van Praag’s contemporaries include United Kingdom based Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud, and the Ukrainian born and New York resident, Milton Resnick. Chaim Soutine, born just thirty three years before Van Praag entered the world, wrote of his own work, “Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it. I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat…This cry, I always feel it there. When, as I drew a crude portrait of my professor, I tried to rid myself of this cry, but in vain. When I painted a beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate. I have still not succeeded.”

Layer, upon layer, upon layer, Auerbach, Kossoff, Freud, Resnick, and their forebear, Soutine, labored. Toiling to express the ineffable. Later, on stage, Bausch exploded in movement extending her limbs in grotesque repetition while others sharing her space stood in silent repose. A shuffle, a twist, a slash, a mark erased, thwarting perfect utterances. Van Praag entered relatively unnoticed. Silent. Withdrawn. Ebullient, but only superficially—of color, that is—using fauvist vibrancy belying the dreary European palette that made up much of 19th and early 20th–century realism. He made his mark. Dangerously. A performance in paint. Fish writhe and seethe in disquieting piles one atop another in the appropriately named, “Fishmonger.” Cadmium red oozes front and center in, “Butcher: Rack of Birds.” There is a slash of sadism decoded from the upmost layers; paint applied later in life but with the vitality of a man at the height of his powers. Horizontal and vertical thrusts intersect adding structure to membranous skins that intertwine one into another while mocking the viewer’s sense of fixity.

Tradesman, butchers, and fishmongers predominate in Van Praag’s work. Then there’s “Susannah and The Elders,” painted not once, but repeated many times. A timeless story of lasciviousness, betrayal, damnation, and the triumph of truthful innocence. On some level Van Praag’s marks seem familiar, yet instantly recognizable as great. While his work is not as well known as some other art historical giants, his paintings hold their own with the best of them.

6 December, 2016, extended through February, 2017

The Redfern Gallery                                                                               London W1S 3HL