Thursday, June 2, 2011

This Week: Esslingen, Germany

Art Depreciation

When artists go out of their way to create something ugly, how can you appreciate it? That is the question I am left with as I exit the Villa Merkel Stadt Gallerie in Esslingen, Germany. This morning’s visit pretty much confirmed all my stereotypes about German modern art. I’ve seen art shows on TV showing skinny German artists with prominent cheekbones wearing black turtlenecks discussing how art is like a paper cut in the soul. Colored me bored.

I was wandering the walking path that follows the Neckar River. Taking the path toward Old Town I found the Villa Merkel building, a building that was originally built in 1873 by textile industrialist Oskar Merkel, maker of the famed “Esslingen Wool.” It was built in the neo-renaissance style by Stuttgart architect Otto Tafel. This information came from my tourist map. What is unclear to me is when the building went from someone’s house to city art gallery. I thought it might be enlightening to look at some artwork, expand my mind a little. For 1.50€ I would be perusing the latest in German/European contemporary art. I want you to know I went into this with an open mind. I was going to do my best to appreciate what the artists created.

A friendly woman greeted me at the entrance and told me in broken English the names of the two main artists featured on the main floor. As we spoke I could hear the sound of wind rushing somewhere in the building. The building was near the train tracks, but the sound was coming from inside. Then the sound got really loud it was difficult for us to hear each other, but suddenly it stopped. She handed me a map with the artwork titles and a brochure.

The first exhibit was right in the main chamber. The grand hall was open to the second floor with a lovely chandelier at the top. The hall was painted in soft yellows and creams. Soothing. The artwork on display, not so much. The exhibit was called, I kid you not, K-Hole (Frogs) by Michael Bauer. Black temporary walls were set up in a pinwheel fashion dividing the area into four sections. On the far wall were several mixed-media pieces of oil and fabric and I’m not sure what else. I like pieces with texture and these did appeal to me, except they were all black, dark and gray, no color at all. Almost like someone put clay and soot together with a little tar thrown in. Around the main room were statues, two of which were nothing more than white blobs and one that appeared to be a head and shoulders bust made entirely with tiny black tiles. While I was impressed with the tilework, which had to be painstaking, the bust had no discernable features - no face, or eyes, or ears.

I saw an open door and walked in not really knowing where I should go next. This was actually a different exhibit called Contremouvements by Alexandra Mauer. The room was bare except for two TV’s stacked on top of each other in the corner. On the walls were three large, bright paintings. They were mostly red and looked to me like girls dancing. They were definitely girls and each painting had two figures, which could have been two views of the same person. The girl had her arms in the air, head turned up, which is why I saw dancing. Again I couldn’t make out a discernable face, but there was definitely a head, blonde hair, arms and one painting had legs. The body was covered in various shades of bright red, with the brush strokes in long lines, not quite stripes, but close. I liked the bright red and yellow in the piece. I tried to read the info cards on the wall, but they were in German. Finally I turned my attention to the TV’s in the corner. They flashed various images of faces, but they didn’t appear real. They almost looked like doll or wax faces. They were shiny and sometimes had a melting effect, like mascara running down them. The only thing they had in common with the paintings on the wall was the color red, either in the background or shades of red shown between images.

I went into the next room and this one has three TVs stacked in the middle of the room. The paintings and TV images looked exactly like the first room except the dominant color was blue instead. My brain was trying to turn the paintings on the wall into images, but it couldn’t. I didn’t get the images of arms and legs and heads and torsos like I did in the first room. And the TV…it was worse. The images flashed by even faster. There will still faces on them, some looked very real while others looked like wax dolls. In this room, a set of small speakers were blaring a noise that sounded like the clacking of horse hooves. What the noise had to do with the art in the room, I’ve no idea.

I entered the corner room, which was actually two rooms with a large archway separating the spaces. As I entered the whooshing sounds I’d heard earlier got louder. That’s because of two large speakers on the floor in the far corner. This first section was dimly lit by shaded windows and had a projector mounted on the ceiling that shined a large image on the wall. There were two screens of the same image side by side. However, the images from the projector were so faint that they were just white squares. I focused my attention on the three large screens next me. There weren’t really screens. They were three self-standing walls about ten feet tall covered in white cloth. The images on them disappeared as soon as I looked at it. The noise from the speakers also stopped. Poor timing I guess. I entered the second part of this split room and it was completely dark. This room contained one full screen, there was a second screen that straddled the two spaces and the third screen in the space I just came from. I waited for the images to start up again. I’m sure it was on some sort of loop. Ten seconds went by. I could hear the hum of the projectors above my head. Another ten seconds. This was starting to get uncomfortable. Another 10 seconds. Finally I pick up my left foot to turn and leave when the sound of a wave crashing filled the space. Scared the crap outta me. On the far screen images of people being knocked down by water cannons appeared. On the middle screen flashed images that looked to me like the paintings I’d just walked by, only devoid of color. I recognized the striped brush strokes from the other paintings, but they were gray. The third screen was blank. The whooshing sound was all around me and quite annoying. I left the room.

I made my way back to the atrium space and crossed it to the stairway. I took a moment to overlook the atrium from the second floor railing. It was a beautiful space: Elaborate crown molding, classical columns on all four sides and a beautiful iron railing. Too bad the space was filled with such horrible art. I was directly above the black tile head sculpture. It looked like a big black chunk of ceramic from here. The big white chunk next to it didn’t look any better.

The title of the upstairs exhibit was painted in black letters on a white wall – The Keno Twins 4. I followed the map into Raum I. The walls were painted gray. Not all the lights in the ceiling were on and I wondered if this was on purpose. Most of the pictures in this room were abstracts. Unless they have bold, bright colors, I’m not interested. The first artwork I looked at was a black fabric, like felt, and to me it looked like it was covered in lint, just like the black sweater I have at home in a house with two dogs. A pink string in the shape of a Y was in the middle. According to the map it was called “Hidden Toil (Sweat painting #2) by Charlie Hammond. Where was the sweat part? It looked like someone rolled a piece of felt on an un-vacuumed floor. The next piece was a large, vertical rectangle. It was what we in the framing business call a ‘wrap’; a cloth wrapped around a frame. An old fashioned, thick rope and fishing net covered that. Jutting out from the middle of the piece were five or six jagged cut minerals. The minerals were polished showing all the colors in the rocks. The rocks themselves were interesting. The piece was called “Mr. Doerrupper viewed through the net” also by Charlie Hammond.

The next piece was an actual picture with definable images so I decided to examine it closely. It was called “Gegefou1” by Chris Hipkiss and was a Mischtechnik auf Papier (mixed media on paper). Center was a woman who looked to be kneeling in a garden, fenced in. She had four arms, one holding a garden implement, or it could have been a dagger. Hard to tell which, but I was trying to stick with the gardening theme. Her fingers, which were gloved, came to points. I’m guessing the tall structure on the left is a tree and the one on the right is a windmill. Then something catches my eye and I lean in to get a good look. Next to the path, at what first glance looked like rows of bricks, are really dragon flies. In between the insects are WORDS. Very tiny, bordering microscopic, hand-written words. There’s more writing next to the tree. A whole passage was written there, all of it so small I can’t read it. Why would the artist take the time to write such elaborate phrases into the piece? Especially since it can’t be read? From a distance it looked like shading. I was floored. Think of the time it took. Hours, days, weeks, months…

I skipped the rest of the work in the room and went into the next one. Immediately I was greeted by a gaping head sculpture colored brown, like mud, with blue lips. With a sigh I went to the paintings on the wall. In the midst of some larger works was a small Polaroid picture surrounded by a large white mat in a white frame. It was called 3662 by Horst Ademeit. The Polaroid was of a garden. It was on an angle. I could see an iron gate and lots of greenery. Coming into the picture was a large white blob in one corner. What’s with the blobs? Here are my guesses as to what the blob could be: A wedding dress; a white horse, a cotton cloud, a fog, a moving swan. I was just about to move away when something in the edge of the pic caught my eye. The artist had written notes in the Polaroid margins in very tiny handwriting. Again with the tiny! There was a date written at the bottom, either June or July ’98. Around the sides and top there were arrows pointing to the photo with words written next to them. I couldn’t read them.

I moved my attention to the next room and where I saw two large paintings on the far wall. They were Pon Farr a and Pon Farr b by Stefanie Popp. The A painting was the outline of a man, anatomically correct, and the B painting was a woman. At least she wore white panties. Both were cartoonish figures, like sidewalk chalk drawings, and a little chubby. What cracked me up was that both figures wore high heeled pumps each a different color. The man’s were yellow and red while the woman’s were white and blue.

Walking into Raum V I finally saw a painting I could understand. It was an oil painting in a plain maple frame. A landscape. I smiled. Flowers were in the corner. Clouds in the sky. I guessed it was either just before or just after a storm. There was a whitish circle in the sky. That must be the moon, I thought. The sky was blue, the hills were green and the flowers were yellow. Finally some color! Then I looked at my map to find out what it was called. The title was “Dawn firth with daffodils” by Alasdair Gray. Wait a minute. Dawn? I looked at the white circle again and notice it had a twinge of yellow around the edges. What I thought was the moon was really the sun. My happiness faded away as I looked at the picture in a new way. This picture wasn’t nighttime at all. It’s daylight. Then I noticed that the blue sky was a bluish gray and the green hills were really a greenish gray. Each daffodil was only three or four brush strokes. Add to this the picture was hanging on a gray wall and it looked like the all the color was getting sucked out of it as I watched.

Finally I entered the last room, Raum VI. More of the same dreary artwork hung on the walls. Another Polaroid was there. I can’t remember the photo because for a third time my focus was on the tiny handwritten notes in the Polaroid margins. The margins are completely filled with blue ink. Each line is perfectly straight and distinct and impossibly small. I needed a magnifying glass to see each letter. I attempt to read the print. I see a date (Mar 2010). I can’t even tell if it’s in German or English. I still don’t understand why anyone would spend the time writing something that meticulous, yet unreadable.

As I left the upstairs space to make my exit, I was going to wave to the woman at the entrance, but she was on the phone. If she had asked me what I thought of the artworks, I would have told her I could sum up my views with one word: Creepy. I wonder how creepy translated in German.

Post-trip Notes – Photos were not allowed, however, some of the works I mentioned were shown in the brochure. I may have broken several copyright laws by scanning and posting them here. However, since so few people read actually read this blog, I’m not all that worried. So take a look at the artwork and tell me what you think. After returning home, I visited the Villa Merkel website which amazingly had an English translation. I actually wasn’t that far off. The Frogs exhibit was described as “Colour fields looking like patches of dirt,” the Contremouvements was about human movement be it “happy or rage” and did include some “dance-like movements.” As for the Keno Twins 4, well, I will quote this verbatim from their website: “But despite the manner of an antiques dealer, an art collector, indeed almost an art historian, it really is an artist who is assembling things that move him. Michael Bauer’s view of art is refreshingly free from stereotyped thinking.” Whatever! It was still creepy.

Villa Merkel Stadt Gallerie
Esslingen, Germany (a suburb of Stuttgart)