2005

FLORIAN STEININGER

   

art historian, curator BA-CA Kunstforum, Vienna
catalogue en passant, November 2005

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Photographic Figuration and the Process of Painting

Eva Wagner takes the field of painting to combine painterly characteristics with photographic qualities to dramatic effect. Despite the different, even almost diametrically opposed givens of the two media Wagner presents a harmonic co-existence with a gentle elegant weave, overlapping coloured patches and dripping tracks of paint with figurative motifs. The artist never entirely subjects her arrangement of colour to the illustrative. The process of painting per se is of key significance to this painter. She allows the liquid coloured substance to run onto the fabric or the canvas carefully and under control, or she paints it on to develop a fine atmospheric sense of space. This sphere is, so to speak, the veiled even mystical arena of the narrative: everyday scenes, dogs, female nudes gleam through the blurred matrix.

In Streifzug I/II (2005) the dribbled and shaken traces of paint adopt a dominant position over the figurative elements. The black paint appears in the painting Streifzug I as a fine network structure that counters the central motif – the dog shown in profile – in terms of composition, although entirely supporting and completing the dynamics intrinsic to the painting. The runs of paint shaken on here clarify the process-oriented quality of the act of painting. Morris Louis, the founder of American Colorfield Painting in the 1950s, made this feature the main criterion for his painting – it is not the paintbrush that controls the paint but gravity. Depending on the position of the support, the paint runs towards the ground. In Streifzug II the black paint gathers to form a large elongated patch. Here, too, Eva Wagner contradicts the rules of gravity by positioning the network structure and dribbles the other way up in the overall composition of the painting. The support is turned upside down for the process of abstract painting. The patch and the running paint in themselves had negative connotations in painting before the informal abstraction movement due to Wassily Kandinsky in the 'Fine Art' of painting: so to speak, as the result of a lack of attention and insufficiently competent craftsmanship. For the layperson Jackson Pollock's Drip Paintings are still considered a prime example for the arbitrariness of the 'modern painter', who simply pours the paint onto the canvas with no image in mind and no desire to control the form. In 1967 Sigmar Polke painted Modern Art, a 'caricature' of Abstract Expressionist painting in the style of Pollock, consisting of a couple of blotches and streaks. The history of dribbling paint and blotches of colour is not over, it is still being added to by a large number of contemporary artists. Following the 'heyday' of Abstract Expressionist and Colorfield painting in the 1950s and '60s artists like Sigmar Polke, Bernard Frize, Christopher Wool, or Erwin Bohatsch und Jakob Gasteiger in Austria, have been working in this tradition right up to the present day. Eva Wagner employs this formal idiom, although always introducing it into a narrative figurative context.

Photographs taken in far-away countries like, for instance, Senegal, North Africa and Portugal provide the new motifs for Eva Wagner's work: snapshots from a taxi, fleeting everyday moments, picturesque impressions of a sandy beach. The resulting paintings using these motifs are far more accurately detailed in the intensity of their realistic content than Wagner's previous work. Photorealistic subtleties structure the support, though stopping short of becoming sober, descriptive and figurative. The paintings distance themselves from the cool gaze, they pulsate with warmth and are charged with painterly atmosphere. Some of the paintings are preceded by work on paper composed by Eva Wager with the sensitivity of drawings. The graphic cross-hatching, which appears in the paintings as a quivering veil, works particularly well in the small format works on paper.

Wagner's artistic approach at the end of the 1990s was still concerned with pure painting as a process and abstraction than her current more narrative and figurative vocabulary of images. The figurative elements used to be saturated in painting, dematerialised by the luminous power of the paint and, at the same time, led into a mystical auratic state – between existence and disappearance. The human body appeared more in traces, like an ultrasound picture or in infrared shots, it was less of a visual representation in photographic quality than it is in the new paintings.

The Context – Photographic Painting

While the term 'Figuration' had stronger connotations of expressionism and emotionality in the 1980s, such as in the work of the Neue Wilde, so in the new paintings the viewer is directed to the object with more emotional restraint. Here, above all, an understanding of photography plays a key function. It usually acts as a catalyst between the original model for the motif and the act of painting.

As much as painting and photography are essentially different there has still long been a close link, with exchanges between the media. Back in 1900, when painting was replaced as a medium for documentation by photography and had already taken the first steps towards being self-reflexive as a medium and was heading towards abstraction, photography had begun moving into the painter's terrain. Photographers like Edward Steichen or Alfred Stieglitz translated simple images of documented reality into indistinct 'painterly' images. The aesthetic of the blurred image in a 'painterly' manner has experienced a renaissance in contemporary art. Alongside the photographers of the Becher School, like Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff or Elger Esser, who turn the photographs they shoot into an atmospheric tableau, it is above all Gerhard Richter who combines photography and painting with such brilliance. He is considered the grandfather of the New Picturalism in painting, and was pioneering in the field back in the 1960s: Richter transformed blurred photographs with paint and brush, the subject matter came from an everyday context, such as passing cars, flowers, or his still legendary candle motif dowsed in sfumato mist. As much as the contemporary medium of photography is at the core of his work, Richter still focuses on elements of classical painting in his pieces – in the tradition of the Old Masters, such as Tizian, Tintoretto or Caspar David Friedrich. Only a good 30 years later, after the expressionist statements of the New Painting, is Richter's pictorialist style being met with an enormous response from the current generation. The German star photographers Gursky, Esser and Struth are making monumental tableaux with the same effect as large paintings loaded with sublimity and the 'softness' of painting. Or painters are allowing a photographic quality to flow into their work, that of Luc Tuymans, Marlene Dumas, Wilhelm Sasnal, or Bert De Beuil, for example. Eva Wagner is to be numbered among these from an Austrian viewpoint. She has created stimulating blocks of work in an interaction between the self-referentiality of painting and depictions of reality. In contrast to the previously mentioned approaches, she does not define the painting as a unified whole, as an excerpt from reality transformed into painting, but as a surface for the projection of the temporal and the fragmentary. Several sequences of images overlap and lend the paintings candid, dynamic and abstract qualities.

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