Remarks on the work of Jochen Mühlenbrink
In: Viola Weigel in the book Jochen Mühlenbrink: Fragil, 2013, Radius-Verlag, Stuttgart.
Outside the public sphere taking the occasional look at the reverse side of things is certainly en vogue. Usually, however, the other side of a thing or concept is faded out, given that it mainly interferes with a more aesthetic and more acceptable front side. Nevertheless the reverse and inner sides, that is to say, what is turned away from us, or absent are an integral part of experiencing reality and initially complete this as the organism or unified entity. The view of the »other side« unfolds its potential, in particular, when the unfamiliar – as the surrealists showed us – finds a place on a general and supposedly familiar level.
Jochen Mühlenbrink became famous for his disconcerting representations that have a touch of the surreal – the inter-city ICE trains going up in flames, villages submerged in snow, collapsing skyscrapers or endless trains of cars on the road at the onset of darkness (cf. Fig. Burning ICE, 2009; Einstürzender Neubau, 2007; Stau, 2009). The events convey the sudden
intrusion of the unreal within the real, the »other side«, as a common experience in nightmares. The art historian, Siegfried Gohr, comments on this volume of paintings, »The aim, however, is neither a narrative nor a tacit symbolism. (...) And still, the possibility of disaster shimmers through the apparently pristine world of these motifs. Quite unnoticeably, mundanely,
as an accident or failure in the system, as destruction, irrestable movement, as a mood grounded in the consciousness of disaster ...«1 The fatal moment constantly aims at a precarious turnabout of an event to the point of being irreversible. While the motif world (the houses, containers and landscapes) sinks in the broad mass of painting, through their augmentation the
colour fields become an aesthetic resonance space for latent change. Since 2011, this precarious aspect of disappearance in Mühlenbrink’s pictorial language has shifted to the level of the medium of painting, while now the play between its front and reverse side aesthetically emerges in the work and this appears as a spatial object.
Mühlenbrink here invokes the realistic topos of trompe-l’œil dating back to the 17th century and repeatedly used in art as a self-critical instrument (see also Christian Malycha’s essay on p. 87). In 2010 three exhibitions already highlighted the persistently topical nature of this painterly discourse on the tension between reality and image in contemporary art.
Mühlenbrink’s new body of work comprises oil paintings whose motifs address the side of a painting, which is otherwise turned away, and staging the surface of a canvas or mount as a neglected and vulnerable casing. We look at the reverse areas of works that apparently were just put away (cf. Fig. p. 29, Bilder einer Ausstellung II, 2013), cartons packaged with strips of adhesive tape and set aside in the room (cf. Fig. Compilation, 2011) or paintings with (apparently) torn off surfaces with the traces of previous paintings still attached (cf. Fig. Zentrum (Flinger Broich, 2012). The painter becomes the »creator« less by placing a single motif within the image than rather by taking the disintegration and breaks in a canvas to create a (new) unity. Obscure content refractions within the previous volume of paintings, which always implied a spectacular aspect, now make way for images as their own Doppelgänger that seem caught in the vicious circle of an unavoidable image repetition.
Since 2003 and thus coinciding with the generally increased use of digital photography, Mühlenbrink’s approach as a painter was an exemplary indication of a change of course for the content of German painting over the last 30 years that cleared away the innocent and primarily extravagant treatment of images and their production. With regard to 1980s neo-expressionist painting (Mühlheimer Freiheit and Neue Wilden) Wolfgang Max Faust still discerned the relish of a »hunger for images« that drew its energy from such related art forms as music. In the light of painting’s currently realistic trends, it appears that the unrestricted manipulation of media-distributed and digitally reproduced images motivated a serious, indeed even pressured facing up to the fundamental question of what an »image« can be in the first place. At the present time, a subtle image strike is ongoing that pursues, in part literally, the »reverse sides« and the imponderabilities of visual art by painterly means.
First of all, Mühlenbrink’s focus on the motif of the reverse side of paintings is nothing new in his work. Marginal areas of the everyday world already prevailed in his image world before 2011. The transporters, containers or cardboard cartons were not only distinguished by the provisional content and casing, but also by their painterly design principle: Mühlenbrink simply
integrated found material fragments (objets trouvés) into his pictorial design (cf. Fig. p. 35, Nobilia, 2009).
The fleeting, incidental aspect is equally the intrinsic motif and form of these works, and here the question arises as to whe ther these – in contrast to the realistic trompe-l’œil images – were not already adding another facet to aesthetic experience. This seems to be confirmed by the Malerkoffer painting group under composition since 2009 that
also advances the transformation of the image to a three-dimensional wall object. Mühlenbrink further develops the ordinary cardboard carton, at first placed in an illusionist way in a dark room (cf. Fig. p. 22, Malerkoffer, 2009), to the broad carton arrangements (7LTUK1 (Malerkoffer VII), 2012). Without the delineating frame, these now establish contact with the wall. Works like NOSW-Mittelformat, 2012 (cf. Fig. p. 113) or Zentrum I, 2012 and II, 2013 (cf. Fig.) lead another formal step towards the farreaching abstraction on all sides. Here, we can no longer take any decisions about whether we see the relief-like, overlapping and layered surfaces approaching us as the front or reverse sides. And the artist also leaves an open question as to whether each of the cut-outs made visible by the layered »images« do not in fact »deceive« us about the motifs, or rather if the nonimage represents the actual work. Another indicator of this is the deliberate placing of the image centre, which remains a void, and has no defined motif. Hence this probably represents – in the balancing act of absence and presence, image and object, abstraction and figurative appearance, the smooth and curled up backgrounds – the true potential of future painting.