A photograph in Bernhard Martin’s 1994 catalogue Ein Bad in der Menge (A Bath in the Crowd) depicts a filthy room. Bottles and junk are piled from floor to ceiling and, in one place, wallpaper has been scraped off, as if a nervous cat couldn’t take it any longer. There’s a bed with a television at one end. Above it, a small open window looks like a blank, white rectangle. In the space between the TV and the window and the rumpled linen of a seemingly restless night, grave questions are hinted at: how can you still make pictures when you are surrounded on all sides by over-media saturated images? And how to rescue the image when it is in danger of drowning beneath a continual barrage of other images?
In order to describe Bernhard Martin’s Bild ohne Eigenschaften (Painting Without Qualities,1993-94), you have to start at the beginning. And at the beginning, there is nothing. Since the title includes neither the article ‘a’ nor ‘the’ – unlike the title of Robert Musil’s novel, The Man Without Qualities (1930) – the picture floats without an anchor fixed to neither a particular place nor point in time. If Musil’s title clearly alludes to the book’s protagonist, the painting’s remains indeterminate.
Which is how Painting Without Qualities looks: a seemingly random confusion of overly familiar images from advertising and science; famous art works; stills from films and television series; landscapes, logos, etc. Some are painted in a rather awkward manner, while others are technically perfect. Each image is sewn onto the canvas; the threads create a frame for each picture, but also describes a kind of link wherein which each image appears to be interchangeable. The surface haphazardness is countered by the sheer amount of work that went into the making of Painting Without Qualities. That Martin’s endeavour resulted is this rough patchwork of a picture is its raison d’etre: you try to make sense of it, but ultimately, you can’t take everything into account.
For this show, Painting Without Qualities was shown with two other works, Bad in der Menge (A Bath in the Crowd, 1994-95), after which the catalogue was titled, and Futterstadl (Feeding Trough, 2000-01). Although each of the three works is a conglomerate of small-format paintings, by comparison Bild ohne Eigenschaften is pure chaos. The elements in Bad in der Menge are arranged in rows; and in the monstrously large Futterstadl the components form a spiral, at the end of which can be seen a sinister head, half ape, half machine.
These most recent combinations elucidate the meaning of Martin’s complete oeuvre, which oscillates between painting, sculpture, and installations, rough handling and virtuoso craftwork. These paintings nourish his other works, and become the basis for themes and styles; they form – and this is perhaps even more important – the trough from which Martin feeds.
Translated by Allison Plath-Moseley