BY Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 09 FEB 12
Featured in
Issue 4

Frank Nitsche

Brandenburgischer Kunstverein

BY Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 09 FEB 12

‘HELLO CHINA‘, 2011, Installation view

The exhibition began with the poster: a black and white photograph of the artist, walking and waving to the camera, in front of one of his pictures. This image was overlaid with three-dimensional letters which looked like Russian alphabet bread spelling out ‘Hello China’ but were made of shiny plastic in a bright green shade, somewhere between leafy freshness and toxic brew. Nitsche’s gesture, the colour and the show’s slogan amounted to a quiet slapstick collision, a quality that continued in the exhibition space, whose entrance was closed.

The Brandenburgischer Kunstverein is located in a pavilion on the Freundschaftsinsel (Isle of Friendship), a public park between the breathtakingly ugly Bahnhofs-Center shopping mall on one bank of the River Havel and Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s freshly restored St. Nicholas Church on the other. Frank Nitsche, assisted by curator Gerrit Gohlke, brought out the best in this late-modernist glass box from 1973 (it could be a conservatory just as easily as a fashion boutique). The artist used two strategies: First, the colour spectrum of the paintings – all produced in 2011 specifically for the show and as yet untitled – are replete with greys and greens, like an architectural plan for a modernist park. Second, the paintings were hung on the outward-facing side of the partition walls, creating a window display. Rather than luring people in, this hanging justified the venue’s closure. The door was open for the private view and then shut for the remainder of the show. The pavilion became a light-box, while the large-format pictures, displayed closely together, became a kind of frieze, featuring the coherent structures of interlacing lines and colour fields that Nitsche has developed over the years. As one moved around outside the pavilion, from the front to the back entrance, modular elements increasingly gelled into pictograms. A basic green shape that in one painting resembled a computer abstraction of a green treetop looked in the next painting like a building, perhaps a sports arena – thanks to the addition of ramp-like vectors. Additional elements in subsequent paintings – vertical ovals recalling both poplars and eye-slits – made the shape gradually turn into a face-like structure, with the last work on the building’s rear façade perfectly resembling a manga character wearing headphones. Finally, glimpsing inside the pavilion through the large glass windows, one discovered a single, small painting that served as the nucleus of this modular progression: the above-mentioned basic green shape on a white background, with no additional elements.

It is tempting to describe post-war German painting as largely a Dresden affair: the conceptual photographic vision of Gerhard Richter, the symbolic figuration of A.R. Penck, Hermann Glöckner’s constructivism. These coordinates mark out a spectrum that also covers Nitsche’s work if one considers that he draws on a multitude of formally analysed found images and that he straddles the dividing line between pure abstraction and pictograms (a parallel to the work of Thomas Scheibitz who, like Nitsche, studied at Dresden’s Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1990s). Thanks to the music hall singer Otto Reutter’s wonderfully silly couplet of 1903, we know that ‘Travel is much in vogue today, and the Saxons like it more than most […] there’s always one on any trip’. If, via Richter, Penck and Glöckner, we evoke a Saxon or even a Dresden regionalism (Dresden being the capital of the federal state of Saxony), the evocation may have the embarrassing quality of any regionalism, yet it does lead us out into the wider world at large: Hello China, hello Russian bread (a delicacy popularized by a Dresden baker in the 1840s). Why does Nitsche greet China? The answer may lie in the way his pictures construct future designs out of pictures from the past. In light of China’s ascendancy (which goes for the art sector, too), Nitsche’s greeting is a joke about Western fears about the future. But the greeting also transcends its point of departure: the little pavilion on an island in the River Havel.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.