There's a great deal of writing about painting in Germany, and much speculation. The kinds of works on show in the Hamburg exhibition 'Malerei 2000 (Painting 2000)', and the artists who are returning to naturalistic modes of representation, are currently enjoying particularly high esteem. On the one hand there is casualness, cheek and appropriation, on the other romanticism, virtuosity and cynicism. Some take more singular positions, such as Swiss artist Ilona Ruegg, who has more in common with Gerhard Richter than most of his students, and works in a similarly analytical way, though without the predictability of, say, Imi Knoebel.
The inventory of a normal, bourgeois apartment gives Ruegg an unusual opportunity to investigate the basic categories of pictorial representation. She answers questions about original and copy, surface and line, symmetry and arbitrary structure with pictures of household gloves, feather dusters and brooms. Using the lavatory seat and lid as a metaphor for spatial depth and closure, she probes the relation between the spatial image and the two-dimensional paint surface. Just as unorthodox as the choice of motif is her specific manner of representation. The outlines of the seat and lid are scored into the thick, monochrome surface of the paint like an engraving. Instead of painted or drawn lines, it is the contours that create the impression of figuration. Where the artist has penetrated particularly deeply into the mass of paint, parts of the red ground of the painting appear, giving the works additional accents of colour. The tactile surfaces of these new paintings recall the works of Tapiès, Schreib and other artists working in the 50s. Their tracks in the tectonic ground, in stark contrast to her work, were to symbolise magical signs or subjective mood-states.
Penetration of depth, an imagined opening in a panel - the fundamentals of painting have preoccupied the artist for years. A series of works, only one of which is on show at Barbara Gross, bears the title Öffnung (Opening). In these paintings a brushstroke grid is painted over a homogeneous, square paint surface. Up close, they look as though they have been painted through a raster. The title of the works, 'Opening', hints at a spatial vision, a barred window in this case, although the painting shows only an abstract pattern.
The artist never uses titles to clarify what is visually represented, but to relativise what is seen. In the lavatory paintings for example, she uses the title Ob (Whether), a conjunction expressing doubt and uncertainty. Her interest lies precisely in the destabilisation of fixed ideas and traditional ways of seeing. In order to avoid normative seeing, she develops a pictorial language that remains ambiguous, hovering between imagination and the imitation of nature. The painting Not (Need/Emergency) (1994) shows a 12-branched candelabra. This devalues the representation in a complementary work which turns the motif on its head, and calls it Nach (After/Towards), (1994). The outlines of chairs and stools mysteriously interlock in other paintings. On closer examination the familiar motif becomes alien. The theme of a bouquet is relativised in the work Da (Since/There), (1994), by being reproduced twice in a symmetrical arrangement.
Aspects of repetition and reproduction play an important part in the cycle Ménager (Housework). In this new series, in which every work is called O.T., Doppelzeichnung, (Untitled, Double-Drawing), the transference that causes deviations and failures of information is given a highly original visual form. The title of these graphic works immediately sends the recipient off in the wrong direction, for in fact their grounds, each a double page spread of an empty music sheet, bear three drawings. What the viewer sees, however, is not the composition drawn on the back of one of the pages, but the symmetrical images on alternate red and black sheets of tracing paper covering the open pages. In place of the authentic drawing, the artist shows copies of it. The cycle reveals a newly-awakened interest in figurative representation. People and objects are reproduced in detail. The 'double drawings' are simple line drawings, like traditional book illustrations, which show women gazing at themselves in a bathroom mirror, stretching on a couch, darting about with a feather duster and bending or stretching their knees in two phased movements. But there is nothing cosy about Ilona Ruegg's 'Housewives' choice' - the drawings force a redefinition of one's relationship with everyday objects.