The painter Udo Lefin is something of a Cologne legend. No one knows where he comes from and few people have ever seen him, as he is in the habit of not turning up to his own exhibition openings. Thirty-one years ago, in 1984, Daniel Buchholz showed a two-panel work by Lefin in his apartment in Cologne’s Südstadt district. That work was also included in this two-part show at both branches of Galerie Buchholz, first in Berlin and then in Cologne. Seeing the same painting, three decades later, it was as if time had stood still.
Painted between 1983 and 1984, this work is titled Tempo. Around 40 layers of glaze, some mixed with coloured pigments, some transparent, were applied to a canvas measuring more than two by three metres. This created a fine, glassy-looking, reflective surface, transparent in many places, showing orange-tinted hallucinogenic teonanácatl mushrooms in various stages of growth. In the middle of the picture, a beetle crawls over the canopy of a drooping mushroom. The Aztecs called these mushrooms the ‘meat of the Gods’ and Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, believed that the trippy ornamental designs of pre-Columbian cultures could be traced back to their effects. Almost at the centre of the picture, written in an early computer font, is ‘E1 C1,’ a defensive move in chess. In the Middle Ages, due to a lack of trust in images, paintings often featured inscriptions. Lefin, too, puts writing in his pictures, not to supplement the image, but to break its delirious appearance with the sober quality of the lettering.
A similar approach is taken in Cuantas ventanas tiene tu casa? (How many windows does your house have?, 1988) which shows Lefin sitting at a table, asleep. The poisonous blue colour of his hands and face has a ghostly effect, colliding with the lemon yellow of his shirt against a dull black background. The titular question concerning the number of windows in the house is written vertically in Gothic script. This self-portrait clearly alludes to Francisco de Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799). But which monsters are being produced here? And what about the windows? Two appear in the upper half of the picture, but unlike in late-medieval paintings, they do not offer a view out over the landscape; instead, we see mute, monochrome lemon-yellow squares of the kind since the dawn of Modernism irrevocably associated with Kazimir Malevich. Are these the monsters produced by modern reason?
Lefin’s pictures are painted in a deliberately antiquated and photo-realist manner. Devoid of expressive brushstrokes, they reflect a minimum of personal style; a removal of subjectivity in favour of meticulous exactitude. The fact that expressive approaches and an insistence on the individual were fetishized by Modernism makes these works into untimely comments on a compulsion that is still virulent today.
Back to Tempo: just as the digital lettering is at odds with the picture’s subject matter, the title, too, is a form of mockery, in this case with regard to the time it took for the artist to produce the work. As a deliberate gesture of slowing down the artistic process, this takes on added significance in view of the conveyor-belt-like output of many of today’s young painters in particular. But this deceleration also bears out two other important artistic aspects central to Lefin: ritual and craft. Taken in this sense Lefin’s paintings can also be read in opposition to the disconnection of modern art from ritual as an endlessly repeated act and to Modernism’s scorn of craft.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell