Us In This Morass
Cosmic comedy, human sludge and the tragic-ridiculous: the paintings of Norbert Schwontkowski
Cosmic comedy, human sludge and the tragic-ridiculous: the paintings of Norbert Schwontkowski
The spiral-bound notebooks used by Norbert Schwontkowski to record ideas for pictures and titles – often finished as combinations of the two – are small enough to fit in any jacket pocket. They are the kind traditionally used by reporters, as the pages can be turned in a hurry without changing the notebook’s position in one’s hand. But there is nothing of the reporter’s hurriedness about Schwontkowski. Instead, in his work as a painter and graphic artist the economy of time feels considered, measured, at times even sluggish. Or rather: while he is at rest everything around him is hurrying, like someone sitting on an express train casting his gaze over the landscape whizzing past outside. Schwontkowski likes to take the train, and the line between Bremen (where he was born and where he still lives and works) and Berlin (where he has had an apartment for several years) is one he must have travelled hundreds of times.
One can imagine him sitting in the restaurant car of an inter-zone train in the late 1980s, one of these notebooks in his hand, on his way through East Germany (Soviet zone) to West Berlin (Allied zone) – just like the man in his painting V. Gogh im Interzonenzug (2008). He would be on the same kind of slightly foolish designer chair (whose sausage-like backrest nonetheless receives the artist’s observant attention), beside him the same kind of snazzy table lamp, the kind you somehow always find in restaurant cars. Yet Vincent van Gogh is not holding a notebook. Instead, he rests his head on one hand while the other lies flat on the table, as if waiting for someone to stroke it comfortingly. He is the only one sitting in the restaurant, a pervasive yellow glow coming in through the window. Which brings us to a key feature in many of Schwontkowski’s pictures: time and again, he manages to take things that seem hopelessly buried under clichés and tastelessness – and poor Van Gogh is a case in point, buried under sunflowers in coffee cups and the stories of his severed ear – and via a series of semantic and iconic interventions to lend them a subdued dignity.
In V. Gogh im Interzonenzug, this process starts with the title. Abbreviating the name has a liberating effect, turning a trademark into a mere initial, while the ‘interzone’, the limbo through which the long-since deceased is travelling, makes it clear that his soul has yet to find peace. Why? The picture answers this question not only with the corporate design of a deserted restaurant car, but also with its insistent yellow: what, if not this colour (over-represented in Van Gogh’s oeuvre), is the true curse that pursues his ghost? Chrome yellow, favoured by Van Gogh not least on account of its cheapness, is highly toxic and turns brown over time; Schwontkowski, too, uses metal oxides. This is not to say that Schwontkowski wishes to equate himself with the paradigmatic anti-hero of the history of painting. And it may be that Van Gogh is not even especially important to understanding Schwontkowski’s own painterly oeuvre. Instead, it is about helping to create a fittingly tragico-ridiculous picture of the tragico-ridiculous quality shared by all of the solitary painter figures throughout the history of modern art. Ridiculous in this case as distinct from derisory.
Schwontkowski’s approach is not hasty or restless – but neither is it dozy or outside time. In the comprehensive survey of his work that opened at Kunstverein Hamburg in January 2013, a selection of his notebooks were displayed in a long, thin vitrine, laid out like a mosaic, side by side, each open at an eye-catching page. On one, in thickly pencilled capitals, we read: ‘UNMENSCHLICH DAS WAS KUNST VERLANGT / IMMER AUF ZACK’ (inhuman is what art demands / always on your toes). This haiku sums up a central paradox. It is a complaint about the impositions of the art world, as accelerated and economized as any other sphere of society, where leisure has no place. At the same time, these two lines record the groans of an artist who incessantly demands the impossible of himself: to always find new, fresh ideas for pictures and titles that surprise himself and others, reacting alertly to the milieus and landscapes through which he moves. Ultimately, then, the internalized devil of market materialism demands the same as the even more strongly interiorized god of artistic idealism – to always be on one’s toes.
The notebooks in this exhibition also testified to the way Schwontkowski – whose years as a pupil at a Catholic boarding school probably taught him all about God and the devil – tops the paradox of the above-mentioned haiku with a further paradox. We know he is on his toes precisely because he has made not keeping on one’s toes a central theme: states of dozing and snoozing in which the truth of things seeps from the unconscious like water from a dropped sponge, uttered and visualized as if in a bad dream. Not as a surrealist drama accompanied by vulgar Freudian searches for symbolism, however, but as a game in which unknown terrain is explored by means of seemingly aimless drifting and hanging about.
One typical exercise in this game reads: ‘DIE STADT ALS KÖRPER MALEN’ (paint the city like a body). And on the same page of the notebook, an astonishingly simple solution: the space is covered by many small metallic white spots, but leaving the outline of two bodies empty, their short legs, big heads and pointy ears reminiscent of almond-eyed extraterrestrials – the city as a glittering nocturnal landscape seen from above, in which physicality appears as a void, something alien. Another page shows the back of a balding head, a light bulb shining above it, plus the caption: ‘The Laboratory of time, space & light’. Finally, the laboratory of the painter – who deals in his pictures with time, space and light – is his own brain, but direct access to the inspired idea (the light bulb) is just as impossible as looking at the back of his own head. He must take the detour of wading through the slush of realization on the canvas.
There is a direct path here from Schwontkowski’s preferred method of painting to one of his preferred subjects, a figure emerging distinctly from an indistinct ground. The method in question consists of priming the canvas with a mixture of chalk, linseed oil, pigment and water. Water and
oil don’t mix, of course, but applying them with a squeegee seems to create an emulsion which, as Schwontkowski put it in conversation with the author, makes ‘a mush on the picture, something doughy, pasty, pastose.’ This technique has its roots in the simple need to find an inexpensive carrier medium – and chalk is cheap. Schwontkowski then often works wet-on-wet to develop a figure. In the small-format Nonne im Feuchten (Nun in the Moist, 1995), the nun’s head emerges from the mire like an apparition. The lewd punning of the title gives way to an existential awe that is two centuries but not light years away from Francisco Goya’s The Dog (c.1819–23), that epitome of a creature lost in the void (the desert, the sea?). And is there any void in which one could be more lost than the Catholic Church? Schwontkowski’s grey-on-grey vignette of a Modernist church in Berlin seems a case in point (Hansaviertel, kath., 2009). He thus deletes any romantic hankerings for Caspar David Friedrich from his painterly genealogy, without devoting himself to demonstratively Modernist sobriety. The dimmed Minimalism of his choice of motifs and colours, and the humour that crosses from language into image, thwart any overly solemn indulgence and inwardness. Because that would have too little to do with the unsolemnness of real life. In this light, a line can be drawn from Nonne im Feuchten to Wir in dieser Drecksbrühe (Us in This Morass, 1997). In a catalogue essay from 1999, Peter Bürger (the sceptical authority who published his Theory of the Avant-Garde in 1974) has a fictional interlocutor by the name of Fritz offer the following comment on the gaggle of geese whose necks rise from the slurry of Schwontkowski’s mushy paste: ‘You only need to imagine a realistic painting from the 19th century with the title Geese in a Puddle to get a sense of the distance.’
Finally, the same line takes us to Wo der Mensch herkommt (Where Humans Come From, 2012), a pair of bare legs, buttocks and all, tramping through slimy estuary mud, whose feet are in a pair of dull orange flippers (a key work in Schwontkowski’s exhibition at Galerie Thoman in Vienna in November 2012). The evolutionary narrative of land-dwelling creatures coming out of the sea is short-circuited with the situational comedy of holidaymakers awkwardly flop-flapping on the beach. More than anything else, then, where we come from is a place of inescapable shame and embarrassment. But if we are lucky, the physical comedy element frees us again from the stubborn pose of authority imposed on us by the need to compete within society.
The identity of method and motif (the sludgy Pygmalian paint, the figures stuck in actual mud) is convincing. Instead of using the tired feel-good bad-boy pose of brushing off the problem of self-justification facing late-modern painting – how can pictures still be painted today that are not just decoratively abstract or illustratively figurative, thus merely adding superfluous chatter to what has already been said in art history? Schwontkowski takes this question seriously as a fundamental one, rendering it with philosophico-humorous clarity and a lightness of touch.
As Schwontkowski’s work shows, and contrary to what David Joselit proclaims in his much-discussed essay Painting Beside Itself (October, issue 130, autumn 2009), the answer to painting’s current problem of self-justification may not be to shift the emphasis from the picture itself to all that situates or helps it to circulate as a commodity (from experiments with hanging and presentation, to genre mash-ups, to nods towards social networks and the market). The trouble with this kind of ‘transitive’ painting is not only that it thinks it can administer therapy to itself via Institutional Critique, but also that it points with drastic gestures to the results of this therapy. It should be added that the problem lies not with the artists praised by Joselit in this context (Jutta Koether, Stephen Prina, Wade Guyton, R. H. Quaytman) but with a school of critical reception that reduces their work to a single isolated aspect, almost a caricature. Let me put it like this: painting isn’t beside itself, it’s thrown back onto itself, in the sense of ‘back to the drawing board’ – but what if you yourself are the drawing board?
When it comes to making language do surprising, unheard-of things, writers cannot endlessly resort to pure sound or accompanying rhetoric. In the same way, innovation in painting cannot be driven in the long term by aspects of its circulation as a commodity. Sure, it was crucial and important for artists as different as Andy Warhol and Daniel Buren to make painting collide with its context. But after the umpteenth exhibition that zealously showcases the problem of commodification or conventions of hanging, one’s eyes glaze over. Pictures that constantly congratulate themselves on their self-reflexive stance and their awareness of their own role as a market fetish have just as much of an eye to being sold – although more discreetly – as the crudest erotic wall-filler for luxury brothel owners. Taking an untypically garish approach, Schwontkowski makes precisely this point in Unser kosmisches Leben (Our Cosmic Life, 2013) when he covers the scene of a city at night with neon advertising signage sprayed in luminous colours (‘Astra Passion’, ‘Venus Bar’), as if the title contained a typo: as if kosmisch (cosmic) was actually meant to be komisch (comical).
Painting that merges with its context cannot, however, simply be countered with painting that claims the ability to totally ignore its context. Finally, it is a question of emphasis and gesture: yes, of course, Schwontkowski, too, often ‘problematizes’ the context, status and materials of painting – but he does so without making a great fuss, without crediting this naming of problems as his main artistic achievement. It is a matter of allowing the convention of paint on canvas to stand, while remaining on one’s toes, and producing something intelligent and unseen, by inhuman-human means.
This is comparable to the approach taken within a genre like horror or science fiction: yes, zombies and robots do exist, but one mustn’t abandon them to themselves and their mindless compulsions. The supposedly obsolete may be a larger reservoir for artistic innovation than the provenly new. It is no coincidence that Hegel, in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820), took as his allegory for a philosophy that only ever comprehends after the fact the Greek symbol for wisdom coupled with painting: ‘When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then a configuration of life has grown old, and cannot be rejuvenated by this grey in grey, but only understood; the Owl of Minerva takes flight only as the dusk begins to fall.’ Like philosophy, painting cannot afford to speed up the process of cognition for the sake of superficial gestures of rejuvenation – thus rendering cognition impossible. This resonates with Schwontkowski’s many twilight scenes, whether grey on grey or beige on brown – featuring not a solitary owl but groups of monkeys, geese, flamingos or sheep. Rather than something fished from reality using a digital camera, these paintings look as if they have grown slowly out of memory as it gropes for form in a landscape that is part swamp and part steppe (and in the vein of ‘paint the city like a body’ this process could be described as ‘imagine memory as a landscape’).
Here lies the key difference to Hegel and the grand gestures with which the world spirit claims to actualize itself, be it in a lecture hall in Jena or a gallery in Chelsea: In Schwontkowski’s world, rather than a single soaring bird of prey flying into the night of monochrome abstraction, it is a few geese that struggle for dignity, a waddling naked man, a few abandoned tyres (Pneu, Tyre, 2008), or a wooden shack (Eingang, Entrance, 2002). The latter is a picture of a broken-down wooden door. The outlines of the surrounding boards are scratched out of the beige paste (with a thin rubber blade), revealing the black priming coat beneath, as if this evidence of human existence, the shack, were no more than a thin varnish on top of the void. In terms of iconography, the picture is actually not far away from certain children’s book illustrations – but crueller, truer.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell