Entitled Yes, Christoph Schellberg’s solo exhibition of paintings at Linn Lühn was upfront about its intentions: this was a collection of art works that were conceived in a spirit of affirmation and enthusiasm. In an accompanying note the artist wrote, as if to take away any remaining doubts about the earnestness of his motives: ‘yes to colour yes to light yes to emergence. yes to desire yes to choice yes to perspective yes to illusion yes to vagueness […] yes to painting!’ It is always refreshing to hear an artist say yes. But what made Schellberg’s buoyancy all the more invigorating was that he chose to work within the mostly naysaying tradition of modernist and Postmodern minimalism.
Schellberg’s paintings, all but two of which occupied one mid-size windowless space at the back of the gallery, carried their inspirations on their sleeves. The gradations of red that give texture and depth to Rotes Bild, 2 Pinne (Red Picture, 2 Pins, 2013) invoked the colourings of Mark Rothko. There were allusions both to neoplasticism and to Kazimir Malevich’s white square (Suprematist Composition, White on White, 1918) in the slight square shapes on cream background of Helles Bild, 1 Trapez, 1 Schatten, gelber Fleck (Light picture, 1 Trapezoid, 1 Shadow, Yellow Fleck, 2013) and Helles Bild, 2 Trapeze, 2 Schatten, gelbe Flecken (Light Picture, 2 Trapezoids, 2 Shadows, Yellow Flecks, 2013). Elsewhere, in Grünes Bild mit drei Eiern und drei Schatten (Green Picture with Three Eggs and Three Shadows, 2012), a painting of three eggs in increasing perspectival focus, the riddles of René Magritte loom large.
Yet however much Schellberg’s paintings have in common with the canon of modernist formalism, they are not the same – not in the least. The experiments of Rothko, Malevich and Magritte sought to free painting from the restrictive 19th-century rules of representation, foremost among them perspective. Oddly, here these rules were brought back into play. The Rothko-esque red in Rotes Bild forms the backdrop to two white pins which are painted in perspective, complete with colour gradations giving them weight and shadows adding depth. In Grünes Bild, three eggs are painted in increasing perspectival focus, each accompanied by its own shadow. What is fascinating, however, and often very funny, is that the rules are not applied conventionally. Not only are the eggs in Grünes Bild floating, for instance; their shadows are different sizes of squares, painted at slightly different heights, in no way matching the shape, size or position of their source objects.
In this respect the show’s title referred to the artist’s simultaneous affirmation of various registers in spite of their perceived incompatibility. Yes, he seemed to say, not seeing the problem, in terms of perspective the shadows do not sync with the eggs – so what? Their relationships are of a different nature. For Schellberg, conventions such as perspective are not necessarily applied in order to restrict himself to one method of painting or modality of representation, rather to extend the range of possibilities of paint on canvas itself. Tellingly, in all of the abovementioned paintings, perspective is less about creating an illusion of reality than it is about constructing an alternative language of forms, colours and relationships.
As the so-called genre of ‘New Sincerity’ has spread from music to literature and seemingly now to art, saying yes is at risk of becoming the 21st century variant to the late Postmodernist ‘no’: enthusiasm for the sake of enthusiasm, enacted out of principle more than fidelity; a generalizable stylistic formula as opposed to a site specific method of critique, comparable to the ’90s appropriation of the political irony of the 1980s. What made Schellberg’s exhibition so brilliant is that his ‘yes’ carried within it, by alternately revering and poking fun at his references, by drawing attention to the perceived impossibility of the possibilities he envisaged, the ‘no’ without which it is meaningless. The artist said ‘yes’ here not because he could, but because he must, because he could see no other way out of the pessimism surrounding contemporary painting. His yes was the yes of Nietzsche’s tightrope walker, moving on in spite of the slipperiness of the slope. And that, I think, was very brave indeed.
Timotheus Vermeulen is associate professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo and a regular contributor to frieze. His latest book, Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth after Postmodernism, co-edited with Robin van den Akker and Alison Gibbons, is published with Rowman and Littlefield.
First published in Issue 12