Review - 10 Nov 2011
Galerie Karin Guenther
Joan Miró once stated: ‘Form for me is never something abstract, it is always a token of something. Form is never an end in itself.’ The Hamburg based artist Dirk Stewen seems to share this conviction, and much of his work brings to mind Miró’s own minimal, elegant and surreal compositions. Stewen creates his ‘confetti pieces,’ as he terms them, by attaching precisely painted circles on paper with an assortment of stitches and threads which double as pictorial lines. In his latest solo exhibition ‘Elfenbein’ (Ivory), this technique was performed on ivory coloured paper rather than the black backdrops which he has previously used and which suggest night skies. Avoiding such planetary associations, he sought here to explore further the oblique symbolic properties of abstract forms.
Four large-scale confetti pieces – untitled (soft corps XIII – XVI) (all works 2011) – reaffirmed the influence of artists such as Miró as well as Max Ernst and Wassily Kandinsky. Yet Stewen’s use of photography in other works complicated such a straightforward art-historical positioning. In his assemblage pieces, he often includes his own black and white photographs to evoke genre photography from the past, emulating the kinds of second-hand images that a modern day Joseph Cornell might collect. A blurry photograph of a vase decorated with a grasshopper pattern forms the centerpiece of the small triptych untitled; the photograph is presented inside an antique paper portfolio next to a watercolour abstraction resembling a Magic Eye illusion, and a monochrome ink drawing with beaded threads sewn into it. Another untitled work pairs one photograph of two people, obscured by a patterned umbrella, with a page from a French book about Henri Matisse, which was strangely obstructed by two long, thin black wooden rods leaning against the gallery wall. Stewen’s use of photography in both assemblages suggests historical documentation, but the photographs – blurry, patterned, obstructed – take on decorative qualities; while documenting the past, they invite the contemplative thinking proper to optical illusions and puzzles with repetitive graphic forms.
Seemingly out of step with the present, Stewen’s exhibition showcased his fascination for old-fashioned photographic and book printing techniques. His works reflect the modernist idea of positioning art enigmatically between objecthood and cultural commentary, unaccompanied by a clear sense of irony or remove. Whereas peers such as David Noonan seem to take a self-conscious approach to the fetishization of retro imagery, Stewen appears to embody his nostalgia more fully. Given this engrossed stance, one could easily forget that his works were made in the present day and not in the early 20th century. The exhibition evinced an abstract sensibility that, whilst not operating as an end in itself, was tantalizingly difficult to pin down. His works – not quite abstract, nor fully didactic – look to the past for a slower experience of aesthetic reflection: longing for a solution and content not to find one.
First published in Issue 3