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Surface Tension

From photorealist painting to elaborate installations, the work of Rudolf Stingel is characterized by a restless approach to media and styles

Invited to exhibit in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, the iconic Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed steel and glass pavilion, Rudolf Stingel took the building’s lack of walls as an opportunity to engage instead with another element: the floor. He covered its stone flagging entirely with an expanse of oriental carpet: an industrially produced, blurred black and white copy of an original Agra rug (LIVE, 2010). Though its grey tones are an elegant riposte to the pavilion’s cool Modernist construction – echoing the concrete surroundings of the building and the muted winter sky beyond its glass boundaries – LIVE offers a dizzying horizontality that seems unconfined by the glass walls. On a visual level it is thoroughly disorienting: impossible to take in in one view and irritating in its magnified scale. Besides the optical effects, however, the muffling of footsteps and the unmistakable smell of brand-new carpeting create a curiously uncertain atmosphere. Visitors hover and circle tentatively, unsure where to look. Down? Or up to Stingel’s second adjunct to the otherwise empty hall – a vast crystal chandelier suspended from the ceiling. With these two simple additions, the architectural emphasis switches wholly from controlled neutrality to the theatrical and decorative, transforming the hallowed temple of high art into a vast living room or, rather, an expansive, hushed lobby – an undefined, in-between space.

As in many of Stingel’s works, a clear gesture or a deceptively simple surface masks a tangle of intellectual and sensual side effects. While Stingel is primarily a painter, the installation in the Neue Nationalgalerie is the most recent in a succession of works using carpet: usually these are installed on the ground, whether in bright orange on the floor of a gallery (Untitled [Orange Carpet on Floor], 1991) or as a gaudy rose pattern across New York’s vast Grand Central Station Terminal (Plan B, 2004); at other times, they are hung like paintings, such as the piece of dark used carpet ripped up from the floor and affixed, stains and all, to the museum wall (Untitled, 2001). In Berlin, the carpeted ground floor is also, in fact, a prelude to a room containing four large photorealist paintings on show in the gallery below.

Rudolf Stingel, Untitled (Bacon Triptych), 2007. Oil and enamel on canvas. Courtesy: the artist.

Rudolf Stingel, Untitled (Bacon Triptych), 2007. Oil and enamel on canvas. Courtesy: the artist.

But how does LIVE connect to the practice of painting? It is easy to draw a neat conceptual trajectory between the verticality of the picture plane and the horizontality of carpet, and the upending of the figure/ground relationship that this implies. There is a clear affinity, too, between the paintings’ black and white palette and the carpet’s chromatically reduced tones, not to mention the fact that both derive from photographs of objects, rather than from objects themselves, and that both are magnified and translated into an alternative medium. But beyond these analytical niceties is the significant fact that the carpet engages the audience immediately in a tactile participation, a sensitized awareness of bodily presence and movement in space.

For Stingel, painting relies just as much on sensation as it does on image or concept. Brushing aside those clammy discussions about the imminent or actual death of painting, Stingel sets about making a living painting that may acknowledge theoretical disputes, but refuses to shut out the possibility of a receptive, physical response, in terms of surface as much as subject matter. In his hands, painting becomes a finely tuned practice, aware of its own problematic, contingent nature, but choosing rather to use this as a disclaimer to allow for a broad absorbency of material and imagery, as well as context – whether architectural, institutional, atmospheric or social.

In a 2003 roundtable discussion on the after-effects of the early 1980s ‘death of painting’ debate, the American artist David Reed articulated precisely the problem – or, perhaps, the advantage – of painting’s position: ‘Painting is the most impure and the most debased of the art forms because its greatest virtue is its ease at absorbing outside influences. It has a symbiotic relationship with various belief systems, religious and political. Now, it can have just as rich a relationship with technologies of mechanical reproduction like photography and film, as well as performance, dance, architecture, sculpture and installation.’1

Stingel’s approach is to embrace painting’s debased nature, and make it a virtue, if not the actual subject matter, of his oeuvre. He orients his work towards the most problematic of areas – the auric, the materially base, the decorative, the banal, the over-determined – at times tipping the balance so far that you can no longer see where critique ends and kitsch begins, as with the introduction of the chandelier into the otherwise conceptually clear floor–carpet/wall–painting constellation. In this sense, the carpet and chandelier act can be read as a deliberate, theatrical soft-cushioning, setting the stage for the ‘real’ show downstairs (not only the artist’s own paintings, but also a comprehensive re-hang of the gallery’s permanent collection that opened some weeks later).

Stingel is based in New York, having moved there from Milan in 1987, but attempts to align him with any of the prevalent artistic trends there fall flat. He grew up in a small town in the Tyrolean mountains in Austria and left as a rebellious teenager with little formal training and no exposure to contemporary art, to set himself up as a commercial portrait artist in Vienna. Coming across photorealism, he adopted this as his style. In the early 1980s, he moved to Milan, discovered the existence of a contemporary art scene, and spent several years dabbling in Neo-expressionism. Stingel’s artistic output was characterized by repeated new starts – not least when he reached New York, where he started from scratch all over again. These abrupt changes have continued in his later work, which is marked by a restless shifting between media and styles, often baffling audiences unable to follow these apparent about-turns.

Untitled, 2005. Oil on canvas, 1.2 x 1.2 m. Installation view at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Courtesy: Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Untitled, 2005. Oil on canvas, 1.2 x 1.2 m. Installation view at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Courtesy: Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Stingel’s first paintings after arriving in New York are all surface texture: strong colours sprayed over with silver paint to produce a crumpled, three-dimensional effect. They are as seductive as they are evasive, their light-deflecting surfaces demanding a purely haptic response. In a boldly deflationary move, however, Stingel published a small pamphlet (Instructions, 1989) containing step-by-step directions on how to make one of his silver paintings. With black and white images of the tools needed for each of six stages – including a paintbrush, gauze and an ordinary electric kitchen mixer – and captions in several languages, Stingel stripped away the paintings’ mystery by revealing the technical trickery behind their shimmering surfaces. He exposed his practice as a repetitious, mechanical undertaking, while positioning himself as a pictorial strategist rather than a convinced abstractionist. (A stance more in line, perhaps, with the appropriation strategies of his contemporaries in the so-called Pictures Generation.) Despite the radical unmasking of his process, Stingel continued making these paintings, allowing these two almost mutually exclusive aspects of his practice to co-exist: the creation of the superficial illusion and its rupturing by the revelation of the banal mechanics behind it. Cognitive and perceptual appreciation are spliced in a profound reflection on the way in which an art work’s meaning hovers somewhere between intuition and understanding, between vision and knowledge.

Concurrent with the show at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Stingel curated an exhibition of works by the late Sol LeWitt at Galleria Massimo De Carlo’s gallery in Milan. It is a masterful combination of five wall works, all black and white, each of which displays significant aspects of LeWitt’s practice, but also reflects interestingly on Stingel’s own preoccupations: spatial volume, repetitive imagery, horizontal and vertical planes, the tonal scale from white to black. The final room shows an unusual work with irregular shapes of white Styrofoam attached to grey walls like crazy paving (White Styrofoam on Grey Wall [Two Walls], 1995/2010), which links the two artists more obviously – Styrofoam being a material Stingel used in several series in the late 1990s. At the end of this room hangs a black and white portrait of LeWitt as a young man, painted by Stingel (Untitled, 2009). This final piece seals the impression that the show is not merely an homage, but rather a kind of posthumous collaboration. The portrait, which Stingel had completed previously and separately to the exhibition, shows LeWitt as a young soldier during the Korean War. It is obviously taken from an old photograph, and the large creases and tears from the weathered original are carefully duplicated in the painting. It is one of an ongoing series of portraits of artists at the outset of their careers, which includes Urs Fischer, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Franz West, as well as the first work in the series: a self-portrait from Stingel’s own time in military service (Senza titolo [Alpino, 1976], Untitled [Alpine, 1976] 2006). The paintings form a gang of wayward spirits, plucked out of time to stand side by side.

Stingel has collaborated with other artists on several occasions: with Fischer and West, as well as with Félix González-Torres. In each case, the result was a theatrical mise-en-scène in which the works by each artist seemed to mutually frame one another. At Massimo De Carlo in 2006, for instance, a series of Stingel’s small self-portraits, showing him looking doubtfully at a cake flaming with birthday candles (Untitled [Bolego], 2006), were shown in a construction of absurd rooms, each with a large rustic-looking doorway in cast aluminium created by Fischer. The threshold was over-articulated, the inherent theatricality of interior architecture was drawn out, and the melodrama of these portraits (painted on the occasion of the artist’s 50th birthday) was staged in a parody of self-analysis, which nevertheless had a whiff of authenticity.
The strategic clarity and blank self-evidence of Stingel’s work has the consequence of opening it up to the modulating effects of outside influences, whether from his chosen collaborators, the architect of the exhibition space or even the audience. This was literally the case in the rooms lined with silver insulation panels that, for a short while, were seen as Stingel’s signature works. Although the artist had not anticipated this reaction on his first use of the insulation material – wanting simply to create a silver room on a budget – the viewing public soon began making marks in the malleable surfaces of the panels. As with the carpets, which form a deliberate membrane between the gallery-goer and the architectural context, the walls became a vehicle on which the audience could inscribe its own presence. The self-awareness of the artist transfers to the audience, so that not only the work’s creative process but also its reception, is framed as a theatrical, performative event.

The four paintings in the lower rooms of the Neue Nationalgalerie depict mountain landscapes in black and white. They are the Tyrolean Alps where the artist grew up; in fact, they are painted from photographs taken by the artist’s father many years ago, presumably when the artist was still a child. The photographs – snapshots, really – are slightly out of focus, marked with scuffs, scratches and dust, all of which is diligently reproduced in these large paintings. Blown up, their focus lost in the shift in scale, the images become almost impossible to read – in direct contradiction to the precision of their evenly painted surfaces. Landscape, home, childhood, family, time: these weighty themes are all locked beneath the cool exterior of the paintings, which seem instead to want to re-articulate the handcraft-versus-mechanical-reproduction debate (particularly here in this German museum, where ghostly resonances of Gerhard Richter seem to hover around their grey edges.) Again, the generic and the personal, as much as the mechanical and the auric, are so closely interlaced that they become inseparable, despite their inherent contradictions.

When Stingel began making photorealist paintings in 2005, they were seen as an abrupt departure from his usual practice, given the cool or even antagonistic forms of abstraction that had preceded them. But such imagery had figured in Stingel’s work for some time: we need only think of those magical, multi-panel works that seem to picture footprints in a snowy landscape, though they are actually just impressions of feet crossing a block of Styrofoam (Untitled, 2003), or of the flock wallpaper patterns he began making in 2002, which disguised the painted surface as a swatch of unadulterated ornament. Continuing his insistence on the absorbency of painting, Stingel opened the floodgates in 2005 with an exhibition at his long-time gallerist Paula Cooper’s New York space featuring a black and white portrait of Cooper, taken from a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe, hung like an icon in an otherwise empty, but pristinely white, gallery.

Following this, Stingel felt clear that the only face he could paint would be his own, which duly appeared in a series of Beckettian self-portraits. These huge black and white images – painted from photographs taken by Stingel’s friend, Sam Samore, in another collaboration – show the artist in jeans and pin-stripe jacket reclining in some anonymous hotel room, a middle-aged end-of-the-line everyman, styled in the throws of melancholy and self-doubt (Untitled [After Sam], 2005–6). Here Stingel buttresses up the self-portrait, that most intimate and expressive of genres, against that most mechanical and delegated of processes: photorealist painting on a vast canvas. What’s more, the images on which the works are based seem to have been carefully staged, like performances of identity. We are faced, once again, by this troubling conflation in which an image apparently brimming with meaning is offered up while simultaneously undermined by the facts of its creation being laid bare.

The last painting in the Neue Nationalgalerie shows a landscape not from Stingel’s own background, but from Kirchner’s. It depicts the hut in the Swiss Alps to which Kirchner retreated, having turned his back on modern city life following a breakdown during World War I, and where he ultimately committed suicide in 1936 (Staffelalp [nach Ernst Ludwig K.], Staffelalp [After Ernst Ludwig K.], 2008). Stingel has described Kirchner as his first great influence, the example that made him decide to become an artist himself. Through this linking of landscapes, Stingel aligns himself with Kirchner; the move seems particularly apposite here, given that Berlin was the setting for Kirchner’s famous ‘Street Scenes’ paintings (1912–14), several of which are currently highlighted in the gallery’s new re-hang, including the 1914 painting Potsdamer Platz, set almost exactly where the museum building now stands.

History and context concertina in Stingel’s painting, concentrating themselves in one surface detail: a fingerprint copied from the photographic original. Supposedly Kirchner’s fingerprint, its copying onto the painting by Stingel is a gesture fraught with metaphorical as well as conceptual significance. Like the chandelier upstairs, this perfect detail almost tips the painting over into bathetic excess, but its cool, dark, measured means of production save it. In Stingel’s work, an overload of content – personal, art-historical, social, conceptual, theoretical – is held taut within the most simple of structures – a carpet on a hard stone floor, some painted mountains on the wall, a face, a life.

1 David Reed in ‘The Mourning After’, Artforum, March 2003, p.268

Kirsty Bell is a freelance writer and contributing editor of frieze, based in Berlin, Germany.

Issue 131

First published in Issue 131

May 2010
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