Tuesday, 27 November 2007



Till Gerhard is a young German painter who has achieved some prominence in the last few years with work dealing in counter-cultural or obscure group customs, often outdoor gatherings, retreats to nature, driven by mystic, perhaps sect beliefs. These are treated with a decided distance and mockery, although for the most part respectfully drawn, deftly painted. The territory coincides to some extent with the work of contemporaries such as Jules de Balincourt and Kaye Donachie, but Gerhard is distinctive both for the breadth of activities included and a treatment that literally distances them through painterly obstruction, at times caustic abstraction.

The pictures often have photographic sources but the emphasis is on the mysterious or remote ideals driving the depicted behaviour and how little the pictures can explain or show of this, how obscure the aims or beliefs remain in spite of pictures. The work tends to revel in painterly dissolution at the margins, as well as spots and spatters that sometimes recall lens refractions, elsewhere raindrops. Both give the pictures a casual, hurried quality, the private record of celebration or promotion, rather than a more formal or finished view. Either way events are distanced by foreground incident, obscured by the bubble and fizz of attendant excitement, as in Walden (2004).

The paintings extend photographic qualities in this way and build a genre for group rituals, esoteric practices. In Gebuesch (2004) this applies as much to a geodesic dome of uncertain scale, nestling amongst shrubbery, as to the aftermath of a large gathering at a cemetery in Dawn (2005). But here, distancing is not just by more painterly means at the margins, to the brilliant pink sky and spatter, but by the small magenta flares that mysteriously arise across the scene. In Mistaken (2004) a strange red drapery hovers amid tree trunks bleached out by flash photography, and in White Spirit (2006) the central figure is wrapped in a white confusion. The blend of painterly and photographic qualities thus begins to introduce its own objects, to move from treatment, to things treated and further undermine and alienate the group’s purpose, the picture’s resolve.

In this respect, comparisons with de Balincourt and Donachie are instructive. Where de Balincourt pictures such groups as primitively conformist, schematic stereotypes, Gerhard instead supplies just distance, a dispersed mystique to the picture. Where Donachie looks to peer and group dynamics for a trust and devotion, verging on the religious, Gerhard is content to record their remote locations, their costume and decorations. Donachie is keyed to the blank and vulnerable identity, in dour tones and facture recalling a little, Luc Tuymans. Gerhard is keyed to their fleeting embrace of nature, their inaccessibility even by more flexible technique. Donachie accordingly concentrates on the figure and gesture, de Balincourt on stylisation and design, while Gerhard stretches incident and occasion. All find the breakaway group or cult rich ground for new distinctions in painting and genre.

While Gerhard does not share de Balincourt’s more ideological perspective or Donachie’s psychological and sexual undercurrents, he nevertheless embraces a wider range of examples. The work not only alludes to the 60s and drug culture, but accommodates other costume and roles, even effigies, festivities for houses, social unrest, even weather. All deal in obscure ceremony, pretence or faith in ends beyond the visible and pictured. The pictures not only stress their distance from this conviction but also point to the concealed identities that arise, comic stereotypes they resort to, and further absurd constructions painting might make upon the playfulness.

Avant-garde Backlash (2006) and False Guru (2006) are examples of this aggressive foregrounding or inscription to the picture. Both ridicule not just casual observation or depiction of events, but attempts to abstract or encapsulate underlying beliefs, to get at the motives and purpose of the group. Tellingly, the effect is a mixture of graffiti (the use of spray paint) and more painterly abstraction (the Pollock-like trailed drips). The artist’s condemnation would seem to be balanced by frustration, unable to properly participate nor transcend or depart the scene. The work uncomfortably oscillates between responses, registers a deep ambivalence.

In this sense the artist struggles for a unity within pictures that de Balincourt more comfortably allows between them. De Balincourt settles for a diverse body of work, Gerhard strives for diversity within works. Both carry distinct attitudes. Elsewhere, Gerhard simplifies figures through broad brushstrokes, more conventionally, arrives at a comfortable distance. It remains to be seen how much incident and mystery he is prepared to sacrifice or entertain.

CAP thanks the artist for advice while www.tillgerhard.de was closed.

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