The paintings of Daniel Richter flirt with grand themes and myth for groups of schematic figures, display a relaxed sense of design and finish. They offer a shrewd balance of concerns that run through much of contemporary German painting, if not contemporary painting in general. His work has steadily drawn greater approval from the turn of the century and with shows this year at Regen Projects, LA and David Zwirner, NY, a museum survey at Hamburg, The Hague, Malaga and later Denver, his reputation is secured and a sterner review perhaps in order.
Significantly, the artist’s early work, from the mid 90s, was dedicated to abstraction, to the combination of techniques and ‘maximised’ composition pursued by Albert Oehlen for example, to the graphic and diagrammatic compositions of Franz Ackermann, for instance. Richter drew on graffiti and cartoons, a spectrum of gesture and shapes to chart a territory between the two, between a youth subculture and its stylistic inheritance. However, by the late 90s, the combinations encompass more figurative elements and are no longer content with hard edges, the psychedelic and notational. In 2000 Richter began to use the broadly traced outlines from projected photographs that have pretty much become a staple.
This distinctive outline ostensibly transfers contours from the photograph, but Richter instead assigns them various colours and widths, so that they read as more remote scans, more like an infrared or heat register, and crucially flatten and mask the figure, stress a generic and design aspect. This, together with a loose and scattered facture, and more collage-like placements, essentially preserves the artist’s interest in abstraction. Sources for the figures are by no means obvious, but tend to be drawn from publications on radical politics and youth or counter culture (see also Post 63). The actions pictured are usually public, group gestures, often suggesting confrontation or defiance, public disturbance or unease.
Other works offer more rustic settings, more mythical figures, but both kinds firmly return painting to grand themes and literary resources, effectively to traditional history painting. It is no co-incidence that Richter should assimilate this just when the New Leipzig School and Neo Rauch in particular, achieve wider recognition for similar goals. It is entirely consistent with Richter’s ambition. Yet the differences are stark. Neo Rauch’s work revels in cautious character, perspective and volume, yet deliberately corrupts wider design, a pictorial integrity or composition. Richter, on the other hand, celebrates mere outline and atmosphere, favours the anonymous, frontal and flattened, gladly sacrifices depth, volume and personality for veils of drips and dashes, the deliberate grounds that hold a greater design, a further abstraction.
Neo Rauch’s work is deeply pessimistic, even nihilistic, yet often wildly funny. Richter’s work is idly mannered, perhaps naïve, often pretentious. Where Neo Rauch cannot escape his figures without wrecking the picture, Richter cannot get closer to his, without spoiling line and design. Critics are quick to explain Neo Rauch’s attitude as a symptom of East Germany and ingrained disillusionment, but so far none have cared to do the same for Richter and the new united Germany. Richter is, of course, based in Berlin.
Richter’s use of traced outlines and diffuse, casual facture, does however, draw predictable comparison with the work of Peter Doig. But where the distancing that this technique brings, reflects upon exotic but brief locations for Doig, for Richter, this sense of holiday or detachment is usually directed to more urgent and serious matters, and seems all the more dubious for it. The effect is of a Peter Doig, wistful for a social conscience or peer group pressure. Richter’s figures are never quite real or realised in this sense; their circumstances, accordingly, seem more decorative or dilatory.
Appropriately, Richter’s show at Zwirner was titled The Idealists, and featured air-guitarists in a grim urban setting. It is not surprising that these musical enthusiasts should appeal to the artist, since popular music is often alluded to in his abstract work, but there is also an explicit pretence to the miming that takes on a greater resonance here. Elsewhere in the show, an actual guitarist parades before a crowd in an open-air venue, looking around warily, whilst in others the guitarist is rhymed with an armed guard or soldier; the task, by extension, is one of claiming a new frontier. But this is not just idealism, or deriving a vicarious glory from music or participation. It is to deliberately distract from more immediate failures, to look beyond bleak designs for some greater substance, and to confuse tracing with discovery, following with leading. They are, in all respects, a barren experience.
Tuesday, 6 May 2008
Posted by CAP at 20:42