Markus Raetz

The careful selection and mounting of this exhibition, which includes work from the last ten years, provides a fascinating survey of the diversity of artistic means used by Markus Raetz. If Marshall McLuhan’s notorious thesis, the medium is the message, has ever hit the mark, then it does here. In Raetz’s work means and end form a constantly pulsating, dialectical unity whose source lies in the artist’s daily life.

Il conto per favore (The bill, please) is the title of a 1980 work. A column of five different, carefully applied brushstrokes above a line, which initially seem coincidental, when superimposed below the line resolve into an image of a loving couple. The piece demonstrates on the one hand the specific possibilities of using a gooey paint, which lends itself to layering and is splendidly suited to a sculpting brushstroke; but it also makes clear that ultimately the painting is made up of separate, small steps. In Raetz’s work the painting is not necessarily an end in itself; rather it is the result of a precise yet playful use of material and technique, the manifestation of a series of momentary visual sensations transformed by craft. The unending stream of images fed by the eye to the brain, of which the paintings seem to constitute individual instances, is beautifully illustrated by a frieze of branches mounted to show a diminishing series of facial profiles, each with a focused eye. This play with found twigs is repeated in a wall installation whose title is du bois dormant (of the sleeping wood); as if coincidentally, the flowing hair of a “sleeping beauty” spreads animatedly across the wall.

The principle of Raetz’s drawing is strikingly illustrated by these works in wood, in which the branches are a kind of materialized brushstroke. It becomes apparent that each arrangement of “strokes” is only a momentary manifestations—the strokes could be put into any number of other constellations. Their sequence and juxtaposition, then, are in flux; potentially the individual drawing always contains both the previous and the succeeding drawing.

Further metamorphoses of material can be observed in Raetz’s work here. Strokes portraying a face appear in gooey paint on a watercolor ground, in suede (the leather surface is subtly brushed against the grain, and the strokes are manifested as a delicate shadowplay), and again in eucalyptus leaves. These leaves, whose delicate forms actually seem like “natural” brushstrokes, are suspended from the wall with pins and arranged into compositions of faces which appear Oriental. A sense of flux is conveyed here, too, whether because the almost immaterial airiness of the work evokes a gentle wind which has whirled the strokes into a picture, or because the leaves’ pale shadows on the wall suggest alternative images.

Raetz conducts a poetic investigation of perception. He shows that what we call reality is subject to constant change and must be created anew as our vision of it also changes. This perceptual process is made literal in one of the spaces here. Mounted high up on the wall is a series of, photographic portraits of a young man. Either the photographer has walked in a circle around the subject, or the subject has moved between each shot of the camera; in any case, he is photographed from every angle. To see all the pictures viewers are compelled to make their own circular movements while looking upward, and the various revolutions involved soon produce dizziness. Here is a direct experience of the constant destruction and reconstruction of one’s image of the world.

Such thoughts also come to mind when viewing a series of recent oil paintings that are unrelievedly dark, almost to the point where forms cease to be recognizable. The most astonishing painting in this group shows a painter and a murderer side by side. The one, holding a brush, paints a reclining figure while the other holds a dagger which stabs the figure portrayed. We see both of them from the rear; on their backs is a large “M”—“M” for “Maler” (painter), for “murder,” and possibly for “Markus,” too.

Although small in format, these are splendid oil paintings, and with all their ironic distance they form a necessary supplement to the other work. They make clear that Raetz’s oeuvre, which is so strongly characterized by an intelligent wit, not only demonstrates a virtuoso use of materials and techniques, but is an existential confrontation between himself and the world.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.