Peter Bömmels

Reinhard Onnasch Galerie

Pictorial depth is becoming a significant issue in the current international discussion about art. American critics have been advancing the concept of depth as a fundamental ingredient of contemporary artistic endeavor (from German neo-Expressionism to Julian Schnabel), citing Theodor W. Adorno’s characterization of depth as “a dialectic in which content, far from being expunged, surfaces again as a result of form’s relation to the irreconcilable.” From a German point of view, the American fascination with an “art of depth” is entirely understandable. Conversely, however, one has the impression that the confrontation with the American preference for an “art of the surface” is too simplistic an interpretation of what is occurring in German art today. Depth has long been a double-edged concept in German art criticism. The poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, for instance, wrote: “The Germans pride themselves tremendously on their depth, which is really only another word for unrealized form.” The ambivalence between depth as a positive concept in art and depth as a psychosocial cliche defines German consciousness, and makes German art, which tries to come to terms with this situation, especially difficult for the American viewer to comprehend.

Peter Bömmels, a Cologne-based artist formerly of the Mülheimer Freiheit group, situates his work precisely in the midst of this field of contention. In this exhibition he confronted the viewer with works that, on the one hand, appear to be hermetic in the extreme and on the other present a strange brand of didacticism. In a series of small drawings from 1986, whose contour lines are made up of human hair, he addresses the theme “Im Namen der Dritten Natur” (In the name of the third nature). He invents coded images for a world view explicitly intended to be understood as an “individual mythology,” one that is reflected in the drawings’ titles: Frauen sind die heiligste Konnotation (Women are the holiest of connotations), Liebe ist ein Doppelfehler (Love is a double mistake), Glück ist reine Penetranz (Happiness is pure penetration). The combination of literary elements with invented forms-for instance, the floating wood-grained torsoin Der Strafbogen (The punishment arch, 1985)—sheds light on a central concern of his work, the creation of a language that, although oriented toward general human themes, originates in extremely personal visions.

In light of Bommels’ work it would seem that pictorial depth in contemporary painting is only possible in the form of a refusal. It must refuse the easy consumption that currently accounts for the popularity of, say, a Georg Baselitz or a Julian Schnabel. To the clichéd pathos of pronounced depth Bommels opposes his “Kunst der Unverganglichkeit” (art of the imperishable). His formal idiom is a hermetic code that both attracts and repels the viewer. The viewer’s desire to decipher the images is amplified by an inchoate sense that they have to do with elemental human relationships, with the meaning of existence in an ever more desolate world, with the possibility of religious commitments. But Bommels gives us no answers. His formal ciphers become permanent questions. They are, to quote the title of this show, “Menschversuche” (Human experiments), sketches for a new image of humanity. One feels as if one would have to actually live with these works in order to slowly, very slowly, penetrate them. In a sense, to understand Bömmels’ images entails working on one’s own individual mythology. This effort is a process in which one swings back and forth between comprehension and incomprehension, between the strange and the familiar. The hidden goal of this effort is transformation, but transformation as a process, not as a fixed answer. Because the images remain unanswered questions, we begin to understand that, even in a world that inundates us with answers, we needn’t fear raising questions. For in Bömmels’ works, whose ciphers speak of estrangement, desperation, and unlived life, there is a strong element of confidence. Art is capable of opening up chasms of uncertainty, yet in doing so it exorcises fear, transforming it into a stepping stone on the path of change.

Wolfgang Max Faust

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.