Cambridge

Rainer Dissel

Rainer Dissel

This first American exhibition of works by the 33-year-old German painter Rainer Dissel proved an auspicious debut. Dissel is one of those artists with a “touch,” an innate ability to invest line, surface, and form with poetic conviction. Not merely facile, his paintings enter the realm of things sensed but unrevealed. Dissel’s work was recently included in the exhibition “Dimensions IV: New Painting in Germany,” which originated in Berlin and traveled to Munich and Düsseldorf.

Dissel studied at the Städelschulc the art academy of Frankfurt, with Johann Geyger, one of the practitioners of the European equivalent of Abstract Expressionism. But whereas those postwarartists pointedly eliminated representation in response to the propagandistic nature of Nazi art, Dissel is of the generation that, young enough to be sufficiently historically distanced, has resurrected the figure. This phenomenon has taken various forms. Dissel’s approach is not of the clamorous neoExpressionist variety; rather, he makes paintings pervaded by a mood of quiet amorphousness. Contradictory elements—abstraction/figuration, geometry/organicism, image/text-coexist within compositions that don’t quite coalesce. Despite (or perhaps because of) such diffuseness, this is beguiling imagery.

In Leaving, 1986, the mood is characteristically dreamlike, with a circular flow of organic images suspended in a pronounced vertical/horizontal format. Figures float in space, somewhat anchored by an underlying geometry or a tenuous connection to each other. A silhouetted profile of a male figure (a repeated motif, a sort of male version of Nancy Spero’s generic females) emerges from a black band along the right vertical edge, on which the word “leaving” is written in large white cursive letters. He holds (pushes?) the right foot of a horizontally splayed female, seen from behind and truncated at the waist, who disappears into a black, cloudlike mass; a smaller version of the word “leaving’ seems to be suspended from her left leg. From this nebula another silhouetted profile of a male figure emerges, in a horizontal position below the woman, while above her floats an ambiguous organic (sexual?) image. Muted touches of red jar an essentially black/white palette; a sense of threat is also implied in the scrawled lines (in German), ”Watch out you idiot / Don’t go so far / or else something will happen / because the last garbage, the dreck remains." This tone of violence undercuts the appealing drawing and exquisite surfaces, but whether the subject is violation or defecation remains obscure.

Like Joseph Beuys, Dissel frequently employs untraditional materials that are “at hand,” such as coffee, tar, motor oil, etc. He also injects his works with doses of absurdist humor, quoting lyrics from such rock musicians as Frank Zappa and Tom Waits. Dissel’s influences are pluralistic; in addition to those already mentioned, the American eye will associate his work with Richard Diebenkom, Ernest Trova, and Robert Beauchamp. However, Dissel’s shadow figures appear as both Everyman and self-portrait, specters of the Modernist past fused in an autonomous vision.

Nancy Stapen