Rémy Zaugg

Kunsthalle Basel

The very title of this exhibition, “Für ein Bild” (For a picture), already suggests that the works ask a great deal from the viewer, perceptually and intellectually. For more than twenty years now, Rémy Zaugg has been studying the complex problem of perception, and some of his findings could be examined here in this challenging show. The “picture” evoked by the title consists of several approaches to the true nature of the image, which, as an artwork, is located in twofold reality between ideal fiction and material truth. Zaugg explores the theme of perception within the semantic framework that is the most traditional and yet most advanced medium for the creation of the image and the investigation of perception: painting. This does not make the issue any simpler. For although he produces highly conceptual art about art, Zaugg manages not to slip into the self-indulgence of art for art’s sake or the solace of tautology. Instead, he succeeds in focusing on a point at which perception is, so to speak, made the object of perception. This explains the viewer’s sensation of being utterly victimized—which many people feel upon first seeing Zaugg’s work. For, if perception is the central object of viewing, then the content of the artwork automatically becomes the responsibility of the audience. In this thoroughly subversive way, Zaugg’s art can be called an existential matter.

One of his earliest efforts—shown here for the first time—explores the famous Cézanne painting La Maison du pendu (House of the hanged man, ca. 1873). In the course of his investigation, conducted from 1963 to ’68, the artist produced a series of “perceptual sketches” in which, using written language, he delved into the reality of the image and its specific language. The result is a linguistic discourse presented as an image. If the perception of an image does not consist of merely recognizing a seemingly familiar empirical reality, then it constitutes a kind of reproduction of the image on a different level of expression. The reality of an image is illusionistic by its very nature. For the perceptual process to become a truly cognitive process, the mirror of illusion must be shattered, leaving reality exposed.

Zaugg undertakes this “disillusionment” by, say, hanging a primed canvas next to another, similarly primed canvas, both of which are the same color as the wall. This approach drives the principle of mimesis to its limits. The question then simultaneously shifts from the completed image to the process of its creation: When does a painting actually become an image? In this way, Zaugg challenges not only the conventions of viewing a picture or an image, but also the conventions of the painter who generally makes art by daubing pigments on a traditional surface.

In the only room with windows, Zaugg hung a painting that contains the following text (in German): “TWO OR THREE WINDOWS (A YARD, TREES, A SKY, ROOFTOPS. . . ) / A SELF-PORTRAIT.” Although the letters are painted over a thick impasto ground, which distorts them somewhat, they do not lose their identity as signs. Because language is our system of internalizing the world, this “language image” makes it clear that all images represent a projection of the world into the internal space of the self. Viewing art is a way of portraying oneself. The series of images in this exhibition questions the credibility of the painter as a portrayer of the world; and it also questions the viewer’s reliance on images as proof of empirical reality.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.