Ralf-Rainer Odenwald

Galerie Kammer

Ancient wisdom teaches that it’s better to throw a pebble into a calm lake than a rock into a raging sea. Ralf-Rainer Odenwald has mastered this notion. His paintings are calm, and they move like rings on the surface of a lake. At the center of his pictures are figures, usually two of them. The surrounding surface vibrates, immersing the figures in their own cosmos, giving them an aura reminiscent of medieval icons.

Indeed, ever since his student days, Odenwald has been influenced by medieval paintings, by the way the figures in them stand there and face the world. Yet their stance is never a confrontation with the viewer; that would mean withdrawal and isolation. In Odenwald’s world, the figures are always interrelated in some manner: leaning on, moving toward or away from, or measuring themselves by one another, as in Gross und Klein (Big and little, 1988). In essence, the figures are mutual reflections, as if to illustrate another old saying: the other is always oneself.

Odenwald’s idea of the mirrored, the reflected world, derives from the philosophy of Giordano Bruno, whose doctrine states that one is in all and all is in one, that nothing can be detached from anything else, and that everything is mirrored in everything else. Many of these paintings show heads placed atop one another: the conviction that everything is interwoven with everything else includes the whole strata of human history. Figures are reduced; they are archaic silhouettes in profile, their feet placed side by side as in ancient Egyptian art. Odenwald seeks the recurrent form of human existence—what he calls the “ornamentality of his own existence.” The endlessly reiterated demand, “Know thyself,” imbues his paintings with their dynamic stillness.

Odenwald depicts a world of the mind, but he does so in full awareness of the destruction that increases daily. Thus, in Die Mondspieler (The moonplayers, 1988), two figures standing back to back juggle half-moons. Their large hands lightly toss up these flattened fragments. Odenwald renounces perspective and illusion, and reinforces his links with the medieval tradition. He views himself as an observer “in the middle of the lake,” as he titles his exhibition; he peers about, observing from a distance the things occurring on the shore.

Odenwald’s oeuvre is cogent in its self-containment. This character extends to his works on paper; for instance, a drifting or floating figure takes up the leitmotif of the boat and embodies it in the literal meaning of this verb. Odenwald’s pictorial world is pure and introverted. Despite his philosophical structures Odenwald works in terms of the very essence of painting; he composes his color planes with great esthetic confidence and energy. He shows a certain affinity with Gustav Kluge and Christa Näher in his existential conception of the figure. But while their figures are narratively integrated, Odenwald works on creating a discrete constellation of figures that occupies its own pictorial cosmos.

Doris von Drateln

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel