Walter Dahn

Years ago Walter Dahn remarked that he could well imagine giving up painting someday. He no longer wanted to be branded with the stigma of being a painter. But it was not painting, said Dahn, that was the problem; it was the motivation for painting. After all, images can be produced by means other than brushes and paint as well: by printing, or photography, or film, for instance.

For a long time now Dahn has been working with a new way of making images. He uses panes of glass—all of them retrieved from old greenhouses or torn-down houses—as a ground for his image ideas. The majority of the works here were such glass panes. Dahn left them in the state in which he found them, broken almost without exception, and transferred his images onto them using silk screen, paint, dirt, or shellac. As always with his paintings, the subjects were extremely varied. From Stigma, 1990, an image of a stimatized hand, to Arabian Pattern for P.T., 1991, Dahn employed an impressive array of motifs from different cultures and times.

The use of glass as a support for his images, and particularly in its capacity as a broken ground, opens a wide symbolic vista. Its transparency and razor-sharp edges as well as its similarity to ice raise it to the level of a signifying medium. From this perspective, the glass at the same time diminishes the weight and depth of the image, while calling attention to itself by its broken state. It is as if the material itself wanted not only to point to the transparency of the individual images but, beyond that, to invest them with additional meaning.

Against the background of this material ambivalence, the images are also held in a peculiar kind of balance. They cover a spectrum from simple to nearly inaccessible visual formulations. A drawing such as Tiere, Baüme, Wurzeln (Animals, trees, roots, 1990), which suggests analogies between animals and plants in a few simple lines, is still enveloped in the charm of a pictogram. Likewise the Schweizer Waffenhändler (Swiss arms dealer, 1990), a skeleton with shield and weapon set against the colors of the Swiss flag, calls for no profound interpretation. At the same time Dahn retracts the message in other works by incorporating deliberately undecipherable signs.

Alongside the glass panes Dahn grouped a number of sculptures, three of which refer to the sense of hearing: a cast of an ear, another of a horn, and a chaotic heap of audio tape. These represent something of the complexity of one of the senses. That Dahn was a student of Joseph Beuys can hardly be overlooked in such a materialistic representation of sense perception. His teacher’s influence is openly acknowledged in the Baumkreuz (Tree cross, 1990) action, documented in a video, which Dahn undertook with other artists at the end of last year at the new geographical center of the united Germany along a section of the former German-German border. They planted 140 lindens and ash trees as a symbol of “overcoming death,” an homage to Beuys and a confirmation of his tree-planting action in Kassel.

Wolf Jahn

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.