New York

Dietrich Orth

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

For Dietrich Orth, art yields redemption in its most minimal forms: personal satisfaction, dignity, and a generally positive mindset. His circumspect yet intensely evocative paintings—which often take the form of quasi-mystical diagrams—analyze the dangers and potential rewards, however large or small, of engaging the world’s chaos. The painstaking efforts they describe are ultimately synonymous with his process, one in which “any smaller or larger disturbances of the feeling of being undisturbed have to be corrected, sublimed, or rerouted.”

With its queasy colors—pale pee-greens, dull browns, diffident blues and reds—and often baffling images and texts, the work has, at first, a depressive effect. But its emotional complexity—at once a register of abstract concepts, spiritual concerns, and excruciatingly authentic personal experience—derives from his emphasis on using art for positive ends. Diagnosed with clinical psychosis some years ago, Orth was introduced to painting as a form of therapy, and while he has remained faithful to this characterization of his work, it transcends merely personal and curative concerns. Although it is unlikely that his paintings can also heal the viewer, as he claims, Orth’s ardent attempts to include us in his emotional struggles render his work intensely expressive. Battling in both his life and art the solipsism that attends his illness, he asserts that engagement with the surrounding world is crucial.

Orth’s attitudes undermine the tired stereotype of the “outsider” artist, obsessive to the point of pain and oblivious to any audience other than himself. His is a vivid appeal for understanding. Despite his tangled syntax and peculiar imagery, he manages to convey, with particular urgency, what it feels like to make art. The text for the painting Feuer-Frier-Effekt (Fire-freeze-effect, 1990) discusses feelings of tension and release, conveying a sense of personal growth or strength: “the strenuous satisfaction before and after the creative idea has developed.”

Some of the works depict devices for performing daily activities—such as walking or getting out of bed—without damaging the psyche. Others have larger themes. Konversation im Stehen (Conversing while standing up, n.d.), “a shoe picture for easier conversation while standing in communism,” places his bodily anxiety within the context of world politics. A single leg, facing away from the viewer, stands on a red triangular wedge with two white stripes that is meant to induce a “heightened sense of stability.” That this image is as unnerving as it is poignant suggests that, for us as much as for Orth, political systems are often experienced as the disruption of order rather than the reverse.

If he views the world through a filter of intense anxiety, Orth does so with dogged persistence, flashes of lucidity, and even eloquence, rendering the internal contradictions he yearns to resolve as palpable as his peculiar imaginings are provocative. While all of his works can be seen as paranoid structures of a kind, creating them allows him to feel “cleansed,” and to experience “total freedom.” Art, for him, is absolutely essential—as necessary to achieving self-respect and a healthy intellect as the psychopharmaceuticals to which he reverently alludes. His “credo,” he tells us, is that “the observation and development of the smallest littlest piece of satisfaction is the strongest weapon against social chaos.”

K. Marriott Jones