Carl Ostendarp

Galerie Ricke

In recent years narrative has been finding its way back into contemporary art via installation, video, photography, and even painting. The New York–based painter Carl Ostendarp, for example, encourages narrative readings of his canvases. In Dead on it, 1997, one of the works in his recent show, a wavy brown line divides the painting into tan and white sections. Above the line floats a solid brown balloon resembling those in comic strips. It contains no words or letters, though, so it could simply be an abstract form or a stylized body part—a stomach, perhaps, or a breast with a large nipple. In other works, forms resembling a leg or a hand are discernible.

When Ostendarp is asked to relate the stories behind these canvases, he responds that they might involve anything suggested by the imagery. One example he gives—that Dead on it could tell of a man who goes out to get cigarettes and never returns—seems as arbitrary as any other. Some of the images may have been inspired by the artist’s impending fatherhood: in Bring it on, 1998, one can see a tiny hand inside a large balloon—or pregnant belly. Mashed Potatoes, 1997, is divided into light brown and yellow areas. A dark blue cloud hovers at an oblique angle over the brown section, and a small balloon floats over the yellow area. There is no sign of potatoes. While the titles all suggest possible narratives (others include “Escape-ism,” “The Scratch,” and “Bring it on”), they neither reduce nor explain the work.

The pale, transparent shades of acrylic and gouache Ostendarp uses seem barely to cling to the canvas, almost as if the artist hadn’t used a brush. The forms that appear, especially the balloons, resemble dream images, and they possess a veiled eroticism. All of this suggests a game that can be played out in endless variations, but it is not as playful as one might assume: the powerful appeal of Ostendarp’s work derives from an underlying acknowledgment of the difficulty of painting narrative images today.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.