Alois Lichtsteiner

Hans Rudolf Reust

Alois Lichtsteiner emerged as an artist around the time when the craze for “wild painting” was coming to its abrupt end. From the very beginning he combined figuration and the gesture of pure application of color with a determination to reflect on the medium of painting through painterly means. Time and again, working up his large impastoed surfaces, he would take his unfettered style of oil painting, his glistening brush marks, to the brink of abstraction, yet without ever giving up the memory of figurative representation. A blue field painted over a green one still evoked the archaic scenario of the landscape, even if it seemed that painting here referred only to its own processes and the overlapping of surfaces.

In “Birches,” the most recent and most conceptual series of Lichtsteiner’s works from the past two years, his painterly methods have converged on a single motif. Following a pattern based on an image of birch bark projected onto the canvas, he is guided by the image but without attempting a direct representation of it. Instead, he uses a geometrically strict raster to transcribe it, composing a surface in nuanced shades of white that occasionally gently break into gray. Straight black horizontal lines reinforce this geometrical framework, only to be broken up in places by dark free-form patches. The bands, each composing a distinct paint-area, unexpectedly suggest the lines of a video being fast-forwarded. And like a video, no matter how composed they may be, they are also the products of a fleeting edit from an otherwise arbitrarily extendable pattern. The counterpoint between geometry and organic interruptions is unmistakably bound to nature imagery and representation, yet it is, in turn, easy for this clear association to be lost again.

Painting cannot deny its ancient practice as a manual craft. More than any other medium, though, its history has done away with solid foundations or a singular point of reference. It is painting’s uncertain position that emerges in the drift of splotches along the bands of birch bark. Through the motif’s exaggeration of its own—and of painting’s—ephemeral nature, Lichtsteiner’s works resist any hasty comparison to Clyfford Still’s sublime compositions. In Lichtsteiner’s case, each imprint of the brush, having come to denote a patch of bark, immediately betrays how literally “manipulated” it is.

In conveying an image of something that is in itself rather colorless, painting understandably forgoes the use of color. In this exhibition, color is reintroduced through several diptychs from Lichtsteiner’s “Books” series: In each, two monochromatic surfaces in related tones face each other like two pages of an open book, melding into each other or moving apart. Here again, Lichtsteiner’s freehand style betrays how closely it is linked to the limitations of format.

In the first painting of the “Birches” series and again in the last, the geometric raster dissolves, so that the dark color splotches float freely on a white background, held only to each other in an unstable constellation. Ultimately, Lichtsteiner paints out the impression of nature, and in doing so begins his work of keeping the surface in a state of flux.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.