Bärbel Messmann

Galerie Eberhard Lüdke

Barbel Messmann’s art comes out of her preoccupation with drawing. She sounds the depths of the medium’s material basis and possibilities by employing each of its constituents—format, surface texture and pattern of the paper, consistency and transparency of color, etc.—as a formal element of equal importance and opening them to other media, especially painting. Recurring themes—such as an interest in patterns or woven-together lines, or in the materiality of the specific substrate used and in the colors of tempera, wax crayon, oil paint, watercolors, and india ink, which attain a haptic quality due to their intensive handling—take part in an open, flexible system of formal and motif-based correspondences that cross-reference, complement, and comment on each other. Accordingly, her most recent exhibition was a selection of seventy-five untitled works on paper from the last ten years, grouped not chronologically but in sequences and clusters.

The prelude to the exhibition was a drawing, 2000—on a large scale that had been rare in Messmann’s work until now—spanned by a motif of crossing lines in muddy tones, which converge in some places and disperse in others. This was followed by a series of medium-sized works on paper that varied the same theme. Two vitrines with small works produced an intimate effect and permitted deeper insight into the artist's working methods. Here, one saw how seemingly casual, inconsequential observations of daily life trigger a process that, through playful experimentation, transforms them into precise and concentrated yet unpretentious images. Like optical puzzles, these flicker between abstraction and figuration, formal concentration and transparency of meaning. And they continually displace the observer’s viewpoint: At times the emphasis is given to allusions to everyday objects—the outline of a dish towel, the contour of a leg whose knee appears to have been scraped, a skirt whose pattern recalls fish scales or perhaps roof tiles—and at others to rigorously repeated forms and textures. Over and over, what one perceived was relativized, alienated, either by means of a detail within the image or because of its relation to something in a neighboring drawing.

Messmann’s drawings are not about the objects themselves but rather about their form, their relationship to one another, and their placement in pictorial space. She defines and plays with this space as deftly as she dissolves it again. At one point she frames the paper with brushstrokes and, in a way that recalls the natural ease of Sigmar Polke’s early drawings, distribute dots in the space thus delineated; in another work, a thicket of interwoven lines floats in a white space that takes on the function of an imaginary passe-partout or mount for them. Messmann is constantly introducing an irritation, for instance by using, now and then, self-sufficient linguistic elements—as when six empty circles in black ink are finished with the word rot, “red,” and this color is thus evoked only in the observer's imagination. Or what are at first very regular lines of a grid pattern may become increasingly agitated and then break out of their self-prescribed order. These kinds of systematic disturbance lend Messmann’s drawings their ambiguity and unpredictability. They mark situations of transition, subtly evoked changes of perspective, that continually reopen the only apparently well-explored terrain of drawing.

Astrid Wege

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.