Chicago

Magnus von Plessen

The Art Institute of Chicago

This modest overview of twelve paintings executed by Magnus von Plessen since 1999 was a thoughtful reinvestigation of traditional easel painting and an unexpectedly intense reinvigoration of genres and emphases sometimes considered exhausted. Portraiture, allegory, still life, anecdotal figure painting, architectural studies, and even equestrian imagery were investigated anew—not in a mocking or dismissive manner, but rather as still-potent types, the collective weight of which it now seems impossible for a contemporary painter to transcend or otherwise escape.

The uncomfortable sense of the familiar rendered strange—of a language once intuitively understood now spoken in curiously oblique tones—seems at the heart of von Plessen’s enterprise. In Selbstporträt mit fremdem Kopf (Self-Portrait with Someone Else’s Head), 2004, he seems to echo the portraiture of Manet and Courbet, yet the title signals his occupation of a realm made suddenly vulnerable. Von Plessen’s manner of painting, however, does not undercut the assurance of a man comfortable in his skin and surroundings, sturdy and foursquare, attentively leafing through his mail or a book. His handling is superb: largely monochromatic parallel vertical and horizontal strokes of similar heft, often overlapping slightly and occasionally interrupted by smaller areas of shorter, staccato-like diagonal strokes and miniscule sprinkles of more intense color.

Von Plessen both applies paint and removes it, often scraping his wet canvases so hard that an imprint of the stretcher beneath is visible. But his disciplined manipulation of surface is nonetheless characterized by great nuance. The slightest bit of extra pressure from the artist’s hand alters a painting’s mood, and his strokes’ physical similarity prompts close examination of the subtle differences between them. His technique is just descriptive enough to secure his subject matter, to function as both surface and substance.

Von Plessen’s work is usually stern and humorless, so when he indulges in a bit of the erotics of seeing, as he does in the modest Pflanze (Plant), 2004, the moment is one to be savored. A lighter palette of scraped greenish grays provides the backdrop for a deconstructed image of a flower in a vase. Von Plessen literally separates the elements of the plant, making the creamy bloom and its lozenge of dirt hover above their blue and white container. The physical fissure is accompanied by a conceptual one; the sense is one of representation as somehow both inevitable and impossible, of the weight of history making the depictive process one to be wary of, even in the midst of its undertaking. There’s something disarming about such a position; it is that of an uneasy heir examining an inheritance that may neither be ignored nor fully claimed.

James Yood