Jochen Kuhn

“Recently I visited a bordello for the first time. Well, actually it was an erotic massage parlor. That’s naturally beneath me. I don’t need anything like that.” A middle-aged man is troubled by moral misgivings as he goes to a brothel for the first time in his life. Wearing a trench coat and a hat, he worries that someone will see him; on the stairs, he meets his neighbor, who immediately asks: “What’s happening here? Are you going to the bordello?” Like the four films of the same title that preceded it, Jochen Kuhn’s fourteen-minute Neulich 5 (Recently 5), 2004, is a brief, absurd observation of daily life told from the viewpoint of a surprised narrator. These are neighborhood stories, trivial tales recounted in a clever, humorous way. Kuhn tells disarming stories through small moments in the lives of his characters, the heroes of an unglamorous world.

Kuhn began to paint in the ’70s, but his paintings did not generate much interest. Not wanting to give the art critics a chance to rip his pictures to shreds, he destroyed them himself. But before doing so, he decided to film the painting process itself, and, in so doing, created short stories. The process of painting produced storyboards, and the painter became an animator—without ever ceasing to be a painter. Unlike most contemporary German painting, Kuhn’s pictures are not painted from photographic models, and are neither lurid nor nostalgic but instead rather somber. His painting style is rough, slightly naive, and somewhat schematic, reminiscent of the ’80s.

In his six-minute film Sonntag 1 (Sunday 1), 2005, the artist’s alter ego describes his weekly Sunday walk. On this walk something very odd occurs: He realizes that while walking he doesn’t notice anything. Nothing—not a street, not a person, nothing has the slightest effect on him. He is shocked by this and stops walking; he starts and stops again, but still nothing happens. As he walks on, he muses about aging, about the way the world never really changes, and about the dreams that never come true. This sense of hopelessness is intensified by the gloomy urban surroundings and the curious way they’re depicted. But the short film is an ingenious mixture of melancholy and humor, and the viewer is caught between depression and fits of laughter.

Kuhn paints pictures for the camera. His scenes are created by sketching, overpainting, and rubbing out, and his figures move between changing shapes. While one figure slowly vanishes into the background, another appears, an effect created by the projection of one painting onto another; he is a virtuoso of montage. Instead of editing the film, he paints over the same picture. The visit to the brothel in the film Neulich 5 is a good example of this. As soon as the protagonist enters the brothel, he sinks into the twilight world of the red light district, caught between dream and reality, morality and eroticism. The paintbrush paints the dialogue. However, the prostitute does not introduce him to the world of sex for sale—his conscience is troubling him too much for that. Instead, she shows him the real world: The entire town, including his own family, goes in and out of the brothel. Kuhn’s disarming manner pokes fun at the small-minded moralist in all of us. Ably and succinctly, these films reveal the fluidity of painting.

Stefan Zucker

Translated from German by Jane Brodie.