Clemens Wolf

For more than ten years, Clemens Wolf’s studio was the street. He eventually switched from street art to painting of an almost classical kind. His technique and subjects are still reminiscent of graffiti, but his conceptual ambition has deepened: “I wanted to engage with ideas, and for that graffiti/street art didn’t seem quite the right medium.” In the works in his recent exhibition, “Hinter der Freiheit” (Behind Freedom), he applied oil paint to canvas via spray gun and stencil; he took his motifs from photographs of derelict buildings and industrial ruins—the very places where the artist, who was born in Vienna in 1981, sprayed graffiti. Keine Bühne mehr (No More Stage), 2007, is one of the paintings Wolf presented last winter in the group show “Austria Contemporary” at the Essl Museum–Contemporary Art in Vienna. In it, the ruins, the “stage” of his past activities, appear like fading memories. “Barriers, hiding places, open space, and the aesthetics of decay are now the subject of my work,” explains Wolf, “but they have been part of my awareness for a long time.” The stencil technique produces schematic, abstracted images devoid of detail, and the exclusive use of black and white evokes the image’s photographic origin. These paintings register decay; they evoke war zones, bereavement, and confinement. Their association with street art, cued by one’s knowledge of Wolf’s biography, is underlined by the spray technique, but the transgressive hit-and-run character of graffiti bombings is missing. Wolf refers only to the sites of graffiti, not the pieces themselves.

If ruins initially provided the setting for Wolf’s street art and subsequently became central to his paintings, in “Behind Freedom” they are mostly concealed behind fences. Wolf has taken a step back; standing outside, he focuses on the barrier without crossing it. The ruins can be seen only through the strict geometry of wire lattice. These paintings deal with violence, exclusion, property relations, and the desire to break down barriers. One’s gaze wanders back and forth between the black lines and the suggestions of buildings. Here, instead of aestheticizing damage, Wolf takes us along on his search for hiding places. Vantage points, not the buildings, are central. The titles, such as Crackxico fence LA, 2009, and 34th street fence NYC, 2009, state a specific location, but for the observer the sites are interchangeable. In one of two works titled 14th street fence NYC, 2009, the scenes dissolve completely, the white rasters become frames, and painting takes place in the open space between three fences, each rectangle a picture, a gridded scene that frames abstraction.

If decay was originally the representational subject of Wolf’s paintings, dissolution now occurs within them. The newest works in the show, both Untitled, 2009, are black and dark blue. The fence, or grid, is glued on, and paint is applied thickly as if the darkness, or painting itself, were breaking through. While Wolf previously operated in urban space, he has now shifted his focus to pictorial space, forgoing ruins and stages, representation and reference.

Sabine B. Vogel

Translated from German by Laura Hoffmann.