Claas Gutsche, Siedlung Krumme Lanke (Settlement Krumme Lanke), 2010, linocut on paper, 72½ x 105½". From “Linocut Reloaded.”

Claas Gutsche, Siedlung Krumme Lanke (Settlement Krumme Lanke), 2010, linocut on paper, 72½ x 105½". From “Linocut Reloaded.”

“Linocut Reloaded”

Claas Gutsche, Siedlung Krumme Lanke (Settlement Krumme Lanke), 2010, linocut on paper, 72½ x 105½". From “Linocut Reloaded.”

Does the use of a particular printing technique, such as linoleum cutting, say anything about the content and character of a work of art? This question lurked behind the exhibition “Linocut Reloaded,” mounted by two Berlin galleries, Wagner + Partner and Hunchentoot, in the space of the former. The exhibition made its case for the medium by bringing together four German artists: Claas Gutsche, Philipp Hennevogl, Thomas Kilpper, and Sebastian Speckmann.

Two large, impressive prints by Gutsche place middle-class contentment against a dark backdrop. The villas in Siedlung Krumme Lanke (Settlement Krumme Lanke), 2010, exude prosperity in their arboreal setting. What the print does not show us is that these houses were part of a large SS residential complex in a Berlin suburb. Gutsche is hardly the first artist to focus on this kind of historically charged site, but fashioning a deceptively calm surface with subtle gradations of light, he handles the material persuasively. Speckmann presented an installation of twenty-five small images showing nocturnal landscapes or isolated motifs such as a house, a stone, or a car. Small white scratches and specks imbue these motifs with a cryptic, sinister quality. Their contours seem to emerge from darkness like particles of dust illuminated in the black of night. Speckmann leaves a good deal of open space in his designs; of the four artists, he takes the greatest creative liberties with representation.

While Gutsche and Speckmann follow the Romantic tradition, Hennevogl practices a dry yet extreme formalism. He draws his subject matter from everyday observation: a dense pattern of scaffolding, a tangle of cables behind a table of electronic devices. Anything with visual texture seems to be fair game. His most striking contribution is Wasserfall (Waterfall), 2009, in which the suggestion of rushing water transmutes into an abstract play of forms. Kilpper’s work, by contrast, is robust and rough-hewn. He portrays figures from political history—for instance Ulrike Meinhof in her days as a journalist, before she became a leader of the Red Army Faction. Kilpper is the most political artist in this group; in 2009 he made his mark at the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin, cutting a German portrait gallery into the linoleum floor of what was once its cafeteria. He is at his most acute in such site-based works, but his individual prints are also effective and conspicuous for their ideological tone.

“Linocut Reloaded” showed how the linoleum print is naturally finding its way into contemporary art, extending its reach across political, formal, and lyrical concerns. With this objective, the exhibition could easily have lapsed into nostalgia for craftsmanship in art; fortunately, that danger was avoided. Physical engagement with the subject matter does play a role, however. The resistances and limitations inherent in the technique are palpable in the result: Consider that no corrections are possible, and that the artist needs to conceive the image in the negative. Nevertheless, the diversity of artistic expression is such that there can be no question of a single style specific to the linocut. At most, there is a sensibility that unites these artists. What is noteworthy about all four of them is their sobriety, their down-to-earth approach, even when their themes are dramatic or romantic. The creativity here derives more from details and nuances than from grand gestures.

Jurriaan Benschop

Translated from Dutch by David McKay.