Sensing Space / Sensing Drama –
Inside the Work of Michael Luther
A heavy summer rain shower floods the courtyard outside the studio, while some organic cheeses sweat enticingly from the table. Most of the walls in the studio loft are lined by huge canvases, some of which are still only primed, while others are in the process of making. Three small framed canvases stand in a row at the front, looking unintentionally pretty and decorative. Michael Luther turns in his chair and with a furtive glance towards the paintings notes: ”I am never sure of anything. I have to try it out first.” Later in the conversation, the frames are removed from the small paintings.
For Aristotle, doubt is the foundation of philosophical enquiry. In questioning the world around us and ourselves, we retrace the origin of epistemology, engaging in the very first step of intellectual research.
As the field of visual art practice becomes more specialised and scholarly, yielding countless PhD students and professors, much is being said about the nature of artistic research. Or, perhaps, rather questioned. How does an artist research his or her own practise? What are the methods of his study? What ought they be? These issues are particularly acute within contemporary painting.
Subjected to constant questioning, having to redeem itself from charges of archaism and aestheticism, the medium of painting has undergone several serious re-evaluations and re-inventions. The historical weight is over-bearing and “we are no longer innocent”, as Rosalind Krauss wrote on the challenges of post-modern painting. (1)
The German post-war history of painting is particularly dramatic. Resting on the heavy laurels of it’s modernist masters - expressionists, secessionists and others - it was famously declared dead after the war by important figures such as Joseph Beuys, only to be immediately revived by defiant students who would become the new deities of a pantheon of artists that for the last two decades have been challenged by yet another generation, most notably the neo-realist movement championed
at the Leipzig School.
In naming the likes of Jörg Immendorf, Sigmar Polke or the unavoidable Gerhard Richter, in relation to the work of Michael Luther, one makes a necessary reverence. Necessary to the extent that all European painting for the last few decades relates to the formal and conceptual explorations of these giants. Such an overbearing influence makes a comic appearance in Luther’s abstract composition entitled Hilf mir Gerhard! (2005), [Help me Gerhard!], (Fig. 1) – a dizzying optical experiment in yellow and black that, according to an anecdote, was conceived amidst the desperation of realising that nothing could possibly be done that would not lend itself to a reference to something already achieved or intended to be achieved by Richter.
Yet, where Richter and Polke concerned themselves to a great extent with history and the conditions of western culture, a current generation of artists – to whom Michel Luther must certainly be ascribed – have taken up space, in terms of physical space, as a primary point of investigation. Candida Höfer’s monumental studies of public spaces penetrate the architectural devises of social co-existence, while Loris Gréaud has recently played with the psychological effects of experimental milieus, where space is being dramatised to the point of theatrics to create a situation where our senses and conceptions are being manipulated and distorted. In contrast, Michael Luther’s space becomes the scene of intimate examination.
In a series of large canvases, Luther portrays the oily and colourful lumps of paint on his palette. Magnified to the extreme, they easily lend themselves to an association to mountainous landscapes in delicious Cèzannesque hues. Colourado (2005), (Fig. 2) even jokingly refers to the Rocky Mountains. The artist’s palette allows him an adventure of geographical exploration of unlimited scope while remaining in his studio.
This series of meta-paintings offer a much more compelling account of the trajectory in Luther’s work than the mere formal aspects of colouristic exercises. Conceptually we stand in front of works of art that feed upon themselves, that represent the very materials of which they are made in a birth-life cycle that reject the distinction of subject and object, thoroughly connected to the tradition of figurative painting. This aspect also places Luther’s work within a slightly stale art historical discourse that can be seen as culminating in the impersonal realism of German painters such as Neo Rauch or Tim Eitel. It is indeed difficult not to perceive an affinity between the plainness and lack of painterly expression of the Leipziger Schule and that of certain works of Luther such as Art (2005–2006). However, between the paint of the palette and the art magazine there is but a few steps. The artist continues to focus on the items physically closest to him in his studio.
Historically, painting’s dominating position as a means of representation resides not only in its claims of realism, but also in its ability to reproduce artificial situations. The religious passions of the Middle Ages, or the countless baroque still lives of the 17th and 18th century, with their exotic fruits and dead animals, shared the ambition of documenting the real.
Yet, the demise of central perspective, the continuous opposition to authenticity of the modernist avant-garde and recent decades of pop, conceptual and kitsch artists has revealed the scaffolding of visual representation and erased its former role of portrayal of reality.
Michael Luther’s paintings of paint obviously share a deep commitment to the act of depiction, although they occasionally transgress towards abstraction, thereby distancing him from the orthodoxy of his contemporaries of the Leipzig School.
This last remark is not without consequence when reviewing his latest body of work. Oscillating between tenuous distinctions of a somewhat dry hyperrealist figuration and a rather more sumptuous, not to say painterly, tendency towards abstraction, Luther’s work could seem to have surrendered to the first mentioned. For his first solo exhibition at Wilde Gallery, Michael Luther has painted a series of canvases each of which depict views of the gallery where they will be exhibited.
Such a shift from the materials of art to its circumstance is conspicuous, albeit logical. Having in his previous work seldom left his studio, moving from the palette, some table objects, the chequered floor or the canvas lined wall I witnessed myself, this sudden and thorough inquiry of the exhibition rooms of Wilde Gallery becomes a daring step outside of the intimate and well-inhabited private spaces of the artist. This shift then, at a first glance, seems to concern itself with the phenomenology of space.
Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space that the poetical image of a little cottage, a tiny chamber or a corner/nook, fundamentally symbolises intimacy. In any of these places, the object, writes Bachelard, becomes indistinguishable from the subject by drawing it nearer, enveloping it, and squeezing it within its small space. Space – here corresponding to a room – and the subject are so close to each other that their respective limits begin to coincide. (2) Intimacy of this kind pervades most of Luther’s earlier works, as they picture a micro-cosmos in the artist’s immediate environment. Do the gallery interiors then represent a loss of immediacy? In reality they represent a step into the world.
”Space is not the setting (real or logical) in which things are arranged, but the means whereby the position of things become possible.” (3) Merleau-Ponty
Somewhat simplistically, it is possible to claim that space, in its three-dimensional shape, makes its first appearance in visual arts with Giotto. Previously, visual art, and specifically religious painting, favoured the depiction of saints, angels and Madonnas removed from the world, hovering in some gilt background. Giotto and his contemporaries encapsulate holy beings in rooms and spaces. The most developed form is found in the characteristic trompe-l’oeil scenes where columns and box ceilings of classical architecture envelop the Virgin and other saints in symmetrical perfection.
The tendency in pre-renaissance painting was often to place subjects in cross-sectioned little boxes, often ridiculously under-dimensioned rooms which sometimes defy architectural logic by simultaneously displaying the inside and outside. In Giotto’s fresco Our Lady of the Annunciation (1306), (Fig. 3) for instance, the virgin appears to inhabit a dollhouse, which merges the interior with the facade of the house, showing a window and a strangely misplaced gothic style bay. The objective, we believe, is to allow the viewer to grasp what happens in the saintly chamber while at the same time standing safely outside the house/canvas.
In Pieter Jansz Saenredam’s Blick in den Chorumgang von St. Bavo in Haarlem (Fig. 4), the vast space beneath high vaulted ceilings and Romanesque arches is accentuated by the tiny little churchgoers placed in a bottom corner, as if to highlight the insignificance of man. The dialectic at play here is that of Giotto: Space and object define each other, anticipating Merleau-Ponty‘s understanding of space as a universal force which enables relations between objects, rather than being some kind of ether in which objects float. (4)
Fig. 3: Giotto di Bondone, c. 1267–1337| Our Lady of the Annunciation | Fresco from the Capella Scrovegni, Padua, Painting al fresco, around 1306 | © bpk / Scala Photo: Scala
The phenomena of space, according to Merleau-Ponty, originate from the body – our own body –, which through its participation in space perceives the world and the objects therein. Spreading from the body, a space becomes a network of spatial relations between objects and positions. The body, however, is not entirely stable and perception within a space is subject to varying perspectives. Being mobile, the body gives rise to a variety of perspectives and viewpoints, allowing us to perceive objects, but also distorting them. A cube, for instance, can be experienced from a distance and also from within, causing virtually opposite experiences. For Merleau-Ponty, perspective is not only the means by which things separate from each other, but also the means through which they are revealed. (5)
This understanding of the interaction of objects relations with each other and with space, is further clarified by Michel Foucault, who refers to space – for example the space we inhabit – as a heterogeneous space which rather than being an empty void in which people and objects are placed consists of a set of relationships which circumscribe and delimit places that are irreducible to each other and do not overlap. To describe space, is to describe these relationships. (6)
This reading of space reverts to a certain degree to Michael Luther‘s seemingly strict methodical exploration of gallery architecture that a first impression of his latest suite of paintings might invoke. On closer examination, there is nothing of the frosty formalism of the Leipzig School, in spite of the apparent hyperrealism. Nor is there an exposition of the gallery space as a “membrane through which aesthetic and commercial values osmotically exchange”, as Brian O’Doherty famously sums up the white cube/contemporary art gallery. (7) His view of the gallery as ideological complex is uncharacteristically
absent in Luther’s paintings.
The viewpoint there is obsessively multiple and ranges from detailed panoramic scenes of the gallery with wrapped up paintings to close inspections of the empty sterile corners of the room. Luther is not only mapping the space – he is conquering it, making it his own, inhabiting it. The suite of canvases becomes a peculiar search for traces of life, where there is none. In one of the central gallery view paintings, an oddly placed desk implies the absence of a sitter, while some paper wrapped canvases seem to await the absentee to appear and unwrap them, inscribing such a figure into the scene much in the same way a Wilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1915) interior would invoke presence where there is none and emptiness where there are people. Distancing himself further from the formalist realism of the Leipzig School, Luther employs classical conventions of light and mood to convey meaning – or even sentiment, if such an expression is not too archaic.
Another example of this is a small canvas with a motive not obviously linked with the gallery interiors. It’s scene of a small studio window in winter, bordering on the pathetic, with its sad and heavily obstructed view to the outside. Atelier (Window) (2008), (Fig. 5) I would like to describe it as a cautious attempt to peep into the outside world, probably a scary and unknown world. A hermeneutic reading such as this is less psycho-biographical than it appears at first. In his critique of superrealist art, Hal Foster elaborates on a Lacanian conception of how the encounter with the real(ity) constitutes a trauma. Reproduction is repetition, and repetition is the very essence of trauma, it is something that cannot be let go but is painfully re-enacted. (8) Superrealist art, Foster argues, is a particularly illusionist form of representation through its anxious claims of representing the Real. Using representation as a form of covering up the trauma, superrealism often falls into excesses. (9)
Fig. 4: Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, 1597–1665 | Blick in den Chorumgang von St. Bavo in Haarlem | Painting, Oil on oak panel, 48,2 x 37,1 cm | Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / 898B | © bpk / Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photo: Jörg P. Anders
Avoiding for now any deeper definition of superreal art, we can extract from Foster the poetic image of the trompe-l’oeil, a genre of representation – historically mainly in the medium of painting, but by now thoroughly extended to all other artistic media – which more than anything mimics the real by exaggerating its physicality through techniques of illusion. (10) The meta-illusionism of Michael Luther’s gallery paintings, especially when hung on the walls they depict, unfolds a mise-en-scène of intricate spatial relationships between the artist, the rooms, the art world they represent and a subjective role shared between these and the viewer.
On the one hand we can perceive an uneasy attempt to understand the ontology of the artist. If it is still oil paint, white gallery cubes and the ability of illusionism that make up the discursive symbols defining an artist, then Michael Luther is less than comfortable. His close readings of the imaginary landscapes of his palette might have been the first tenuous signs of preoccupation, while his gallery paintings become fully developed questioning.
On the other hand, the conventional equation between the role of a centred subject and ourselves as spectators is cunningly avoided. Instead the effect of the operation we find that of the Lacanian gaze: being outside the picture, and simultaneously within it, we experience a lack of centre. The gaze does not emanate from the subject, but pre-exists, and threatens its integrity by looking at it “from all sides.” (11) The gallery paintings thereby create a situation where subjectivity is thwarted and space engages in a confusing play of expansion and retraction, of focus and panorama.
Merleau-Ponty discusses in a passage how void and spatiality can be created even without visual focal points, such as a horizon, perspective or recognisable objects in the darkness of the night. Space in a shape such as this is swathed and disintegrated – a connection to the Bachelardian subject’s disintegration within the corner is obvious – and appears bottomless, a remark that to some extent explains why abstract painting often is perceived to possess depth of perspective. (12)
Whereas the modernist rivalry between figuration and abstraction in many ways embodies the post-war practise of painting, reduced perhaps to only a tension in the work of Richter, it surfaces as a dialectic process in the work of Michael Luther, where the extremes of painterly abstraction and realist figuration collapse into each other, erasing the distinction between representation and form. In the end it is nothing more than a question of perspective and proximity. Magnified enough, some spots of oil paint transform into colour compositions, which in turn transform into landscapes – a corner of a gallery is a piece of space transformed into a suprematist composition, which ultimately reduces itself to a monochrome. At this state it is worthwhile to return to an analysis of the superreal, or as Baudrillard coins it: the hyper-real. He describes how the hyper-real emerges through a meticulous reproduction of the real – again we are touching on representation as a form of excess – where the transition from medium to medium, or extending the argument, from representation to representation, becomes “an allegory of death“. (13)
Now we are suddenly drawn to old vanitas still lives, these remarkable catalogues of perishable things and cultural remains. This genre, the classical vanitas motive, revelled in illustrating the transience of existence by depicting it in its later state of life and alluding to a commencing decay. In this highly symbolical tradition, wax candles were depicted with smoking wicks, flowers at the height of their bloom and soap bubbles in the very brink of bursting. In a vanitas all movement ceases. (14)
Fig. 5: Atelier (Window), 2008 | oil on canvas, 40 x 30 cm
Nowhere is this theme as explicit in Luther’s work as in the singular canvas entitled Hundert Jahre – Nach Cézanne (2005–2007), (Fig. 6), with its trio of sculls re-enacting a still life once painted by the master which does not so much transcend or expands the scope of the original, but rather transfixes it in an eternal moment of fatality.
In her essay on photography, Susan Sontag pictures this medium as a way of making oneself participant of another being’s or object’s vulnerability and mortality. Photography, she claims, is a memento mori. (15) By now painting is irredeemably merged with photography, which mediates the former’s every attempt at capturing the real. All motives, from Cézanne’s vanitas still life to the interiors of Wilde Gallery are re-imagined through photographs. The real, borrowing a definition of Baudrillard, is “that for which it is possible to provide an equivalent representation”. (16) Equivalent, we must note, but not equal.
Such a reading of Luther’s work inscribes the theme – or fear – of death and mortality at a deeper level than that of the motive, incorporating it into the ontological basis of the work. In light of this, painting becomes a compulsive re-enactment of a traumatic reality/realism – a continuous processing of this encounter that might or might not offer resolution.
In the work of Michael Luther the act of painting is transgressive. It shows a variety of conceptual strategies of addressing space in discursive terms. The close encounter with the particularities of representational conventions – the visual codes of realist depiction and their formal qualities are adamant – converges with a quiet exploration of the artist’s surroundings, weakening the distinction between the self-conscious and unconscious.
The underlying doubt expresses itself in a constant negotiation with the subject of the work, the question being the relevancy of all representational aesthetics. How can anything that refers beyond the immediately tangible, be acceptable as aesthetical art?
When Michael Luther states his doubts, they are all encompassing. Underlying this anxiousness is the contemporary attitude of never being entirely confident as to the viability of painting as an artistic medium.
Luther’s method takes the form of an enquiry, tracing a contingent situation, mapping the conditions as well as the means of art, and does it with great stringency. Each snapshot of a particular view or nook in the space, condenses it – discarding the distinction between interior and exterior. More than initiating a meta-discussion of representation, the self-explanatory display of the gallery paintings reveals some of the performative aspects of contemporary painting, staging a theatrical experience that includes the spectator in the embodiment of the work. (17) The body, visually absent on the canvases, is very much present still.
Michael Luther, as any artist, in Merleau-Ponty’s words, lends his body to the world when translating the world into his art work – “that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement”. (18)
With this understanding, Luther’s works retract from all attempts to narrow it down to a broad tendency or a certain ligne. If there seems to be an affinity to the German New Painting, and particularly his contemporaries from the Leipzig School, it is above all stylistic.
Ultimately, what holds it all together is that underscoring doubt. By mistrusting his own work, Luther maintains a constant lack of control over his own practice, allowing an exploration of issues that go beyond the concerns of representation. The shift from the close reading of the palette and the artist’s safe zone of the studio, to an uncertain existence in a new gallery space that at best pretends to be a new home, offers a sense of drama that tentatively vacillates between formal concerns and emotional responses. It is phenomenology tainted by the brevity of life.
Let us approach artistic research in this tactile way then, as a bodily experience, and explore space in the same way a child ventures into the world, touching the things within immediate grasp at first and then expanding the grasp further – taking one step at a time.
Joakim Borda studied Art Theory at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is currently Visual Arts Editor of Plaza Magazine, Stockholm, and curator at Event Gallery, London.
Joakim Borda, 2008
(1) Krauss, Rosalind (1972) ”A View of Modernism”, Artforum, (September), p. 48.
(2) Bachelard, Gaston (1994) The Poetics of Space, p. 138 (Boston: Beacon).
(3) Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2002) Phenomenology of Perception, p. 284 (London: Routledge).
(4) Merleau-Ponty (2002), p. 284.
(5) Merleau-Ponty (2002), p. 79.
(6) Foucault, Michel (2002) ”Of Other Spaces” in Mirzoeff, Nicholas (Ed.) The Visual Culture Reader, p. 239 (London: Routledge). The concept of ”heterogenous
space” is expressly formulated by Foucault, while in Merleau-Ponty’s writings it is only inplicit in the argument.
(7) O’Doherty, Brian (1999) Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of Gallery Space, p. 79 (London: University of California Press).
(8) Foster, Hal (1996) The Return of the Real. The Avant-Garde at the Turn of the Century, p. 132 (Cambridge, Massachussets: The MIT Press).
(9) Foster (1996), p. 138.
(10) Foster (1996), p. 141.
(11) Lacan, Jaqcues (1978) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 105 (New York: Norton).
(12) Foucault (2002), p. 239.
(13) Baudrillard, Jean (1996) ”The Hyper-realism of Simulation.” in Harrison & Wood (Eds.) Art in Theory 1900-1990. An Anthology of Changing Ideas, p. 1049 (Oxford: Blackwell).
(14) Leppert, Richard (1996) Art and the Committed Eye. The Cultural Functions of Imagery, p. 58 (USA: Westview Press).
(15) Sontag, Susan (1978): On Photography, p. 15 (London: Penguin).
(16) Baudrillard (1996), p. 1050.
(17) Cf. Butt, Gavin (Ed) (2005) After Criticism. New Responses to Art and Performance, p. 9 (London: Blackwell).
(18) Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1993) ”Eye and Mind”, in Johnson, Galen A. (Ed.) The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, p. 125 (Illinois: Evanston).
Fig. 7: ATELIER, 2006, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm