Most patches of color still fluid and transparently layered over but congealing into rings, stalks, shells. Further below, in the deeper layers, everything remains in flux, amorphous, lengthening, flowing into each other, borders melting away. Above, on the aqueous surface: streams of color thicken into soft, still flowing corporeal shapes – a swarm of dancing particles, cells rising and sinking, a crowd of forms like umbels, ovaries, or fungus, microorganisms coupled to each other like knots on snakes, clumps of fruit on umbilical cords. Deposits of sediments and growth reaching upward. Soft balls and rings, still in transformation from liquid to solid, looking like flotsam washed up by the tides, lying haphazardly alongside and on top of each other.
Situated on the border between artful nature and nature-like art, artificial gardens have played such an important role for artists, from the Romantic Movement to Symbolism – a site of artistic imagination, as well as a site of temptation and destruction. The mysteriously shimmering but poisonous flowers and fruits of this artful paradise entice the visitor, whose vision is soon confused amidst the twisted fabric of plant life, the heavy sweetness of colors and scents fogging his mind until sensual pleasure sucks the very blood from his veins, leaving him crippled, incapable of distinguishing imagination from reality, art from life.
The student Anselmus is led to just such a magical garden of the senses by the Archivarius Lindhorst, a master of alchemy, in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s romantic story “The Golden Pot”. “They came from this corridor into a hall, or rather a splendid greenhouse, for on both sides, up to the ceiling, grew all sorts of wondrous flowers, indeed, great trees with strangely formed leaves and blossoms. A magic dazzling light shone over the whole, though you could not discover where it came from, for no window whatever was to be seen. As the student Anselmus looked in through the bushes and trees, long passageways seemed to stretch into remote distances. In the deep shade of thick cypress groves lay glittering marble fountains, out of which rose wondrous figures, spouting crystal jets that fell with babbling spray into gleaming goblets. Strange voices cooed and rustled through the forest of curious plants, and sweetest perfumes streamed up and down. The Archivarius had vanished, and Anselmus saw nothing but a huge bush of glowing fire lilies before him. Intoxicated by the sight and by the fine odors of this fairy garden, Anselmus stood fixed on the spot... At that moment, the bush of fire lilies advanced toward him and he saw that it was Archivarius Lindhorst, whose flowered dressing gown, glittering in red and yellow, had deceived him.” 1
By studying Wolfgang Ellenrieder’s paintings of vegetation we more easily comprehend the student Anselmus’ experience of sensual confusion. Wondrous plant life holds us captive. Our view is drawn deeper, through a thicket of twisted plant stalks, deeper into a fabric of tubes, tubers, leaves, and buds, deeper beyond our grasp. As unexpectedly and surprisingly as Archivarius’ small home garden, the painting’s space opens into a wide distance that shimmers in aqueous uncertainty and conjures changing patterns from among the misty forms, like the peculiar figures above the shimmering fountain Anselmus believes he sees at the end of the long passageway. This greenhouse, product of the romantic imagination, is as windowless as a monad and yet illuminated by a magical light, as are Ellenrieder’s paintings. At times, the background of the painting is drenched in deep gray out of which an iridescent blue or green sparkles like swamp lights in a dark night. (Illus. 13)
This playful uncertainty of perception, switching between micro- and macro-structures, between close-up and remote, is experienced by the student Anselmus in Hoffmann’s magic garden too, when the “giant bush of fire lilies” suddenly starts to move and is transformed before his eyes into Archivarius’ flowered dressing gown. The differentiation made by human perception between the flat character of a remote scene perceived only by the eye and the three-dimensional character of a close-up perceived tactually as well bewilders the student Anselmus – and not only him – when it leads him to confuse the flat patterns of the dressing gown seen from afar with a three-dimensional flowering bush.
The painter makes explicit these connections between the plant patterns of his paintings and the natural world of plants when he quite intentionally hangs his green trellis paintings on an exhibition hall wall full of windows with gratings, thus opening our view to the green world of plant life outdoors (Illus. p. 14). The plant life in both paintings in this exhibition look like zoom images taken at a proximity usually available only with a microscope. At the same time, the large format transports the closely observed details into a dimension that gives grasses and stems the magnitude of tree trunks and mighty stalks.
Ellenrieder tricks the observer’s perception with artifice of a similar nature, but using the specific tools of painting which have always relied for their effects on the play between the illusion of space within the painting and its actual flat surface. At first glance, everything appears simple and obvious: over a soft, more or less hazy background that draws the viewer into its depth, sometimes more strongly, sometimes less, shapes from the world of fauna and flora unfold on the uppermost layer of the painting, shapes that in relief or as round, three-dimensional forms appear almost physically tangible, practically jumping out at the viewer. Transitions between the insubstantial depths of the space and corporeal objects in the foreground are achieved by the repetition of those forms’ color tones within the diluted haze of free-floating colors in the flat background, or all the painting’s components are drawn together by a glaze of colors across the surface, usually applied at an interim stage in the multi-layered process of color application. But, as other design elements are taken in, what at first seems to be a clear differentiation between figures and background is upset to such an extent that the boundaries between figures and space, between surface and depth, near and distant, forward and back, become blurred at points or become completely obscured in a topsy-turvy effect. For instance, sprayed patches of thick color, like the turquoise ones in “Cracker” (Illus. 03) or the red in “Superfrickel” (Illus. 26), lie on the uppermost surface of the painting and seem completely incorporeal and abstract, and push the threedimensional bodies they cover over down into the depths of the space, comparable to the repoussé figures in classical compositions.
The sprayed and sprinkled areas of yellow-green and blue-green color in the “Big Beats” (Illus. 18) play the same compositional role. Strangely enough, and against all expectations, the non-representational splashes of color seem to possess a higher degree of reality than the completely three-dimensional rings and loops. Just as irritating to our sense of perception, so well trained on three-dimensional reality, are the linkages between abstract and apparently representational trellis/grating structures in “Aphex T.” (Illus. 17). The immaterial grating of muddy brownish-green stripes, with thin transparent color applied over the fluorescent blue tones of the background, is interwoven with the plump representational-looking stalks or horny shoots stretching to the sky, forming a preposterous tissue that vacillates between an abstract color pattern and the illusion of a trellis of climbing plants linked together. The two pink patches of color in the background of the picture take the abstraction of painting a step further, away from any illusionist representation by making visible the reality of the brushstroke itself without any reference to an illustrational purpose.
Another type of irritation to our habits of perception is produced by the many wide, horizonal brushstrokes running through the painting “Diaporen” (Illus. 15). Since some of these transparent diagonal stripes pass in front of and others behind the spiral-shaped swollenforms, they appear to be floating in the middle of a completely indefinable and yet clearly visible color space. The flat smooth coils swim weightlessly in this impalpable fluid of gray-green streaks that seem to be the tracings and stains of a wiped-off paintbrush. The substantiality of the elongated capsules is underlined by the shadows that some of them cast upon the background or the undercoating, as well as by the brilliant light on their front side that models their bodies. At the same time, however, these three-dimensional organic creations seem completely immaterial and insubstantial, like sharply contoured patches of color caught behind or superimposed on blurry patches. Deciding whether these plump bodies are round and heavy, or whether they are empty and light as soap bubbles, or whether they lack all substance whatsoever and are nothing more than patches on a dappled surface – that question remains up in the air, just as these forms caught between rising and falling within the picture area remain in suspension. The indeterminable nature of their reality lends mystery to the elements of the composition, mystery that surrounds them in a smoky blue- colored fog.
Finally the transformation or abrupt cascade of nothing into something and then again into nothing. White ovoids (Illus. 05, 08) curve up towards the viewer, up and out of the surface as if out of a pond or a diluted colored solvent. What look like painted or even real eggshells are in reality holes in the layer of paint. The white shimmering half-circles are formed by the naked unpainted ground that lies de facto behind the layer of paint but they appear to burst out from the resonance of the lower zone of the ovoids. What is actually the deepest point of the painting’s surface achieves the optical impression of being the highest, but upon a closer look this height again reveals itself to be a hole in the skin of the painting. This feigning of false facts celebrates painting’s legitimate lies as healing salve for the eyes, welcomed because it displays the art of painting as the artful skill of the painter with the medium of painting, which does not spread lies about anything but plays a game with perception, which is its indulgence and its epistemological medium. Through such cunningly staged deceptions of the senses, as observers we perceive “that we are taking part in an uncertain game of our perceptions. Painting makes truths easier for us by clothing them in ‚transparent‘ lies. It uses lies with which one can say the truth. When it exposes its own lies, they are the truth of painting. It demands back only that which belongs to it in the first place.” 2 The imaginary eggshells, which are not eggshells at all, that jump out there from the green thicket, where there is actually nothing at all, may inspire in the observer the same feeling as E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Anselmus experienced in the magical garden, as he thought he heard imaginary voices. “Then giggling and laughing began on all sides of him, and fine little voices railed at him and mocked him,... ‚Won’t you chat with us a moment and tell us how grandmother sat upon the egg and the young master got a stain on his Sunday vest?’” 3
Like the confused scholar who thought he heard voices whispering to him about crushed eggs and stains, the observer sees eggs in Ellenrieder’s paintings that dissolve into nothing and stains that transform themselves into cobs and buds, into leaves, spores and stalks, into loops, rings, worms, and sausages, and yet remain stains all the same.
Nothing in these paintings is merely what it appears to be at first glance. In these entangled pictorial worlds that have been washed up to the visible surface out of the depths of flora and fauna, everything remains in a state of flux. Not only are the soft and firm shapes intertwined with each other and stuck to each other, they interpenetrate, they turn themselves inside out and retract into themselves, they copulate with each other and suck on each other, as if they were still lying in the aqueous solution of the primeval slime from which all life forms are said to have developed. Just as everything in these paintings remains in suspension and the fixed contours of clarity are only temporary, until they contradict themselves and optical impressions dissolve again, any functional determination of the three-dimensional creations in these paintings remains in suspension too. They seem to be cells in the first stage of development, cells that could still develop into anything. Even the matter of whether or not the cocoons and seed pods full to bursting will prove to be containers and incubators for plant or animal life remains unclear. All these cells wrapped in the thinnest of skins or enclosed in a smooth but thin shell have not yet disentangled themselves enough from the mud and mire of the primeval slime to have cut their umbilical cord to shapeless chaos and taken on a final shape.
What the rustle and quivering of leaves are for the romantic writer, the whisper and titter of voices are in the realm of speech, namely pre-verbal acoustics of nature that have not yet crystallized into the sentence structure and word meaning of human language – such are the patches and stains, the diluted pools of color and colored splashes for the painter: a matrix parallel to nature and often engendered by accident, within which the painting’s patterns and figures are in constant transformation. Ellenrieder finds inventive inspiration for the molding of his amorphous and biomorphic figures just as often in the diluted color patches of watercolor painting, which owe their contours partially to the accidental course of pigments and solvents and partially to the guiding intervention of the brush, as he does in the waving lines and linear twists that casually flow from the drawer’s hand.
The boundaries between the somatic and the symbolic in these flowing bodily movements and in the flow of paint material are repeatedly overstepped in both directions. Figures climb out of the chaos, take solid form for a moment, only to liquefy again in the next moment. The principal of movement and formation behind this nascent design process is the snake’s line, the up and down of coming into being and passing away. These serpentine lines wind around and knot themselves up in the final paintings into monstrous or even ironic shapes, whereby the irony that creates these entangled shapes is just that romantic irony that Friedrich Schlegel defined as the artist’s consciousness, for whom each particular form is just one of an infinite number of possibilities of creation. In the romantic movement, the arabesque as the multifariously twisting shape of the snake achieved new artistic distinction. It marks the
pathway between conscious design, intuitive invention of form, and accidental reactions of materials in the coming into being of the painting. A symbiosis of entangled movements resisting any rational understanding and the encoded script of nature captured in figures, ever since the romantic movement the arabesque has embodied that fusion of art and nature that impresses us so much in Ellenrieder’s paintings too. Even when the hoses, rings, and loops he paints are often reminiscent of technoid forms like loopings poured in plastic or roller coasters drawn on a computer screen, the artistic and the natural are still intertwined in these paintings in a knot that cannot be unraveled, fusing the romantic sensibility of a nature that speaks to mankind with the experience of technoculture.
1. E.T.A. Hoffmann, “The Golden Pot,” Works In Four Volumes, Vol.1, Salzburg, 1983, p. 228. 2. Hans Belting, „Über Lügen und andere Wahrheiten in der Malerei. Einige Gedanken für S.P.“ (“On Lies and Other Truths of Painting, Some Thoughts for S.P”) in the exhibition catalog for „Sigmar Polke, Die drei Lügen der Malerei“ (“Sigmar Polke, The Three Lies of Painting”), Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 1997, p. 130. 3. E.T.A. Hoffmann, “The Golden Pot”, loc.cit.
Hubertus Gaßner in
›Wolfgang Ellenrieder – Cold Cut‹,
Revolver - Archiv für aktuelle Kunst, 2004