‘Porous Idylls’

Many years ago, when the world was a simpler place than it is today and the endless and boundless information circulating through the internet was a promise in the far distant future, the serious German newspaper »DIE ZEIT« undertook an interesting experiment with a picture. The same picture was printed in all sections of the paper, with a correspondingly different caption each time, and without the project being mentioned anywhere in the newspaper. The result was as predictable as it was surprising: in the finance section the picture of a woman in worker’s clothes in front of some steel tanks in a factory hall served as a visual transmitter for the text dealing with the merger of two large dairy firms. In the political section the same picture underlined demands for higher wages in the metal-working industry, in the culture (feuilleton) section the picture accompanied a description of the performance of an artist with the theme »job and exploitation«. What was so surprising in this media stage-setting was not only the fact of how absolutely well, how indisputably, the text and picture information seemed to belong together in all the different cases. What was really disturbing was how long it took until one slowly realized, while reading the newspaper, that one had already seen, perhaps even more than once, the picture one was looking at. Apparently the respective captions for the same picture exerted such powerful information that they appeared to be different photographs each time in the perception of the reading viewers themselves. I can remember well, after having seen through the manoeuvre, that I still had vague doubts as to whether it was really one and the same photograph because the context was entirely different each time.

Still, and particularly due to the current situation with its exponentially increased flood of images and media, the experiment in »DIE Zeit« appears to me to be significant. On the one hand, as a sign of the image fixation in our society. On the other, more crucial, as irrefutable proof for the total manipulability of any iconographic depiction by the context in which it is placed. Meanwhile, the brittleness, the dubious nature of what images convey in terms of information has increased dramatically. In the process of a tremendously rapid »iconic turn« taking place, and which is still ongoing, images are not only limitlessly available but also digitally permutable in a manner which allows them to seem essentially. Or to put it another way: Those who deal with the pictures of our world today do not necessarily believe that they are real but assume from the start that they are not congruent with what is depicted.

It is just on this basic principle that the art work of Wolfgang Ellenrieder is founded. In his painting he has taken appropriate action as a result of the fact that the anchoring in reality of our world of images has become so porous that the images’ previous forgery is always inherent in any potential truth they may contain. If Ellenrieder constructs small-town idylls from model kits and then photographs them, or draws his pictorial themes from stock-art catalogues or hard-core porn CDs, then it is not in order to come to a standstill in a simulacrum at the repeated proof of the dissolution of truth – which meanwhile is seemingly almost obsolete. Rather, he creates his own reality in his photographs and pictures: the truth of the forgery. This is exactly why the photographs of his little model houses sometimes seem more real in a maliciously poisonous sort of way than the dreary bourgeois reality in the suburbs of our small towns. And this is also why the »passe-partout« pictures from the stock supplies of the photograph agencies, these universally and always appropriately utilizable bastardized images, appear in their pictorial translation all at once as specific and as personal as the mainly feminine faces of the porno stars. By means of pertinently chosen detail, but particularly due to the chosen medium of painting, they regain a momentum, a characteristic that had been long lost. The dependence of the picture on a context is proven in this case in a sort of backwards volte-face. The primary image medium – painting – injects electronic paradigms that have been exhausted by a total media permutation with its own original context, namely the phantasma of the original, and charges it with an aura of paradoxical authenticity.

Ellenrieder shows an interesting focussing of this causality of argumentation in the series of small and medium format tent pictures made in 2005. At first sight these have a simultaneously idyllic as well as a disturbing effect. In contrast to the porn or stock catalogue paradigms, the artist is availing himself mainly of pictures from private internet sites. Photographs from these sites are often of holiday situations whereby the tents are not only the central aspect of the composition but, in a photographic act of personalization, emerge as actors, as protagonists. What obviously fascinates Ellenrieder in these photographs is the peculiar uniformity that arises from what were originally highly intimate documents. It is as though the personal viewpoint is no longer capable of creating anything but an anonymous standardization. Not only do the tents – in general all dome-shaped tents – resemble each other; the surroundings, the colours and the perspectives of the photographs all are strangely similar to each other. Only occasionally can a figure be seen sitting in front of one of the tents. Usually the tent is presented – like a metaphor for the fundamental human yearning for some form of dwelling – as a lone actor. Sometimes as a solitary example, sometimes as a pair and occasionally as a vaguely ordered flock of gabled tents. The complete uneventfulness of the scenes and the fact that they really posses no information value at all – except for the persons taking the photographs and their personal environment – endow the pictures with an unusual, almost surreal intensity which is heightened by the watery, cloudy coalescence of the painting technique. What has been made public twice, once on the internet and again through being painted, has thus lost its intimate character but has certainly not gained in general significance.

While Ellenrieder in his painting makes identifiable the interchangeable character of the surrogate material that he uses in the above-mentioned examples, painting maintains the tents in a state between proximity and distance. Neither an approach to metamorphosis nor a distancing is possible. Hunched into themselves, the tents formulate a terra incognita, a foreign space that signals withdrawal and unassailability. Like gigantic alien eggs, they sit on the grass and in woods dappled by sunlight. What goes on inside them, if anything goes on inside them at all, remains a complete mystery. As flying architecture placed in a blurred setting, the longing for a localization, for a placement, is evident in them. However, even more clearly they convey the feeling of complete homelessness which, paradoxically, is intensified by the titles of the works. Whether »Hockenheim« (p. 28), »Roskilde« (p. 35), »Chiemsee« (p. 33) or »Taubertal« (p. 39), we constantly find ourselves in the same nowhere of clearings which cannot decide if they want to be civilized cultivated landscapes or rank overgrown natural ones. This determined geographic naming does not facilitate identifiability but on the contrary creates a uniformity which undermines all attempts at spatial ascertainment. As in Ellenrieder’s »Spatial utopias«, spatiality in the tent picture series also appears elusive, virtual, withdrawn. The tangible melancholy, which is perhaps discernible only at a second glance, arises precisely because of this: the paradigms, private photographs, wish to document a specific memory and a temporary dwelling as home – but the transposition into a painted picture only unearths stereotyped anonymity and a homeless itinerancy.

  • Stephan Berg in

  • ›Wolfgang Ellenrieder – parallel‹,
    Kerber Verlag Bielefeld, 2006

‘in the land of the joker’

It was in the 17th century that artists began to work ahead on a larger scale. Instead of merely supplying their customers with commissioned paintings or sculptures, they worked without knowing the type or scope of demand. They then exhibited what they had made at markets and fairs as well as in shop galleries. In Holland particularly, a flourishing art trade arose in this way, as, due to the Reformation, the Church was no longer the largest patron and a reorganization of the entire art scene had become necessary.

The orientation to a market economy was apparent in the field of painting in at least two ways. On the one hand, remarkable specializations emerged. If earlier a painter had painted everything that he had been commissioned to do, now it was more effective to limit himself to one genre, or even to develop a sub-genre of his own. Whoever painted still lifes, and maybe only still lifes of fish, could attain a routine and professionalism in the depiction of his subject that another colleague, who was also painting portraits, landscapes, seascapes and historical pictures, could only achieve with the help of specialized studio assistants. It was also easier to become inimitable and even to acquire a certain trademark if one consistently produced a single type of picture and over the course of a career painted the pictures for countless sitting rooms or inns, patricians’ houses and boudoirs.

On the other hand, the uncertainty as to who would be interested in what kind of picture led artists to strive for the development of as many usable motifs and iconographies as possible, or even of tableaux where the meaning was freely interpretable. This increased the chances of a sale as one picture could then find favour with many different people and was appropriate for several events and in different surroundings. This is the reason that not many portraits were painted as these would have to be too specific. However, the Dutch school had a predilection for still lifes or seascapes: Subjects such as these proved to be sufficiently non-committal so that a potentially large number of customers could see in them the fulfilment of their needs.

Today it is ubiquitous – and not only in the art world – that pictures are produced in advance. Image agencies even have a name for this type of picture: they call them stock ware. Generally these comprise graphics, but in particular photographs that are sold to editorial departments or advertising agencies which need image material quickly or do not want to make the effort to organize their own shoots. As the Dutch painters before them, the agencies have developed strategies to make photographs so non-committal that they are suitable for different situations. However, in their case there is also the need to sell a photograph as often as possible in order to make a large enough profit on it. »Stock photography« is therefore a species of picture that sidesteps an explicit definition of any kind. This is made possible in that the subjects are so chosen that the photographs can neither be dated nor assigned to a particular place; backgrounds are preferably obscured and sometimes the figures are even cut off at the picture’s edge which leaves the question unanswered as to what they are doing at that moment. Haziness is often used as a working medium and also serves to make something indefinite of a photograph. A picture of a mobile phone is blurred so that the photograph is not obsolete as soon as a new trend in mobiles appears. Faces and ethnic background are hazy so that the photograph can be sold on several continents or, even better, worldwide. A scene appears to be over-exposed so that one cannot make out exactly which city the skyscrapers are the background to.

The entire aesthetics of these images, therefore, is following the logic of the market economy and has its source in a capitalistic interest in profit. This is why the stock agencies are interested in pictures that can be forgotten very quickly. They can be sold again without anyone being bothered by the repetition. This, of course, signifies an astonishing break with the traditional functions of pictures (which were also not abrogated in Dutch painting); after all, for centuries pictures were deemed an aid to memory and »motor of remembrance« (Edmund Husserl). One expected them to be particularly noteworthy – and this was why one sought to actually enhance this ability. Before market economy made its appearance it was perhaps only in mysticism that there was a desire to forget images, but this was not in order to increase profit but to experience God undisguised – and undistracted by media.

The ideal stock photograph, therefore, is one that fits everywhere and is forgotten again immediately. This is an ontologically unusual situation, namely a blend of flexibility and volatility. Or, to put it another way: such a photograph is as omnicompatible as a joker in a card game, but is itself without substance and without an aftermath. It is everything and nothing at the same time. We need not wonder why artists are interested in the phenomenon of stock photography; it must provoke the reversal of the traditional concept of imagery – the waiving of a clear meaning and pithiness – but nevertheless stimulate food for thought, perhaps even serve as a change from traditional picture programmes.

Wolfgang Ellenrieder used stock photographs as paradigms for several of his picture series. He did not transpose them exactly, but often changed them only minimally by exchanging colours, shifting details slightly or removing them. Such changes from the original photograph are a sign that in painting, complete freedom rules with regard to the choice and design of motif. Here are also the techniques of appropriating someone else’s pictures, which makes the question of whether the adaptation of stock photographs infringes on copyright laws even more complicated or even completely unanswerable. Ellenrieder’s paintings can therefore also be interpreted as an artistic and critical commentary on the debate over an intensification of the concept of moral rights.

The paintings leave no doubt as to the fact that they are painted pictures and therefore, in contrast to reproduced photographs, are absolutely one of a kind: In some places one can see the pencil sketch underneath, in others the watercolours have spread in their typical manner or there are some thicker strokes from a brush saturated with pigment and binder. One can say that generally the viewer has the impression of quite individually finished paintings. The figures that can be seen – of course often blurred or cut off – almost always have names: »Sven & Anja« (p. 67), »Mark« (p. 63), »Eva im Garten« (p. 58) are some titles. As some names are repeated in different pictures, one assumes they are friends or relatives of the painter and regards the paintings as documentaries from his private cosmos, or even as portraits. The fact is that Ellenrieder personalizes stock photographs from a catalogue or website that have no titles but only an order number and makes of them works of a genre that does not actually exist in stock images (as happened in Holland in the 17th century). This illustrates the adaptability of stock-photographs yet once again: in them, everything is so anonymous that it can assume any name without resistance.

But it is not only the joker-like quality of the paradigms, it is also their fleetingness that has an effect on Ellenrieder’s paintings. It is difficult for the viewer to recall the supposed portraits, particularly as the painter has increased what was already a photographic blurredness and therefore a lack of commitment. The painting technique – the climate of colour and form – then stays in the memory all the better. Hereby an effect is heightened that was noticeable in the classical modern. Often more emphasis is placed on the »how« than on the »what«: If the motifs – a still-life, a piece of landscape, an interior – appear to be only an excuse, then the paintings remain unmistakeable due to the contrast of colour or a special brushstroke and are therefore at least memorable as a whole.

In those days most artists wanted each painting to be perceived as a masterpiece. They were interested solely in the individual picture, while a younger generation of artists, Wolfgang Ellenrieder among them, thinks of pictures in the plural from the start. They are preoccupied with what happens in a series, how pictures interact, how a wall covered with pictures is more, or different, than the sum of the individual pictures. In order to free oneself from the picture in the singular, one must renounce the pathos of masterpiece, of permanence and conciseness. Rather, it is just such pictures that can be individually forgotten that are necessary. Stock photographs are therefore a cleverly chosen basis. In any case they are predestined by their connectivity to be included in larger connotations where they can assume other meanings as necessary. Their joker-like quality is then not only utilized optimally but becomes properly and completely noticeable.

Thanks to painters such as Wolfgang Ellenrieder, who enlarge stock photographs and combine them in a plurality, the character of these pictures so typical of the current world can be better understood. Their indeterminacy, if painted to cover a whole wall, can be felt much more strongly – more corporeally – than if seen reproduced in a magazine, small and glossy. There, as an illustration of a text, they are also subject to being blended and are often used as a visual appetizer but without laying claim to an intrinsic value. If they are then only media, conveying a contact between text and recipient, so their flexible fleeting essence is one of Wolfgang Ellenrieder’s own themes; their ontological particularity becomes the mutual subject of these plural pictures. The all-and-nothing is a poetry of emptiness – to be experienced sometimes rather eerily as a lack of meaning, and then at other times more mysteriously as a promise of even more meaning. And one learns: in the land of the joker, »potentialis« reigns. There are no programmes, only options.

  • Wolfgang Ullrich in

  • ›Wolfgang Ellenrieder – parallel‹,
    Kerber Verlag Bielefeld, 2006

‘James Turell an der Tankstelle’

With the spread of cyberspace, spatiality designed on the computer, architecture and urban planning have undergone some changes. Martin Pawley, editor of the magazine World Architecture, sees us on the threshold of digital urbanism which will further radicalize the burgeoning growth of the metropolises while ignoring the concept of the city, including its function as a centre. In his article ›The Dissolution of the City‹ he writes: »We are living in a time of a twofold existence, of ›architectural entities‹ and ›information entities‹, of appreciated, but conquered and abandoned cities and new, unwelcome, but triumphant non-cities«. Analogue to this, the renowned Japanese architect Toyo Ito describes a juxtaposition of two forms of present reality. In Japan he sees a society that is »completely saturated with information and communication systems. A society in which each individual possesses two bodies: a ›real‹ body existing in its material presence and a ›fictitious‹ body that is shaped by the information directed at it or received by it.«

It is this dualism of manifest, verifiable reality and a virtual corporeality that is also characteristic of Wolfgang Ellenrieder’s architectural pictures. His pictures show contradictory worlds consisting of reality and fiction in equal measure. Details of façades, shop windows, rooftops, alleyways and passages delineate urban structures. Neither the wares displayed in the window nor the street signs offer any indication of the history or geography of the places outlined. They are recognizable architecture and at the same time strange detached worlds of their own. The areas of green in between—flowers and leaves placed monumentally and decoratively well into the foreground—have as artificial an effect as the architecture itself. Atmospherically painted segments of sky give no indication of wind or weather conditions or of the magic of the cosmos. Rather, nature appears to be girded round with square light wells that, in their minimalism, are reminiscent of James Turell’s light installations. And yet, in the pictures, Wolfgang Ellenrieder references a tangible reality, namely the reality of the 1970s style of architecture still characteristic of German architecture. Architectural details—mounted glass display cases, cement flower boxes, diamond-shaped paving stones, all of them classical examples of modern urban planning—illustrate the aesthetics of German pedestrian zones. The world of shop windows, roofed passageways and gas-station-like awnings reflects the great urban dream of the 1970s, the desire at that time for modern shopping universes of all kinds.

In Wolfgang Ellenrieder’s pictures this architecture becomes strangely abstract and is presented without any indication of a contemporary life. The objects seem ahistorical, deserted and as unsullied as they would be on the drawing board. They are simplified copy-and-paste worlds with the contours often drawn in more strongly in order to re-emphasize the illusionary quality of these real worlds. The painting style underlines the contradictory nature of these pictures. Here there is also the »real« and the »fictitious« body that Toyo Ito spoke of. On the one hand, the colour schemes follow precisely architectonic lines and perspectives. Many of the squares are filled out with grey pastel tones, matte violet or grubby yellow and invoke memories of the tristesse of the 1970s architecture, particularly the condition it is in today: stained concrete, dark and mossy paving slabs, flaking metal plates. On the other hand, the artist has conceded certain freedoms to painting which run quite counter to the realistic approach of his pictures. Large areas of his pictures show garish-expressive colour structures, appear sometimes patchy, sometimes translucent, sometimes as though done with a spray can. A nervous, flickering orange suddenly encounters a melancholy greyish violet; a brilliant light blue finds itself next to a pale surgical green. The sometimes grafitti-like crudeness of the lines creates remarkable changes in scale. Structures emerge that enter into connections with what is beyond the sketched locales and create their own moods. A picture such as »Im öffentlichen Raum« (p. 76/77) appears as a blazing conflagration – aglimmer, also metaphorically, with a large-format electric cable in glittering orange. Virtuoso whirlpools of colour and overlays dominate the ›Inventar‹ (p. 15), so that one would make reference to the colour content of these works rather than to the architecture. It is particularly the dynamics and the diversity of the peinture that contradict the monotony of the portrayed buildings. It almost seems as though the architecture is only an excuse for an ecstatically charged painting which, nevertheless, in its garishness and brittleness still bears very urban features.

This permanent amalgamation of fictitious and real, of the descriptive and the imaginary, differentiates Wolfgang Ellenrieder’s architecture pictures from the earlier series presented in his exhibitions ›Super Bunt‹ or ›Surrogate‹, where the motifs were obviously fictitious or simulated. The close interweaving of artifice and reality remind one more of the collages of Amelie von Wulffen. In contrast to Wolfgang Ellenrieder, von Wulffen uses real photographic finds as paradigms which are then developed with pencil, coloured pencil and acrylic to panoramic, assembled worlds. In the collages, glimpses of a domestic bourgeois environment complete with, for example, standard lamps, carpets, imposingly framed oil paintings and a decorous modernism are suddenly found next to exterior views and nature motifs. In the case of Amelie von Wulffen, as Manfred Hermes wrote, »different social spheres, varying areas of public life and also diverse artistic and autobiographical references encounter each other.« The connection that both artists—von Wulffen and Ellenrieder—have with this is the principle of architecture assembly which, in characteristic post-modern manner, is marked by great subjective detachment. Both artists show no recognizable sympathy or criticism—only ambivalences: In Wolfgang Ellenrieder’s case, the melancholy tristesse of the architecture of the 1970s is counteracted by a glowing vitality of colours and textures, and in the work of Amelie von Wulffen, the graphic development of the interiors captured in a photograph take precedence. While Amelie von Wulffen creates new panoramas and spatialities—be they ever so bizarre and fantastic—Wolfgang Ellenrieder has surrendered illusionistic spatiality in its entirety. The components, segments and perspectives of his pictures are placed separately, adjacent to each other like templates on a computer screen. As if through windows, one can look through the templates into the depths beyond. At the same time, the interlocking of the windows to a type of pictorial user desktop makes the ›contrivedness‹ of all spatiality obvious. The pictures illustrate the effect of cyberspace and the sign systems fundamental to it. It is precisely here that the topicality of this painting lies, as Knut Ebeling emphasized on the occasion of the exhibition ›Painting Pictures‹: »Painting today is painting in the midst of media. It draws its energy from a fortified position amongst other media. While the subject itself has been laid ad acta, painting is still busily occupied with creating new spatialities and artificial worlds. As an agent between sign systems, it avails itself of a differing codification. It is liberated from the burden of content and will be occupied henceforth with the translation of one codification into another.«

  • Joachim Jäger in

  • ›Wolfgang Ellenrieder—parallel‹,
    Kerber Verlag Bielefeld, 2006