“Are you still looking for a Cézanne?” Merge Visible: New Digital Paintings by Dennis Loesch

Merge Visible: New Digital Paintings by Dennis Loesch
PM/AM Gallery, 259-269 Old Marylebone Road, London

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Despite the variety of media and means available for artists to make their mark upon the world, or add another object to it, painting will not go away. In recent weeks, for the London-centric art viewer-visitor, ‘must see’ lists would surely have included the extremely painterly and mightily abstract, John Hoyland: Power Stations Paintings 1964-1982 (Newport Street Gallery) and the supreme and breathtaking Frank Auerbach (Tate Britain) exhibitions; and of course Frieze and Frieze Masters in Regent’s Park. Just before the recent spate of shows, the Sonia Delaunay and Agnes Martin exhibits at Tate Modern, in contrasting ways, would have revived (if needed) a battery re-charging of the potentials, and achievements, of abstract painting. With such major events filling the diary of necessary distractions (especially from the daily routines of studio practice, if you are an artist) smaller shows, or venues less well known, can be overlooked.

So, at the start of four days of consecutive gallery visiting, culminating at Frieze Masters, I headed for the mid-show breakfast event of Merge Visible: New Digital Paintings by Dennis Loesch at the PM/AM gallery, a newly renovated space located on the Old Marylebone Road, where the artist would be present. This venture, to introduce mostly German based artists to the UK, has been set up by Patrick Barstow (London) and Lee Colwill (Berlin), handily coinciding with many critics and collectors being in town for the Frieze events.

Berlin-based artist Dennis Loesch, who was trained in Interdisciplinary Fine Arts at the Städelschule in Frankfurt has not exhibited in the UK before and from the press release for Merge Visible we learn that Loesch’s imagery from this, and previous projects (not restricted to painting), present an engagement with “display management” and that he has a “fascination with the digital”. We also read that this recent work “Reveals a new discourse for the artist that investigates the interplay, temporal connections and history between digital imagery and classical painting technique”.

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The general nature of this introduction was no doubt useful for introducing Loesch’s recent work to interested parties, but, when I met him, he commented that he did not want the press release to explain his work in too much detail. Though highly articulate, Loesch purposely gave little away in conversation as he wanted the viewer to respond with what he called their “first view”: that is, to the work itself, with no prior explanation to frame or influence an interpretation or understanding. (He did acknowledge that all viewers would, of course, have varying degrees of art historical awareness to affect the experience of engaging with the work – and it seems to me that this would, further down the line, be crucial to a better contextualised reading of the work.)

Post Internet Art?
It’s worth saying that I was drawn to visit this show, via receiving the press release and seeing his work on-line (how else?), because the apparently abstract imagery is derived, to some significant degree, from digital sources: but I could not really connect with the work from digital reproductions and felt that I really did need to see the originals – a decision most useful as the paintings are made to be experienced ‘in the flesh’ and not in a purely digital environment as some ‘Post-Internet Art’ might be. In fact, I wonder if this work teasingly almost becomes a form of post-Internet art? Critic, Brian Droitcour’s definition as “art being made in the context of digital technology” (see ‘The Perils of Post-Internet Art’ in Art in America) would appear to consent to this. But Loesch’s approach, to producing paintings in this instance, might be more accurately defined as Conceptual and/or Post-Painterly. If there is an element of teasing (my interpretation), I mean it in an ironical sense of requiring the work to be experienced as materially painting (by various means), and as continuing the long tradition of painting as we understand it, but in relation to the non-material, digital environment.

This personal interest was also abetted after seeing the small but suitably differentiated survey display, ‘Painting After Technology’, at Tate Modern where I was especially fascinated by Wade Guyton, Sigmar Polke and Christopher Wool’s imagery and means of production. It could be that overt contemporaneity is essential for some painters in the sense that the new technologies in image manufacture, appearance and dissemination (Walter Benjamin’s, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, is of course a key text) are programmatically allowed to impact on their practice – though I would argue that Auerbach’s daily record of his interaction with painting his portraits and urban street views are as contemporaneous, and empirical, as you can get.

In Merge Visible (note: Merging Visible is a Photoshop term for an action to fuse together, as one layer, a number of visible, overlaid images which makes them inseparable) the digital sources, or references, are not so obvious – a conscious ploy I assume – as not even pixilation was mimicked that one might see in, say, Dan Hays’ ‘Colorado Series’ (where the pixilated rendering in oil paint is crucial of course). Loesch’s paintings are exquisitely made, with brush marks applied with precision, and ink-jet layers are added to each composition in a variety of configurations and colour schemes, part-covering the various ‘brush marked’ surfaces. For the digital printing to be applied perfectly the surfaces are carefully prepared and this attention to immaculate production is carried through to the final gallery display in smart, well engineered, aluminium frames. All, this might suggest, is mere surface – and digital depth is shallow, despite an approximation with traditional painting.

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My deeper reaction to the show, one that prompted questions that should be heeded but do not necessarily provide clear-cut answers; or reactions that are not definitively for or against, set me on a train of thought that I suspect will sustain me for some time yet. Synthetic, processed images (I’m trying to avoid the gendered term ‘man-made’) intervene and negotiate with the perception, representation and meaning of the physical and emotional world around us but, in this burgeoning era of digital technologies, many of us will quite possibly spend more time looking at and negotiating with a digital screen than in looking at original paintings, prints or photographs (that is, physical images, for even mass-consumption type pictures such as newspaper or magazine photographs are now virtual, or digital, too). One could expect therefore, for digital technologies to affect and influence contemporary painting in execution, form and content – for better or worse.

From the text provided by the Tate (curated by Mark Godfrey) for the aforementioned Painting After Technology display the explanation is given that: “Many of these artists are also concerned with working within or against the established traditions of abstraction… If gestures were usually assigned to an expressive artist, can a gesture be faked, or non-assignable? Artists also ask what other models of abstract painting can be retrieved, and look back over the history of painting to rediscover mark-making processes that may be associated with artists out of fashion…”

The referencing of abstraction is interesting here, as mark making and individual characteristics of gesture are questioned (post-De Kooning, I presume); and, secondly, a Post-Modernistic trait to revive, or appropriate, is referenced as a testimony to painters who have been superseded by the Minimalist/Pop generations (I speculate, again). In briefly discussing ‘Untitled (DIN)’, 2015 Loesch referenced what he termed the duktus that was so crucial an element in the realization of the work. The duktus, or touch, is a characteristic style, script or brush mark that traditionally might reveal the author of a work. Loesch employs a highly skilled assistant from his team to produce these literally backgrounded, non-figurative flourishes of loose pattern-like configurations, presenting flatly brushed, linear meanderings of colour. But rather than having a particularly expressive, individual characteristic, the hand painted simulacrums of abstract-like application possess a flat, undemonstrative, digital ‘touch’ that, paradoxically, might be anonymous, even when executed by brush and hand in the long-established ‘haptic’ sense.

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In ‘Untitled (DIN)’, ‘Lime Window’ (2015), and other works by Loesch, the hand painted brush marks are subsequently located behind the various UV-inkjet printed, meandering weaves or geometric shapes of light blue, lime green or other colours, and modified by these virtual brush or stencil-like shapes that have been rendered with a mouse or pen on a drawing tablet in Photoshop (or some similar program). These painted areas are typically part obscured by the printed digital interventions applied on top (the literal foreground) that act as portals and semi-translucent or solid shrouds.

Despite the implications of the apparent digital-disconnect from the physicality of conventional painting tools, an actual, but somewhat removed, digital rendering tool, which never comes into contact with the actual canvas surface, has been legitimately employed. Thereafter, colour shapes are applied ‘by proxy’ by a digital printing machine having been created, earlier, by the intervention of the mouse mat or tablet. The so-called virtual/digital becomes real, materially – challenging definitions of authenticity and, paradoxically, creating the hyperreal.

Certainly, in the main series of works that dominated the display at PM/AM, one sees a kind of sampling of the gestural and abstract, creating pleasantly colourful, abstract-pop-paintings that are rendered as almost flat, referencing a reproduction aesthetic: The flat print of the ubiquitous imagery (say) of advertising, or the glassy smooth-screen digital interface, might suggest that a kind of degenerated image is the result, usurping and transforming the proto-image (the painting) to a state of bland nothingness or ‘mere’ digital decoration or re-framing. I wonder, too, if Loesch’s activity as a ‘painter’ approaches a situationist posture – critiquing traditions of easel painting and being fetishistic in sexing up, with seductive technique, the non-living, objectness of a painting? Or, is this post-painterly, cool? It’s almost (I’m not sure) emotionless – but I am affected by the visual frisson. Are these pseudo-paintings (made by a real-life artist, albeit with his technically expert assistants)? Are the works quotations of a sort – planned, rendered and delivered in a post-Rauschenbergian, anti-expressionist, neo-Pop-ness? Also, do I detect a certain wry humour? How have my various reactions been stage-managed? Are the painted marks truly, but tritely, meaningless?

However, there is a neat tastefulness about these paintings, which might signal a philosophical meditation on the relationship between analogue and digital. Digitally low-res information results in a degradation or subversion of the image (digital image files are not physical, concrete things like analogue negatives and prints) and the new arena for images seems a less secure environment (especially when your hard drive crashes and you have no back up); but the colourful digital screens and wavy cancellations are, superficially at least, more than satisfactory at that “first view” – perhaps because the eye can be mislead by initial appearances. Therefore, does Loesch’s juxtaposing of combined painted and printed surfaces question the nature of the engagement with paint to produce a dystopian vision for painting, where the digital introduces a veil of superficiality, despite the production of a beautifully crafted, lush, surface? Actually, nothing is really hidden as the final, merged, ‘image’ presents a self-reflective dichotomy in the real presentation of images of nothing.

Or, conversely, is there a positive revivalism, for abstract painting at play here? The works have a sophisticated and engaging visual impact that I find hard to dismiss. They look good on the wall. So, is the truth somewhere in between – in a state of limbo? Perhaps these sort of unanswered questions are what Loesch wanted his work to generate? In some circumstances, questions avoid answers – especially where the work might actually be provisional (to coin a phrase).

Some of my comments and reactions so far may have become overstated and I could be walking a tightrope above a chasm of ‘artspeak’ indulgence, but a selected example from Loesch’s Merge Visible series would certainly fit well with the premises of the ‘Painting After Technology’ exhibition at Tate Britain, and a larger survey in the future surely would have to include something from Loesch’s studio.

Whilst taking a break in the Reading Area at Frieze London, I picked up a copy of Art In America magazine (October 2015). This edition features Barbara Rose’s ‘More Is Less’ article published 50 years ago, an important art historical document for a definition of what became known as Minimalism. Rose proposed that “ABC art” was an attempt to define a zeitgeist that had given rise to expressions of “blank, neutral, mechanical impersonality” and that, “One might easily construe the new, reserved impersonality and self-effacing anonymity as a reaction against the self-indulgence of an unbridled subjectivity, just as one might see it in terms of a formal reaction to the excesses of painterliness.”

These words might be applied to many examples of, so-called, post-Internet art, although Loesch reacts to Minimalism’s desire to be rid of pictorial and traditional content by doing little more than morphologically referencing mark making (kind of), framing, and organized illusionism through pictorial or planar space. There is also a mechanical, perfunctory edge to the work, which perhaps questions authenticity in the age of digital media, where appropriation is endemic and the simulacrum is mistaken for the real.

As with many examples of abstract painting, rightly or wrongly, non-figurative manifestations will beg the question: What are we looking for/at/into – and why do we need to? I think Loesch’s work does this; and we may find many answers.

Post Script
If I might indulge in conjoining two comments I overheard in a conversation between two young, chic (female) collectors (or gallerists) at Frieze Masters, a few days after visiting the PM/AM gallery: “Planet Earth to Victoria: Are you still looking for a Cézanne?” I was reminded of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical essay on Paul Cézanne’s self-doubt, uncertainty and lack of self-confidence (‘Cézanne’s Doubt’). From the self-conscious sense of modernity formulated, unwittingly, by the ‘Father of Modern Art’, notwithstanding the legacy of Duchamp, perhaps all painters (abstract or otherwise) remain indebted to Cézanne’s revolutionary achievement for painting (and sculpture, film, literature…). This might help to frame what Loesch and the greater, extended, family of contemporary painters, still strives for:
“…Cézanne was always seeking to avoid the ready-made alternatives suggested to him: sensation versus judgment; the painter who sees against the painter who thinks; nature versus composition; primitivism as opposed to tradition… Rather than apply to his work dichotomies more appropriate to those who sustain traditions than to those… painters, who initiate these traditions, he preferred to search for the true meaning of painting, which is continually to question tradition.”

Certainly, the traditional is now challenged by the digital revolution that will shape the future of painting: and Loesch (and many others) are responding enthusiastically.

Geoff Hands (October 2015)

(All images should all be credited to Erik Saeter Joergensen)

This article was first published on: AbCrit