The Good and the Bad, The Uncanny in the Paintings of Till Gerhard, Ludwig Seyfarth, 2005
The Good and the Bad, The Uncanny in the Paintings of Till Gerhard, Ludwig Seyfarth, 2005
Apparently, we are living in uncanny times. Uncanny and eerie elements haunt the cinema, literature, and art. How did the Renaissance of this feeling, which Sigmund Freud arduously reconstructed in his famous essay of 1919, “The Uncanny”, come about? Freud wrote that “it is long since he has experienced or heard of anything which has given him an uncanny impression, and he must start by transporting himself into that state of feeling, by awakening in himself the possibility of experiencing it.” On a general level, Freud defined the uncanny as “that kind of fright which goes back to what is known and long-familiar”. The intrusion of the uncanny in a familiar “homelike” environment, a feeling not immediately familiar to Freud eighty-six years ago, became a classic topos of the cinema.
Uncanny film scenes underlie many of Till Gerhardʼs paintings, or are evoked by them. “Die Guten”, (“The Good”), who really do not have any “good” aura at all, are dark figures which seem to fix us, menacingly, with their white eyes. Are they a phalanx of extraterrestrials, or are they zombies, resurrected from the dead? The starting point of this confusing scenario is a newspaper photo, which actually does show good people. It came from the first German meeting of the “Rainbow Children”, an international community of peaceful neo-Hippies. Gerhardʼs spooky figures were initially the members of the “Magic Hat Band”, who were simply in the process of collecting money for the communal kitchen. How the painter allows the harmless post-Hippie meeting to turn into something ominous corresponds with Freudʼs definition of the uncanny, resulting from an unexpected, disturbing perception of the seemingly long-familiar. Film typically uses Naturalism to illustrate the intrusion of the uncanny into the everyday environment, such as the conservative idyll of a small American town, in order to come across as being emotionally vivid and ”credible”. In art, Gregory Crewsdon, for example, using the techniques of film set design in his carefully directed photos, causes the normalcy of the middle-class life to turn into mysterious scenarios. When with Crewsdon, the impression of “painterly” does come across, then, within a medial dialogue between photography and film. Till Gerhard, on the other hand, “translates” the topos of film into the medium of painting. Even when a clearly representational rendition is given, the depiction is not so detailed, so naturalistic, that it could be confused with a photographic image. The traces of the painting process are always visible. Additionally emphasized by a kind of variegation of spots and splashes of colour, the illusionist impression of the spatially laid-out scenery is also counteracted by the structured, informell sprinkled areas, with the canvas coming through in many places.
Stylistically, affinity with Peter Doig or Daniel Richter is unmistakeable. Both painters have made fruitful use of the achievements of the informell and gestural painting process in the structuring of representational subjects and pictorial space. Just as Crewsdon uses the techniques of film direction, so does Gerhard make use of the repertoire of contemporary painting, choosing his stylistic means in order to give the appropriate expression in accordance to his content and intention. Technically, in the painting, this means the application of many coats or layers, which overlap each other, almost like different wallpaper or posters, with the bottom ones coming to view again when the others are ripped away.
The canvas, visible in many areas, in “Dawn” becomes a large field, and after a long night at the Woodstock Festival, is full of refuse as well as fans, either sleeping or wandering tiredly around. The gravestones, which werenʼt in the original photograph, emphasize the depressed mood. Do they refer to buried hopes, the failed utopias of this generation? Flower Powerʼs happiness always did have its dark side, accompanied as it was by horror figures like Charles Manson, the “Family” of whom can be met in Gerhardʼs “Wächter der Natur” (“Natureʼs Guard”), a seemingly serene painting of an idyllic landscape.
Indications are that the uncanny in Till Gerhardʼs work is a part of a further theme. The well-known, familiar, that suddenly appears in another, diffuse and irritating light, are the media clichés associated with the 60ʻs and 70ʻs, the time when Till Gerhard was born. For those who didnʼt consciously live it, this is the era handed down as being one of revolutionary thinking and social utopias, but also of radical drop-outs. Countless photos, films, songs and other “memories” imparted by the media, which probably had little to do with the lived lives of most people, made the age of ́68 out to be the valid model for a “successful” adolescence, where creative self-discovery could emerge out of a conventional middle-class way of life. A collective unconscious, imparted by the media, pushed its way into the actual biographic experience.
Many artists today are dealing with these lasting, formative influences. So, it seemed reasonable for Douglas Gordon to assume, in his installation from 1994 “Something between my mouth and your ear”, that the musical hits that he could have heard while his mother was pregnant with him could have had a lasting influence on his further life. Are we pre-programmed beings, not independent individuals?
Till Gerhardʼs travels in time back to his early childhood also lead to totalitarian visions of the future. John Boormanʼs 1974 film “Zardoz” presented an elite state of immortals, whose non-inhabitants, exploited as slaves, are finally led in revolt by Sean Connery against their oppressors. “Vortex”, the name of the sterile utopia-like community, is also the title of one of Till Gerhardʼs paintings, which like “Dawn” shows a cemetery scene. The two figures, however, donʼt come from the film, they are the artistʼs private photos, and each seems like it is operating in its own sphere. Couldnʼt the figure on the right, with its three-dimensional, modelled garments, come from a Renaissance painting? Time travellers, beamed down into completely new surroundings, are called to mind. The narrow, coloured stripes, like laser beams coming down from the sky, indicate some kind of supernatural power. They also recall the contradictions with Naturalism, the representation of Christian symbols and signs, which lead into the Renaissance. Godly rays or halos just donʼt quite fit in a pictorial space increasingly based on observations of nature. With Till Gerhardt, however, direct art historical references arenʼt laid out. The combinations of his means of representation can be seen more in connection with contemporary developments. A challenge for a painter in the Modern, the largely scorned perspective space is currently celebrating a grandiose Renaissance, thanks to the digital 3-D world. In Till Gerhardʼs paintings the visual illusion of space is always clearly laid out on one level, which is painted over, scratched away, dripped upon. And other than with the work on a computer, traces always remain on the surface of the picture, like the notes on Freudʼs famous Wunderblock.
Back to the year 1974. Many a dyed-in-the-wool cinephile, able to demonstrate his or her know-how in many of Gerhardʻs paintings, might have to pass with the covered shape in “Butzelman”. Not listed in a film lexicon, it could easily be identified by art history cognoscenti. It is about Joseph Beuys, in New York in 1974, wrapped in a felt blanket. During his performance “I like America and America likes me”, he led a mysterious dialogue with a coyote, symbol of Native Americans. Like Beuys, Till Gerhard also questions the relationship between Germany and the United States, their traditional values, symbols, and cultural “identity”, which characterize each country. Beuys, though, had noticed already “...under the political aspect, there is no difference, as both belong to the same system, the privatized capitalist system (...) West Germany exactly mirrors American culture...”
Does the cultural similarity also result from the mark made by images of the media, through the decades-long export of Hollywood movies? Which “German” symbol can be summoned up, that isnʼt either politically loaded or at best, completely conventional and petty bourgeois? For example, like the Jägerzaun, the rustic fence, which the covered shape cowers in front of, or the German forest and the Einfamilienhaus, detached family house, which stands, as if partially wrapped by Christo, between the trees. But couldnʼt it also be an American house, in reference to the attachment to nature expounded in the writing of Thoreau, whose book “Walden” is the title of another of Gerhardʼs paintings. Hadnʼt German Romanticism already come to America in the 19th century and with it the German forest?
Where so much isnʼt clear anymore, starting with who is good and who bad, George Bush still tries to rule his country by such dualisms. Who is not with us, is against us. But who are “The Others”? By nocturnal lighting, odd rituals are being celebrated, the tents are up. Once again, one doesnʼt know if it is about a peaceful get-together or a somewhat disturbing gathering. Gerhard made use of internet photos of the biggest informal meeting in celebration of midsummer, in the Externsteinen in the Teutoburger forest. The ideological background of this, in itself, peaceful meeting is the celebration of new Germanic heathenism, mixed with elements of New Age philosophy. This heathen cult already had a member in Heinrich Himmler, who here wanted to bring an old Nordic culture to light again through excavations.
Where today does the necessity to uphold such problematic traditions arise? Maybe there, where a gigantic Plattenbau, a pre-fabricated apartment block, leads off diagonally into the distance of the picture. In front of an enormous pile of debris, an old lady walks along with a shopping bag and a divining rod. Is the picture an ironic commentary on the Aufbau Ost, reconstruction of the east? “Vermeidung des Bosen” (“Avoiding the Bad”), is an exemplary display of the rubble heap of the Modern, also of Socialism. But maybe new energy can also be found there, just where everything fell apart.“Auferstanden aus Ruinen” (“Resurrected from the Ruins”), was, in the end, once the founding myth of a new society.
Till Gerhard is a painter who secures evidence amongst the ruins of utopias, which can be found in many of his paintings, as real and as fictional architecture. We come across lighthouses, huts in the forest, typical post-war office buildings or famous architectural visions of the Modern like the “Überbau” (“Superstructure”), the geodesic dome from Buckminster Fuller, the progenitor of the technoid building fantasies of the sixties.
Utopias of society allow for the description of metaphorical and architectural fictions; as buildings, which couldnʼt really be built or be habitable – fictions, which set out to be realized, but remained fictions. It has become harder and harder to differentiate at all between reality and fiction. Were the Undead and the Zombies, in classic horror films, still clearly identifiable phantom figures, today, there is no hitch when long-dead actors haunt recently filmed movies. The diagnosis already made in the 1950ʼs by the philosopher Günther Anders in his reflections on the “Antiquiertheit des Menschens” (“The Antiquatedness of Humankind”) is confirmed yet again. In his book, yet to be translated into English, Anders diagnosed an ontologically ambiguous status of images “transmitted” by the media, termed by Anders as “phantoms”. He also observed an alarming “contact with spectres”, in which media phantoms were being treated like real people, resulting in emotional relationships being built up with them. Doesnʼt the ontologically naïve association with media phantoms indicate an “obtuseness” when great sensitivity would be more called for? The insensitivity, which Sigmund Freud accused himself of in regards to the uncanny, can from todayʼs point of view, be described as the inability, in light of the Undead broadcasted by the media, to get the creeps at all anymore. Of his own accord, Till Gerhardʼs paintings, again and again, turn into something eerie. Could they not, perhaps for necessityʼs sake, let you learn what fear is?