THE BLIND SPOT
Text von Stephan Berg, im Katalog “HORST KEINING MARIAKIRCHEN“, Siegburg 2003, Translation by Stephen Reader
To find a form of articulation of its own continues to present art with its greatest challenge. That makes it plain that it can be no aim of art to imitate the world; but if articulate it will, the quest is as bound to fail if art begins and ends in hermetic self-reference. The autonomy debates of the early twentieth century in their positive avantgarde furore still invoked the undimmed vision of liberating the picture to render it its own being and of projecting it as reality, obeying only its own self-set laws. Artistic discourse today runs an ambivalent course, in which pictures are always both one in themselves and The Other - both references to their inherent individuality and a shimmering, complex relating to the contexts in which they stand. That is precisely where Horst Keining’s works operate, at first glance of such detached spirit, worked-out to the last, analytically in control.
Whereas Keining is a wanderer between the worlds, one who develops his images out of a systematic impulse but does not keep them confined within that system. It has always been true of this oevre that it translates the exceeding infinity of pluralism in our reality into ordered experimental arrangements of apparent clarity - these only to emerge as points of departure for new confusion. Thus a structural oscillation is set up between threedimensional space and surface, between order and freedom, writing and image, terms and that which would be termed. The motion of painting in this dynamic never leads to one sole point but in effect orbits around ist own ambivalence between minimal-like autonomy and ’contamination’ by worldly realism. To observe this balancing act both in ist subtleties and in Keining’s constancy of its pursuit, I propose a handful of work cycles completed in recent years. In one such series dating from 1996, Keining builds up the picture each out of a stripe structure derived from a different green from Lukasfarben’s range ’Chrome green light’ or Goya’s ’Permanent Green deep’, for example. The stripe motif, virtually synonymous in contemporary art with an expression of the autonomous simple and self-justifying, geometric understanding of a ‚picture’, at one with artists such as Daniel Buren or Frank Stella in his early stripe paintings would locate Keining soon enough in direct line with the analytical disciplin of concrete art. Keining’s srtipes wold seem to be no exception, preoccupied only with themselves, with rehearsing differences of colour gained from one colour only, wanting no interpolation from us or from outside or the world in general. Their painterly precision and the serial investigation form seem to make them a pure-formal experiment. A closer look reveals minuscule but critical irregularities in this hard-edge painting. The stripe paintings shimmer and change between abstract flat surface and subtle spatial volumes without ever making it quite clear wether there is really any in-front-of or behind relation there. In this game in which the surface-asserting cool of the panels is always informed by the most delicate of painterly subjectivity, we can never be quite sure wether the visual deep ground of this painting really is ist ground, the darker stripes lying in front of it, or the converse - the stripes having scored their niche into the picture ground, that in turn coming to the fore. Between two-dimensional, radical self-reference and spatial-sculptural illusionism, a strict plan becomes visible - but the system is not an impenetrable absolute. It lets air in, a space where breathing is possible.
This structure of self-destabilising analytical clarity also underlines the LUKAS series from 2000. Here, Keining translates the colour maker’s range into a painting where the aim, far from using these paints to paint a picture, is to make the colours in themselves the objekt of the painting. The vista of possibilities is spread before us and we, the viewers, are the ones who can develop our own images out of these. The lie to the seeming exclusive self-reference of the panels come twofold here. Firstly, standing in front of the pictorial panoply spread out in the pictures’ two dimensions, one becomes metaphorically a viewer-painter oneself in that the mind’s eye begins to relate the colours to each other, to mix them or to charge them with one’s own associations. Secondly, feeding the colour maker’s product range into the realm of pure pictures elicits the ambiguous question as to wether we are not dealing here with sophisticated corporate advertising.
The same oscillation between particles of reality and cool abstract self-sufficiency is also evident, albeit in differing kinds of subtle articulation, in BISAZZA and NEW COMPANIES. The point of departure for BISAZZA is furnished by mosaic tiles from the Italian manufacturer of that name. The painting process has adopted the tile size, grouting width and the colours of the little tiles as formative sructural parameters, while the distribution of the variously coloured stones is chosen at will. Thus a mosaic wall is generated that has the air of a foundation course in geometric abstract painting - the pictures saved both from academic anaemia by their profane, everyday reference and from mere mimicry by the inherent non-representational quality of the regular tile grid structure. In their playful alternation between random choice and systematics in compositional procedure, there is also the glint of a precisley titrated but not ungenerous dose of irony. Watch this, the panels seem to be saying, how easily demonstrated are the potential autonomy of the everyday and the everyday banality of the seemingly autonomous.
In NEW COMPANIES, too, the structure of the paintings appears precise and based on logical calculations but is soon plain as a completely random choice. Letters in incomprehensible abbreviationlike combinations are couched in monochrome green ovals distributed evenly over a light-coloured diamond-patterned surface. The series title suggests an entry into the pictures’ sense. We inevitably beginn to translate the combinatins of letters into conceivable corporate names, in vain, of course, as there simply are no such firms. Whereas, in BISAZZA, the real product range of a firm becomes the picture material, that is, reality translates as it were into abstract, Keining shows us in NEW COMPANIES how easily an abstract pictorial model can become a potential form of reality. The outcome is a reciprocal destabilising of picture and reality. The picture of abstract appearence is rooted in reality; the picture seemingly saturated with reality is owed purely to invention. Thus the paintings themselves ultimately become an accumulation of gaps and holes. We see constructions eloquent of possibilities, not of certanties. Added to this, the colours and structures Keining has chosen for the supposed logos and their backgrounds are utterly incongruous with the image of today’s NEW COMPANIES; moreover, he has cast his picture surface as an all-over structure in which what every firm seeks beyond all else, a corporate identity, is pecisely what is blurred out of all identity. As if to underscore this loss of substance, the artist has not painted, but blanked out the letters of these would-be corporations. What appears to be painted, then, in reality directly exposes to view the primed base of the painting. What appears to be present is in reality a gap. A double semantic breakdown comes about: the letters not only do not mean anything, but, like in Keining’s car paintings of 1997, they are simply not there.
This paradox structure reappears in the BEAUTIFUL series as it does in TUTTI. BEAUTIFUL is based on English adjectives whose only common factor is that they all have nine letters. The words, such as ephemeral, deathless or heartfelt, begin as solid polystyrene cut-outs. What is subsequently painted in minor-writing is not the letters themselves, but the shadows cast by their three-dimensional form. Thus the paintings develop a phantom-like quality: the strenuous process of deciphering that the viewer is constrained to attempt owing to the mirror-reversed, shadow-like structures of the letters, relates to a text of which, in turn, only the shadows has been painted. The eminently painterly suite, TUTTI, of 2001, hinges crucially on the observation that there can be no perfect match between a label and its subject. We see anthropomorphic, vertical panels that provoke a strange, ambivalent perspective. First, we read them as paintings with perfectly circular masked-off areas on a milky ground. Only at second glance does it become apparent that the pictural subjekt proper lies under the pallid skin of paint - in the shape of the names of various colours, applied to the canvas in mirror-writing and already familiar to us from the LUKAS range. The system in the picture consists in the colours of the lettering being exact correspondents to the names of the colours. Lettering and colour interlock in a self-referntial way. The colours between the letters are a completely free choice; so, too, the light blue upper glaze and the circular ’blanks’ bear no systematic relation to the pictorial content. What, though, is the pictorial content? - In fact a single great denial that there could be such a thing as a clearly definable pictorial content at all. Through strange holes we peer at letters that together yield the name of a colour, painted in the colour so-named. But not only is the writing mirror-inverted and aligned vertically, it is also fragmentary because neither the size of the letters nor the dimensions of the panels ever change, and not every colour name will fit on them entirely. So we see fragments of coherent sense which tell primarily not of a match of name and named, of congruence, then, of (de-) script(ion) and objekt, but of structural divergence, gaping. The round gaps in the pictorial structure thus obtain an almost metaphorical significance. They are pointers to the porosity of systems that attempt to prove the absolute congruence and coherence of the world and its nomenclature.
In two new cycles, Keining raises the pitch of his researches into the patchiness of context in image and the world; added to which he continues his steady, fundamental destabilisation of what would seem to be fixed, reliable relationship between a sign and what it designates. A new element in Keining’s procedure is the formal method with which the pictorial programme is sustained. Until now, the Düsseldorf painter could have been seen aptly under the lable of an adept of precision painting that derived its differentiating qualities from precisely and accurately cast colur progressions; now in DESADE - ZUFÄLLIGE AUSSCHNITTE (’Desade-Chance Excerpts’; 2002-03) and PR (2003), all relies on a calculated imprecision. DESADE shows sections of copy painted after magnified projections from the Marquis de Sade’s ’Philosophy in the Boudoir’. The painting is alla prima, the strokes subsequently blended in with the brush. Keining’s choice of de Sade is motivated as much by the pornographic expressiveness of the Marquis’s texts as by their monomaniacally repetitive structure which only enhances their usefulness as abstract modules. The evident reference to the author in the title shows that Keining is consciously setting the writer’s scandal-charged image to work here. The mechanism he thus sets in motion for the viewer moves between the poles of seduction and disillusionment. Under the de Sade ’brand’, the text promises glimpses of outrageous taboo-breaking. only to defy such fulfilment twice over. First, by the close-up section aspsct of the fragments, the more so since they have not been chosen on criteria of pornographic ’blueness’. Second, the blending-in brushwork treatment locks the enlarged text one would expect to be the more easily read, into the twilight space of strained conjecture and fruitless deciphering exercises.
The approach within Keining’s PR series is basically similar. The bluish, out-of-focus images derive from an arbitrary selection of photographs of coarse resolution from which details have been photographed through a macro lens. Again, as in DESADE, the excerpts are projected as slides and thence transposed to canvas. The intense frustration for the viewer at the impossibility of discerning anything precise in these paintings is due above all to the bluish tinge and rough dot grid of the pictures, associated as these are with origins in the media and the expectation thence of clear visibility and the conveying of detailed information. In Keining’s statements this becomes a dynamic surge - a veil rushing by, of black holes whose ’in-formation’ content consist of nothing but their own void.
In DESADE and PR, then, the semantic base of the series becomes bait ofor the compulsion innate to all pictures and indeed ourselves - the urge to see. By calculated incitement of this act of compulsive seeing, the paintings simultaneously create the height of drop peering from which the disappointment of not having anything there to see has all the greater effect. In relation to the machine mechanics of de Sadeian sexual excess in particular, the painter in so baiting also reflects the voyeurism precisely because everything is laid open down to the last detail. In a certain sense the unpitying pornographic highresolution focus of de Sade’s textures reflects the unfocused content-less void of Horst Keining’s text paintings. Only the process is contrary. Where the blind spot of the uniformed picture text in Keining arises out of detail fragmentariness and blurredness in de Sade it forms as an (unintentional) consequence of over-exactitude, of a hyperinforming of the text.
Where this leaves us is observing how of the disorder of plural reality a pictorial articulation arises that does not even attempt to promise categories such as reliability, comprehension or lucidity at all. We are left with the realisation that not only the world, but pictures too, are not only without foundation but worse, evanescent and ephemeral. That may not be a partcularly consoling experience but it has the advantage that it comes clos to reality.