‘The Catastrophic Image’

Wolfgang Ellenrieder’s images have possessed a certain moment of instability and uncertainty from the beginning. This was true already of the watery-vegetile image formations that spread swelling and looping across the picture plane in the late 1990s. The viewer imagined discerning there plants and organisms, seed vessels, and eyeballs, but in reality was confronted with an image-organism with its own system, a bastard of apparent illusionism and its sarcastically laughing refutation. Sfumato and indistinct and then again with a vivid power and a contoured presence, but always in a succulent coloration that virtually penetrates the retina, Ellenrieder’s paintings are inscribed by him with a simultaneously pleasurable and absorptive, uncanny ambiguity. Do these images come from the micro or macro world? Are they derived from the visible world or are they deep drillings on the level of cellular structures? In any case they are images whose clarity arises precisely from their calculated indistinctness, in their determination to profoundly question both themselves as well as that from which they originate. Painting like a soaped-up surface: shining, iridescent, seductive, but also extremely slippery. Without any foothold. Especially since the paint mixture used in this series of works—of strongly diluted acrylic dispersion and self-made watercolors, joined with volumes of paint and form produced with the spray gun—immerses the works in an idiosyncratic double light of peinture and surface glitter, sure of its effects: like a cross between fairground colorfulness and serious painting research.

The question of the real and the fictive, of the glitter of pure virtuality and the search for a possibly non-deceptive facticity has always been the impetus behind this work. Central to this is the relationship of the painted image to the media of digital image production and the exacerbated dissolution of the real. Accelerated by the digital image, the iconic turn has ultimately ensured that, unlike the earlier model of illusion, it is no longer possible for the simulation to be verified or falsified in terms of the reality of its contents. Rather reality itself has become so porous by means of these simulative strategies that it is increasingly experienced as deficient in comparison to its surrogates. It is thus no accident that Wolfgang Ellenrieder’s painted work itself exhibits a certain translucent fragility, which makes structural reference to the fragile, uncertain status of the image, of reality, and the connections that exist between the two.

But the painter is nonetheless on his guard against one-sided partisanship. Informative pathos is just as little his thing as are maudlin laments over the virtualization of our reality. Rather, their thin ice is the perfect substratum for the reality of his painted investigations, which consist of a beautifully dialectical constriction, in interplay above all with the methods of forgery. Of course the old specters of Baudrillardian Simulacren? still greet us from here from a distance. But they do so devoid of any ideological superstructure or consciousness of a mission. Ellenrieder does not illustrate theoretical discoveries, but his works react with both curiosity and directness to the ubiquitous flood of images that has slipped itself before our reality and has perforated it just as it has placed its own status in question. And for this reason, too, the artist draws his painterly stimuli also from sources of media images, in which it is not the factual reality that is foregrounded, but its staging as a construction. These might be photographs, which Ellenrieder takes of Faller model-building kits he assembled himself, portrait details from hard-core porn, or material from so-called stock art catalogues. Stock art refers to a kind of reserve of image production, from which image agencies satisfy the hunger of editorial offices to illustrate the greatest possible variety of themes. What is special about these archives, in which works of graphic art, but primarily photographs are collected, is, paradoxically, that the usefulness of the material increases in direct proportion to its lack of specificity. The more universally deployable the images are and the less they refer to a concrete place or a specific time, the more attractive they are to the editorial offices as well as to the agency, not least because they can raise their income correspondingly.

Crucial to the functioning of these images is an iconic codification that brackets out the aspects of specialness, uniqueness, and differentiation. To produce this indeterminacy the image makers prefer to use the strategy of blurring. Backgrounds appear diffuse, overexposed, or faded, faces become so indistinct that neither the concrete person nor any possible ethnic identity can be discerned. The entire construction of these image-worlds aims at a precisely calculated indeterminacy. What is important is that these images can be endowed with meaning through the various texts without losing their visual persuasiveness on the one hand and without thrusting themselves so much into the foreground that they remain memorable as images on the other hand. Their function is that of an optical background noise meant, at the same time, to underline the texts’ claims to truth. In this way they become matrices of an image-addicted desire that no longer assumes simply that »every picture tells a story,« but that basically all conceivable stories can be preserved within, but also abolished from, any given picture. For ultimately the idea of an image that can contain everything is tantamount to the ultimate implosion of the image, whether by means of total over-information or through complete lack of information. Ellenrieder gives a fragile identity to these strange, freely floating image bastards, which nuzzle up briefly to specific contents only to illustrate other connections a moment later. His blurred and indistinct portrait images, endowed with names, individualize the actually generic quality and anonymity of stock photographs to the point where the image becomes its own reversible figure: laying claim to a specific identity that its own fleetingness and fathomlessness also enacts at the same time.

This mixture of apparent stability and fragility also characterizes Ellenrieder’s architecture-related works, which have occupied the artist since 2004. His details of facades, passages, and shop windows, his views of filling stations and public spaces display an urbanistic world without hold. The tectonic elements that shape it frame picture-like surfaces that seem like screens capable of being filled with anything. The real bodies of architecture and the virtual bodies of the information and communication systems that permeate our cities interpenetrate in these watery architectural hallucinations and hybridize themselves into spectral phantom bodies. This dislocation and disconnectedness of Ellenrieder’s painted architectures leads towards its paradoxical center: as architectural bodies they signalize a stability that is then completely withdrawn from them in the painterly execution. Rather than spatial utopias, they are actuality spatial distopias.

This is also clear in a series of images from 2005, which show tents in various landscape contexts, based on private internet photographs. In these works, the longing for habitation and security collides against a painterly enactment whose flowing ductus instead gives rise to a placeless melancholy and an almost surreal-seeming, stereotyped anonymity. It is immaterial whether its title reads Hockenheim, Chiemsee, or Roskilde: in their interiors these works convey not geographic certainty, but the desolation of a wooded nowhere that commutes indecisively between park-like cultivation and overgrown pseudo-nature.

In the most recent group of images, which began in 2008, the latent instability of world and image, just barely held in suspension, has been replaced by the manifest catastrophe. Chaostage (Days of Chaos, 2009), the title of a literally explosive 35-mm film by Ellenrieder and at the same time the title of his exhibition at the Kunstverein in Ulm in 2009, could serve as the umbrella term for all these bursting images, flickering with flame and rocked by explosions, whose heat and urgency announces a new dimension in the painter’s work. As in his previous groups of works, Ellenrieder’s painterly technique is a refined mixture of high and low. Oil paint, pigment, binder, brush, sponge, and spray pistol are combined into a shimmering amalgam of illusionistic and disillusioning surface depths. The smoke and fire rising from piles of tires and overturned cars is built up so sensuously with oily soot and red-glowing crackling that it seems to want to compete with reality. But they simultaneously insist just as energetically upon their character as acts of staging. And this even more so since a part of these fire-images also comes from the depths of the stock art catalogues, this time as the visual orchestration of all conceivable forms of violent demonstrations, disturbances, catastrophes, or military conflicts. A burning pile of tires thus becomes a blueprint, an identifying mark for any possible center of conflict, regardless of the occasion and place for the ignition. Universalizing in its aims, it reads like the fuse of revolt by the—increasingly large and thus increasingly faceless—margins of society against an increasingly unraveling social center without orientation, like—if one will—the sign of the system battling against itself.

The impetus behind these images is not only the medialization of the world, its constantly increasing cinema-like character, but also a keen awareness of the explosively centrifugal nature of our social systems. But at the same time, and perhaps most essentially, they are also the expression of a temporality that condenses everything into a shock-like moment of critical abruptness. In a certain sense, the conviction expressed already in the Futurist manifesto (1909) that space and time died yesterday and will imminently implode into a single totality speeding towards us at a frantic pace, which found its sequel in Virilio’s Dromologie, can also be applied to Ellenrieder’s catastrophe images. These paintings show image and world as the site of a catastrophic perennial frenzy, frozen in eternal instantaneousness, a permanent, event-like state of emergency, severed from any before or after. This also mirrors a post-modern conception of time: the conviction of the end of a history that develops in a linear and successive manner, which has dissolved into simultaneity and indifference.

It might initially seem surprising that Ellenrieder is convinced that it is the slow medium of painting, of all things, that should be capable of adequately translating this structure of simultaneity. But the artist stands firmly within a long line of tradition that can be traced backward to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. In Laokoon oder Über die Grenzen von Malerei und Poesie (Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, 1766) Lessing arrives at the conclusion that—in contrast to poetry, which is more suited for the successive—painting is the primary medium for representing a moment in space, and thus the simultaneous. Even if this was already doubted by Herder—who suspected the actual opposition to be between painting and music, which he saw as the true art of time—it nonetheless remains a fruitful challenge for painting to condense its inherently successive character so much that the image achieves a literal instantaneousness, in which the temporal successiveness of its production is dissolved.

In this sense, the often stage-like image constructions upon which Ellenrieder arranges his scenes by means of different production processes can be understood as motors for the further temporal charging of the image. The sequential nature of the painting process ultimately generates a complex spatial and temporal interpenetration of simultaneous connections. The unity of the image consists, so to speak, of a plurality of disparate moments and situations that are visible simultaneously on the canvas. In a certain sense, these image-stages simulate the reality of an event upon a theater stage: the social space of presence generated by an evening at the theater, is, after all, based essentially on the promise of a here and now redeemed anew every evening, of a passionate simultaneity between viewer and theatrical event. Ellenrieder’s images also aim at this space of presence. The blazing heat and the catastrophic explosions and collapses pull us in, towards their events, not admitting of cool distance. But only—and this is their dialectical linchpin—to then confront us in an ironic sleigh-of-hand with their own character as acts of staging, as forgery. The closer these images approach us, the more we discern in them their actual remoteness. And their remoteness, in turn, is the precondition for their ability to move so close to us.

  • Stephan Berg
  • in ›Wolfgang Ellenrieder—Tatort‹, Prestel Verlag München, 2011