Barbara Straka: Horizons at the end of Nature and art

The Suspension — a cycle of works by Ute Pleuger

“In all that is new in art, it must be possible to recognise Nature. By ‘Nature’, I mean the epitome of the accepted view of the world at any one time — literally: the way in which the world is seen by our contemporaries. Nature is everything which appears, for a specific time, to be absolute.”
— Beat Wyss (1)

The Suspension is a cycle of acrylic works on grey packing paper, each 46 × 55 or 70 × 100 cm, which now extends to around three hundred individual sheets. The individual sheets are untitled. Before being painted, as a protection against yellowing, the paper is treated with several layers of colourless acrylic paint until it takes on a slight, matt shine and has the correct consistency for an application of colour. To some extend, this is then controlled by the artist, but it is also partly intuitive, and partly dependent upon a framework precisely determined by the materials and the working process: a maximum of fifteen minutes remains for the application of colour, which must be made in a regular, uninterrupted stroke. As a result, Ute Pleuger only regards the finished works as “partly ‘my creation’, it is far more a question of intervening in a process of colours”. Ute Pleuger has concentrated and defined this process and ist conditions for her watercolour technique using acrylics; the works evolve in an almost mechanically routine manner, comparable to the earlier stamp pictures.

At the beginning of the series it was already clear that only one colous should be used, in order to avoid distractions. As such, the works are strictly conceptional. The idea is to create an outer framework as a space for the evocation of inner images. According to Ute Pleuger, these emerged in indeterminable numbers at first, later falling into groups, typologies, complexes of motifs which can be extended and followed until each pictorial idea has been exhausted. Between the beginning and the end, everything flows. Both are the corner stones determining thr success or the failure of what comes in between. It is important to be able to stop at the right time, and the balance between intuition and planning is essential. In each produced image, something which was concealed is revealed. “If one already knows what image will emerge at the end, then there is really no sense in continuing.” (2)

The Suspension is experienced landscape which continues ist influence in artistic expression. “To experience landscape is to experience space, in a completely existential way” (Pleuger). According to the artist, two extreme encounters with landscape triggered this large, as yet unfinished cycle between 1996 and 1997. A grant for Schloß Wiepersdorf meant that a confrontation with landscape was all but inescapable. Whilst the artist’s serial pictorial motifs were characterised by architectural, urban space until 1996, rural space appeared to the artist as an indeterminate “nothing” which would have, necessarily, to be approached with quite different means. The period of residence in Wiepersdorf led to a second essencial encounter: the stimulus to take up music once more (Ute Pleuger studied the organ). Recollecting, she describes the handling of the familiar instrument as “like a return home, but even more intense”. In her contemplative landscapes, she finds the greatest possible stillness, stringency and balance, qualities which correspond to those of music. Like music, painting is existentially important to her,although in a different way, “for it makes you so remarkably aware of yourself”. However, a combination of the two media, which was part of their expression of life and mode of working for neo-expressionist artists in the early 80s, is unthinkable for Ute Pleuger. “To play at night without light. That is how I paint, too. There is no place for anything acoustic in that.”

During a journey to Israel in May 1997, the artist sought out desert landscapes which conveyed to her a more radical perception of space: the „experience of being exposed – not scattered as in the city; it calls for a quite different form of collectedness from me“. The architectural motifs of the late 80s and early 90s (eg. Palazzo, 1989; Niches, 1990; Hospital and Car park, 1994) (3) dissolved into regular, rhythmic patterns, which – above all the stamp pictures – only involved a mere intimation of space, carrying the three dimensional, as it were, to the limits of perception by projecting it into the verticals of the picture surface; with the Suspension, Ute Pleuger has returned to more complex, dense motifs. The airiness, weightlessness and transparency of the stamp pictures, in which architecture appeared to drift over the surface of the picture like suspended nets of “flying buildings”, have now given way to a strictly dualistic concept of the pictorial space in which the eye seeks to establish a top and a bottom, fore- and background, and heaven and earth. An – as it were – compulsive desire for identification begins. It is surprising – no matter how minimalist and reduced the gestures of painting may be – that a pre-experience of already seen, recalled landscapes is always aroused, and these demand to be categorised according to topology, plant growth, use, times of day and of year; at the same time, however, they evade any form of orientation. Each sheet has ist own recognisable original character, yet takes ist place in the connecting ductus of the whole cycle. The supposition that these could be original, untouched, eternal natural landscapes with the utopian potential of romantic painting is as clearly refuted. “Such places do not exist, and because they do not exist, space becomes a question, stops being certainty, is no longer embodied, no longer appropriated. Space is doubt; I have to mark it out continually, define it, it never belongs to me, is never given to me, I have to conquer it. My spaces are transitory, time will wear them away, will destroy them: nothing will resemble what it once was, my recollections will desert me, forgetfulness will seep into my memory… space melts away like sand running through our fingers” (4). This basic existential experience, which the French sociologist Georges Perec (1936-82) describes at the close of the 20th century; the experience that ultimately all spaces are occupied spaces, and that landscape can be thought of only as appropriated, cultivated cultural landscape, may also be found in Ute Pleuger’s painterly understanding of the theme. Industrial production, serial working processes, repetitive piecework, existence en masse and ist destruction, and finally, most recently, the widespread identical reproducibility of natural and living forms are immanent preconditions for these images. They internalise contemporary statements about the state of civilisation and would have been inconceivable at any other time. Does Ute Pleuger’s Suspension not awaken associations with cloned trees? Is the widespread repetition of form in Nature, the cultivation of so-called monocultures, not deadly for all self-regulating systems? Here the question of the possibilities and the limits of human influence on naturally occurring processes – raised in connection with the creative pictorial process – returns on an abstract level.

Ute Pleuger’s cycle Suspension takes ist place at the close of a more than four hundred year tradition of landscape pictures, a genre which began in European painting at the beginning of the 16th century, and the irretrievable deconstruction of which is taking place step by step in the 20th century. At the close of the Middle Ages, the discovery of landscape as a motif in art corresponded to the ambivalent world experience of the subject; in his isolation, he wished to return to the natural origins from which he had been separated as a result of his earthly existence. In the New Age, man expressed his experience of landscape together with Schiller as a sentimental longing for „Elysium“, fully aware that a return to Arcadia would always be impossible. And today? A chance for present-day landscape painting may lie in ist „facilitating a modern experience of art which becomes apparent in the silence of contemplation“ (5).

Ute Pleuger’s landscapes are neither topos, nor atmospheric landscapes, as these mark the stages of their aethetic appropriation in art history, and they do not present a setting in which an external or internal occurrence takes place. They contain no narrative. They are empty of people, without orientation or perspective – helpless. Firmly enclosed by horizons, the pictorial spaces offer no depth; it is as if they have been folded into the surface. The far away is close, the close is far away. An aura of the sublime is reflected in nothing. Lines suggest infinity and reveal the illusion of acquired perception. Unknown terrain. There is no way in and no exit, only the here and now of each image which always conceals the next one within itself. However, this is not a film-like vision in the sence of sequences. Innumerable layers appear to be concealed behind the picture (screen) surface. A windows principle leads the eye from motif to motif and from page to page. The window motif of the artist’s earlier architectural works reappears immanently as a firm limitation of space and a point of transfer from inside to outside. Associations with Robert Motherwell’s Open-Pictures are awakened in the scarely noticeable variation of this ancient motif borrowed from romanticism; wide, empty, horizontal landscapes which draw our gaze through the window, proposing a walk in another, freer(?) world. The Suspension now manages without this framework. Our traditional experiences of space, acquired from the temporal and spatial orientation of the self-aware subject, are completely revolutionised. The omission of boundaries and perspective within the pictorial space leads us to discover the limitations of our own viewpoint and the relativity of our perception, which is bundled in perspectives: “Our field of vision reveals to us a limited space:… our gaze glances over space and gives us an illusion of relief and distance… That is how we construct space: with a top and a bottom, a left and a right, a front and back, a near and far. If nothing catches our eye, our gaze carries far afield. But if our eye meets nothing, it sees nothing; it only sees that which it encounters: space is what catches the eye, what the eye meets…, space is when a corner is formed, when it comes to an end, when we have to turn around in order for it to continue” (6).

In the frugality of ist motifs, the Suspension opens up contemplative spaces for thought; spaces which demand a high level of concentration and a willingness for involvement on the part of the observer seeking to enter them, for in great density they conceal existential questions concerning perception, image, space, reality and virtuality in today’s art, but also concerning the Suspension of the same.
“For”, to quote Kafka, “we are like tree trunks in the snow, appearing to lie flat on the ground, as if a mere tap could roll them away. No, that is impossible, for they are firmly connected to the ground. But look, even that is only semblance” (7).
What we see is not what we presume it to be, our perception is deceived by the manifestations of reality. Like Kafka, Ute Pleuger plays with the illusionary character of art by taking ad absurdum not only a belief in ist mimetic task of portayal, but also the principle of art for art’s sake. With the cycle Suspension she succeeds in the extraordinary tightrope walk of simultaneously presenting art as pure material and pure illusion. Seen in this light, the images depict “Nature” – in the sense that they certainly demonstrate the way “in which the world is seen by our contemporaries” (Beat Wyss)(8).

in: Ute Pleuger – Die Aufhebung, Städtische Galerie Bietigheim-Bissingen 1997, ISBN 3-927877-29-8
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Starka-2

no title · 70 × 100 cm · Acrylic on packing paper · 1996

(1) Beat Wyss, Die Kunst auf der Suche nach ihrem Text, in: ders., Mythologie der Aufklärung. Geheimlehren der Moderne / Jahresring 40, Munich 1983, S. 9
(2) Unless otherwise stated, the quotations are based on a conversation with Ute Pleuger on 29.8.1997
(3) On this point, see also the exhibition catalogue „Ute Pleuger, Serielle Räume“, hrsg. vom Werkbund-Archiv / Museum der Alltagskultur des 20. Jahrhunderts, Berlin 1996
(4) Georges Perec, Träume von Räumen, Frankfurt/M., 1994, p. 100
(5) Beat Wyss, Vom Schauplatz zur Landschaft. Aussicht auf eine Kunst ohne Text, in: Landschaft – Mit dem Blick der 90er Jahre, eds. Kathrin Becker and Klara Wallner, Berlin 1996
(6) Georges Perec, ibid. p. 114 f.
(7) Franz Kafka, Die Bäume (1903/4), in: Kafka, Sämtliche Erzählungen, Frankfurt/M., 1970
(8) Beat Wyss, Mythologie der Aufklärung, ibid. p. 9