Please note: This post is part of a series of exhibition reviews by students in Introduction to Modern Art, Architecture, and Design.
Contemporary German art in the second half of the last century is rich with reflections on post-war Germany. In the context of the new Germany, German artists never fail in finding ways to express how they think and feel about the contemporary technological and socio-economic contexts. They don’t shy away from incorporating photographic methods with other media such as installation art and painting, delivering artworks that transcend the limitations of media; such art breaks free from the material to the realm of purer expression. I will examine and compare two such works of art by two German artists.
The first is “Shed,” a photograph by Thomas Demand, 2006, which is displayed in the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum’s current exhibition “Contemporary German Art: Selections from the Permanent Collection.” The second work is “Townscape Sa,” an oil painting of 1969 by Gerhard Richter, which is displayed in Saint Louis Art Museum’s new contemporary wing. Both works of German art are displayed concurrently in two museums that are less than a mile away from each other, in the heart of the city of Saint Louis. Is there an artistic link that could be drawn between the two German exhibitions housed by the Kemper and the Saint Louis Art Museums? There is indeed a connection that I will explore by comparing these two works of art in order to reveal that both exhibitions are complementary.
“Shed” is a photograph of a sculptural installation that Demand meticulously recreated after a newspaper photograph of an Italian mobster’s hideout. The image shows a corner in a room where we can see washing machine as the central motif, a cabinet to the left, numerous little items, a scale and few buckets on the floor in the lower part of the image. The objects are fabricated and installed by the artist, therefore they are not real; they are a sterile representation of their existence in the artist’s mind. The composition reflects the technological world we live in and how an organized chaos becomes the norm. The lack of life in this photograph removes the human element from the emptiness of technology.
Nevertheless, the artist’s use of an ostensibly objective media photograph that he has further drained of expression resulted in—paradoxically—the insertion of his own subjectivity.
The second work of art, “Townscape Sa,” by Richter is an oil painting the artist made to look like a black and white photograph. The artist uses a photograph as a basis for the painting; the photograph itself was taken from an architectural model of a landscape of industrial buildings. The painting shows a landscape of grey earth and an array of highly organized buildings. These architectural structures show some sort of irregular pattern that is clearly unnatural. They look empty of the human element. Are humans trapped inside those buildings? Perhaps they are; the fact is we can’t see them inside that technologically advanced architectural complex; they dissolve inside the belly of the post-modern beast. Similar to Demand’s photograph, Richter’s painting is void of any human element, thereby suggesting the incompatibility of human freedom with an industrial world.
A photograph of a sculptural installation and a painting that looks like a photograph both speak about the German response to technology and the post-WWII German mind. Each artist in his own way separates the human element from technology and industry, liberating the humans from the restricting aspects of contemporary life. In this way, Demand and Richter cross media barriers to sprint free into a new realm of expression and human freedom.
By Muhammad Alhawagri (Friday, August 9, 2013)