Thomas W. Kuhn: Painting at the Interface

The world of communication and the world of images have undergone radical shifts in the course of humanity’s last six generations. Even the last 30 years have engendered considerable change given how computer technologies have remediated the possibilities. The simultaneity and globalism of electronic media blur the notion of a logical and causal continuity through their illogical synchroneity. It is this synchrony that the poet Lautrámont deploys as a ground-breaking metaphor in his work The Songs of Maldoror:  “as beautiful as a chance meeting between an umbrella and a sewing-machine on the dissecting-table.”

The realm of the screen as an absolute, only occasionally coinciding with our own construct of reality, has been accepted without question. In the same way, the dissolution of private space has occurred alongside a loss of intimacy as the webcam has penetrated the bedroom.
Representatives of religion and their successors – the philosopher and psychologist – have not been alone in reflecting on and analysing human communication between self and the world. Ever since the Stone Age when the very first pictures were painted on the walls of caves, the first shapes moulded from bones and clay, artists have been a part of this sphere. The reflection – within the artistic medium – of representation itself can be found at this juncture between thing and representation; also the imagined and never before seen – even if that reflection is only the perception of its effect. For it is not insignificant that the paint marking the rock is identifiable as the hunter and the hunted.

Perhaps these upheavals in media – from the letterpress to photography, Renaissance to Realism – found their revolutionary counterparts in art only through coincidence. Art – both the performing arts and visual art – has witnessed an enormous transformation over the last six generations. Milestones like Cubism (in terms of the constructed character of the image), Surrealism (in terms of the psychological dimension of the image), or Pop Art (in terms of the image’s context as mass media) serve as evidence for the great degree to which artists are able to reflect and innovate through their close exchange with the modern world of science and technology. Even the crisis in Modernism itself may seem to echo the scepticism towards images witnessed at the end of the 1960s, in the exact moment at which the USA eliminated any possibility of a centralised structure of communications through the invention of Arpanet, the precursor of the Internet. Photography has not destroyed the aura of the image (so long as it is bound to a piece of metal, glass, plastic or paper). Instead, immaterial sequential signs have come to replace pictures and texts. Postmodernism begins when the matrix is switched on.

Yet, Dag Seemann still paints; perhaps because things and narratives still flow in the patterns and forms of contemporary representation. His painting reflects the outline of a development of representation transitioning alongside pictorial reality. Through their compositions, his Mindscapes and Fictitious Places pursue a saturation of unmediated juxtapositions, a simultaneity of plethora.

Distinct genres of still lifes are the original precursors in the history of art to this form of composition. The Quodlibets (translated as “what pleases”) deceive the eye and amalgamate disparate objects through pinboards, plaques, and nails. Their offshoots in classical Modernism were the real and painted Papier Collés of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. Continuing in this tradition, Dag Seemann asks two essential questions in his painterly collages: how does the juxtaposition of media visible in the image change our understanding of the pictorial reality, and how does the representation of this simultaneity of unrelated things alter the effect on the viewer. The first point suggests we look at the medium; the second – at the work’s psychological reception.

Along the lines of Jasper Johns, either side might have us examine the question: “Is it a flag or a painting?” Does Dag Seemann’s formation of abstract-expressionist brushstrokes that compose the rectangular plane of the image represent simple, concrete art: paint on canvas without a representational character? Or are we dealing with a representation of an abstract-expressionist painting? Both behave similarly on a psychological level. Does the composition of forms and colours, which generates the representation of an attractive woman through its painterly technique, deal with painting, or with eroticism? In the latter version where the viewer reacts to a core erotic stimulus, an insurgent magic conjures up the fundamental concern of art. In this sense, the wandering gaze of the visual flaneur gets caught in the disparate mélange assembled from emblematic stimuli.

Thus, the fact that colours and forms are capable of replacing the true essence of a thing becomes ostensible in a roundabout way. Painted design objects and architectures magnetically capture the attention of those for whom the actual primary physical sensation is not accessible. The object transports the erotic-sensual stimulus in the form of a lasciviously coiling ceiling lamp that unleashes the shocking power of fetish. Images of individual objects like perfume bottles and fuel canisters embody the fundament of this kind of object fetishism. Especially these two types of objects rouse synaesthetic associations. Does the flask or canister inevitably conjure our sense of smell?

The suggestiveness of Dag Seemann’s works is further revealed through specific painted objects: this one might just as well be interpreted as a stretched elliptical form, a pill or erotic instrument. As the composition disintegrates through the overlapping motifs and layers of reference, the abstract, round form begins to evoke the motif’s sexual connotations. The fact that it might just as easily be construed as a bullet or an ominous capsule, or as the information canister of a mysterious pneumatic tube, does little to contradict the message.

Interrelated to this interplay of mediated reflection and aesthetic suggestion, Dag Seemann’s works oscillate in their materiality between the two antithetic movements that have always encompassed painting. Pittura and disegno are in dispute and at regular intervals undermine the notion of a compliant, homogeneous form. Possibly symptomatic of Postmodernism, the belief in an original, definitive power thwarts this division of the medium – this – rather than the cynicism of the painting circles of the 1980s. Dag Seemann’s paintings reverberate with associations to the Belvedere torso or Michelangelo’s unfinished slaves, but incorporate imperfection: a more than risky intervention. This subversion is strategically reminiscent of the painted experiments of Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia who gave birth to exceptionally eloquent aesthetic bastards. Where Duchamp and Picabia ascribe metaphorical significance to the technical images of industry, Dag Seemann honours the world of computers with his pixelated paintings, both in his figurative and non-figurative motifs.

As if this juxtaposition in his images were not enough, many of Dag Seemann’s diverse series of paintings are tangential to one another. In their naturalism, his comparatively conventional portraits flow into a different current of purely non-figurative subjects. Similarly, his montages’ complexity of context alludes to different subjects and techniques of representation. Especially the portraits that show pronounced similarities to the works of contemporary painters like Alex Katz or Julian Opie reveal a formal-aesthetic cross-reference to Alexeij von Jawlensky, an exponent of the more meditative variety of classical Modernism. Jawlensky’s works evoke both spiritual, supercharged devotional icons and exhibit a mechanistic fetishism in their precise reproduction of existing prototypes.

Dag Seemann does not exhaust his images, either through didactics or art history. In certain unfortunate cases, insight is the collateral damage of poetry. The break in the contiguity between form and imagery is intelligible as evidence of a serious attempt at seduction. Among other things, this essentially reflects the crude way in which computers, magazines and the Internet bring down a barrage of mediated stimuli: the viewer can only avert his eyes.

Disorientation is a plausible reaction to the lack of decipherability. What is the socially-effective or singly detectable truth in this sheer, endless flood of information? Is truth located within this open network of information units or is it somewhere in between? In Dag Seemann’s paintings, the expectably perplexed viewer ultimately looks into a mirror that reflects the superimposed layers of data.

What makes the whole thing delightful is the circularity that not only invokes a sensibility for what is contiguous, but also for what proceeds one after the other. This applies not least to Dag Seemann’s unique signature style as an individual. Here, he is not at all blind to the present, with its new forms of image behind touch-sensitive glass screens. If we project this concern for new forms of image back into the real world, the basic concerns of life become relevant in the age of computers, though not without reference to the spectrum of clichés crystallising around Bollywood to Babelsberg: erotics. Fragments of fantasy appeal to a cut-up of motifs and a realm of associations:  the beauty of a chance meeting between an umbrella and a sewing-machine on the dissecting-table.

Thomas W. Kuhn, Tiergarten, June 2015