On the paintings of Dag Seemann
With Filippo Brunelleschi’s discovery of the mathematical formula for the calculation of perspective in the early modern era, the ability to generate illusion is extended notably in painting. In the first half of the 15th century, Leon Battista Alberti’s painterly treatise De Pictura and later Piero della Francesca’s book De Prospettiva Pigendi, which appeared in 1470, form the initial basis of a painterly discourse with these developments. For four centuries, precise mathematical descriptions of perspectival representation in the construction of reality make the ‘figure-ground-composition’ into a formative element in painting. Panel painting develops into the finestra aperta through scientific devices, which, aided by perspectival pictorial concepts, offer a view of a new reality.1 At the beginning of the 20th century – especially after 1918 with the first monochrome paintings by Alexander Rodchenko – the painting is no longer seen as a window, but is extended through theoretical approaches and considerations, which break down the hermeneutics of a purely visual form. The development of abstract painting displaces central perspective in favour of new a layering of meaning and a concrete perceptual experience of space. The structural model of perspectival painting is maintained in cinematic and photographic works, while these stylistic devices of film and photography find their equivalents in painting and enlarge its repertoire.
The fascination with the illusion of the two-dimensional painting ground, which can – only apparently – dilate into three-dimensionality through technique, is elevated as a central concern in Dag Seemann’s paintings. In contrast to Ben Wilikens or Hans Peter Reuter, the artist – born in 1959 – constructs multi-faceted spatial views or pictorial details overlapping in a collage-like fashion, through oil and acrylic paint on canvas. This excerpt-like conception of space is distinctly influenced by today’s mediated perception of the world. By breaking down the surface of the painting and condensing multiple individual images that relate to each other into a total panorama, the emblematic quality of the original motif becomes evident. In this way, he does more than lay open the processual nature of his image production. Multiple-point perspective in his series Room Paintings is, for instance, fueled by an interest in having the viewer decode individual images. Surface and depth of field switch back and forth, defining each other as disruptive factors. The ostensibly irreconcilable suddenly becomes possible. By these means, Seemann draws on the viewer’s unease: the refuge of the home becomes a locus of the uncanny. But what is the point of this, one might ask: as a purely visual puzzle for the viewer?
Seemann is not concerned with debunking our notions of reality as constructed by pursuing the playful unravelling of individual motifs. Instead, he is dedicated to the painterly potential of opposites. Fragments of people and things function as signs of communication in his series Form-Flächen-Bilder. Incompatible objects, forms and portraits emerge like splinters of memory, reporting on a past apparently totally at odds with that currently present on the canvas. As an emblem, the modernist grid is charged with the anti-natural; an amorphous tangle of snakes resists its rigorous structure. Contrast lies between natural and unnatural per se: as though a sterile research laboratory, a kitchen’s antiseptic stainless steel construction clashes with the proliferating foliage of a plant in the painting fp 0115. Two open mouths stand oddly still in a picture within the picture. They find a reified equivalent in the form of a white plug socket. In the series Solitair, traces of a subjective reality pop up in the form of magazine clippings, similar to the ones Dadaists once assembled in pictures. The paintings seem to be coming apart at the seams through Byzantine perspective. An interplay between multiple layers ensues: rectangles and round forms suggest connections to the speech balloons of comics. Even they are not all that bothered and cease to communicate. It seems as if not only language has come to an end. The last sixty years has attested to the same belief again and again: painting, abstract or figurative, is dead. In Dag Seemann’s paintings this dualism survives.
Dag Seemann allows us to solve the enigma of these incongruous antitheses. Communication seems possible. Its disruptions only emerge after we take a second look. This is what provides the allure of Seemann’s paintings. In this sense, they differ from the works of Pop artists, who are motivated by progress and with whom Seemann is often erroneously compared. Seemann is not in the least interested in illustrating the fetish character of the world of commodities or criticising consumer culture. Rather, he is interested in connecting multifarious factors into an impenetrable meshwork of relations. He implies a two- and three-dimensionality through his painterly techniques, and yet with each subsequent glance, the one transforms into the other. The fragmentariness of the different layers of reality places man into focus and provokes us as viewers to be engaged. What is truth? And which reality do we want to believe? Dag Seemann renders multiple vantage points through the canvas as window. This perspective is lost to some while it appears as a reflected mirror image of reality to others.
1 Alberti coined the metaphor of the image as an open window. Cf. Gerd Blum, “Fenestra Prospectiva. Das Fester als symbolische Form bei Leon Battista Alberti und im Herzogspalast von Urbino”, in: Joachim Poeschke/Candida Syndikus (Eds.), Leon Battista Alberti. Humanist – Kunsttheoretiker – Architekt, Münster 2007, p. 65-101.