Art

When a Survey Show of Contemporary German Painting … Isn’t One

The curators of Now! Young Painting in Germany have to ask themselves how a survey of German contemporary painting justifies a disproportionate representation of certain art academies.

Installation view of Now! Young Painting in Germany at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz; Sabrina Haunsperg, “Ohne Titel (2019) Oil on canvas 90 x 110 cm (image courtesy Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz)

CHEMNITZ, Germany — On September 21st, the exhibition Now! Young Painting in Germany opened at a satellite of the Kunstsammlungen in the south-eastern city of Chemnitz. It includes 53 artists and roughly 180 works. Distributed among three additional institutions in Bonn (Kunstmuseum Bonn), Wiesbaden (Museum Wiesbaden) and the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg (the latter opens in February 2020), every artist is represented with three or more works in each location, bringing the total amount of paintings to a whopping 500.

Installation view of Now! Young Painting in Germany at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz; from left to right: Hannes Michanek, “Astronaut level people making alien deals” (2019) oil on canvas 100 x 85 cm; Hannes Michanek, “Pearl. How awful(-y) kind. Thought the fox of sky, Day in and day out, looking down on a daily life” (2019) oil on canvas 160 x 150 cm; Hannes Michanek, “Dusk” (2016) oil on canvas (framed with glass) 140 x 80 cm; Viola Bittl, “Ohne Titel V,” oil on canvas 180 x 160 cm

Now! is a painting exhibition of epic proportions and bold claims. According to the curatorial statement, the exhibition is “an endeavor to determine the current status of the medium.”  The show is structured around three criteria as described on the official website: The curators consider painting as a strictly two-dimensional “image” that cannot include “spatial installation” or multi-media work “without paint.” All of the participating artists are born in the late 1970s or after, and finally, all painters are either German or currently working in Germany. In addition to these restrictive rules, one other peculiarity of the exhibition is that most of the included paintings are abstract, large scale, and vertically aligned (roughly one dozen paintings out of 180 were hung horizontally). These choices make Now! less of a survey of contemporary German painting than a statement in favor of a particular type of painting.

Installation view of Now! Young Painting in Germany at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz; from left to right: Jonas Weichsel: “Wandarbeit 5” (2019) Airbrush and acrylic on wall; right: Benedikt Leonhardt, “Ohne Titel (CCD-MR/VD-CYD-1),” (2019) oil, acrylic, vinyl paint, colored pencil, tape and spatula on canvas 240 x 172.5 cm; Benedikt Leonhardt, “Ohne Titel (WF-G-QM/QV-AB-2),” (2017) acrylic paint, adhesive tape and putty on canvas 242 x 195 cm (image courtesy Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz)

A handful of artists like Henriette Grahnert, Vivian Greven, Sebastian Gögel, Aneta Kajzer, Monika Michalko, Anna Nero, and Kristina Schuldt deviate from this path and venture into representational painting, while acknowledging their flirtations with abstraction. For example, the subject of Aneta Kajzer’s “I’ve Got No Brain Baby” (2017) is a humanoid creature with animal traits: large, inflated nostrils without any nasal bone, exposed teeth that are interrupted by a bright red area — like fresh blood in the corner of its mouth — and brush strokes that evoke fur. It is an inherently violent and captivating painting, where drips and splashes do not serve a purely process-driven purpose. These marks stem from an abstract visual vocabulary, but Kajzer brings them in dialogue with her ferocious sitter. Together, they form a frayed unity and lay bare the pleasure of looking at a painting that bursts at its seams.

Aneta Kajzer, “I’ve Got No Brain Baby” (2017) 160 x 145 cm, oil and acrylic on canvas

The Chemnitz exhibition is spread over four floors and after a while a feeling of déjà vu starts to settle in. Paintings by Andreas Breunig, Ina Gerken, Jana Schröder , Alicia Viebrock and Max Frintrop draw attention through their stylistic similarities. As it turns out, all of them are from the Düsseldorf Art Academy while at least three of them studied under German painter Albert Öhlen. The curators of Now! have to ask themselves how a survey of German contemporary painting justifies a disproportionate representation of certain art academies. Is it because these schools have more talented painters? What do we learn about the “current status of the medium” through such a selective lens? And why does Now! emphasize process-driven painting, while excluding works that in terms of their content tackle our troubled times?

Daniel Schubert, “Ohne Titel 25 (Shimmer Series)” (2018), 170 x 150 cm, acrylic on canvas

There are moments in the exhibition when a sense of déjà vu is replaced by the realization that what is made now is not necessarily new. Daniel Schubert’s work “Ohne Titel 25 (Shimmer Series)” from 2018 bears a striking resemblance to a 1998 painting by United States artist Steven Day. This is not to suggest that Schubert borrowed the idea from Day. Rather, this situation is a useful way to illustrate that if painting is limited to two-dimensional image-making, as suggested by the curatorial statement, it will eventually cycle through what has already been covered at one point in time. Maybe the way forward for painting is to encourage a young generation of painters to experiment more and play safe less.

Steven Day, “Untitled (naples yellow/raw umber)” (1998) ( 10.5 x 7 x 2 in oil, wax and gesso on wood, 1998 (courtesy of Gallery Nosco)

In this context, it is ironic that one of the few artists who goes against the curatorial dogma delivers one of the strongest works in the Chemnitz show. Franziska Holstein’s installation “Ohne Titel (32)” consists of 32 small paintings arranged in a grid. Holstein presents a visual symphony in which no individual piece gets drowned out by another. Her installation is a carefully orchestrated arrangement abuzz with color, tonal shifts, endless variations, and considered improvisations. Though the work is composed of vertical pieces, Holstein opted to install her work horizontally. This makes it a real stand-out within this almost-all-vertical exhibition.

Franziska Holstein, “Ohne Titel (32)” (2019) 195 x 290 cm, acrylic on paper,

Now! demonstrates that painting in Germany is alive and well, confident, masterful, even playful and inventive. Some repetitive work and particular schools of painting aside, this survey was long overdue. It unites painters from all corners of Germany and by doing so it embraces diversity and inclusivity (24 of the participating artists are women; many others are born abroad). Yet the curatorial team is too concerned with answering what German contemporary painting is. By doing so, they forget to ask what painting can be and where it is headed. Some of the artists in the exhibition raise this question and thanks to them we leave the present behind to follow them into a future of greater artistic autonomy.

Now! Young Painting in Germany continues at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz (Museum Gunzenhauser), Kunstmuseum Bonn, and Museum Wiesbaden through January 19th. A smaller selection of these works will be exhibited at the Deichtorhallen Hamburg later next year. The exhibition was curated by Prof. Dr. Stephan Berg, Dr. Frédéric Bußmann, Dr. Jörg Daur, Dr. Alexander Klar, Anja Richter, Lea Schäfer, and Dr. Christoph Schreier.

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