»The Gestural«


Thomas Bayrle, Andy Boot, Christian Falsnaes, Roy Lichtenstein, Klaus Mosettig, Laura Owens, Markus Prachensky, Roman Signer


21er Raum at 21er Haus, Vienna

September 8 — November 20, 2016


Painting is the application of paint onto a surface. Brushstrokes are the constituent parts that make up an image. Unified through the process of painting, it is around these individual elements that this exhibition revolves.

A recent donation to the Belvedere, the painting »Rouges différents sur noir - Liechtenstein« by Markus Prachensky, will act as the starting point for a discussion surrounding aspects of style and the very essence of the gestural. Completed in 1956/57, the painting was named after the Liechtensteinstraße, where Prachensky created it in a studio he shared with Wolfgang Hollegha. Incidentally, this was the place where these two founded the artist group “Galerie St. Stephan” in 1956 together with Josef Mikl and Arnulf Rainer. The painting comes from an initial series of images in which Prachensky painted with red paint on a black background. The color red became a recurring element and something of a characteristic in the works that followed. Prachensky’s work is totally committed to Informalism, which made its way to Vienna from Paris, where it was initiated at the end of the 1940s. The movement was developed in response to the phenomenon of geometric abstraction, with which it shared a rejection of classical concepts of composition. However, unlike geometric abstraction, Informalism was defined by its formlessness and spontaneity. Prachensky was, therefore, mainly preoccupied with the tracing of a gestural impulse and the energy applied to a canvas.

What Prachensky emphasizes in this image is the procedural moment in the production of the image – with all its implications, reaching from unmitigated personal expression to speculation around its echoes of the unconscious. These gestures on a monochrome background come forth as clearly legible and thereby manifest a stark contrast. They are themselves transformed into their own kind of sign, a recognizable symbol of the gesture. This was also employed by Roy Lichtenstein in his series Brushstrokes, which took form between 1965 and 1968. Ironically, using oil on canvas, Lichtenstein transformed individual, overlapping brushstrokes into his typical cartoon style – making, as it were, caricatures out of the spontaneous moment, while also referring back to Abstract Expressionism. In the case of the Little Big Painting Reproduction, the theme of the series was also translated into chromography, industrially reproducing the uniqueness of painting and reducing personal expression ad absurdum.

Thomas Bayrle works with reproductions and the repetition of forms. As in Pop Art, these forms often refer to objects of consumer culture and can thus be read through a socially critical lens. He distorts individual pictorial elements by way of mechanical and digital manipulation; from there arise systematic structures that tend to reflect their constituent parts and so refer to the underlying logic behind image making. In Variations of a Brushstroke, Bayrle appointed the brushstroke as the primary motif. Arranged in differing deformations that amount to a collage covering the entire picture’s surface, this meta-painting questions the authenticity of its expression through its mechanical repetition.

Since 2007, Klaus Mosettig has been translating works by other artists into his own drawings. He projects the works onto paper and, over months of diligent work, records his interpretation into different shades of gray in a way reminiscent of print processes. Despite his elaborate manual process, Mosettig leaves behind no detectable mark of his hand. And yet, he has afforded his works an artistic autonomy beyond the originals they seek to reproduce. This could have to do with the time he invests in his works, which becomes clear upon close inspection. The template for Informel 2 was a child’s drawing. Analogous to the movement mentioned in title, the child’s drawing is an attempt toward direct expression, toward the experimental search for a personal visual language. Mosettig alters the reception of small gestures through appropriation, by copying them with pencil and enlarging them.

Roman Signer is known for his actions, but sees himself as a sculptor whose works deal with temporality, speed, and transformative processes. Pyrotechnics are a recurring element in his oeuvre. In the 2006 video Punkt, he sits at an easel in a meadow, dips his brush in paint and holds it to the canvas. Shortly thereafter, a box explodes behind him and startles him. Jumping at the sudden loud noise, he plants a point on the painting surface. The result of Signer’s premeditated startle-response corresponds almost literally to the transference of energy to the canvas that was realized by Informalism – save that Signer exaggerated this process of gestural painting in order to find an authentic expression of his own.

Andy Boot dealt in the depiction of expressive gestures early on, an example being his work e who remained was M that is part of the Belvedere collection. Boot takes noodles that have been dipped in colored paint and lets them fall to the surface of a canvas placed on the ground. The result is a neo-abstract-expressionistic pattern that dilutes the absurdity of the gestural moment to that of an ornament, thereby caricaturing its dynamism as illusionism. However, his 2012 work Untitled (light blue) indulges in these gestures without a hint of irony. In this work, he draped a light blue ribbon typically used in rhythmic gymnastics within the frame and filled it with wax. The use of this sports device meant to make movement more visible somehow produces something reminiscent of an abstract composition – a sort of meta-painting that points to the gestural in painting, without itself actually being painted.

Laura Owens as a painter is known for both her abstract and figurative works that cross and overlap in their application of different media, while taking a variety of references from art history and elements of popular and folk culture. She often chooses to focus on smaller aspects and details in her images when she tries out new techniques, thereby changing the style once again. The brushstroke as a decorative element and sign, feature increasingly within her works over the past few years. For example, her 2013 work Untitled (Clock Painting) does not stray far from the decorative. In this painting, she has incorporated part of a clockwork in which a hand moves over the image. What is part of the process of painting is also linguistically part of the clock: the pointer is also called “hand” and the strike of the hour “stroke.”  Therefore, the second hand can quite literally be read as a metaphor for the arm that moves while painting on canvas and virtually takes the form of a stroke, enabling Owens’ allusion to time as a factor in the production of images.

Performance being his medium of choice, Christian Falsnaes works with pre-made scripts that he follows more or less, and which motivate the audience to interact. He is concerned with making group dynamics accessible, but also with drawing attention to rituals and norms of behavior, particularly those within the art world. For this exhibition, Falsnaes has developed a new iteration of his piece Existing Things, in which the public is prompted to paint a picture together with a performer acting as the brush. The action effectively dissolves individual authorship into a collective process, leaving multicolored brushstrokes within the exhibition. 

In general, the brushstroke stands alone as a metaphor for art itself and, especially within the contemporary context, can be read with critical reference to the myth of the artist. The exhibition shows how the views of individual authorship, artistic authenticity, and originality have changed. These categories, terms which we use to perceive and reflect upon art, seem never to have fallen out of our collective imagination. However, the possibilities afforded by technical reproduction and medialisation have transformed our attitude towards the nature of the gestural in painting. Gestural expression has recently gained new appreciation because of its unification of qualities that hold something genuine, unaffected, and refreshingly corporeal over the digitization of our everyday lives.