Stephan Berg 2013
Between 1988 and 1989, in the context of a small group of works filled with wallpaper patterns, Stefan Kürten created a painting which at its core already contained the genetic code of his later works. Heile Welt (The Good Life) shows, on a dark blue- green background reminiscent of the oceans’ depths, a painted floral wallpaper pattern, into which small “faults” are incorporated: a smiley face, pictographic representations of a factory, a hypodermic syringe, a house, a church, the words “Religion” and “Jerusalem.” VIEW IMAGE
The wallpaper pattern immediately evokes the sometimes rather stuffy and complacent coziness of the 1960s and 1970s, smelling of floor polish and instant coffee, small, carefully tidied rooms, heavy curtains, and beige fitted carpets. It is a world in which cushions are placed on the living-room furniture to keep it clean and delay wear on the upholstery; a world of crochet placemats and tea cozies. A world in which things have to be cocooned and packaged, not only to protect them from the vagaries of the outside world, but also to protect them from themselves.
The wallpaper is a metaphor for covering everything with a patterned surface which exhausts itself in repetition. But it is also the expression of a coziness which is sufficient unto itself. The smiley face, the house, and the word “religion” incorporated into this abstract pattern again underscore this domestic connection, which is shifted into a darker context with the schematic depiction of a factory and a syringe; here piecework and heroin set the tone. The graphic additions to the wallpaper come across as pinpricks in the shallowness and inconsequentiality of the ornamental pattern, but they also subordinate themselves to it, and themselves become ornamental signs, thus demonstrating the power of the ornamental to incorporate any content into its rhetoric. Heile Welt oscillates between the sense of security promised by the title and the destabilization that takes place on the picture plane. Like the whole of Kürten’s oeuvre, this work walks the tightrope between yearning for home or shelter within a protective interior and the realization that this protective interior no longer exists.
Ornament is one of the basic forms of artistic expression and reflects the latter’s need to order and structure forms which are at the same time mostly symbols and thus bearers of meaning. Modernism formulated a fundamental critique of ornament that culminated in Adolf Loos’s famous polemic Ornament and Crime (1908). This pillorying of the ornamental is coupled with its earlier devaluation and crisis, in the course of which the cohesion which had existed for centuries between work, content, and ornamental composition was abandoned. The ornament, understood as a supplement, detaches itself from its object and, decontextualized and semantically empty, becomes a freely floating, purely decorative quality.
Kürten’s painterly approach to the ornamental links up on the one hand with this historical development, and, at the same time, binds the ornament back once more to its content. The brush always works its way without preliminary drawing across the surface from top left to bottom right, in the process only partly following the projected photographic originals and developing a structure that looks as if it has been knitted, in which every motif loses its figurative legibility in ornamental arabesques, while, on the other hand, each of these arabesques is always also saturated with the form and content of the motif. To a certain extent form, content, and ornamental composition mutually determine and destabilize each other.
In an act of vampirism (so to speak), the ornament appropriates the pictorial motifs, overgrows them, partly dissolves them, and yet precisely articulates the thematic focus of the images: in its gluttonous, proliferating structure, this painting gesture produces not just a strong horror vacui, but also connects thematically to the plants, bushes, thickets, and trees that, alongside the buildings, play the central role in Kürten’s works. Their vegetable growth, which sometimes leads to positively threatening embroilments, is repeated exactly in the ornamental composition of the images as a whole, which often come across as overgrown.
The indissoluble link between object, form, and ornamental charge follows a strategy of pictorial indifference. In the all-overness of the painterly knitted surface, any possibility of understanding an element or a zone as particularly important is lost. In the process, the equivalence of all painting actions and pictorial elements produces not only a carpet-like homogeneity in the painting, but transforms it in the direction of a labyrinthine quagmire. Wherever the eye seeks a firm hold, it gets lost in the depths of the arabesque loops that circle around each other rather than guide us through the work.
The house, the home of one’s own, has been considered since time immemorial the place where the subject assures himself of himself and where he, in returning there, can also find himself. The house in this sense is not just accommodation and protection for the ego, but also the expression of the personality.
The architectural theoretician Mark Wigley has pointed out that the house “is always first understood as the most primitive drawing of a line that produces an inside opposed to an outside, a line that acts as a mechanism of domestication.” 1
If we follow this line of description — which of course also suggests an implicit connection between bodies and buildings, their inner intimacy and their representational rhetoric and facade-like nature—the house repeats the demarcation line between security on the one hand and exposure or threat on the other, a line that also runs between individual subjects and the world that surrounds them.
Kürten’s works deal almost exclusively with houses, albeit not with specific, identifiable houses but with archetypes of particular forms of houses. His interest is as focused on transparent structures of steel, glass, and concrete in which the legacy of Modernism and the Bauhaus are reflected as twee brick-clad or rendered gabled houses, which, in a nostalgic backlash, put their mark on German domestic construction in the 1950s and 1960s. These houses are metaphors of what is supposed to come to fruition within them, namely a form of homecoming in which the ego can find itself again. In this respect, Kürten’s paintings of houses and gardens are affec- tionate. It is not their concern to denounce or ironize the tranquil idylls they depict. The warm atmosphere that lies over them, often seeming heavy with sum- mer scents, is part of a serious, romantic project that deals with the yearning of the ego to return home.
To this extent, Kürten takes up the point made by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who, in his 1957 book Poétique de l’espace (The Poetics of Space) describes the house as a place of shelter, as a cocoon for the subject protected within it, and asks: “beyond all the houses we have dreamed we lived in, can we isolate an intimate, concrete essence that would be a justification of the uncommon value of all of our images of protected intimacy?” 2
But, at the same time, these works represent a questioning of this search, motivated not least by the psychoanalytical recognition of the ego as other. The ego that is no longer sure of itself, no longer “master of its own house,” no longer experiences its own four walls primarily as protection, as a “second skin,” but as a zone that is itself both under threat and threatening. In this sense ornament, as Kürten deploys it, is also an instrument of destabilization of the image.
In the thronging mass of (formally) art-nouveau- like brushed arabesques, the purportedly protective solidity of the architecture breaks down and enters into a porous alliance with the mostly luxuriant garden vegetation in which the sunlit facades, dark shadows, locked doors, curtained windows, and seemingly impenetrable shrubberies, together with the consistent absence of people, generate the eerie solitude of a scene from Pittura Metafisica. The silence that hangs over these dwellings is not only linked to the beneficent tranquility of a dreamy summer afternoon in a suburban garden, but is also the silence of a frozen timelessness in which any possible movement and development has come to a standstill. In this sense, Kürten’s paintings resemble quiet nightmares whose terror lies precisely in the fact that nothing specifically describable happens.
Kürten is one of the few painters who, alongside the more rarely used silver, not only deploy the color gold in their paintings but make it a central component of their compositions. This is risky, because gold is fraught with such an abundance of spiritual, magical, cultic associations that any autonomous use seems impossible.
The confidence which Kürten has developed in the use of this sensitive material primarily derives from his deliberate use of the aforementioned subtexts of this color as an allusion. The artist himself explains that the gold in his early works also reflects the Christian iconography that played a major role in his Catholic upbringing. Today, by contrast, gold for him is primarily a means of giving the light that plays an essential part in all his paintings a dimension and depth of its own.
Gold is the stuff that bestows on the works an almost alchemistic ability for self-transformation. Depending on how the viewer looks at the surface, it comes across as dull, matte, and almost gray at one extreme or supernaturally radiant at the other. And these transformations go hand in hand with a transformation of all the colors in the works. Against the dull gold ground they are bright and fresh, while against a glittering ground they pale, subordinating themselves to the golden radiance that emanates literally from the depths of the paintings.
The gold ground, with its sometimes brownish-patinated, sometimes glittering aura, also creates an implicit nearness to the photographic. Kürten reinforces this by deliberated alternating between positive and negative techniques in some works, enhancing the spookily immaterial atmosphere of the images. The gold ground in these paintings contains an ambivalent promise: on the one hand, it brings the image together in a homogeneous surface — in other words, brings about uniformity. This gives the works an almost corporeal substantiality and cohesion.
On the other hand, the gold tone, changing as it does with the incidence of the light and the perspective of the viewer, also reinforces the unreal mood that suffuses the works. In the golden shine they become unfathomably deep, while if the gold shows its dull, matte side, the works appear almost impenetrable. In this sense, the gold ground functions as a suit of armor for the artwork, embracing the fine weave of the painting and enclosing it in a metal cocoon that lifts it out of the context of banal, everyday reality and emphasizing that these paintings do not represent real scenes but rather memories, fears, and yearnings — in other words, projections. The gold used by Kürten is to this extent the matrix for a painterly understanding that has its origin in the imagination.
In all of Kürten’s works, reference to the boundary between inside and outside plays a decisive role. This structural boundary manifests itself not only in the central motif of the house (which itself marks the demarcation line between these two zones) but also becomes visible in the hedges, fences, and walls that enclose the surrounding area and in the clearly staked-out little allotments and the numerous paved garage driveways and garden pathways that populate these paintings. For the superficial exterior, there is in this work only a multiply convoluted interior. Outside the walls and fences that enclose the greenhouse-like gardens, there is nothing—at least nothing that would interest the painter.
At the same time, the interior that Kürten presents always comes across as deliberately empty of life and artificial. The domesticated nature of the garden veg- etation recalls the arrangements of botanical gardens, for example in Spellbound (2007) and Perfect Day (2001 – 2002). And the houses themselves camouflage their inner lives behind lace-curtained windows and closed garage doors. The protective zones formed by these territories are spaces of a quiet but permanent claustrophobia. They are places which, behind their theatrical and stage-like settings, make the void within them only more palpable.
We have already spoken of the otherworldly silence and ambivalent déjà-vu atmosphere of Kürten’s work. But we have not mentioned the sound with which these paintings are charged. Kürten, who had a successful career as a musician in the mid-1990s with his band Superbilk, also injects a pop and rock musical subtext into his painting via their titles which, together with his gold and silver backgrounds, additionally reinforces the Saturday-afternoon warmth in the luxuriant gardens and the closed facades, the highly emotional and romantic atmosphere of the works. From Ghost Song 2 to Home of the Blues; from White Rabbit — Jefferson Airplane’s unforgettable psychedelic classic via Alice in Wonderland — to 2000 Light Years from Home (The Rolling Stones) and Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden), Kürten prefers musical quotations in whose titles the ambivalence between yearning and fulfillment, bliss and melancholy, is already apparent.
One might say that the artist, starting with his gold and silver grounds, via the specific treatment of the ornament and his clearly focused spectrum of themes, all the way to the musical allusions, constructs his paintings from emotionally and themati- cally ambivalent layers, at the same time interweaving all these layers to form a complex whole. Is the artist asking too much of his works? Not at all.
He gives them, rather, the working temperature that they need. After all, only paintings which are both literally and metaphorically as full as these can, at the same time, be so disconcertingly empty — and vice versa.
1 Mark Wigley, The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derridas´s Haunt(Cambridge Mass. 1993), p. 104.
2 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1957), trans. Maria Jolas (Boston 1994), p. 3.
Stephan Berg, 2013
(translated from German by Michael Scuffil)
Stefan Kürten – Here comes the Night Works on Paper 2009-2013
Texts by Stephan Berg, Lawrence Rinder and Oliver Zybock
Catalog accompanying the exhibition
Stefan Kürten - Silencer, Galerie der Stadt Remscheid
ed. Oliver Zybock
Published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, 2013