Detected Dictionary and other Investigations

a Conversation between Stefan à Wengen and Raymund Weyers 

Stefan à Wengen:
You once said to me when we were talking about the relation of painting to object that, for instance, a red billiard ball is in reality a uniform red all through, whereas in a painting this can only be represented by different shades of red. My latest series, Detected Dictionary, makes this point, too, even though these paintings don’t use colour. They keep to black and white, using a sort of grisailletechnique that mixes black and white to shades of grey – like a white billiard ball which, in a painting, would be rendered in various greys. In my other paintings that’s a bit different. I use scumbles over undertones of colour, generally black over other colours, which certainly isn’t realistic. So – a scumbled grisailleincorporating one or two colours, a sort of verdacciotechnique you could call it.

My Hieronymus-Paintings, for instance, is done like that. But I’m more interested in content than technique anyway; technique just serves means and form. I’ve been thinking about St. Jerome for quite a long time. These days this concern with so called „occidental culture“appears downright political. In fact the word “occidental” seems both historically and politically somewhat contaminated. Perhaps oneshould say “Western”.

When I started, as a very young man, art for me was a discovery, thediscovery. I thought then, and I still think today, that art should concern itself with essentials: with death, sexuality, time – compulsory things. I’ve always thought that.  Detected Dictionaryis like a journey back to these beginnings, and from there on back to my current work: a sort of taking stock. In Detected DictionaryI also take up more intensely the question of reflection on art as a universally valid language. 

Raymund Weyers:
What you have said about the fine arts – that they can be conceived as a universally valid language, has in the history of aesthetics often, and emphatically, been attributed to music. That music is a form of artistic expression which, transcending all barriers of language, touches the soul and is, as it were, immediately understood. But if you look at the matter more closely, the universality predicated of music is not as all-embracing as it might seem. You only have to leave the European tonal space to come up against barriers – unfamiliar intervals and rhythms, to say nothing of extra-musical contexts – all of which can be studied and assimilated, but that is not the same as immediate accessibility to ear and mind.

To return, then, to the fine arts: Is it not also necessary here to make a few reservations when one speaks of universality of expression? Words, too, within their own language-region, possess a generally understood meaning, with all their grey areas of connotation and association. That is, after all, the basis for communication. On the other hand there are many different languages, and no one speaks them all. 

You go on to say that art (which also means you as an artist) is concerned with essentials: death, sexuality and other existential issues. Yes, and that’s true of your work as well. But art has its own way of looking at and approaching these things – a complex way that is not easy to determine. For both death and sexuality, to stay with those examples, are also objects of everyday experience and scientific inquiry. Art is different, but what exactly is the difference? I think this also concerns your experience of yourself as an artist, as a “detective”.

Stefan à Wengen:
The artist as detective – now that’s something! If you’re thinking of the title of the exhibition, yes, perhaps I am a detective of sorts, an explorer, a researcher into (my own) art. But in contrast to science, art doesn’t have to prove anything. Artistic experiments need not be repeatable, need not (under the same conditions) come to identical conclusions. As far as art as a universal language is concerned, I grant that you are to some extent right. I thought of this as a thesis I could propose: a fruitful starting point rather than a proven theorem. And here too, as in every discipline (also that of language), the thesis implies schooling in the subject. This is as true of literature and music as it is of art and painting.

The concept of a “world language” was a commonplace of modern abstract painting, and I sometimes present myself as an abstract painter, but as one who paints things – things known in other contexts of life. That’s in contrast to many other contemporaries who also paint things, but in some cases make them so mysterious that they end up speaking of everything and nothing.

My own experience with art as a world language is absolutely ambiguous. I spent some time with the Asmat* people in the jungle and marshes of Papua New Guinea, and I had some astonishing experiences with this question of the language of images and art. I showed wood-carvers some photographs of sculptures by Hans Arp, which I placed before their huts in a series of paintings I called The Mission. A re-import to one of the ur-sites of sculpture, you might call it, in the sense of an act of painterly restitution. 

But this attempt at communication on the basis of art as a universal language proved quite difficult, because the wood-carvers couldn’t read a two-dimensional image which portrayed a three-dimensional sculpture. The continually tried to look behind the photo. Imagine that, in the 21st century!

On the other hand, if you look at their art and put yourself for a moment in their perceptual and experiential world, you find similar issues. Leaving aside the concrete purpose of their sculptures(?), you find similarly existential themes. You have to take into account, of course, that their spiritual universe, which is inhabited by innumerable spirits and ancestral figures, has, as a result of Christian missionary activity, become a complex syncretistic jumble, where concepts of repentance and conversion compete with animistic spirituality.

* The Asmat (Tree People) are an ethnic group of some 65.000 people in the Indonesian provence of Papua, an area the size of Belgium in the Southwest of the Island of New Guinea. Overlapping the Lorentz National Park, this jungle region is interlaced with a Labyrinth of Revers and Marsches and has 200 km coastline of Mangrove swamps.

Raymund Weyers:
What you’ve just been saying about the perceptual and experiential world of the Papuan wood-carvers – that’s what I mean by a frame of reference. Where this is not accessible to us, at least in broad outline, the artwork in question will remain inaccessible and our understanding will be at most inadequate. It is striking, and even for us somewhat comical, that the Papuan carvers stumble over photographic dimensions. Lack of acquaintance with the principles of a two-dimensional image simply blocks their ability to understand. In a way that’s analogous to my example of the billiard ball. What you see with the eye of the imagination when you look at a painting of a billiard ball is in reality three-dimensional and monochrome, whereas the reality before you (the painting) is a polychromatic two-dimensional layer of paint.

What you said about schooling is also important here. A work can be as artistic as you like, but to the eye of the unschooled observer it will reveal nothing. Take a musical example again: many people think a Bach fugue is immediately accessible to anyone, even the pop-music addict, whereas a dodecaphonic composition of Schönberg’s might well need some acclimatization. Bach would be amused. You must, despite your role as detective, be my witness that that is so!

I’ll close for the moment by returning to where we started: that art, unlike science, need not concern itself with proof. That’s true, of course. And yet indirectly the attempt was made to accomplish precisely that: in the guise of a science of the beautiful of the kind elaborated in the mid-18th century by Alexander G. Baumgarten. Only a few decades later Immanuel Kant established the futility of such an endeavour – but that belongs to philosophical theory, and we should return to the Dictionary

Stefan à Wengen:
Undoubtedly art, at some level, needs explanation. Critics have often said that my works are concerned with cultural codes. But I would rather say that they are concerned with topoi. In the arts and cultural studies the concept of topos is used on the one hand for categories – like that of definition, for example – but also for imaginative constructs: fixed, cliché-like elements, set pieces, conventions, commonplaces. I said earlier, and you agreed with me, that art and painting do not have to prove anything. So in their poetic playfulness they can call on a certain communicative unclarity: the sort of connotative haze you ascribed earlier to words. One speaks of the readability of an artwork, and the title may help in this direction. But titles are also part of the game, and that game can be tricky: titles can intentionally lead one astray. Nor is it the case that my works can only be read in one way; my investigations are often intuitive; and here I play on and with the collective memory. That’s also part of my make-up. When I start I don’t even know myself what my detective work is going to be about.

It’s a bit of a truism, but a picture of a skull is first and foremost a picture of a skull. But at the same time it works as a topos, a common symbol of death. In my painting I set out to question such commonplaces. Admittedly I’m guided more by my individual memory here, not just by the collective memory. The „Schnitter“-Paintingscan serve as an example. The old Mercedes cars are in the first instance handsome old-timers. Christoph Lichtin wrote in the catalogue to my Lucerne exhibition, that they look as if they came straight out of a film-set on the Nazi era. But actually my motivation was to create a nostalgic vanitasimage: a backward look, glorifying the past, the desire to hold up time. My own melancholy perspective contains the wish not to die – not to have to die. The real sting about the idea of death is that we’ll miss ourselves, although we won’t be there any more. And despite the title of the paintings, which linguistically confirms, if anything, the communicative content of the „Schnitter“-Paintings, those images consciously – albeit playfully and pleasurably – lure the observer in a wrong direction.

Raymund Weyers:
One of the points we brought up was about the need of art, in this case of pictures, for explanation. One position would be to say a work speaks for itself and needs no commentary. On the other hand experience, as well as scholarship, shows that light can be shed on many aspects of, say, a painting. The question of beauty is different, of course: no amount of commentary or explanation will convince anyone that a painting or sculpture is beautiful. That’s a matter of taste, not of any objective quality of the work: it’s a matter of the impact it makes on the beholder. But to get back to the question of explicability: that’s a given property, but only with respect to those determinants that can be communicated as object-related. So an awareness of the meaning of symbols used in a work can be extremely useful in reading that work, just as signs in general – sensibly perceptible things that point to other things – have always constituted a reservoir of meaning from which artists have abundantly drawn. When people say, therefore, that your work is concerned with cultural codes, they would (or should) be speaking of different orders of codes. Cultures contain codes: object-codes, to use a terminology derived from linguistics, and these are, as such, the object of your painting. The painting itself constitutes an artistic meta-code.

Looked at like that, one can justifiably speak of the reception of an artwork as an act of reading, a process of communication subject to the same caveats that we have predicated of linguistic, conceptual communication, namely the condition of (marginal) haziness. This is by no means an inadequacy to be remedied: in the first place it is virtually inescapable at the intersubjective level, and secondly it can develop a charm and a meaning of its own.

A word now about collective memory and intuition, both of which terms have been used. The first has its counter-pole in individual memory and awareness, as intuition does in reflection. That one has to take account of the individual mind and its many associations, but that these cannot be rigorously derived or charted, is evident in your example of the Mercedes in the 2009 „Schnitter“-Paintings. It may, to an individual viewer, have seemed to come from a film-set on the Nazi era; but associations of that sort are by no means mandatory. And as for intuition – it has always been connected with artistic production, to differentiate this from simple, rationally planned manufacture. 

Let me ask you, now: Where did you get the idea of subverting a portrait (in the basic sense of that word) through cross-fertilization and alienation?

Stefan à Wengen:
You must be referring to Original Gurus. But before we get on to that series I’d like to take up a point you just mentioned – that an artwork speaks above all for itself. That’s a statement I decidedly endorse. That a work may at the same time be open to explanation and comment – well, the present conversation demonstrates this well enough. To what extent an artwork requires additional explanation must be decided in the individual case.

But now, to return to your question: portrait painting actually no longer plays a major role in contemporary art. This may be because photography has assumed that task and can, given its documentary character, perform it better. Yet for me that is a strong incentive to address the issue of portraiture, and to do so as a conceptual painter whose detective work is at the same time emotional and intuitive. All of which means that a portrait must have something a good deal more compelling about it than, for instance, a landscape painting. Because what’s the point of portraying a person, a face, when photography can do the job so much more efficiently?

Moreover, portraits are always images of people, and hence depictions of mortality. So in a wider sense they also, whether painted or photographed, belong under the heading of vanitas. Portrait photography – indeed photography in general – stakes its claim as a genre on documentary evidence: thus and only thus was the face (or object) first seen and then captured in a photographic image. Contemporary portrait painting on the other hand must, in its quest for truth, at the same time address and embrace its own genre. Its obligation to truth is different. There may well be self-referential implications here, as in the series of 49 Geister-PorträtsI painted in 2005, where I implanted evil eyes in the faces, and thus, strictly speaking, committed evil myself; or when I added paternal beards to the faces of my former (now deceased) artist idol. These paintings – and indeed many of my other works – are, in fact, based on collages. I could almost certainly have completed the prior phase more easily on the computer, and then simply printed out a finished picture. But that would have been virtual artwork, and as such quite different from what I undertook when I set out to transfer the analogical models (collages) into painting. That isa process of slow manual toil, but by the same token one of direct and loving application to the motif. In that sense my portrait painting is less a matter of cross-fertilization and alienation than of the pointed excess, the hyperbole with which I maltreat the genre of portraiture. Producing fakes, if you like, which are, however, as paintings at the same time genuine originals.

Now let’s put the ball back into your court, and return to the question of the readability of paintings and their inherent haziness. Anticipating this, I have just elaborated something of the background to the Original Gurus. What would your associations be, then, with respect to the Original Guru-Paintings?

Raymund Weyers:
When I first saw the Original Gurus in your studio I remember asking a number of questions. Who are these heads? What have you changed in the portraits? I was immediately intent on getting information, also about background and technique. It was an individual need, of course, reflecting my own knowledge level at the time. And it concerned objective aspects of the works, not their impact; or, to use an older form of expression, not the pleasure of the viewer in the beauty of the artefact as such.

This need is confirmed in your own comments both on portrait painting and on vanitas, both of which are established categories of art history. Anyone who knows their way around that field has an advantage in understanding your works. Take portrait painting, for instance: you mentioned the threat posed to its primary function – at least in one way of thinking – by the advent of photography in the 19th century. Yes, certainly, oneof its functions was rendered replaceable, and relatively easily and cheaply into the bargain. But is the mimetic function of portraiture its primary, let alone only aspect? The mimetic role of art has been emphasized since antiquity, but as a facet rather than as the essence of the matter. Plato, after all, observed scornfully some 2500 years ago that if mimesis, understood as the faithful imitation of nature, is the measure of all things, then the greatest artist is the man who runs around with a mirror in his hand purveying precisely that. Reduced to the truth of repetition, mimesis generates more questions than answers.

And the vanitastopos (or the symbols by which we recognize it) has a long trail through art-history, too: partly religious, partly philosophical. Depending on the angle you take, it shows up the contingent, transitory nature of earthly existence, or reveals a consciously unreflected notion of happiness – living for the day. For happiness, this alluring construct of the imagination with its ideal of consummate well-being would, if it could ever be achieved, entail perfection in both intensity and duration: a permanent moment, a humanly impossible condition. Permanence! “All joys want eternity” – the concluding couplet of Zarathustra’s roundelay hold no programme for mortal beings: none, therefore, for humans. On the other hand what thinking being is content to give itself up to the meaningless drift of the universe, suppressing the whole idea of vanitasconveyed so powerfully in the symbols of painting: the snuffed candle, the wilting flower, your St. Jerome? With such signs the painter recalls what the young Schopenhauer wrote in his journal: “Take away from life the moments […] of art and love – what remains but a sequence of trivial thoughts?” Art, as I see it, counters that reduction and continues to heave its stones, among them some mighty blocks, up the mountain…

Stefan à Wengen:
Let me continue that line of argument with an anecdote just for your ears. A gallery owner – someone, therefore, whose understanding of these matters should have put him at an advantage – once said to me that as a painter I was perhaps too intelligent. I was flattered, of course, but at the same time deeply annoyed. Because what he was saying was that painting might not bestupid, but it appearsmore stupid than other art forms. Painting may still be considered queen of the arts, but its imminent end is prophesied with oracular regularity; which means, in a linear understanding of history, that it has reached, if not already passed its zenith. In contrast, some forms of contemporary photography seem intent on poaching in the artist’s backyard, inasmuch as they imitate painting, albeit declining its imperative of originality (I’m thinking of spezial(?)editions, reprints of lost(?)works etc.). Painting, in turn, re-imitates that imitation. I don’t want to be misunderstood here: I love the work of some photographers, but it’s generally work that embrace this problematic. I take a stand here: although I find the dispute between the art forms fascinating and enriching, it’s also at times quite amusing. It bears a suspicious resemblance to the Paragone delle arti, the competition, thought long decided, between the disciplines of painting and sculpture.

There’s another point insistently made by one of our art magazine editors here when he calls painting “flat goods”, which is hardly respectful. I show him photographs, prints and videos, and ask: Are these different from “flat goods”? Though I have to admit there are artists who do not reflect on the physical surface that bears their work, and whose paintings go literally over the edge…

That painting entails a level of thinking is clear from the history of art which, as you observed, is shot through with strands of both religion and philosophy. This historical legacy is undoubtedly a burden: massive cultural stones, to use your image.

A final word about imitation. In Luther’s days(?)the ape was the devil’s creature. The Renaissance ennobled him into an allegory of art, and to an image of the artist – a construct that accentuated the naturalness of art and regarded the impulse to create as a natural drive. In that world-picture the primate stands allegorically for mimesis; and if I pursue that thought, every ape I paint could be a self-portrait – if I were to stop thinking while I paint.

Raymund Weyers
Philosopher and Writer. Born 1949. Lives in Cologne, where he has taught for several decades at the University, specializing in epistemology, political philosophy and aesthetics.