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Lelia Driben - es

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Modernity and history in culture: two spring-mechanisms present in the work of Wolfgang Scholz

On the first two visits done by the person who write these notes to Wolfgang Scholz (Dresden, Germany 1958) studio; it was necessary to overcome a very steep spiral shaped stair, so that, for a moment, one felt like an improvised equilibrist. Once upstairs, there is a terrace that leads to the spacious studio, whose walls of glass establish a continuity with the open space of the roof terrace. In the studio and, as though they were a box of surprises, appear one after the other the pictures; nearly all of a large format.
Since those first experiences (if one can understand the observation of a picture as an experience, both passive and relatively active at the same time), up to the present moment, there is the playfulness of memory such, that it probably lies, or is mistaken, when one says hat the first pictures that afternoon –of the first visit – were red. Whether this is true or not, I do not know and it is unimportant; what is important, is to associate by contrast, the intensity of the color with the melancholic atmosphere of that afternoon, with the space of suspense that the disposition of the objects created: nearly all the pictures were turned toward the wall (leaned against it); in addition there were one or two chairs and a small table. The artist was not present.  Wolfgang Scholz was in his country of origin: Germany.
The backside of a painting, especially if it is covered, can provoke simultaneously, somber feelings and their counter part; the promise of what vibrates in its chromatic colors, and the composition of what is painted or drawn on the canvas. Thus, what is hidden by the back of the canvas, and its revelation there after, introduces us to a transit space of uncertainty. It plays with the moment of waiting and the consummation of our gaze upon the painting, which is pleasurable if the picture is well resolved, and more so if the piece connects with the eye; for reasons that our conscience cannot explain.
Returning to the theme of memory, one must say the obvious: it is always retrospective, which can become a limitation. At the same time one nearly never is true to what is remembered, and therefore, one often invents and /or changes the facts. Memory has, in addition, its rhythms and variable associations, which show different mental states from a pause -the pause of the one who thinks and remembers - up to the immeasurable vertigo that mental associations can become in certain states of madness. This to the degree that it impedes, breaks and puts speech in suspense, as well as logical discourse.
Wolfgang Scholz owns a painting called “About Love” which is the central part of a triptych, whose figure- apparently a man- is leaning on a white and red background and opens his mouth in a circular form to shout, the scream of the madman (see the novel “Aquí llega el sol” of Antonio Marimón, Collection “El Guardagujas”, Published by CONACULTA).    
In the third and last visit I made to Wolfgang Scholz’s studio –this time accompanied by him and by Isabel Beteta his partner- the stair of improvised trapeze artist had been replaced by another, more conventional one and not at all curvy. There, and after crossing the terrace, one could see leaning against the wall two large paintings similar to each other, recently painted; both really impressive. The title of one of them is “Two Hanging Figures”
(“Dos Figuras Colgadas”). The background is red on the lower side and black on the upper right, two figures hang upside down on a sort of iron tube or board, in such a way that the heads hang down and seem to be “about to crash “, says the painter. In another part of the canvas, about center, red mixes with white to create a clearer area which enriches the global image and gives restfulness to the pictorial content.
That clearer space looks like a blind window, closed to the exterior and at the same time insinuates it, transforming it into the clue to the enigma, because it makes reference to something that “is” perhaps in the depth of the back plane, or even beyond it, cutting it virtually.
Wolfgang Scholz tells us that he introduced that lighter area once when the sun was shining on that part of the canvas. Thus we are with a concrete fact (beautiful too), one that can be narrated, that comes from the painting’s environment, and that has the artist as its closest and most intimate observer.
But, I insist, we have that which is relatable, but this comes, in terms of testimony from outside the picture itself, and acquires a formal character inside the picture itself, which is something that increases not only the multiple possible meanings, but also the enigmatic condition of the intrinsic language of painting.
In fact that lighter area can open a field of semantics and at the same time make visible the fissure, of the limits between surrounding space and that which happens on the canvas.
¿But does this really happen? Or does the possible anecdote derive from the multiple and inevitably ambiguous, and therefore arbitrary meanings? Let us not forget the both springs –the ambiguous and the arbitrary - are constituents of neo-figurative painting.
In relation to this I would like to mention that Scholz production oscillates between the neo-figurative and abstraction, but is, closer to the latter. Thus, if one thinks of the centuries of figurative painting, we find here a reminder of symbols that can be recognized. Symbols, we should remember, were mostly absent, in the huge adventure of abstract painting that characterized most of the 20th century. In such a context, all the other, few, components of the painting that we are commenting on, are in this sense, equally ambiguous and arbitrary.
It is also so in relation to the fiction or making of his art, that Scholz’ production establishes a kind of narrative sketch, that can be read as a speculative derivation, a mere reference to the pictorial image.
In parenthesis: can one speak of a fiction when one is looking at an abstract picture? I would say no; I would say that it is more a matter of “artifice” in the context of the description of figurative form and figures, whether these are abstract or figurative; because abstraction, which is allowed, permits us to read in it, that which I called above one of its signs: that which is arbitrary, the non-reference and the liberty to envision and recreate. Here lies the true possibility to create (although the idea of creation in the sphere of aesthetics is always polemical), without losing what Roland Barthes calls the second reading, which is the inherent nature of criticism.
Thus visual abstraction can be analogous to poetic construction –if we keep in mind the different codes. In fact, as is known, artwork has no language of its own, when criticism is exercised on it. The methods of approach come from philosophy, history, sociology, literature, semiotics and psychology.
But let us return to “Two Hanging Figures” that we were commenting above. In strict terms, if we leave the title aside (which could be interchangeable, and look at the painting, be it seen by those who observe the picture, or by the privileged observer: the painter himself), there is nothing in it that can make us think that the figures hang from a metal or wooden tube: what we see is a thick line from which the figures hang and the good structural articulation. We don’t know either if the thick line is due to a formal configuration or if it is necessary for the meaning of the painting.
I believe that, aside from filling the composition’s balance of the painting it is essential because- I insist - it allows the figures to hang from it; that is, it allows for a first narrative reading of the picture, even if fragmented. As for the meaning, there are at least two possibilities:  Do the figures hang because they are being abused, or because they are trapeze artists in a circus? As is obvious both answers are pertinent.                                  
A few paragraphs ago the word “characters” was used for the figures. In strict terms, this word would be adequate for a realistic scene, which from a structuralist theory point of view, is composed by forms and figures. But, in fact, those characters or human figures are no more than suggestive spots that fit into the global proposal of Wolfgang Scholz’ work, as we already mentioned: his closeness to abstraction, and therefore being far (even though not completely) from that which is figurative. One could say that the black spot in the upper right corner of “Two hanging Figures” is threatening, as though it would cover with its impulse, the figures; and will blacken the whole surrounding.
Before finishing the analysis of this painting; (I would like to mention another one whose title “Two Figures in Space”, is very similar to the previous one; only the spacing of the figures within is different). I would like to point out that I see in Wolfgang Scholz a closeness, an inheritance of Georg Baselitz. Not that there is a direct influence of him that I know of in the paintings we are analyzing. Generally Baselitz uses neo-figuration, as well as expressionism and the inheritance from romanticism, with a different intensity than that of Scholz, who in some way contains the romantic-expressionist aesthetic in a way we will later describe.
I would say that this artist paraphrases Baselitz when he turns some figures up side down. On the other hand, the elder painter is more outspokenly dramatic than Scholz, and in that measure his pertaining to the historic German expressionism is also more accentuated.
Yet, I insist, both authors, each in his proportions (and I am not establishing parallelisms), fit into that long dramatic inheritance of expressionism born even before romanticism and constitutes one of the axis of German painting and culture.
The protagonist of these notes goes far from the romantic-expressionist Germanic tradition, without cutting with its inheritance altogether. I insist: if we think that the two figures could be either prisoners or circus trapeze artists, so the uncertainty generated by this double possibility, places Scholz painting in the scope of modernity, in this fissure with the illusion of what is being represented. On the other hand if we accept the first interpretation: the tragedy implied in it, we can see a relationship to Goethe’s Werther. I would say that Scholz production is conceptually born after the Werther, as well as after both the expressionist tendencies: the historic one and that of the eighties.
What I mean by “after” is: that there is skepticism and a recollection in the memory of the cultural reserves, that are at the base-or beginning point- of the style that can to be seen on the canvases of Wolfgang Scholz. This is not a minor enterprise, it is a working with that which lies in the deepest parts of our being, to simultaneously search and consummation of a unique work. This artist carries within himself the spirit of the German culture and existence, but elaborates each painting within his own code.
There is a canvas called “Fight in Yellow” whose surface is totally painted in yellow. The central figure, festively grotesque, hits with his foot another less well-defined figure. All of this with a good dose of humor, as though he were under a circus tent. The first figure looks like a clown, and the second one has taken on the role of an anti-hero, given his collage clothing, which makes him look like a “pariah”. Could it be  ¿El Quijote and Sancho Panza? Probably; in any case it is both playful and grotesque; if compared to the picture of the hanging figures we find again the double possibility of interpretation one tragic (prison-torture), the other playful (circus-trapeze artists.; and both interpretations are equally valid.
If post-modernity happens after an “incomplete project” as Habermas says, namely that of modernity; then we are, in fact working with left-overs (or fragments) and in this context –if there were is such- one may well ask how does one work with left-overs: ¿with what active conscience of death, with a map integrated to creation and to a life filled with signs of death? ¿Do we show death in our work directly or indirectly? ¿What is our concept of emptiness if we still are the protagonists or inheritors of modern society and culture? That which seems to be the reply to one of the infinite aspects that form 20th century culture is the use of the body as the material for experimenting with, either in direct form or in an elliptical one.
Perhaps we would never have imagined the negation of language understood as body-language that falls on to its own unknown interior suspecting an emptiness, both concrete and deviated, as in the Dadaist actions which change without annihilating; a concept of repetition, joined to a fusion between subject and object. The body becomes a motive to experiment with oneself visually, in an “expanded field” where culture and society intermingle.
Wolfgang Scholz works with these fragments or left-overs, but his activity goes at the same time beyond them, in a sense further and closer to a historic and cultural frame, so that this artist’s place is of a classical code within modernity.
One aspect that can exemplify this is –such as the image formed by only space and figure-that acquires suddenly a new twist: one of absolute lonesomeness or nearly absolute lonesomeness in which one can see as characteristic which the present time.
On the other hand Scholz softens these expressionist characteristics in various of his paintings, as though he were looking for a cease –fire, a warm place with sun where cultural and personal memory can move.
Still, and it is worth repeating, the unspoken signs of German inheritance, as a whole remain in this author’s artistic production.
With echoes of the Sturm und Drang, Scholz elaborates chaos according to the resources and aesthetic values of modern time. He uses for instance collage and mixed techniques; thus his surfaces are full of a variety of character traits – among which are the gestures and the thick paint surface – which are, to a certain degree a way of experimenting with space.
Let us now see what happens to the human figure in this artists work.
This painter and filmmaker recovers the human figure, and in doing so, he is reacting to one of the great proposals of modernity. The past century altered the contours and anatomy of figures until these nearly disappeared.
(The battle was headed as is well known, by cubism, as well as the fauve movement and the already mentioned expressionism. To these we can add futurism, el Suprematism and Dadaism. Such was the destructive impulse, and reconstructive one under new aesthetic laws that Picasso returned in the twenties to painting classical anatomies. This is also true for Francis Bacon, and in Mexico José Luis Cuevas, Francisco Toledo and Melecio Galván, all of them bring the deforming and transforming actions to extreme limits).
Back to Mr. Scholz production so that we can see where he fits in to this mosaic of the 20th century.
This painter sets the focus of his refined iconography on the human figure. There are no anthropomorphisms in his figures; instead we see slight sketches of something that looks like a spot and at the same time gives the spectator a feeling that these amorphous bodies are in fact human bodies. They are metaphorically men and women that in sleep-walk move through the picture space, or plunge into it quietly. In this way, space multiplies its functions. Sometimes it is nearly exclusively a support plane, other times it establishes complicity with the figures, acting like a mirror in which the figures look at, and play with each other, compete among each other, get near or move away from each other, insinuate intimate encounters in which eroticism unfolds, softly, insinuating, getting lost in the textures and transparent paint layers of the surface.
Surface is the bed, the place which softens the emptiness and takes on the role of a home; a home with light sparks that harbor and exposes that which is uncertain and veiled, house-home inhabited and made dynamic by the two figures. All these opposing traits come together in Wolfgang Scholz’ pictures; as does the restitution of the human figure that had been cast out of large parts of the 20th century painting
I would like to insist: the spots and/or stroke that represent the human figure in Scholz’ canvases question but do not degrade these figures. They are treated with a certain compassion, a playful rhythm, and despite their not being realistically portrayed, there is at times certain elegance. At the same time there is a return to the primeval when the figures are drawn – if we understand drawing as in the midst of a painting as a sketch.
Let us take another look at how these figures behave in space.
There is a painting called “The Couple” (“La Pareja”) whose background is yellow, in which two figures play with each other establishing a remote resemblance to realistic portrait. These “individuals”, are in fact more a scribble and mirror other scribble that surround them, in what could be their unique language; a language devoid of explicit content, and fixed in its strictly non-referential condition. There is in “The Couple” a coherence between the playfulness of the figures and the dynamism of the way in which they are drawn. There is, as well, in the collection of works that we are analyzing two horizontal paintings in which red is the predominant color, which are part of a process used to get to another canvas, a squarer one, whose white background holds two dark gray figures. These three paintings together complete the process, in which the treatment of the paint and of the image opens two cords of the poetic function. In the red canvases the color is thinly layered on and its modulations generate a lyrical feeling of the marriage of space and figures. On the other hand the white canvas with gray figures called “Africa 2”, insinuates more movement of the figures and these are clearly limited (hard edge); creating a contrast between the shapes and the background. In other canvases space acquires a certain thickness that, together with the posture and definition of the figures, suggests a discourse minimally inclined toward poetical prose. Thus the roughness with which the paint was placed on the surface, the contrast between black and white, and the dynamic position of the figures, seem to symbolize the coming together of prose (in the roughness la and poetry (given by the colors and the figures’ construction).

In the triptych “About love” figures have amputated arms (roughness). In the same painting, as in several of the works, one could say that the recourse of letting paint drip as happens, is one of the elements that add to the tonal and poetical gradations. Lastly, there is a feminine figure of the right side of the triptych that makes an arch with her back with her hair falling. It is, simply said and without further comment, a beautiful painting.

So once again I insist that there exists a tension in Scholz work between the tragic condition of deformity, and the refinement that gives a certain restfulness to the dramatic traits. There also is a complicity between figure and space against forsakenness which is also space for happiness.


Lelia Driben, is an art critic and curator. Born in Agentina. Lelia Driben received her bachelors in modern literature and history from the, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina and did her post-graduate studies in Mexico City (UNAM). She was founding member of the Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL) de la ciudad de México; curator for the Cultural Institute of Mexico City. She has been an important art critic for several art journals, and teaches at the Universidad Iberoamericana modern art analysis. She lives and works in Mexico City, Mexico.