Painters emerging in the 1990s found themselves confronting their art’s relation to a burgeoning digital-image culture in a way that corresponded to the response of Pop artists of the 1950s to the early mass media of the postwar era. The latter were challenged as much as disconcerted by the speed and efficiency of new means of communication, which could leave a painter feeling like a laborious laggard, marooned in his ivory tower, beholden to the piecemeal work of hand and brush. The issue for painters of the early digital generation, such as the Germans Franz Ackermann, Michel Majerus and Gunter Reski, was how to formulate a reaction to digital culture’s indiscriminate transformation and proliferation of the visual information it disseminates.
One response was to attempt to compete with the culture by casting oneself as a virtuouso sampler or synthesizer of the imagery that bombards us in the daily run of late 20th-century/early 21st-century Western urban experience. The title of Reski’s recent exhibition, “Das Selbst ohne Ich” (The Self Without Me), derived from lettering affixed to one of the painted collages on paper that densely lined the walls. The phrase is typical of the verbal conundrums that meander through Reski’s paintings. But it might stand as a postmodernist dictum, characterizing the artist as a cultural filter, renouncing his subjectivity to the exteriority of context. Circling in on itself, the phrase echoes the grammatical contortion of a line from one of Rimbaud’s letters: “Je est un autre” (I is another). But whereas Rimbaud was objectifying subjectivity, Reski posits a selfless subjectivity, an oxymoron. Indeed, the aura of pumped-up proclamation and assertion that surrounds Reski’s paintings is neutralized by their dense clustering, as if a single, ranting voice were drowned out by the cries of competing others. The “I” submits to “the many.”
This depersonalization of painterly gesture accounts for the air of disillusionment Reski’s art exudes. No configuration is able to retain its autonomy, its own aesthetic space, before being impacted on by a juxtaposed other, and its hubris qualified. Kitschy decorative abstraction abuts and overlays graphic illustration, words, cartoons and surrealistic vignettes. The contrasts abound so multifariously that all that transcends the local heterogeneity of incident is a sense of frantic, often indiscriminate labor, and a satirical humor that delights in constructing meaning only to negate it.
Although postmodern sampling was the exhibition’s primary mode, it was the fragments of surrealistic figuration emerging from its flux that most distinguished Reski from his 1990s roots. Where this eerie imagery emerged, the exhibition tended to splinter into a more conventional painterly hang, of canvases with a modicum of space around them, as if these images were asserting their individuality against a torrent of undifferentiation, although only to claim about a third of the gallery space for their more relaxed display. Wieder mehr Mittelscheitel (Again, More Center Parting, 2013) is a painting of a toothbrush with its bristles arranged to resemble a 1970s-style center-parted hairdo. Ein Stock Tiefer (One Floor Lower, 2013) shows the upper teeth of a fat-lipped rictus replaced by a luxuriant mustache. The illogic of these images is matched by Reski’s automatic paint application, involving a repetition of generic gestures that veers toward a willful obliviousness of the image described. Here, Reski distills a desperation at the possibility of contemporary image—making into a painterly language, rather than reflecting cultural overload through an onslaught of disparate languages as elsewhere in the exhibition. In this transition, the voice of the conflicted but coherent self began to be heard from within the cacophony of the crowd.