Thursday, 14 September 2017

The Richter scale.

If you think of anyone when you hear the surname Richter in relation to German visual artists you'll probably think of Gerhard. The octogenarian is one of the most celebrated, critically acclaimed, and, judging by the prices his works go for, richest artists still alive.

Daniel Richter, thirty years Gerhard's junior, is no relation but, judging by the standard of art on display in the Camden Arts Centre, he'll soon be equally revered. This really is a lovely collection of work and there's neither too much of it nor too little. The curators have pitched this just right.

Richter was born in 1962 in Eutin in Schleswig-Holstein, up by the Danish border, but has based himself, mainly, in either Berlin or Hamburg. While it's said, correctly, that he works in both the abstract and the figurative traditions most of his very best work is made when he seeks to reconcile those two dualities. 2013's Haber Akt may be the sort of homoerotic portrait David Hockney would be happy to put his name to and 2009's Winterreise 4 owes more to the influence of Abstract Expressionism but it's when he combines the disciplines in riotous explosions of colour like 2000's Tuanas that he truly comes into his own. It's not entirely clear what's going on in the painting (a drug bust has been suggested) but it's probably not very pleasant. There seems to be a nod to both Manet's Execution of Emperor Maximilian as well as the work that inspired Manet, Goya's The Third of May 1808. A tragedy revisited but this time in shocking, eye-catchingly bright hues worthy of the Fauvists.

Halber Akt (Half Nude) (2013)

Winterreise 4 (2009)

Tuanus (2000)
It's a trick Richter pulls off time and time again. Co-opting art history and other artists but never completely nicking from them. He makes a mockery of the oft-repeated line that talent borrows and genius steals. On first inspection Lonely Old Slogan seems to be a throwback to the days in the late eighties when Richter was designing record sleeves and posters for punk bands and while it is that it's more than that too.
Closer inspection of the canvas and the oil on it reveals what appears to be a nod to Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold - the Falling Rocket, the work where John Ruskin accused Whistler of ""flinging a pot of paint in the public's face" and led to the artist suing the pubeaphobic critic.

Lonely Old Slogan (2006)

10001 Nacht (10001 Night) (2011)

Amsterdam (2001)

Ferbenlaare (2005)
Other works seem to hint at the lewd, lax, nightlife of Germany and the Netherlands. Richter would've been too young to enjoy the 70s and obviously not born during the Weimar era but his grounding in the left-wing punk scene suggests that scenes like Ferbenlaare (is that man lying down in a public toilet?) and Amsterdam may've originated in some form of personal experience.
Pure speculation on my part of course. Though, on viewing 2009's Ohne titel I think it's safe to assume Richter is familiar with Edvard Munch's The Scream. The fact that his work doesn't come across as a diabolical liberty is down to the sheer chutzpah of both the artist and the work. The central figure isn't just screaming at some deep existential angst but running as fast as he can away from it. The tempestuous clouds swirl and rage like a Van Gogh in a hurricane and the painting seems to almost race towards you.

Ohne titel (Untitled) (2009)
It's quite a feat but it's equalled by Richter's seemingly calmer, if actually comparably ominous, selection of border post paintings. Having been in his late twenties when the Berlin Wall came down Richter would be only too familiar with the divisions and problems that such walls and borders cause.
Whilst Richter's work offers no clues or clear answers about modern political problems it does pose questions. As with much of his work he creates his own iconography but there's always a look back to those artists that came before him, the yellow skies of a Turner or the solitary stillness of an Edward Hopper. In Erinnerungen an S.O.36 we're treated to a white masked baddie from a superhero comic attacking a caped crusader against a fence whilst Disney's Snow White lies slumped in front of a window that's opened up allowing us a peek into a darkened, derelict house where it appears something very bad indeed has happened. Sleep well folks.

Erinnerungen an S.O.36 (Memories of S.O.36) (2009)

Grenze (Border) (2009)

Die Grenze o.A.S. (The Border o.A.S.) (2009)

Borderline (2009)
More oddness continues in Because You Have All the Look of Old Crappy Painting, We All Have to Die (a title my mate, Darren, correctly pointed out wouldn't look amiss on a Mogwai album). In front of one Richter's trademark circular windows a man, seemingly, made of fire, gestures to an angry (or, perhaps, hungry) mob of blue peasants who have made their way from a modernist building in the background to the round opening. It's left to the viewer to imagine why.

Weil ihr alle seht wie alte beschissene Malerei, mussen wir alle sterben (Because You Have All the Look of Old Crappy Painting, We All Have to Die) (2005)

Studie zu Das erstaunliche Comeback des Dr. Freud (Study on the Amazing Comeback of Dr. Freud) (2005)
That's the joy with a lot of these paintings. As Richter riffs on both popular culture and highbrow art we feel pleased to see things we recognise, unsettled by things we know to be uncomfortable, and perplexed by things we're familiar with in settings that don't look quite right. Put simply, they make us feel and think and that can't be said for everything that's given gallery space at the moment.
 Tarifa, however, is perhaps Richter's most overtly political work. The crush of bodies in a dinghy floating in an uncertain sea can surely only relate to the migrant crisis. Whilst not as hard hitting as recent exhibitions by Gideon Mendel and Bouchra Khalili it's still a powerful, hard hitting, work. The water is as dark as oil and, we're left in no doubt, it's as deadly too.

Tarifa (2001)

Europa - immer Arger mit dem Sogenannten (Europe - Always in Trouble with the So-called) (1999)
It's atypical of Richter to be that overt in his imagery but that perhaps speaks to how powerfully affected he became by the images screened nightly on the TV news and how confused and angry he was by how quickly we normalised them and filtered them out.
I can't speak for him but that's my take. Sometimes it seems Richter can't even speak for himself. Paintings like Havanna (yes, with two ns) and Asger, Bill and Mark don't appear to be really about anything. Again they nod to the abstract expressionists (if, this time, Willem de Kooning and Asger Jorn rather than Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko) but they also seem to have something of the Francis Bacon triptych or the heavily built up and thickly encrusted paint of a Frank Auerbach about them.

O.O.A. (gesang mit lochern) (O.O.A. (Songs with  Holes)) (2011)

Asger, Bill und Mark (Asger, Bill and Mark) (2015)

Havanna (1997)
Other than Munch, though, the artist Richter owes the greatest debt to, at least in this selection, is his fellow German, the romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. His famous 1818 painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is currently being put to good use in Stewart Lee's wonderfully sardonic Content Provider touring show and Richter, too, has availed himself of the work for his own ends.
Unlike Lee he doesn't go on a hilarious two hour rant about social media, the angry birds generation, and sex toys of bygone days but, instead, turns the colour up to eleven until it looks like Derain has been asked to repaint John Martin's The Great Day of his Wrath and then leaves us to both wonder at the awe of his work and to also wonder what the fuck he's doing and why the fuck he's doing it. The whole exhibition seemed to me to be a celebration of, and a justification for, following your instinct and doing whatever you think is right. Ausgezeichnet.

A Flower in Flames (2012)

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