Matthias Boeckl / Case Studies / 2012 Ritterverlag Klagenfurt
Elementary Alphabet - About Eric Kressnig
In his work Eric Kressnig has adopted a conceptual approach that is often associated with concrete art. This comparison with similar artistic strategies not only points to the diversity of a ‘faction’ in contemporary art production. It also sheds light on the various nuances of the issues the artist focuses on. For instance, an exhibition with the unwieldy title “Reality and Abstraction 2 – Concrete and Reductive Tendencies Since 1980”, which took place at the Liaunig, a Carinthian private museum, in the summer of 2012, showed Eric Kressnig’s work in the setting from which it seems to stem – and it is here that its subtle qualities become particularly noticeable. Here one could see pioneers of classical modernism, many internationally known big names of concrete art and an impressing number of contemporary artists from Austria. The ‘pioneers’ included Josef Albers, Sol LeWitt and Pierre Soulages and the ‘stars’ of the international scene Imi Knoebel, Tony Cragg and Heinz Mack. Among the Austrians one found – to the extent that regional references make any sense at all in recent art production – next to the many big artists also Hildegard Joos, Helga Philipp, Heinz Gappmayr, Richard Kriesche, Heimo Zobernig, Karl Prantl, Hans Kupelwieser, Jakob Gasteiger, Brigitte Kowanz, Peter Kogler and Eva Schlegel.
The exhibition featured two large canvases by Kressnig, which were hung across from two pieces by Karl Hikade and next to an object by Michael Kienzer. Kressnig’s work was well positioned in this context, which proved useful for comparing the artist’s thematic thrust with related strategies. It is not an art for the superficial beholder. You have to be able to understand and relate to a meticulous, sometimes still ironic working method, which requires a heightened perception from the viewer. To grasp this art more is needed than a hasty, superficial gaze. Kressnig’s formal repertory is geometric through and through. Yet this alone does not say much, since – as we saw above – there is an entire cosmos of constructive art that addresses very different issues. Indeed this sphere of art production shows so many different styles and techniques, even ‘signatures’ as the other, expressive, painterly - ‘realistic’ - group.
Elementary structures, irritations
The difference between both “expressive families” lies not only in their notion of individuality and authenticity, those basic categories of modernism, but rather in the type of artistic sensitivity. The issue is which perceptions and events stimulate the artist and bring on an impulse, which then manifests itself in art production. For many artists, this can be the sensual surfaces and bodies of individuals, animals or plants. For others it can be the world of consumer objects that provide inspiration for the production of artistic metaphors and models of trash culture. And then there are other artists who are fascinated by the endless combinations of the most elementary signs, forms and materials, the possibilities of constructing a separate, almost autonomous artistic world out of these civilizational particles. And only almost, since inherent to almost all of these works is a so-called “reference to reality”, since either the provenance of formal elements or the context of the work conveys such references to the everyday world.
The impulses described last could, of course, be associated with Kressnig. In his case, it could be certain material qualities that activate his creative motor of association or even spatial structures. This sounds abstract but it actually triggers off a very concrete working process. An example: For an installation at Carinthia’s Museum of Modern Art Kressnig took the ground plan as his point of departure. He set about working with a pencil and a ruler, beginning with the white wall of the museum over which he placed a fine grid of lines. In regular intervals he added, in the somewhat thicker lines of the grid, abstract variants of the museum’s floor plan. However, he did not cover the entire wall with these signs of a perimeter block development featuring an inner courtyard and only worked with a U- or G-shaped surface. This large figure composed of the sum total of all variants of the small form, alludes, in turn, to the ground plan structure of the museum. The artist distills and varies a formal system from an existing structure that is not perceived as art which has to do with everyday experience (representation of the building) and reflects the largely autonomous structure – a subtle fusion of various levels and scales of reality in the artwork. Kressnig has found a nice way to describe this pervasive interdependence of all levels of art and reality: “Each completes the other and is completed by the other.”
It would, however, be wrong to assume that a hermetic order has been thus constructed – one from which there is no escape. Quite the contrary: Kressnig lives subtle irritations, and sometimes he even deliberately asks: “How can I disrupt a system?” Of course, this is nothing destructive, and it is not the destruction of a given formal law, which undoubtedly exerts a certain fascination. Rather, it is, as noted above, a subtle irritation. For this one could also cite some examples, like the series of colored pencil drawings, in which simple geometric shapes govern one’s first impression. There are irregular squares, arrow forms, triangles and the like. They are situated in a precisely drawn frame consisting of pencil lines that come together in the corners. Even their own outline has been precisely drawn with a pencil. Their inner surface, however, shows the irritations mentioned before. These have been executed as a strangely whirring texture of parallel lines drawn close together with a colored pencil in various intervals and in various shades of color. The nuances have been finely coordinated – either there are shades of yellow-brown or sounds of red and blue, elegantly placed over the surface like a carpet with a tightly woven thread structure. Yet – and here’s where the irritation lies! – the colored parallel lines are not oriented after the outer edges of the triangles and rectangles but have been slightly tilted at a minimum angle. Thus a sort of unclear zone emerges on the inner side of the contour lines – where the “order” of the picture begins to slip and the hatching moves towards the edge without being able to actually hook up with it.
What is a picture? What is painting?
Kressnig pursues this play with systems, their order and irritation, with material qualities and their inversion in a great variety of techniques and media. The artist’s media portfolio ranges from drawing, print graphic and the canvas to objects. In the exhibition at the Liaunig Museum described at the beginning of this text there were two object-like acrylic paintings set in extremely deep wedge frames. Instead of the usual thickness of a few centimeters, theses paintings are 14 cm thick, which gives them a box-like look. This is the artist’s first step towards a radical anti-illusionism, which does not interpret the painting as a depiction of this world or another one but rather reveals an autonomous entity of material and proportions, which develops its own regularities. The elements of the resulting object are painstakingly separated and then presented to the viewer in an orderly fashion. The picture surface is the first element – an unprimed natural canvas whose sensual haptic quality is enhanced in an almost ironic way by means of a “deeper” wedge frame. The second element lies on this surface, namely the painted picture – a thin layer of paint. To make it easier to recognize the quality of this layer, the painted surface is revealed – to the left, top and to the right a very narrow strip remains free between painted surface and the outer edge of the painting so that the canvas is visible here (in slapdash publications of these paintings this frame is left out.) On the lower edge the unpainted strip is broader, almost a fifth of the painting’s height.
Yet what is a painting, what is painting in a more general sense? Painting is a composition of colors and shapes that can be related to each other in certain proportions. In order to visualize it is best to take the most basic and clearest shape – a square. Like shapes the colors also have to be brought close to the zero point – for this Kressnig uses a very limited palette of shades of gray and bluish-green. The third element of painting is proportion. And even in this category Kressnig offers the most fundamental solutions: The ground or horizontal line is identical with the boundary between painted and non-painted parts of the canvas. In one picture the rectangular shapes standing on it create a square through the horizontal sequence, thus offering a basic presentation of static form. However, in the second picture the rectangles that are lined up next to each other extend in a quasi ‘dynamic’ way over the entire picture. The proportion of this field (ca. 1.2) corresponds almost exactly to that of that of the canvas – tilted by 90 degrees, alluding to the fact that it could also work the other way around. Kressnig has actually continued this intelligent series of paintings with horizontal stripes as well. Thus these canvases can also be seen as a commentary on the possibilities of painting and the picture – but not necessarily. One can also enjoy the elegant accords of color, the precise construction and the meticulous, evenly thin layer of acrylic paint. Kressnig’s works are endowed with both an intellectual and a sensual layer – they are both: action and reflection.
Kressnig is interested in working with the basic categories of artistic production on all levels and in a number of dimensions. While he was in Salzburg on a Rudolf Hradil graphic grant he also experimented with lithography. Here he created several series which, as was to be expected, addressed the basic structures of the medium. This also included format. In the history of lithography several standards have evolved, as for instance, the “Baslerstab” – a stone measuring 37 x 43 cm. Kressnig literally spells the structures of the medium by printing monochrome surfaces in pastel shades on top of which he has placed black type for maximum contrast. The word “Stab” (bar) appears several times on the sheet slightly off kilter. Or there are several monochrome surfaces without a further motif, printed on top of each other so they appear offset, which results in interesting accords in hues of gray-green-yellow. As a reference to a specific location Kressnig once again includes a ground plan – which this time is the Salzburg Ursuline Church by Fischer von Erlach, whose strikingly triangular ground plan stands alone on the sheet as an abstract motif, now thickened and blurred through the reproduction process. For the final exhibition of his study stay Kressnig printed posters that consistently address the most fundamental irritations which the medium – printed letters – is capable of. In the reproduction process they can be misprinted so that what is printed appears offset on the sheet – a classical misprint. And in the type the most fundamental error is that of the distorted position of the letters – Kressnig’s posters show this precisely – letters that were misprinted and turned 90 degrees that only allude succinctly to the content and to nothing else: “KRESSNIG IM TRAKLHAUS MON 5. DEZ 18.00”
It is clear that an artist with these interests deals intensively with the phenomenon of type letters. This minimal signifier of the smallest unit is not just fascinating because of its linguistic-semantic function. It is also a formal element. And the combination of a ‘given’ form with a diversity of contents, especially in a ‘molecular’ level, is of course a big challenge for Kressnig. His answer to this phenomenon is the template as the individual linguistic molecules are reproduced identically in everyday use. They can also – to further simplify them- be stripped of their irregular, curved elements and reduced to rectangular shapes. This is precisely what Kressnig does, thereby creating a separate type that is in a sense paradox. By eliminating the “individual” dimension of writing – italics, serifs, drops – and replacing it with “neutral” geometry, it creates a sort of art-writing which, however, was the artist’s invention. The subjective thus becomes the objective and vice versa. Such inversions fascinate Kressnig and he continues them in a logical way on the formal level, by painting pictures on canvas using his type templates. The letters are arranged horizontally along the middle axis of the picture – already this first decision regarding composition is geared to creating inversion effects, since it suggests a horizontal reflection possibility. In addition, the upper half of the picture is gray and the lower is white – and in the second painting it is the opposite. This homogenous background in turn requires that the type, depending on the area in which its parts stand, must be inverted, that is have the opposite color of the ground since it would otherwise disappear in it. The result is semantically confusing, since the type is hardly legible, but the structure resulting from this is rhythmic and beautiful. So what we have is a new paradox inversion – semantic vagueness results from formal clarification and reduction but on an aesthetic level this vagueness manifests itself as clarity and beauty. It could be seen as representing a classical philosophical triad between the material, the sublime and the beautiful. In addition to these obvious aspects these unassuming pictures also have a number of less striking qualities that attest to the vibrancy of the artist’s paintings. The color surfaces are not completely uniform - the gray is not just gray but also yellowish, just as the white is. The edges of the painting are underscored through a narrow strip on the frame, which is painted in the respective complimentary color of the given area. And the canvases are also painted on the side of the wedge frame –as a “continuation” of the front side in the color of the related section of the painting.
From a closed to an open system
Kressnig’s method becomes particularly visible in a very unassuming series of drawings that the artist created while on a study trip in Frankfurt. The artist refers to it as an “open system of 8 sheets”. Here one doesn’t see much, only a parallelogram-like shape made of black lines. Two horizontal parallel lines on the top and bottom – in between there are nine slanted lines that, however, do not touch all of the horizontal sides. For instance, in one sheet of the series the horizontal lines are too short to be able to meet the outermost slanted vertical lines on the left-hand and right-hand side. These simple shapes strike the viewer as so bereft of meaning that while searching for visual stimuli one is literally forced to take a closer look at the sensual-haptic structure of the works. So this way one discovers the irregular application of the strokes, their soft ends, with some of the surface covered with thicker line and even some small surfaces left empty. But somehow it does not look as if they were drawn with a soft pencil and a ruler. Indeed, it is a “mediatized” drawing since it was pressed on paper with the classical transparent carbon paper. This imprint is in turn not a creative act of drawing but a sculptural one, which explains why Kressnig says: “This is microscopic sculpture.”
The minimal deviation turns the closed system into an open one. This is one of the basic elements of Kressnig’s approach. It is also a symbol for freedom and endless artistic imagination. The clearer and stricter the system is, the more dramatic the deviation from it seems to be. In the exhibition in Carinthia in 2012, described above, another piece, one by Michael Kienzer was also on display next to the two paintings by Kressnig. A number of boards, like those used industrially for interior construction (wood fiber, pressboard, glass, etc.) lie here, stacked in any odd way on the floor. On a side edge of these rectangular boards there is a further board made out of the same material standing upright, glued down, so that a sort of sculptural spatial corner is created with the angled wood joints, the board leaning on the wall. This is what makes this wall figure different from an outdoor sculpture, which would stand freely in a space. The slightly tilted leaning on the wall is, however, also a contradiction to the square connection of the boards. If it were really a right angle, the object would not be able to lean on the wall and become a freely standing sculpture. The title of the piece is thus “18 x 95 degrees”. That is 95 degrees and not 90 degrees. A wall figure, not a freely standing sculpture. Kressnig seeks out such tightrope walks. His canvases in the same space are both sculpture and painting, their composition is at once static and dynamic. That is to say, an artistic system, which begins to move through slight changes and opens up. The precondition for the discovery of these facts is precision, consistency and curiosity. Classical artist’s qualities, which Kressnig certainly has no lack of.