Monday, 21 March 2011

MARTIN GALLE: Post New Leipzig School

I first encountered the paintings of Martin Galle in Sharon Butler’s report on the Volta Art Fair in NY, on her blog, Two Coats of Paint, on the 8th of March. Without knowing anything about him, the work illustrated, Return of the Mac (2010 - 90 X 120 ins, oil on canvas) instantly stood out for its enigmatic content, its technical dexterity, its poise or touch. It was love at first sight, really. The work was not about the quick and easy or obvious, unlike most of the selections, but nor did it feel wilfully obscure or merely esoteric. Rather, it rewarded attention to careful differences in treatment and iconography.

I later found gallery commentary interpreted it as a portrait of a graffiti artist (such as Galle, apparently) with a carrier-bag full of spray cans - a fairly cheerful salute to covert painting of a dubious kind. ‘Mac’, presumably was his tag, ostensibly, the surrounding ground, his target. Although there was nothing to actually identify the contents of the carrier bag as spray cans and tagging the ground in a wood only begged more questions. Painterly treatment of the wood hardly guaranteed that the brilliant colours to the ground were the work of spray cans, and the elaborate disguise hardly seemed warranted in such seclusion. It called for a rethink, a long look. It guarded its approach, much as the character in the foreground guarded their identity. But there was definitely a whiff of the deep and different.

I somehow sensed he was not American, in a way that, I did not, for example, with (German) Manfred Schneider, whose work was also included in Butler’s selection. It did not surprise me to learn subsequently that Galle was German, around thirty, and from Leipzig. Although it did surprise me he had recently completed a master’s degree, supervised by Neo Rauch, and that he is based in the famous Spinnerei complex of studios on the outskirts of Leipzig, where Rauch, his wife, Rosa Loy, and associate, Tilo Baumgartel also work.

Galle’s work has none of the emphatic, linear quality one associates with the New Leipzig School, whether Rauch (particularly the 90s work), Ruckhaberle, Eitel or Baumgartel, few nods to stolid print illustration or graphics, or to art history, little of the emphasis on architecture or design. Instead, Galle often uses frankly photographic sources, something shunned by the New Leipzig School, as well as wilderness settings, cartoon characters, such as Mickey Mouse, acrylics (rarely used as a rule), spray paint and gestural abstraction, in various combinations. The work varies greatly in scale, technique and theme, falls into small groups, suggesting a skittish, restless temperament. Potentially, Galle claims a much wider ambit, asks something quite different of painting. Possibly the work deserves the title of Post New Leipzig School.

Then again, at this stage, it may be that the artist has simply failed to focus his enthusiasms and indulges a formidable technical facility. It is probably too early to tell. Looking to his gallery’s website (ASPN - also based in the Spinnerei) I found about a dozen examples of Galle’s work from the past few years, and via Google, older work, with which to glean some sense of a project.. Further research revealed Galle’s emergence has been flagged for the past few years, on the Artlab site, on Florida-based art consultant, Misti Wilson’s blog and currently with the publication of Rising: Young Artists to keep an Eye on! by Olaf Salie, amongst other sources.

With the Rauch connection in mind, I could detect some influence perhaps, in the use of stereotypes and public or theatrical gesture in Anbetung (2010) or Verzweiflung (2008) and spectacle, such as Rummelnight (2009) and Lady Transformers (2009) with their fairground settings. But where Rauch constructs an implausible, even surreal tableau that taxes the picture’s style or integrity, Galle favours a looser, more disparate construction that holds little of that tension. Instead, his works tend to distance or disperse the person, so that they are no more than a literal construction, as in Man with a Beard (2009) or Kleiner Sommeridiot (2010). There, one does not deal with people in difficult situations but rather, people themselves present a difficulty. They are merely abstractions or substitutes at best, incapable of a real situation, mere games or toys. Hence too, the distance to the figures in Anbetung (Worship) and Return of the Mac with their remote locations, their disguise or performance. The person is kept at arm’s length in his approach.

Nor is it coincidence that these two examples situate the figures deep in nature. The contrast is not so much between the natural and obvious, opposed to the cultivated and concealed, but rather with the conspicuously posed versus the discreetly composed. The wilderness settings are equally subject to arrangement, simplification and stylisation. While based upon photographic sources (light contrasts and tonalities preserve this) Galle strips them down to a quick impression or deft technique. They are an impression of photography, at its most natural. The picture becomes a hasty, if bravura, over-writing of realism, an opportunity for sweeping amendment or forestalling more demanding engagement. The echoes with graffiti thus carry through to painting generally, to a view of the artist as furtive editor, casual adjustor of unwelcome orthodoxies. If graffiti is not necessarily evident in Return of the Mac, it is explicit in the spray-can gestures of Brand 2(2010) and Shen Long is Coming (2010) as well as earlier works such as Untitled - or Donald (2006). Elsewhere, Galle toys with spray stencils that similarly impose themselves upon a more traditional, even kitsch landscape, as in Liquor Sunset (2009).

Yet, while these examples grant graffiti many of the values of abstraction and an implicit appeal to fundamentals of painting, they nevertheless resort to glib and juvenile gestures, the mark of the petulant and selfish. As a détournement, it is a bit of a dead end. There is a telling correspondence with Galle’s depiction of people as essentially tokens or toys, requiring only superficial engagement, appealing to simplistic roles. In this respect, painting points directly to character and character is on the run and undercover. And in this respect, Return of the Mac acknowledges both a troubling psychological dimension and an implicit aesthetic, in ways earlier work cannot. The cartoon eyes on the cap worn by the figure, for example, signal this aspiration to a loveable icon, a comfortable mask, but the bulk beneath it now illustrates the baggage that goes with it. Whether it signals a new maturity and growing integration of the artist’s interests remains to be seen. In any case, the New Leipzig School stands to be renewed.

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