“Painting presents me with an unavoidable challenge every day. There are too many impressions, too many emotions in my life, but with the help of art I can get them out of my system, and it’s something that I have to do. It’s all about fathoming out your own limits, and this process of creating a piece of art is frequently akin to walking a tightrope.”
When we contemplate the artist’s pictures, we both have to and want to believe that what he is saying is true. These works are not images of nature, urbanity, society or politics. Rather, they are paintings that portray a conflict which affects each one of us to a greater or lesser degree. They are all about pure existence, survival from one day to the next, the search for the gratification of the senses. They are about gauging personal limits, such as artistic abilities. If we wanted to take this thought further, we could devise the following formula for Thomas Riess’s creativity: painting = existence = painting.
With these two interwoven levels of content and form in mind, it is hardly surprising that in many works we encounter the person of the artist. Unadorned, exposed, head-on. What we are looking at are spiritual self-portraits that depict candidly what can only be expressed by means of artistic abstraction. They reveal the artist’s own cosmos, but the observer’s view takes him into a halfway world. What lies beyond is only discernible as if viewed through a veil. What we assume that we have seen does not originate ad hoc from our reality. And nevertheless it is worth observing more closely.
It is striking that Riess develops the subject matter of his pictures from the small format. It appears to us that the artist is capable, so to speak, of absorbing everything that is going on around him, transforming it and concentrating it in the artistic process and then letting it all out again on 20 centimetre square sketch pad pages, thereby making it visible to us. The result is subtle, compressed images of reality, in the narrower (artist’s) as well as the broader (viewer’s) sense. Motifs cut out of lifestyle magazines and scientific journals, supermarket leaflets and fashion supplements are lined up on the artist’s drawing pad and transformed into completely new pictorial statements. In an age when we are subjected day after day to floods of images made up of mismatched pieces of superficially pallid flotsam, it is a tried and tested means of projecting newly created, intelligent perceptions onto our reality.
Over the past year or so, a clear tendency towards muted colours has been noticeable in the artist’s creative works. Apart from his monochrome pictures with correction tape it is predominantly – in fact almost exclusively – the colour blue that appears in and dominates Thomas Riess’s works. Pale, translucent blue, turquoise or luscious steel blue form the layer against which the artist develops the themes of his imagery. Sure, on the one hand the blue of the background may “melt” into a motif to an indefinable degree. But on many occasions the same blue – and this is not uncommon – may act as if it wants to embrace people and animals, machines and hybrid beings like water. We can only sense dimly what we have seen. On the other hand the background colour is used like a curtain so that – like coloured drapes in a photographic studio – it directs our focus on the motif that has been placed in front of it, thereby increasing its importance and significance. In certain cases the depth and purity of the blue tone is positively striking.
It is not only the colouration that has changed recently: the predominant theme of earlier times – the eye – has successively given way to reflexively controlled respiration. Divers, astronauts and similar beings, equipped with all sorts of protective equipment – tubes, masks, goggles, suits and helmets – now populate the world of Thomas Riess’s imagination. There is no need to establish the physical state of their different environments. The more so as the boundaries between air and water are fluid. And in the same way too the protagonists in this Riess panopticon do not want to be analysed down to the last detail. Much of the suspense in the picture would be lost. Rather, what is crucial is their symbiosis with their surroundings, the question of their sense of space – equally important to both divers and astronauts – and of their own position within this world.
Light & Shade
The artist’s Tipp-Ex pictures, the first of which he produced about two years ago, are similar in terms of content but resolved in a completely different manner in terms of the design. The short angular strokes remind one of a digital filter that appears to be laid over the picture. The lack of colour gives these works a pleasantly graphic note.
These melancholy landscapes too are populated by divers, dogs and technoid figures. The weightlessness that the artist evokes reaches its climax here. Figures reminiscent of star crosses, apparently weighing several tons, navigate effortlessly through space, and two human beings in an elevator (it is impossible to tell whether they are moving upwards or downwards) appear to be travelling into infinity.
If you want to know everything, please take a step back!
They are indeed cosmic powers which drive on the protagonists of Riess’s imagination. Time and time again they set themselves new challenges in order to move on a little in their pursuit of meaning and insight. They are exposed mercilessly to questions about things like inside and outside, brightness and darkness, light and shade. But it must be said that no-one will ever succeed in getting right to the heart of the matter. The mystery of life is too complex.
And the artist? It would appear that there is an inner strength that drives him on, always setting him up for new challenges. It is painting that gives him no peace: for him it means a way of asking questions. He has said to me on more than one occasion that painting is the “discipline of kings”. The design aspect, the ability to implement ideas through art and to master colour/light, space and the temporal level – ultimately it always comes down to fathoming out one’s own artistic abilities. And these are questions that Riess asks of life itself in the figurative sense.
If we wanted to take this thought further, we could devise the following formula for Thomas Riess’s creativity: painting = existence = painting.
Florian Hell (Curator)