günther oberhollenzer'

On the attempt to draw time.

An approach to the drawings, collages, and videos of Thomas Riess.

“Forgetting the world to live in his work, the artist creates a world in his work.”
Friedrich Spielhagen (1829-1911), German writer

Again and again language hits a brick wall when it comes to writing about art, describing or interpreting it. Especially in the case at hand, this seems to be a special challenge. How can one, in a text of manageable length, approach an artist such as Thomas Riess, whose hundreds of drawings but also videos and paintings present a multi-layered, heterogeneous creativity and where every single drawing contains entire stories? Riess knows a lot to tell about his artworks. But should the genesis, the artist’s inspiration, his intention be revealed at all? Does one not rob art of its attraction, its enigmatic character?
At the same time, the reader wants to get to know the artist’s intellectual world in order to gain an easier access to the work in question. The following text is based on conversations with the artist and attempts a tightrope walk. Without any claim to completeness, I would like to describe a few essential aspects of his creative work, hoping to kindle curiosity about his works while, at the same time, maintaining their necessary openness and variety of interpretation. I consider my take on this less a discourse on art-analysis than a personal approach, carried by an immense excitement, especially for the graphic works – an artistic medium, which, in the contemporary art scene, is sadly overlooked.

It is both the artist’s privilege and skill, nourished by experience and knowledge, to imagine his own world, with his own rules and laws – a creation which at the same time reverberates in our life and tells of our existence. Thomas Riess is such an artist. Riess is a collector, a collector of images. Countless pictures taken from magazines, brochures, newspapers, and old books can be discovered in his fundus. They are a source of inspiration and material for ever new drawings, paintings, and collages, which reveal his personal view of the world. In an artistic analysis Riess works on and changes the footage he has encountered in order to “question the relation to reality” in an autonomous act of viewing, as he emphasizes it himself. Our reality is governed by media-generated imagery. Whether a commercial subject or “normal” photography – it (almost) always appears that the way we have to see something has already been prescribed: a certain perspective is set, a distinction is made between fore- and background, up and down, a concrete meaning is suggested via carriers of meaning. This is what Riess seeks to counter by breaking conventional patterns of viewing. Photography, painting, and drawing enter into a symbiotic relation in his graphic works. By overpainting the artist isolates details and assigns new meaning to them, he makes abstract (and yet somehow concrete-looking) blots appear and collages different photographic snippets into unusual pictorial contexts. Riess gets to the bottom of the pictorial structures and strives for a “more objective” perception of the object, by e.g. tracing all existing lines and contours of a photograph with a pencil or painting over all the green tones of a forest landscape with white acrylic paint. In this manner, every detail receives the same value and attention, whereas the painterly confrontation adds a new significance to the image and the formerly green forest in his work “Scan” now looks like a winter landscape.

Riess is an excellent drawer, his graphic works appear like the artist’s loose, freely recorded thought bubbles. Especially in the connection of drawing and painting, photography and overpainting, drawing and collaged photography he plays with conventions of view and image, illusion and reality, with the image and its perception. Signs that are carried by soldiers in lockstep are painted over by him with dark color, he erases people from the photographs only to leave their shadows and reflections, he puts a Star-Wars-mask on the head of a saint’s figure or transforms the towers of the city council of Vienna into readied missiles. The artist operates skillfully: often, one does not know (or, at least, not at first glance) which details are manipulated or where the photographic material morphs into the painted. Overpainting takes place quickly and deliberately without any “clean” execution – thus, the unpainted spots are given space and single parts of the image are put into a tense dynamic to each other. An essential part of the creative process are the titles. Riess decides on them in the act of producing, while he is working, whereas the combinations of word and image are left open to a free process of association. All graphic works are understood as autonomous works by the artist.  The primary, basic contention takes place in the area of the graphic, whereas some motifs and ideas are adapted into the large paintings and the immediate and sketch-like yields to a planned arbitrariness with a more emphatically formulated pictorial language.

The creative process of an image becoming itself in both graphic and painting can only be surmised by the viewer; above all, he/she only sees the static “final product”. The videos “I am I am not” and “Time” represent the artistic attempt of making the pictorial-graphical process visible. “I am I am not”, for instance, is composed of 2730 individual photographs, crafted within about two months and assembled into a rhythmical sequence. The video offers deep insights into the intellectual world of the artist: In an unfiltered manner, Riess unfolds how he composes and works on an image, inserts a collage or paints over the latter. It is rare that an artist allows the viewer to look over his shoulder so readily. However, one should not mistake the video for a documentary. The very act of artistic production is declared a work of art here: The video knows neither beginning nor end, it does not simply present the finished product and the way it took to get there, but presents constantly changing, ever emerging and overpainted drawings and collages. “What is thrilling and challenging about this type of work”, according to the artist, “is that you cannot prepare a concept, but that you have to react spontaneously to what you discover.” As a consequence, there is not, there cannot be, respectively, a closed narrative, narrative elements surface, but they are not consistently pursued. Even if, as a viewer, one cannot understand or decipher all the images in the videos (and supposedly is not meant to, as the attraction of a work of art is often found in its mysteriousness), the poetic and melancholic pictorial language – wonderfully emphasized in “Time” with the help of the song “Valtari” by Sigur Rós – is hard to resist. Quotes from films and popular culture (e.g. the “Anonymous”-Mask) blend with references to art history (“memento mori” motif) to form a critical self-inspection of mankind, an existential confrontation with change and transience, with annihilation and rebirth. But no later than the appearance of a woman in a bathtub at the end of “Time” does it become clear that not everything is dead serious. One is pleased to notice that Riess likes to avail himself of humor and irony (as well as a comic-like language) in his work and thus does not support the misconception according to which art has to be dead serious, as the joke would then be on profundity. His fantastically surreal image cosmos teems with comical and quirky, but also grotesque and peculiar notions. And so we become completely submerged in the world of the artist – a world which can be read as a self-assurance of his creative process, but also as an attempt to graphically capture and record the time spent for this process.

Time and again pictures of the artist can be seen in the videos, occasionally they can also be found in his individual drawings. For more than three years Riess has taken pictures of himself. He plays various roles, his picture is less representative of himself as a person than of the man himself – the artist as test object, always available and analyzable. The human essence lies in the eyes, the mirror of the soul, which is why Riess wears mirrored sunglasses. The inner “I” remains concealed and his person becomes a surrogate, a shell or mask which we, as viewers, can slip into. Even more frequently than we encounter his self, we meet deep-sea divers, astronauts or other protective-suit wearers. These motives provide the golden thread through the work of Riess. Soaring in airless space, isolated and alone and occasionally connected by tubes, these characters appear lonely and helpless, too, in their not further defined environment. Astronauts’ or divers’ equipment allows them to advance into inhospitable territory, they can only survive if they do not get into direct contact with the latter. The suit becomes an artificial, protective second skin which symbolizes the border between the human (the inside) and the environment (the outside). Man and machine, individual and external mechanic, the biological body and its technical enhancements are reflected in drawings and collages, where the gasmask – also a popular motif – reminds one of the human respiratory process. “Breathing is an act of primary polarity”, Riess argues, “similar to the sequence of 0 and 1”. Through breathing in and out, what is out is transformed into what is in and what is in is transformed into what is out and the border between “self” and “outside” is suspended and overcome.    

The cranial bone has fascinated mankind ever since and Riess as well. In the world of art, it is a popular subject to confront the viewer with transience and death. The reception and depiction of the skull has already become part of popular culture. No longer fraught with meaning in the latter context, it is often reduced to a superficial (shock-) effect. Still, the confrontation with death is still a taboo topic. “Today, death is omnipresent but we do not take it personal”, Riess emphasizes. In his works death appears as the personified admonisher for the finiteness of existence, e.g. as “The Good Shepherd”, or, in completely new guise – in “Meeting Point” (what a fitting title), he wears a stylish suit and carries a cellphone, the model’s head was painted over with a skull. The photographic commercial subject (“Peek & Cloppenburg” has deliberately not been glossed over) experiences a new meaning via the artistic interference, not without leaving space for a wink, however. Riess does not want the skull to be reduced to a “memento mori”-thought. For him, the head, especially the skull, is the carrier of the brain and with that of thinking and acting, of being and also of soul. He forms the material shell for the hardly graspable human existence, the bones are, after all, the only body parts that outlast the time of our life by far. Riess refers to the skull as the “carrier of the central control” or as a “vehicle of transportation” and so it is not surprising that they “look less like an anatomic study than the substructure of a spaceship” in his new “Tipp-Ex-Works”.

With the superb device of inscribing (masked) faces and bodies onto a black canvas with white correction tape, Riess expands the traditional notion of painting with a both exceptional and cunning component. But also the graphical work, which this catalogue focusses on, is in no way inferior to the Tipp-Ex-Works from an artistic perspective. The smart interplay of different media and meanings, the fascinating dialogue between painting, drawing, and photography, the deliberate deception and simultaneous sharpening of perspective as well as the exuberant richness of the artist’s ideas challenge us as viewers ever afresh. However, as always, the word remains on the surface, it cannot replace the visual experience and confrontation directly in front of the artwork.

Günther Oberhollenzer (Curator Essl Museum)

The conversations with Thomas Riess took place in summer 2013.