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Taking one’s bearings

Karen Straub

Translation from German by Tim Chafer


Along with abstract colour configurations, it is mainly huts, barns and sheds that Olaf Quantius uses as motifs in his work. These are buildings that commonly attract little interest, marginal entities that, with the aid of an artistic interpretation, are brought to renewed consideration and attention. Quantius’ works are not one-offs, but parts of groups. In these series with in most cases suggestive titles, the artist does not concentrate on minimal variations on a pictorial theme, once it has been found. Instead, the selected subjects give him repeated opportunities to address fundamental issues and observations on the nature of things, of being and of painting itself.

The starting point for his series of pictures are the so-called Fetzen (scraps, rags), which he has been producing since 1999. These go back originally to a larger-thanlife representation of a butterfly that Quantius executed for study purposes at the art academy. After scrutinizing the wings, he isolated in a next step individual patches of colour which he scaled up in relation to the original object. He painted these extracted patches of colour, the Fetzen, on a cotton support, not pulled taut like a canvas on a keyed stretcher, but as a loose piece of cloth. There is therefore bunching and creasing at the edges of the colour patches which imparts tension to the fabric and at the same time to the overall impact of the representations. The image’s support is lifted in places out of its two-dimensionality and given volume. It intensifies the impression of Fetzen, rags, floating in the room, and their irregular outlines with wavy edges suggest plant-like forms or torn scraps of paper. The patches themselves do not take the form of uniform areas of colour, but are in fact given a painterly plasticity by means of shading. Along with these modelled entities, he has also been producing more austere Fetzen since 2003. Axially symmetrical, these highlight the contrast between light and dark shades. As a result of their outlines and their two-part design in a mirror-image arrangement with a sharp-edged vertical demarcation, they conjure up associations of butterflies with spread wings and evidently hark back to the original model.

The Fetzen painted on the loose cotton material manifest themselves as hovering colour entities in an indefinite space, and yet their figures call to mind shapes of fauna and flora at the same time. The colour patches thus straddle the dividing line between abstract and discernibly figurative representation. They stand for a process of transformation of an at first concrete object that, as a result of artistic treatment, undergoes abstraction and increasing removal from the initial model. Inherent in the Fetzen produced since the late nineties is thus reflection on the act of painting itself. The illusionistic character of representational painting and the oscillation between the abstract and figurative are fundamental themes in Quantius’ work and also arise in other series of pictures.

Corresponding to the Fetzen, which the artist is constantly extending as a series and which also appear as visual elements in other works, the series of the Danaides, initiated in 2000, also finds itself in a process of ongoing further development. According to Greek mythology, the Libyan ruler Danaus had 50 daughters from different women, the Danaides.[1] These, at the urging of his twin brother Aegyptus, King of Egypt, were to marry the latter’s 50 sons. Danaus correctly suspected that his brother wanted to kill him in order to claim their father’s entire inheritance for himself. Despite attempts to flee, the Danaides were finally wedded to their cousins. However, Danaus secretly supplied his daughters with daggers, with which they killed their husbands on the wedding night. Although they initially escaped their punishment on earth, they were burdened in the Underworld with the proverbial never-ending task of filling a bottomless or punctured vessel with water.

The group of works of the same name, represented in the exhibition exemplarily by three works, Danaide 16 (bleck), 2001, Danaide 22 (styrofoam), 2007 and Danaide 23 (queensize), 2008, is certainly not intended as a mere illustration of the mythological events. In almost every picture of this group, there are two horizontal semi-oval colour patches positioned at the sides of the picture. Like two poles, coloured in contrasting light and dark shades, they seem to hover in the image space and, while statically poised, waver towards each other but without actually venturing further into the image space. Entering the area between them and imparting a dynamic with their vertical orientation are patches and strips of colour and even real accumulations of colour or blots applied with the dripping technique and reminiscent of splashed water. The classical myth thus becomes an image for tireless repetition, for attending to a task again and again, and for self-reassurance even in terms of the purely artistic and painterly act in the preoccupation with colour, form and image space. This is also stressed by the paintings’ transverse oblong format. Their pronounced horizontal extension thus appears to reflect the lengthy, never-ending process. In addition, the elements of the picture are often cut off at the edges and thus point outside the image space proper and allow themselves to be extended in the imagination beyond the boundaries of the canvas. The untiring creation of the new ultimately finds its correspondence in the fact that the series has not yet been completed, but is being pursued further, seemingly without end: “Art in general today seems to have discovered infinity anew for itself. However, this is not in any sense a reiteration of the Romantic aesthetic of the exalted – of the vision of an infinity contrasting starkly with human existence […] It is the infinity of a constant repetition of always the same in small variations, a continuation as before, an updating […] It is the endlessness of a project of continued living; it can never be completed and can only be abandoned.”[2]

The Danaides express the aspect of inescapability as well as the options and polarity that Quantius sees in the ancient myth. He thus also seems to have considered the theoretical possibility that the Danaides could have opposed their father’s injunction, as at least one of the daughters did.[3] Compliance with their father’s edict leads the Danaides to two extremes of human action: to the unique, irreversible deed and the eternally repeated process. The horizontally and vertically oriented picture elements, the contrast of light and dark, the two-dimensionally applied colour configuration along with splashes of paint, and areas radiating peacefulness contrasting with areas appearing mobile and dynamic refer to the possibility of choice during the artist’s working process: to the decision taken in the individual pictorial work and to the serial creative process.

The optionality, the dualism of an either-or, the intermediate space between two alternatives and the toying with the notion that, once a certain avenue of action has been taken, everything could always be otherwise: these are issues that preoccupy Quantius above and beyond the painting process proper. In Les Chaperons, a cycle of pictures of 2007—09, Quantius turns his attention to couples united by fate. External circumstances brought them together, preceded in each case by a  was to dictate the further course of events. The sources of inspiration for this series of works are manifold. For instance, the title-giving French word “le chaperon” refers to a companion considered tiresome but otherwise necessary who tags along like a kind of shadow. The term has also been in use in competitive cycling since 2007. As a consequence of the doping scandals, the Federation of German Cyclists introduced the “chaperone” system under which the cyclist is constantly accompanied and monitored from the finishing line to the doping control zone.[4]

In his reflections on the idea of the individual being given an inseparable companion, and as the reversal of the striving for a counterpart to one’s own ego, the artist obtained inspiration from philosophical writings. One of these is Peter Sloterdijk’s “Der Urbegleiter. Requiem für ein verworfenes Organ”.[5] In this work, Sloterdijk turns to the symbiotic union of the foetus and placenta. The placenta provides nourishment as well as being a first protector and companion. At birth, the individual becomes separated from the placenta and consequently seeks new forms of protection.

The myth of the divided person also revolves around this theme. In Plato’s Symposium, it is reported that humans were originally composed of two halves and were also spherical in shape.[6] However, the humans enraged the gods, whereupon Zeus split each individual in two as a punishment. Since then, every person has had the urge to find his or her other half in order to become whole again. From the Les Chaperons series, the painting Nicola Fleuchaus, 2007 in particular reveals the moment of a fateful coming-together of two persons in a mutually dependent relationship. In 1996, the then 25-year-old German woman was kidnapped in Costa Rica and only released after two months on payment of a ransom. When one of the kidnappers was arrested, a film was found containing pictures that provoked outrage and even doubts about the genuineness of the hostage-taking. The pictures taken on the eve of her release show the hostage in an intimate  Although some attempted to explain her behaviour with reference to the extreme psychological strain and the “Stockholm syndrome”, others suspected a romance between Fleuchaus and her captor. Quantius based his painting on one of these photographs.[7] Basically replicating the original, it shows  on her captor’s shoulder and leaning against him with obvious affection. The latter, wearing dungarees, a striking striped shirt and peaked cap, is portrayed looking straight at the camera. It is reported that his infatuation had prompted him to have his picture taken unmasked. [8] While the depiction of the kidnapper with his clothing, moustache and facial features is modelled closely on the photographic original, Fleuchaus is portrayed entirely with amorphous-looking areas of colour. Although her head, hair and chest are identifiable in the context of the totality, her outward appearance is basically blurred. Her form undergoes vague and fuzzy painterly paraphrasing in much the same way as her ambiguous attitude towards her captors was reported in the media. In terms of its artistic execution, the picture, an example of the classical genre of the portrait, is in a process of progressive abstraction while remaining committed to figurative representation. Nevertheless, Fleuchaus’ portrait, despite its demarcation in terms of colour, seems to merge into and become united with that of her kidnapper. At the same time, the two depicted figures are linked together against the silver ground so characteristic of Quantius. The properties of the silver paint and its power of reflection endow the image space with a controlled indefiniteness. As a result of the monochrome background, the picture seems detached from any specific place or time, an eternal snapshot reflecting the possible relationship between the two protagonists: It may be purely a dependent relationship in which the hostage’s fate is in the hands of her kidnapper. However, it is also possible that the two individuals — albeit for a short period — had found their other halves. At about the same time as Les Chaperons, Quantius produced another, extremely extensive group of over 30 works from 2006 — 2008. In the nomad paintings, plain architectures of the simplest kind in terms of their execution or appearance now shift into the focus of depiction. Huts, sheds and barns of wood, stone or even corrugated iron, structures pared down to the essential and providing protection and shelter in architecture’s most elementary function. Temporary, often makeshift and certainly not built to last, they are often embedded as solitary units in surroundings devoid of people and any closer definition. The long tradition rooted in classical antiquity of the motif of the hut made of natural materials is undoubtedly called to mind as a metaphor of the simple life in the country and of primeval happiness.[9] Along with the topos of the idyll, there were critical objections to excessive idealization even in ancient times, since “hut construction as an activity is assigned to the Silver and not to the Golden Age – an epoch therefore in which the original paradisiacal state had already been lost”.[10] This fundamental ambiguity finds expression in an entirely distinctive way in Quantius’ hut depictions. With artistic means, he undermines the idyllic by placing the buildings in landscapes consisting of merely suggested vegetation on a silvery ground of aluminium paint and denying these buildings any more definite localization. Only such titles as Scheune bei Oltingue, 2006, and Hégenheim, 2006 provide clues to a more specific location. Just like the variations on the theme of the plain hut, the simple houses like Amboy, California, 2006 and Hof bei l’Escala, 2008 are depicted far from civilization and abandoned. They all convey the impression of forgotten buildings in the middle of nowhere for which no one has any further use. Erected for temporary use and now disused and left behind, these structures resemble relics of a bygone age. With his real and artistic nomadic existence, Quantius takes the viewer into the immediate and more distant surroundings. The artist found motifs for the nomad paintings, initially in photographic form, among other things during forays in the area of Hégenheim in Alsace where he had his studio for several years. However, it is not solely the subject of a picture that expresses the concept of wandering from a point of departure to a new, temporary stopping point, for this is in fact manifested on entirely different levels in the paintings. Notwithstanding their static nature, there is something transient about the buildings, be they a simple hut or a stone house. These are architectures that mark a transition from occupation via disuse to decay. This process of transformation is particularly conspicuous in the pictures Hütte bei Hagenthal and Hagenthal II, both from 2007, that show different stages of dilapidation. The idea of being on the move and metamorphosis becomes distinct as a motif in Ausfahrt, 2006, and in the abstract works of the series and, beyond this, in the painter’s means of expression. An example of the transitory in the mode of artistic representation is Leiterwagen, 2007. We see a wooden wagon with a construction site trailer behind it, framed by firs and bushes. Whereas the objects and fir trees are almost palpable in their figurativeness, other trees, bushes and grass are less sharply depicted as they recede into nothing. The paint gains a noticeable dynamic of its own, culminating in individual droplets that detach themselves from the depictive area and run across the silver ground. The transition, the intermediate state of clearly identifiable objects and abstract elements, becomes additionally apparent in the trees whose purely drawn outlines can be seen on the right-hand side. As a free formal configuration, their contours are inscribed into the silver ground. It is thus precisely the silver, by contrast with the local colours of the depicted objects, that counteracts the illusionistic impression and keeps the entire picture in a state of limbo between abstract and representational painting. Quantius turned again to the subject of the hut in the works series entitled orten initiated in 2007 and still in progress. Unlike the nomad paintings, in which the plain buildings are placed on a silver ground, they are presented here against poured acrylic grounds. With transparent washes, the backgrounds of the pictures now consist of net-like interwoven colour gradients. Against this backdrop, the plain buildings again attain a physical presence like that of living beings, although the abstract colour convolutions now also provide them with points of anchorage. The paintings thus exhibit the meanings inherent in the term “orten” that describes the attempt at localization, the intention to find and define a location. In this process, the soughtfor location itself is not concretely graspable but merely present as a fiction. At the same time, the term expresses the striving for a localization of its own and a system of reference. The localization itself, as expressed in the title, as a potential act, remains obscure. While the possibility of taking root is suggested in the pictures, the arrival, on the other hand, is left open. The localization is thus presented in them as an ongoing process of artistic deliberation and reflection which is also directed at the viewer. In the orten series, the paintings are joined by works exhibiting entirely different materials, namely paintings on woollen blankets. The supports are either red moving or grey-brown army blankets. It is precisely in these works that the act of localization and the attempt to take one’s own bearings is manifested as an option of subjective security. In their warming, protective function, the blankets are comparable to simple buildings in terms of their basic purpose and can even be regarded as rudimentary architectural objects. They are extended into the third dimension with the aid of enclosing Plexiglas hoods. At the same time, however, the painted-on patches of colour undermine the plasticity and spatiality created in this way. The Fetzen (scraps), the motif that launched Quantius’ serial work and emerges as a disruptive element in the paintings in front of figuratively depicted entities in the nomad paintings and more so in the orten series, now become completely autonomous colour configurations. Now with extended means, Quantius thus devotes himself again to the spectrum of painting between the abstract and representational. In his works he creates spaces and visual locations that exist solely within the visual works and at the same time mark a kind of halfway house in the ongoing search and artistic self-questioning as is ultimately also manifested in the concept of the serial.

[1]   Der kleine Pauly. Lexikon der Antike, edited and published by Konrat Ziegler and Walther Sontheimer, Vol. 1, Munich, 1979, c. 1379—1380, with reference to different versions of the myth and sources.

[2]   Boris Groys, “Fragen ohne Antwort”, in: AC: Peter Fischli David Weiss. Fragen Projektionen, exhib. cat. Museum Ludwig, Cologne, published by Marjorie Jongbloed and Kaspar König, Cologne, 2002, pp. 11—16, specifically pp. 14—15.

[3]   Hypermestra alone spared her husband and helped him flee; on this subject: Ovid, Heroides, XIV; see Der kleine Pauly, 1979, c. 1379.

[4]   In addition to articles in the daily and weekly press of summer 2007, see also “Chaperon System”, official announcement of the Federation of German Cyclists (BDR), Frankfurt/M, 17th July 2007, retrievable at php?name=Bekanntmachungen&pgID_ Bekanntmachungen=11&recid=1193 (rad-net. Das Radsport-Portal, official homepage and media partner of the BDR).

[5]   Peter Sloterdijk, “Der Urbegleiter. Requiem für ein verworfenes Organ”, in Sphären. Mikrosphärologie – Band I: Blasen, Frankfurt/M., 1998, pp. 347-401. 6.- Platon, Symposion, translated and published by Thomas Paulsen and Rudolf Rehn, Stuttgart, 2006, 189d—191b, pp. 55

[6]   Platon, Symposion, translated and published by Thomas Paulsen and Rudolf Rehn, Stuttgart, 2006, 189d—191b, pp. 55-61.

[7]   On the kidnapping with the publication of this picture, see “Julio, der Verrückte”, in: Der Spiegel, 1996, 34, pp. 122- 123.

[8]   See Der Spiegel 1996, p. 122.

[9]   See Rainer Schoch, “Palast und Hütte. Zum Bedeutungswandel eines künstlerischen Motivs zwischen Auf klärung und Romantik”, in: kritische berichte. Zeitschrift für Kunst- und Kulturwissenschaften, 17, 1989, 4, pp. 42—59; Joseph Rykwert, On Adam’s house in paradise. The idea of the primitive hut in architectural history, New York 1972.

[10]   Schoch 1989, p. 44.