Michael van Ofen
Oeuvre and World (Werk und Welt)
Podcast: Matthias Danberg & Michael van Ofen
ERGÄNZUNG UND VERBESSERUNG
Ergänzung und Verbesserung is the insidious title of Michael van Ofen's solo exhibition at Sies + Höke in Düsseldorf. Works from 2019 to 2022 are on view that often seem to be composed of only a handful of strokes, and yet activate entire experiential and visual spaces. One recognizes things and gestures, one recognizes attitudes.
There is, for example, the sparsely sketched figure of a horseman with a lance "Untitled" (after Gustave Doré). It is Don Quixote, the tragicomic literary figure of the 17th century, who has repeatedly been the subject of works of art. In this case an engraving by Gustave Doré from the middle of the 19th century. Its composition is the starting point for van Ofen's painting. It is immensely apt, when he chooses Quixote as his subject, a fictitious figure who cannot distinguish between truth and fiction. Role-playing games fascinate van Ofen; his painting is itself one. "The 19th century," he is convinced, invented pasts. He doesn't mean this reproachfully at all - and approaches it with curiosity and respect. His portrayal of Crown Prince Friedrich-Wilhelm of Prussia he calls "The Symbolic Extension of the Self from the Prospect of the Early Contemporaries. Colored Textile Application in: Anton von Werner, "Emperor Frederick as Crown Prince at the Court Ball 1887", 118 x 95 cm, 1895". What is here somewhat jokingly labeled like a scientific investigation, is in fact a radical reduction of this almost photorealistic painting from the Berlin National Gallery. The figure that stands at the center of the composition from 1878 is broken down by van Ofen to those colored fabrics that say something about the rank of the crown prince. One sees details such as trouser strings, sash, cuffs and collar, nevertheless the whole genre of the courtly image is immediately there - and the attitude of the Prussian nobility at the height of its power in the Wilhelmine Empire.
Excerpt from press release
The Campaign as Administrative Representation in:
Anton von Werner, "Graf Moltke in seinem Arbeitszimmer in Versailles", 2022
PODCAST in conversation: Matthias Danberg and Michael van Ofen
music: Apex Twin
Sitting together Michael van Ofen, professor, painter, artist. Matthias Danberg, former student. There is a conversation going on. Painter, artist perhaps.
We are talking today on the occasion of an exhibition about your work, life and things of interest. I just said, you were my old professor, and that expires next year. But the exciting question is not only, just as a professor, but whether being a professor has also been reflected in the work.
This painting here in the corner I had made for the group exhibition Korea and Münster. I thought it hung in Korea, everyone thought it was good, hung in Münster everyone thought it was good. But then came the class. Then came the elite fighters. Trained by me. And they pointed their fingers at the bad spots for so long, the bad spots, "No way, Mr. van Ofen. Cool painting from far away, cool painting. But if you get closer, that's not your level, not your standard."
Taste is a cheap word. It's hard to define.
I see something and I think that was great. A nice car shape, a nice house, a nice woman, a nice picture, a bad, ugly person, ugly, an ugly car. That goes quite quickly, intuitively, of course, but is then linguistic, conceptual, intellectual, partly also to justify, derive and put in a somewhat larger context.
Abstract painting is quite arbitrary for me, I can't say anything about it. And then, of course, the noodle metaphor should be used again.
It can all be very difficult once you've gotten stuck and can't get out of it. And I got stuck there, in the self-deception. And needed the corrective from the outside.
It needs mental distance, time, emotionality, also that it has subsided. That it is no longer boiling, no longer burning inside me. I would call that mental distance.
I started painting here in this room.
Michael van Ofen
Figurative oil painting. And I emphasize figurative. No abstract stuff. Anyone can do that. I can't perceive without figuration. I cannot see. Man does not dream abstractly either.
Michael van Ofen
Our neighbor, back then, in Altenhof, that is, the neighbor of my grandparents, he actually painted in his parlour, which was otherwise never used. Quite unpretentious, kitschy, but nicely recognizable oil paintings. Chapel at King's Lake. In addition, there was a strong olfactory imprint.
There were two rooms in my childhood that had an impressive smell. A really foreign, exotic or pathetic, impressive smell. What had a very strong imprint on me, that was this room, the parlour where he painted, and of course the Catholic church, with proper incense.
What made me suddenly stop everything in 82 and do what I had never really done before. Seriously as art, where I had no idea, where I was helpless, clueless. That was certainly one aspect, to find corrective there.
A nice anecdote: In 2012 I was at the documenta with students for the last time, but I only got as far as the Fridericianum. Somewhere, second floor. Clusters of visitors in front of the text panels, not a single sow in front of the work next to them. Nobody trusted his own perception. Nobody looked there and first tried what do I see, how does it taste? That was a shock for me.
Reading the text hinders your own honest, authentic perception.
Take the weapons of your opponent. Collect them and make them your own weapons.
Concept ideas. Game. Role play. Exhibition title. Image title. Playing with pseudo seminar program. Image titles that are three lines long.
That was an important step.
Transcript from podcast
The pathos is damn important to me. But it has to be a pathos with irony.
That was clearly the case in education, in the academy. There were the role models. That was the list of names from Buchloe, Bren, Escher, Michael Escher I was a big fan of. Until today completely underestimated artist. Palermo. Marcel Broodthaers.
Now just when you get a little older, maybe for ten years I still sometimes have the feeling Oops, now the circle closes. Because what you got into your head as a student, as the ideology of modernity, you can no longer get out.
I mean that I recognized relatively early the imposture, this idea of progress, the falseness. I no longer believed it. That also began to dissolve in the 70s, until the idea of progress was completely off the table. With the beginning of wild painting, that is, the 80s, was the last great paradigm shift. There was only money. Success. One fashion, the next fashion. Without compelling logical consequences.
Museums are full of old stuff. In all epochs you can find beautiful paintings. That is all that counts. That's where I start and the last beautiful paintings, just the ones without consecrated big aura without the big names, that was the most pleasant.
Completion and improvement, these are very large fields and I had so many projects in my head that wanted to be done, to be completed. Improved or very specifically improved, as with the painting back there, in the corner, is actually this time, in a stricter sense conceptless. Potpourri. Each painting must function for itself alone on the wall, lonely and alone, or it is not a good painting.
Two almost identical paintings, painted a decade apart: Le conteur arabe (2006) and Virtue Turn (2016). The second painting is a colour inversion of the first.
Michael van Ofen describes himself as a realist. He cannot make things up, he points out. Since the early 1980s, when he turned away from post-minimalism, to which he was still attached in his student days, van Ofen has based his paintings on existing pictures. At that time, he consciously threw everything contemporary overboard and resorted to the final period of painting before modernism. In the works of lesser-known 19th-century masters he continues to find content of solid composition, which he reproduces, albeit in his own style: "Ready-made painting", he calls it. Sceptical of appearance and content of the original paintings, he often does not even like them himself. What van Ofen does is not glorification but sober appropriation.
Le conteur arabe was created in 2006 and refers to a sketch of the same title by Jean-François Millet from 1840. Millet's sketch, in turn, reproduces a section of a ceiling painting from the Musée du Louvre, Léon Cogniet's L'Expédition d'Egypte from 1832. It depicts a scene from Napoleon's Egyptian campaign, in which the emperor surrounds himself with artists and scientists who are in the process of plundering and evaluating the Egyptians' ancient art treasures. In Cogniet's original painting, a good two dozen people can be seen; there is a bustle of activity. In Millet's sketch there are three. Van Ofen has reduced the motif to a single male figure in motion, in front of which - only implied - another person rests half erect on the ground. In the original painting, the upright figure is a depiction of Jean-François Champollion, the later decipherer of hieroglyphs. He is holding the Rosetta Stone.
Van Ofen, who describes himself as a self-taught painter, because in his art school days he did something entirely different, did not choose this motif for reasons of content, but for formal ones - one could say instinctively. After an initial, more precisely painted version, he lays loose brushstrokes over the figure, developing it further and further into the abstract, simplifying and reducing it. This process holds the real work for the artist, here he wrestles with himself, overpainting, correcting and starting again, until his self-imposed demands are met and the result appears intuitively "good" – or the work is discarded; a fate that used to befall a good 50% of his paintings.
Ten years later, van Ofen returns to this image – or rather to its digital reproduction. "Photoshop," van Ofen explains matter-of-factly, "Ctrl + i." This allows the colours of an image to be inverted into their opposite, similar to a photographic negative. Light becomes dark, warm tones become cold. The artist thus opens up a colour palette that does not exist in 19th century painting and that he himself would never have "invented". In this way, he forces himself to leave his comfort zone. He paints the digital inversion true to detail, retaining the individual brushstrokes of the original as well as its degree of abstraction. The basis here is no longer Millet, or even Cogniet, but his own work. For van Ofen, Photoshop is a tool like any other. "If Vermeer had had Photoshop, he would of course have used it also."
WERK UND WELT, THE DUALITY OF EVERYTHING
Apr 9 – 21, 2022
After more than 20 years of collaboration with Sies + Höke, Michael van Ofen presents his first exhibition exclusively devoted to murals. In doing away with the canvas and creating monochromatic lacquer paintings directly on the wall, van Ofen is returning to an idea he first exhibited in the late 1970s, when he was still a student in Gerhard Richter’s class at Düsseldorf Academy.
The mural he made then, an entire wall covered in glossy white varnish, reflected the light from the opposing windows.
It is the same precision that marks van Ofen’s three murals on the gallery’s top floor: the three rear walls of the exhibition space, each framed by the listed building’s particular structure and curved ceilings, are painted in glossy monochromatic black and white lacquer.
The murals’ perfectly shiny surfaces mirror the ceiling lights, the windows and also the viewers vis-á-vis. Turning into windows that open up to a hidden space behind them, they seem like theatre stages populated by the visitors’ reflections.
The duality of the colours black and white becomes tangible: it is not reduced to associations of good and evil (though cynically, van Ofen has painted one white and two black murals as a tribute to the challenging times we live in), but the physical perception of space is altered by the monochrome surfaces.
The light changes, the senses perceive differently, one is awkwardly made aware of one’s reflection. Simultaneously, the viewer’s attention is attracted by tiny flaws in the walls that are made all the more visible in contrast to their glossy surface. This struggle between perfection and truth is reflected in the exhibition’s title, Werk und Welt (oeuvre and world).
View the exhibition Ergänzung und Verbesserung, 2022