"Clara Park: Positions of Contemporary Painting from Leipzig," curated by Christian Ehrentraut, Sept. 9-Oct. 2, 2004, at Marianne Boesky Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
Kulturpark Clara Zetkin in Leipzig is an idyllic spot in an East German city whose rough charm encompasses the sublime Johann Sebastian Bach -- he was cantor at Leipzigs Thomaskirche -- as well as still visible scars of World War II and the oppressive architecture of the Communist era. For "Clara Park," this exhibition of eight young Leipzig painters, the German curator Christian Ehrentraut stripped the name of its bureaucratic socialist connotations -- Clara Zetkin was a Communist Party hero -- and gave it a more local, romantic spin. The exhibition in New York continues a project that began in Berlin; between 2002 and 2004, Ehrentraut directed "Liga," a project gallery in the German capital that presented young artists from Leipzig.
The artists in the show all hail from Leipzigs Academy of Visual Arts (Hochschule fr Grafik und Buchkunst). Since the reunification of Germany in 1989-90, artists who want to paint in the figurative tradition -- from both East and West Germany -- have flocked to the school to study under teachers like Sighard Gille and Arno Rink. But Leipzigs role as a center for traditional painting stretches back to the 1960s and 70s, when it produced artists like Bernhard Heisig, Werner Tuebke and Wolfgang Mattheuer. And more recently, another student of Rink and Helsig -- Neo Rauch -- has galvanized interest in painting with an East German lineage.
More than ten years older then the "Clara Park" artists, Rauch is widely celebrated for the complexity of his enigmatic paintings, which capture a contemporary sense of unease in works that combine elements of Social Realism, Surrealism and imagery from American popular culture. Though Rauch is not included in "Clara Park," his presence is felt, and to some extent overshadows the work by his younger colleagues. Where Rauchs paintings have many aspects, telling several stories at different levels without fear of roughness and ugliness, these younger artists works seem less complex.
Two of the painters in "Clara Park," Martin Kobe and Tobias Lehner, lean towards abstraction, though their works contain references to landscape or architectural renderings. Kobe (b. 1973), whose paintings were shown at Art Cologne 2003 in a single booth in the fairs special program for young artists, depicts office spaces that seem to be dissolving into brightly colored, mirrored surfaces. Disorienting and elegant, Kobes pictures are futuristic-looking and rather cool. Clearly, the esthetic of computer generated images has influenced him.
Lehner (b. 1974) paints flamboyant, collage-like abstractions that mix fabric-style patterns with a variety of abstract motifs. Often done to music, Lehners works hint at a nightclub atmosphere. Their wild, explosive quality and emotional expressiveness make them one of the shows strongest statements.
David Schnell, who was born in 1971, paints what could be called over-civilized landscapes -- deserted fields and forests that are delimited by strict straight lines. Done in warm reds and yellows, Schnells paintings nonetheless appear rather cold, and only at first sight seem more organic than Kobes strange office spaces. In Rinne, Schnell gives trees and a river an artificial, menacing form. The work suggests a critical statement about the treatment of nature in our time, but is also a little boring.
The other five artists are more urban, and more figurative. Mattias Weischer (b. 1973) paints moody, dull interiors, filled with ugly furniture from the 1960s and 1970s. Here and there his scenes are touched by small, rather abstract fields of color, where the domestic setting seems to be losing form. As images of shabby petit bourgeois environments, Weischers works have a depressive disposition that reflects certain aspects of German reality. At the same time, his paintings display a surreal sense of humor; one work depicts an ordinary living room with a stack of old televisions in its center, which makes a visual pun with the German word for the TV towers (Fernsehturm) that are common symbols of urban technology.
Tilo Baumgrtel and Christoph Ruckhberle (both born in 1972) make paintings that are more clearly narrative, and even allegorical -- somewhat like the work of Max Beckmann in their allusiveness, if not in their graphic punch. Baumgrtels large drawings on paper of cluttered rooms or dense architectural perspectives, done in charcoal, have a dreamlike quality. In Die Pause a young Asian girl can be seen, writing, sitting on a roof deck like a Buddha, in a city that could be either East Berlin or Beijing. The picture shows both aquariums in an apartment and windows in blocks of houses, in a compositional arrangement that seems to put people and fish on the same level as if they were both being observed by someone from an outside world. In mood the drawing has something of the sadness of Soviet city.
Baumgrtels three drawings, all done in 2004, are rather heavy. And so are Ruckhberles oil paintings, though they are more colorful. Peggy Miranda Caf shows two healthy blonde women curiously posed underneath a table covered with a red-checked cloth, while Der Idiot depicts a boy in his underwear, also sitting on the floor, holding Dostoyevskys novel The Idiot while a cat and a canary look on. Ruckhberles style is reminiscent of that of the 1920s German artist Carl Hofer, mixed with some of the sensual atmosphere of Balthus. His pictures are occupied by dreamy young people who seem to be less than happy.
Two of the artists in the group are women. A feeling of yearning characterizes the work of Stephanie Dost (b. 1980), the youngest artist in the show. Her diary-like mixed-media piece, a dense and irregular grid of photographs, photocopies, drawings and portrait paintings, is suggestive of Gerhard Richters "Atlas," his widely exhibited archive of imagery. Dosts work is a collection of material that leads into a rather personal cul-de-sac. And we have seen that before.
More interesting is Franziska Holstein (b. 1978), who presents four related acrylic paintings on linen of different views of a photo album called "Unser Kind" (Our Child). One painting shows the closed album from a distance and the rest show various open pages. Even the thin rice paper that protects the photographs is represented. The intimacy of the subject is touching and the thoughtful approach convincing.
"Clara Park" is a good representation of some of Leipzigs new talent -- a group of painters who are already successful, selling well at art fairs and in European galleries. Three of them are represented by the top Leipzig gallery Eigen + Art, run by the hard-working art dealer Harry Lybke. But despite the art markets positive response, not all these new artistic positions are completely convincing. Considering their parochial origins, it may be appropriate that the artists shown at Boesky look better together than they might on their own.
BARBARA WEIDLE is an art critic and journalist in Bonn and Berlin.