"Rembrandt on My Mind"
in Friederike Feldmann "Katalog"
Textem Verlag, Hamburg, 2014
Rembrandt on My Mind
Description is generally a wonderful tool for figuring out a work of art: the shift in medium from imagery to language demands semantic fixity, so it always entails a specific interpretation, a conceptual classification of what has been seen. There are, however, visual works that elude such description. I am not referring to abstract art, which can indeed be scanned with topographical precision. Rather, what is evasive in this manner are images that cannot be perceived in any clearly identifiable way, that shift vexingly in the eye of the beholder, that conjure vague or concrete memories through their sensory actuality, that slide like lenses in front of what is seen, obscuring the observer’s view of it.
This is exactly what happens when we observe Friederike Feldmann’s current works. Portrait-format pages with a white ground, coated with varying densities of strokes, symbols and scrolls in black ink, do not form clearly attributable subjects but also do not remain purely abstract. Instead, chimeric images that linger in the viewer’s mind arise from their graphic constellations. The viewer’s engagement with these drawings moves between Wittgensteinian aspect perception that – as in the famous example of the duck-rabbit illusion – constantly shifts between two interpretations, and free association in which the imagination projects shapes or faces onto clouds or woods at whim.
The fact that we are dealing with art limits the selection of potential images and memories that can be evoked by the drawings. Perhaps the works would have more leeway if they were presented in a non-artistic context. We can claim with some justification, though, that these pages are demarcated as art not only through their surroundings or through some sort of declarative act; indeed, for all their openness, they seem too planned for this. Unlike the random and mercurial assemblages of free, spontaneous, perhaps even unconscious doodling and écriture automatique, the strokes here submit very precisely to the prescribed format, respecting both the pull of the centre and an absence of hierarchy in all-over painting. What we have here, in short, are clearly compositions.
In the highly spirited drawing N.N. (2.jpg, 2013-2014?, all pigmented ink on paper, all 42 x 29.7 cm), for example, thick crosshatching and a few curved lines caress and serate a nearly empty area in the middle of the picture, which opens up into two face-like areas in the upper half of the picture, clearly structuring it. N.N. (16.jpg, 2013-2014), by contrast, is more reserved, with a centrally positioned and amorphous-seeming contour with an austerely shaded area. And a drawing that fluctuates between garret-like insinuation and pithy notation N.N. (11.jpg, 2013-2014) organizes the page into horizontal and vertical thirds, shaping itself around a core that augments its emptiness with a few powerful, intense dashes of ink.
At root, these drawings function as Rorschach tests for art aficionados. You can imagine that you are seeing subjects from art history, landscape-like forms, or, on some of the pages, something distinctly portrait-like. Figures appear, individually and in groups, while elsewhere you might believe that you are standing before a somehow-familiar geometric or otherwise abstract work. Feldmann’s drawings call up a special kind of knowing that is not bound to any elite form of expertise. Anybody who has ever wandered through an art museum or otherwise come into contact with works of Western art history, might project some sort of artbound recollection into these drawings.
For some observers the drawings will evoke not only subjects or motifs, but, more specifically, also styles and artistic modes. The notation-like pages are, for example, undeniably reminiscent of Henri Michaux’s drawings, which are located between handwriting, abbreviations, and amorphous structures, and similarly invite the viewer to read into them. Feldmann’s handwriting-like drawings also conjure the grand gestures or arranged lines of Cy Twombly’s swooping, Abstract Expressionist-like contours. Picasso’s works – which reveal clearly recognizable subjects despite their similarly spare insinuations – shine out of others of Feldmann’s drawings, while many a Rembrandt or Matisse, a Courbet, a Daumier, or even a Wilhelm Busch can be found in her more portrait-like works.
Such comparisons impose themselves not only because of certain viewers’ artistic fixations and mental stocks of images. This is also a consequence of the works’ mode of production: Friederike Feldmann invites other artists to her pen, allows them in a certain sense to draw the image with her. Before applying ink to paper, she looks at a broad selection of drawings with different subjects from different artists and eras. According to Feldmann, her pages then emerge, swiftly and “half-knowingly”, in a process that has a certain element of control but is so rapid that it outpaces internal verbalization, mixing her own hand with those of other artists. She then subjects these pages to a stringent selection process that rejects many of them but does not adhere to any precisely defined criteria: what is essential to her is that the page does not reveal any definitive subject, but rather allows for a state of limbo between the unspecific and the somehow familiar.
The experience of observing these drawings resembles an experiment in the psychology of perception: they reveal how seeing in general and the perception of art in particular work. If, as Kant claimed, every act of perception, including the act of seeing, requires not only empirical intuition but also and especially the faculty of imagination, if the visible is thus dependent on imagining, then Feldmann’s drawings render this process particularly tangible. On the one hand, there is a time lag between perception and recognition understood as the moment when language is activated. Perhaps there is even a conscious or at least noticeable phase of reflection, of comparison with memories and of singling out images from one’s individual image depository. On the other hand, the associations that appear to different observers certainly vary depending on circumstances and experiences. And finally, the same person might come to different conclusions on different occasions about what the images seem to offer, depending on the perspective taken at that moment, whether consciously or unconsciously.
An interpretation that is based on a fixed description – even a temporary one – is simply impossible here, because perception remains processual and in flux. Thus these drawings also comment on the speculative realm where the search for an artist’s presumed intentions, influences and inspiration resides, while maybe even showing the absurdity of such questions. Because Feldmann herself can never be certain about the sources of her own images, there can never be congruence among the origins of her subjects, their artistic execution, and the observer’s understanding and decoding of them. And so the knowledge that can be gained from these drawings is ultimately not that of iconographic interpretation, but rather a deeper understanding, an experience of how knowledge itself functions.
1 In a conversation with the author, 5 July 2014.
2 Cf. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason. Elsewhere, Kant specifies: “The imagination (facultas imaginandi), as a capacity for intuitions even without the presence of the object, is either productive, i.e. a capacity for the original exhibition of the object (exhibitio originaria) that thus precedes experience; or reproductive, a capacity for the derivative exhibition of the object (exhibitio derivativa) that brings back an empirical intuition we previously had into the mind.” Immanuel Kant: Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Cambridge 2006, p. 167.