Variation and Difference
Several brushstrokes mark a surface and open up space. Swaths of color lose themselves as the motion subsides, others transcend the canvas. The pictorial space is unlimited and void of figures. What pervades it are motion and texture. A web comprised of light and dark, clarity and vapor, vitality and haze.
Horizontal and vertical streaks stabilize the narrative and expand it. Cross and angle are anchor and propellant. They lend the painting stasis and demand eruption. They are the source and the antithesis of dynamism in a snapshot in time that professes perpetuity. Glazed arcs produce obstructions, gauzy puffs of color blossom from the axes. Thus, solid forms also float, and darker fields open themselves up. The surface shows its back and echo area, the line its origin and progression.
The linear coordinates are joined by depth correspondences and contrasts. The reverse dynamism of the line strokes devours itself with the layering of the surfaces. Planes vanish and shine through, move closer and recede. The pictorial narrative oscillates between consolidation and elaboration. In the absence of figurative protagonists, marked abstractions, or stormy gestures, the painting manifests itself in its elementary events. Perception dwells in a prenotional sensory impulse and thus comes around to itself.
How can one describe what Achim Bertenburg’s painting exudes? One or the other viewer may feel reminded of Art Informel. Yet—the line as upside down interiority, detachment from a figure weighed down by the burden of history as an approach to a new Self? Self-sufficient pictorial poetry as new start and island? Bertenburg’s paintings are characterized by a different externalization. His lyrical formulae are prosaically grounded. His arabesques invoke neither distance nor escape, but mark paths in the here and now. Apparently calligraphic arcs do not contrive decoration, but vortexes of signs between seizing and releasing, dissolution and intermeshing.
Some might read expressive gestures in the paintings. Yet there is no spontaneous urge to express anything reflected in this painting. Just as there is no discernible, spontaneously executed écriture that would attempt to switch off control and concretely nail down emotional stockpiles. Bertenburg seeks out and composes a format that is sometimes more, sometimes less recognizable. Several paintings begin with an orthodox dot formation or a basic geometric order. At times, such grids and rasters are consistently present; hold the fort with all of their linear reaching out and combining, blurring and fog formation. They are often painted over completely, but latently hinder the artist from fathomless fabulation. Some paintings also begin with a figuration.
Ultimately, it at best hazily shines through in depth and distance, is stripped down, obscured by the subsequent painterly events, or as the ground takes up a voice in the harmony of color. The loose stroke only strikes a spark when it rubs against a solid form.
In one composition, one such spray of sparks based on a dot matrix seems to be both timer and motif: a monochrome firework of color, free flight and yet restrained, a choreography of centrifugal forces with contact to the base, synapses in a mysterious circuit, or even the subterranean extension of a rhizome seen through the bottom of a glass. In more abstract terms: a mysterious system in action, brought into view by means of the contrast medium “art.”
The tempos vary, the dynamic palette is wide. Quicker moves stand alongside deliberate development and evolvement, quieter places next to louder ones. The painting is not marked primarily by fast points, but by process and polarity. The overall event is always in view, yet even the smallest lines assume leading parts. Secondary lines orchestrate the main paths and set the tone.
In this painting it is difficult to bring specific centers and layers into focus, determine protagonists or signs. All that appears to be palpable is what is most difficult to grasp, and suggests a vocabulary that is under suspicion of being a tentative placeholder if conceptually perplexing: atmosphere. Bertenburg’s painting seems to maintain that that which evades description, the things, places, spaces, and relationships, is just as important as a conceptually definable feature.
In view of these works, words such as aura or impression lose the character of being a speculative invention and reveal an inherent substance as the discovery by the senses. The work of art constructs that which reality presents to the receptive eye in a mixture of planned orchestration and intuition: the atmosphere of spaces animated by communication. The encounter between the work and the viewer is at the same time the painting’s content. Dialogue is the structural principle and content of this painting.
It is no coincidence that many of the paintings bring landscapes to mind. Besides topographical character and a geographical quality, the real landscape space, as an ensemble comprised of natural and cultural elements, conveys atmosphere. Bertenburg does not depict landscapes, he allows that which the landscape issues forth and what the viewer projects into it to speak in his paintings. With its own topographical reality, his painting is imbued with recollections of the landscape and plays with the consonance intoned by the picture and reality.
One or the other of Bertenburg’s photographs—they in part serve as the point of departure for a work—contain this atmospheric content of the landscape view within themselves. The gentle arc of the course of a river constitutes the foreground and an axis that dynamizes the moment, expands space, and allows the eyes to wander. Trees and clouds are reflected in the water’s surface, which is threshold and conclusion, visibly operates as a projection surface, and takes up the theme of projection in image and thought. A structure on the riverbank with classicistic rows of columns represents construct and culture. Traces of human presence in harmony with nature? Relics of a past, possibly idealized epoch? Revealing details soon become clear in the haze of the projections. The riverbank is littered with garbage, the columns support a street under construction. Perception shatters reality.
The photograph can serve as an example: in much the same way the term “atmosphere” presents itself for Bertenburg’s visual world, “romanticism” is also not far away. The word seems strained and is apparently taboo for describing contemporary art production. Yet one of the phenomena it designates is the most loyal companion of modernism, and the longer this persists, the more experience the liberated and seeking Self has with the world and with itself, the heavier the wanderer’s baggage becomes, and the further away and more obscure the goals, the paths more complex.
In his confrontation with Self, the human being had to add the permanent exploration of his world of emotions to the lasting project of enlightenment. Illuminating and clarifying reason became acquainted with its limitations in drives that are difficult to control and helpful instincts. The romantic gaze is one that is lastingly broken, its own history weighs heavily on utopia. In his emergence from heteronomy and self-imposed immaturity, the human being has become alienated from the new worlds and from himself.
Romanticism also includes setting out into nature and the quest for origins, bonds, and one’s own orders and places. It also includes belief in art as a catalyst and chronicle of this trek, as a protected and relentless training area for the paths through the world. Achim Bertenburg’s artistic existence and his painting testify to an individual version of this being in transit.
As initial sparks, the grids in his painting stand for an order that anchors and motivates departure. In their stations and intersections, the line strokes mark the back and forth of the search movement. Traces and navigation plans are superimposed, painted layers describe various climatic conditions and the character of different locations, color densities speak of the clarity or turbidity of feeling and thinking. The compositions neither trace nor sketch out a notion or experience of nature. They create painterly parallel processes.
Sensation and reflection do not enter into a harmonious balance or peaceful coexistence, but in their collision create tension. It remains open whether paths begin or fizzle out. The viewer has to decide whether orders are starting out or complete the pictorial process, whether the imaginary wanderer has reached his destination or remains banished in a labyrinth. Atmosphere is a fleeting form of existence with changing consistencies. All that is material is its influence, all-enveloping and absorbing the gaze. It finds its way into those places where things become elusive, suppresses perspective, and makes room for another sensory perception.
There are paintings by Bertenburg in which nature seems to appear in its visible formations, in its materiality and structure. Often in green-bluish coloring, traversed by light streaks, swirled up as if by the flow of water or a draft, surfaces present themselves that approximately focus landscape events. Close-up and overall views, micro- and macrocosms as evidence of shared laws of form, layering and thresholds as reference to the organic process to which nature is subject as an individual event and in its entirety.
Yet far more than the sight of them, the encounter with nature, or better, the encounter with oneself in nature communicated in Bertenburg’s painting is an expression that leaves behind what has been seen and seeing itself and seeks to visually grasp the space that develops between the two. In a monochrome painting enshrouded by clouds and with the silhouette of a ship and a round form, which could be a dome or a balloon, the scenery seems disconnected and the figuration intangible. The representational suggestion is a challenge to explain it and simultaneously a warning against interpreting it. If it is deciphered, the magic is gone. The painting is sustained as an enigma.
It is again a photograph that documents toward what the artist directs his attention and could aid in understanding it. It features a horse in front of the wooden girders of a building, tethered, with a blanket on its back. A person, only barely discernible, is kneeling before its hind leg. The darkness immerses the scene in a strange atmosphere of twilight, the location is not identifiable, lamps illuminate the background. The silent protagonists are standing in the wrong light; the viewer is held at a distance, a bystander observing a self-contained, self-sufficient occurrence.
Such participatory observation resonates and finds expression in painting that can be called more physical than material, that attaches more importance to experience itself than what is being experienced, that consciously makes a conservative choice of material and instruments, because they render possible a reference to the object at its own scale, in a format that can be achieved and described by the body. The decision for handcraft and manageability results from trust in the urgency and duration of haptic experience, an antidote to alienation.
Graphic or planar events on the canvas trace this, yet they evoke related sensations and initiate a practical, artistic negotiation of the wandering motions of the Self, the resistances and stimuli, walls and clearings. The selection of color indicates sympathy for a dark that obscures and blankets, but also suggests an interior life that wants to be exposed—a dual quality that supports the interrelationship between egression and ingression, which lends this painting its atmosphere. Monochromacity often focuses attention on internal events; consonance makes us more receptive to values, to linear dynamics and the thresholds between the layers. In his choice of color, the painter also plays with the contrast between naturalness and artificialness—for instance when an all too garish light blue outshines a deep green, or a pink gleams behind earth tones.
Achim Bertenburg remains in the reality of his pictures. He is, of course, aware of the shifting of movement, the loss of the experience of nature, and the acceleration of the world. He does not put the case for escapism, least of all remove himself from the present, and does not place his own affliction with the present with a melancholy gaze into the past onto his canvases. He is naturally aware of the developments in art, its current state, and the power of the mass of discourse. Yet conceptual move and conventional technique nevertheless do not rule each other out.
Bertenburg’s painting initiates dialogues and records their process. The clusters of lines, intersections of swaths of color, and conglomerates of surfaces are not only visual parallels to the motion and self-awareness of the Self in nature. They are also palpable dialectic negotiations over painting in its historical range and continuous current potential, over a reality that steps outward if perception of its aura is diffuse, about the interrelationship between nature and culture, about the composition of organic development.
The initial grid defines the frame and fixes a format. The first motifs tie into this and combine to become thematic threads. The graphic narrative finds resonance and resistance in color surfaces that stratify to become spaces. Each formation is equivalent to a formulation that calls forth subsidiary voices and evokes contrapuntal voices. They are paths, initially still new and the fields free, the lines increasingly carry the weight of their own history and the concert of their companions and antitheses.
Crystallizations turn back into fluid, constellations again drift apart. The development is not linear, but occurs in thrusts, with standstills and regressions, in retrospect and in the emergence of vague new ground. It is not new, open horizons and great designs that are being aimed at, but the combination of small movements in incessant variations. The driving force is the exchange of repetition and difference. This sharpens perception.
The exploration of new places and the discovery of new constellations becomes a dialogue between the pictorial narrative and the pictorial composition. Painting encounters itself and remains in transit in the exchange of positions and in its quest for order. Each movement remains recognizable, each form present. Each voice in each timbre and dynamic impression asserts its place in permanent flux and constant balancing. There is no unbroken unity, each painterly action succeeds a reflection, movement and misgiving rolled into one.
Achim Bertenburg ties his painting to physical experience and charges his pictures with the greatest degree of reflection. His gaze clings to the landscape and exploring nature and yet he allows his compositions to speak without borrowing from nature or suggesting objects. Search movements also focus on the Self in his paintings, yet it remains invisible, lacking lyrical representatives or gestural, expressive discharge. Bertenburg’s art creates an atmosphere in which the resonance of these voices converges in an independent quality. Depending on the perceptual perspective or focus, it takes on a different shape. With each new painting, his being in transit accumulates a new chapter of history that does not make the visions any easier. With each step, the interplay between clarity and opacity reaches a new stage, and he would be the last one to maintain that this occurs in only one direction.
On the Artistic Treatment of Imagination
Thoughts on Achim Bertenburg’s Recent Works
A boy is sitting at a table painting. He is doing this with such abandonment that he seems to forget everything around him, including the fact that someone is taking a picture of him. Because he is bending his upper body so strongly forward, his head is nearly resting on his left elbow. His arms form a kind of enclosure on the table, and his head, with the concentrated gaze of a child, completes the whole thing to become a small space within a space. Eyes, hands, and the object being painted are in direct proximity to one another, merge to become a kind of protective zone for productivity and abandon. The boy’s introverted posture draws attention to the fact that he is in his own world and that he is hardly interested in what is occurring around him. The environment, however, the space in which this personal, indeed intimate scene takes place, is not a child’s room, but the studio of the boy’s father. One can see several painting utensils at the right, lying on the table: bottles containing glue, varnish, or paint, as well as several large tubes. There are two large-format, painted canvases in the background, one of which features cloud-like formations. To the left of the main scene there is a kind of light box containing several vertical neon tubes.
Now, one could take the everyday quality of this situation as an occasion to quickly shelve and want to forget it if the little boy’s posture did not express something that in a number of senses has something to do with Achim Bertenburg’s work. It is not the fact that we are dealing here with a touching document of a father-son relationship that is remarkable, but that in view of this photograph and other situations in which he watches his child, the father begins to almost automatically recall his own childhood and again finds himself in a child’s dream world more than fifty years past.
In other words: he becomes conscious of the fact that many years ago, as a small boy himself, he, too, was capable of such abandon and partook in a similar world of thoughts and dreams to which he now, as an adult, no longer has direct access. That ultimately, the transitionless unity of thinking, dreaming, perceiving, and acting he observes in his son becomes lost when one becomes an adult in order to vanish into oblivion.
If at all, as an adult, one only approaches the past world of one’s own childhood by way of detours, for instance by looking at old photographs, reading old letters and entries in journals, from a distance in terms of time and accompanied by feelings of melancholy. And even then, one is only in a position to obtain a residual notion of this permanently fading echo in the sense of small, strung-together fragments
Of course, one could laconically note at this point that assuming such an attitude is not only melancholy and sentimental, but completely pointless as well, as it is out of the question to ever be able to produce genuine connections between then and now. It is just not possible, in terms of a conceptual time-machine operation, to again start at precisely that point at which one once was as a child. It soon becomes clear that even with force, recurring thoughts and feelings “from way back then” one believed to be long since forgotten no longer want to correspond with what meanwhile is a changed self and its disenchanted present. In the end, dealing with the remembered past in this way becomes nothing more than bringing to mind, becoming aware of the fact that these days are over once and for all.
Remembering, thinking about, and sensing something again take place in the here and now and above all allow current states of consciousness and standards to dominate. Despite what seem to be familiar sensations and impressions that refer to the past, we are never really dealing with a descent into the past, but with a more or less controlled self-experiment that definitely differs from “returning to childhood,” and whose premise and result is acknowledging my inability to ever be capable of doing so.
At the same time, however, the foundations of and possibilities associated with aesthetic reasoning lie in becoming aware and conscious of this futility. Our own perceptual exercises, which occasionally surprise us, almost automatically become comprehensible in conjunction with the object and counterpart of our interest.
In the case of the self-immersed boy who is painting, I do not only see the child concentrating on his activity and am capable, with his aid, of recollecting my own childhood, I also almost involuntarily begin to perceive and imagine myself as a perceiving person. I effortlessly place myself in a position, not only to reflect the photograph of the boy, but at the same time the observations I have just made and the experience I have just had (that is, failing to smoothly connect up with my childhood). In this way, my involvement with the photograph can also become an exploration of the conditions and possibilities under which the past becomes present as something to remember.
Marcel Proust exemplarily described such an approach, its associated attitude of mind, and the opportunities it presents to examine it artistically. His epochal novel À la recherche du temps perduii does not deal with a historically probing, affirming retrospective view of one’s own childhood, but above all with the possibilities of preserving access to a world one believed to be long lost by means of intuited or involuntarily sensed memory fragments.
We recall that with Proust, the key experience of involuntarily memory (mémoire involontaire) enabled suddenly bringing to mind the past in a fraction of a second in unexpected breadth and totality. Based on the sensory force and potency of this experience (triggered by the taste of a madeleine), he was capable of putting down on paper and continuing his memories of a long-gone childhood world with its distinct atmosphere and certain, in themselves “unimportant” details. In that this Proustian introspection ultimately became a successful piece of literature, it enabled numerous readers to access their own experiences and became a transpersonal work of art.
In the German language, Er-innern (to remember) is actually almost an ambiguous word, as it not only literally means “to retrieve inward” past events, but to take up internal, initially hidden, buried thoughts, ideas, images, and feelings that are activated in the act of remembering or sometimes even completely reformulated.
Memory is consequently also re-creation, imagination, occasionally the formation of a reinterpreted past for current states of mind. In Proustian terms, remembering one’s own childhood would also be equivalent to an autopoetic process, a form of self-assurance that re-creates that which once was and at the same time allows it to become a criterion of that which is now.
With this in mind, one could also ask whether and to what extent memories, ideas, dreams, unfulfilled wishes, all of the internal images we basically constantly carry around with us can make themselves felt as things that shape life. Thus, to what extent unveiled interior worlds imparted in such a way are capable of being carried outward so that we not only begin to reflect and talk about them but ultimately allow them to take place in a literary and artistic sense.
This sort of question may strike one or the other pragmatic as odd, as subjectivism and introspection appear to have been made a criterion. Yet it does not involve the renunciation of or withdrawal from reality, but rather, as the example from Proust shows, it involves the creation of molded facts, deliberate artistic action that is carried outward but has the said fund of internal images and unfulfilled wishes to thank.
As we can take in based on the concrete example of dealing with the photograph of the young boy who is painting, Achim Bertenburg sounds out the possibilities of such subjective condensations and transmissions of inner worlds outward in a very distinct way. Ideally, for him thinking, feeling, and artistic activity cannot be separated in the sense of a clean cut. Yet this in no way rules out self-observation and “aesthetic distance.”
When he paints pictures, in parallel builds a boat or watches his son in his studio, he is also “his own phenomenologist.” And thus someone who at the same time examines and calls into question the cross-connections he sees, experiences, or feels.
Artistically activating and sounding out such inner or intermediate worlds is therefore not unconscious reveling in the past, descending into the irrational, but a specific method of self-assurance. It is the conscious involvement with intermediate spaces intrinsic to a reality in which they (more or less latently) always exist. The reflected taking up of memories, ideas, dreams, and desires, individual as well as collective spheres of recollection without reality as such not having been able to have been completely imagined, experienced, or lived.
One could even maintain that empirical or material reality does not add up to become the operating system “reality” until it joins the area of the imaginary, the world of thoughts, dreams, and feelings. Only when ideas, images, dreams, fears, and desires, including their vagueness and transitions, are enlisted can it be comprehended in the entirety of its complexity and dynamics.
Part of the dynamics of a reality thus imagined are also revisions of once acquired points of view, and of course the gradual fading and blurring of what were once distinctly contoured memories and the emergence of new ones in their place. Remembering, doubting, and forgetting belong together, and palimpsest-like superimpositions, repressions, and obliterations are interlocking forces within this system.
If, in this way, reality cannot be permitted to be apprehended as self-contained reality but as one that is alterable and permanently occurs, then the present can also be understood as a station de passage, as a path to be changed and further pursued on another. Moreover, if in view of images and texts that have been passed down and accounts of emotional states one imagines it as one that has already been engendered, then it can ultimately be understood as one that has already passed through other subjects, as one that has already been seen, told, and imagined by others. Not as self-contained reality but in this open way can it also be communicated among subjects and developed within their multifaceted relationship patterns.
The issue here is not allowing the distinctive contours of perceptible reality to blur, leveling differences, or even advocating a (sometimes imputed) “indifference,” but on the contrary: to allow interconnections and forces between the individual spheres of the present to become perceptible in a more differentiated way. The issue is ultimately to allow art and literature to become apperceptible as an “experimental ground for an infinite number of reflections of what we call reality.”iv
It shall be asserted here that Achim Bertenburg does justice to a concept of reality of this kind to the extent that he allows himself to be inspired by its indwelling dynamics and accommodates it as an artist. This will initially be demonstrated not based on the paintings that will be, and above all should be, examined, but based on a very practical decision, albeit inspired by the sounding out of said intermediate spaces and therefore even possible in the first place.
This may seem surprising at first glance, but it involves Bertenburg’s building of a boat, himself constructing a wooden vessel with which one can paddle over water. When the painter in fact begins and finishes building such a boat parallel to his work, he does not do so because it suddenly crossed his mind to do something completely different alongside painting or to go on a boat ride with his son for a change. The motif and the motivation for making a decision which at first glance can hardly be called “artistic” lies deeper.
That which may initially seem to be construed or completely mismatched permits certain interconnections to viewing the photographs of the young boy described above, but in the end to painting and its intentions as well.
Amazingly enough, the construction of this boat involves the resumption of a nearly fifty-year-old childhood dream. Namely the romantic notion of navigating down a river in a self-made boat, one that was nourished at the time by reading books by J. F. Cooper, Mark Twain, and Jack London. It was surely not quite coincidental that it resurfaced in Bertenburg’s recollection—more like a mémoire involontaire, a reminiscence from his own childhood—and led to a pragmatic decision.
As is the case for many of his contemporaries (such as the author of this text), in the artist’s childhood there were in fact dreams and desires enriched by literature and movies in the direction of Indian or trapper romanticism. The longing shared by so many boys of his generation to want to one day be an “Indian” was not guided by the historical reality of 18th- and 19th-century America. It involved childish notions of freedom and adventure, tent romanticism and campfires, of an age of trekking and extreme sports, of what seemed to be a rather harmless affinity with nature of which those born in the 1950s could still undauntingly and naïvely dream.v Bertenburg’s decision to build a boat can therefore be traced back to images, fantasies, and desires that stem from his own childhood; which in view of his own son he takes seriously and transfers into the present—and there is in fact a connection here to the photograph described above of the boy painting in the studio.
By contrast, the difference between contemplating a photograph and building and using a boat is evident: the former is in keeping with aesthetic reasoning. And the latter no longer involves the expansion of conceptual spaces, but a pragmatic decision that runs in a diametrically opposed direction: the boyhood dream is visualized, reactivated, and leads to the father’s resolve to, in view of his own son, put into practice what he was prohibited from doing when he was a child.
The adult’s resolve to carry out a childhood dream or something he imagined nearly fifty years ago and to actually build the imaginary boat involves concrete planning, purchasing tools and materials, and, for someone with little experience in building boats, the not so simple act itself of actually “doing” it. Everything becomes concrete; leaves behind visible, tangible results. The boat is finally made water-worthy and boarded—the journey takes place.
But what does all of this, as asserted above, have to do with painting as recently pursued by Bertenburg? In what way can two areas so completely at variance with the genre be related to one another?
Initially, both of them take place in parallel. The one accompanies the other; painting would then be a symbolic component to the vessel. Yet this explanation may appear to be too simple; it would be in keeping with the assumption that someone pursues painting to compensate a childhood dream and builds a boat, and that the one perhaps has nothing to do with the other.
After some thought it becomes clear that as something that has been built, and ultimately in existence, put on display, or depicted, the boat itself (even if were never commissioned) could represent something like being in transit, on a journey, wanting to get from one place to another. One would only have to view it beyond the purpose it serves and could then conceive of it as a metaphor or, in principle, as an easily plausible symbol for contexts that extend beyond it itself.
When said boat was still under construction, Eva Schmidt found the apt term for it: “Zeigeinstrument,” or “metaphorical instrument.”vi At the time, Bertenburg actually presented the half-finished boat at an exhibition alongside his painting, which, admittedly, irritated some visitors. The possibility that, once it was finished, one could actually be underway with this vessel was one that was to be reflected upon and felt in anticipation of a journey that later really took place. And the provokingvii fact that the boat, at the time only half-finished, was presented in the midst of painting like a kind of wooden skeleton or a construction site pointed out the transitory, incomplete character of the entire undertaking, which found its special echo, one that could perhaps not be discovered at first glance, in the paintings being shown in parallel.
Looked at in that light, Bertenburg’s painting as such—if one looks at how it has taken shape over the past ten years—in fact has a great affinity to the theme of being in transit. There is always something transitory about it, something that shifts one’s standpoint, which indeed now requires explanation.
At first glance, the surfaces one perceives are for the most part monochrome—with mist- or streak-like structures. Yet if one examines them more closely, one believes to discover suggestions of formations, shadows, or, in the colored mist, fleeting glances of objects, landscape aspects, or cloud formations.
Most of these—from the outset—“blurred” paintings hinder any kind of focusing. One wants to visually bore one’s way into the painterly thicket, take out the alleged object, visually “bring it into focus,” outline more clearly, and identify what is concealed there, and then has to conclude that these paintings were expressly arranged from the start to engender a perceptual motion that does not arrive at a destination. They anticipate viewers who time and again succumb to the temptation to “re”-discover a depiction of the world as they know it, only to ultimately acknowledge that it is precisely this longing (or insatiable visual addiction) that is being addressed here in a special way. Thus, they also anticipate viewers changing their standpoint (and thus potentially themselves) in a multiple sense in the act of contemplation.
Viewers in fact initially again find part of their efforts to visualize the world as they are accustomed to doing so; create one, so to speak, within themselves; allow it to be imagined—and thus again find part o their cultural influence as well. In this respect, Achim Bertenburg falls back on traditions in painting as they have existed since the Renaissance to visualize an accurate image of the world as a depiction or even to suggest that the image and the world are identical.
In terms of their organization of form as well as color, some of the new paintings are reminiscent of traditional landscape painting, as one believes to discover indications of the courses of rivers, bank slopes, silhouettes of trees, or cloud formations within the blurred painterly texture. Yet this impression never becomes certainty, as what prove to be the actual motifs of these paintings are ultimately always the construed, the brush ductus, and the overlying, blending, rather ambiguous color constructs.
One finally realizes that the ostensible objects in or suggested in the painting evade the viewer’s eye to the extent that it is inclined to fix or identify them—until one finally understands that one is dealing with painterly arranged “withdrawal symptoms.” In the process, wanting to recognize something on the part of the viewer and the constant evading on the part of the painting balance each other and ultimately lead to an incessant pendulum motion that is characteristic for Bertenburg’s painterly concept and at the same time for the special way of approaching his painting.
If there is content or a message in this painting, then it is its ability to challenge and make us aware of our apparently irrepressible longing to want to recognize something in it. Looked at in this light, besides the pleasure in the painting (who would want to deny these works their sensuality?), Bertenburg is also concerned with a critique of representation in them that is formulated in this aesthetic pendulum motion: on the one hand, he reflects not only the said dependence of all knowledge on fantasies and images and the fact that it is impossible to completely evade the representation and thus the paintings. On the other hand, within his denial strategies he postulates a different, let’s say critical, doubting, and responsible treatment of paintings.
In themselves, the in part large-format paintings are brilliant. Translucent color gradients that in part move within themselves; transition from light, transparent layers to opaque condensations saturated with pigment in lighter and darker pictorial zones.
An uppermost, at first glance apparently gray layer of paint may overlie the layers below it, yet due to its transparency it does not cover them, so that deeper-lying reddish or greenish shades reach, as if through a haze, the surface, or better: can “gleam.” Gray as a mixture of the two “non-colors” white and black may in this way be capable of achieving an affinity to the colorful gamut of the primary and complementary colors. Moreover, overlying glazes are capable of suggesting a feeling of space, which one is familiar with from the painted cloud formations by older masters as well as from the spatial surfaces of color field painting of the 1960s and 1970s. Such pictorial zones allow our gaze to plunge into ostensible depth, although we know for a fact that what we see before us are only extremely thin layers of paint on what is two-dimensional pictorial surface that is indifferent to space.
When contemplating Bertenburg’s paintings it definitely pays to shift one’s position, to view them alternately face on, from the side, from a distance, and then again in close proximity in order to discover the color and spatial phenomena and their associated coloristic subtleties. If one ventures to explore them in this way and takes one’s time, one automatically experiences the possibilities of painting in the manner seriously meant and practiced by this artist (in reflected reference to art history) even in the early 21st century.
A pure phenomenon of color, a shadow, or mist without any reference to an object time and again trigger or enable us to allow fantasies, inner images, memories—for instance, of landscapes or “nature” in the broadest sense of the word—to arise in our minds. That painted pictures in our culture of highly developed image and media technology still represent “something,” are meant to point toward something beyond themselves, may be one of the anachronisms of the media age formative of culture. And in his work, Bertenburg takes contradiction, which for him is constructive, and transforms it into pictorial energy.
And then there is a somewhat irritating painterly component that varies the aesthetic experience just described and which also belongs to these paintings: they are not only the wraithlike forms that only retreat again, but lines and brushstrokes that are apparently produced by means of a spontaneous, loose movement of the brush and stand for nothing but themselves. One is almost inclined to speak of “gestures,” “ciphers,” or “notations” with a certain “expression,” if one did not know that Bertenburg is more skeptical of the long-serving categories of “immediateness,” “spontaneity,” or even “expressivity” as the foundation of contemporary painting. These virtues belong at best to the discourses on modernism that articulate their claim to self-fulfillment, resolution, and salvation which took place about half a century ago.
And yet lines, arcs, or wider strips of color apparently beholden not to an imagined pictorial space or implied reference to an object but only to themselves suddenly appear as elements in several of Bertenburg’s paintings. At most they constitute counterparts to the characteristic style of the painting hand, but proliferate back and forth between several color centers in the painting with rather blurred surfaces like a network, or they connect the individual focuses of an image among one another like a rhizome. They in any case testify to the use of painterly means, and after prolonged contemplation do not want to be anything other than themselves: swaths of color and lines applied in motion.
Sometimes, however, these purely “abstract” elements are subject to said blurs, and the clarity of their gradient on a foundation of different, contrasting colors seems to gradually dissipate into a mist. As if a precisely set cipher were about to volatilize into the illusory space of an in turn imaginary third dimension in the painting. If one becomes more involved in this cooperation and juxtaposition of disparate elements, one gets the impression that Bertenburg once again “painted over” the picture during the act of painting on a “more abstract” level in thoughts in a position to ultimately pass over into brushstrokes—much like if one reconsiders a thought or rereads a text in order to understand it better and subsequently overwrite it yet again.
Indeed, in several paintings there are thoroughly palimpsest-like overlayerings, overwritings of a concept of painting rather suggestive of space by using the “abstract,” discrete elements mentioned above without the one canceling out the other or the one forcing the other into the background: both are there simultaneously, and viewers themselves can also identify it as a trace or echo of themselves.
The process of overwriting, the said overlayerings, pervasions, and mixings of disparate pictorial concepts, however, also testify to the artist’s recurring change of standpoint before the canvas, as well as to a permanent interpenetration of thinking and feeling, planning and intuition, of coincidence and control. Seeing, thinking, remembering, imagining, and finally the proverbial painting are one. The progression of a line, the development of a form, and the differentiated shading of a color field are not illustrations that take place in retrospect of previously made decisions. These painterly components are decision-makers and thus themselves forms of insight not lacking in precision. And they develop and change while they are coming about.
Empirical reality and spheres of the symbolic and imaginary encounter, touch, and penetrate one another during the act of painting, which in the end can be apprehended as a specific form of insight and mode of understanding. In practice, painting that “thinks” and reflects (beyond) itself naturally always turns out to be a balancing act whose policy is constant subtle correction and careful reevaluation and therefore always has to be risked time and again. In view of this congruence, at this point it suggests itself to again think about the photograph of the small boy sitting at the table in his father’s studio, in which the proverbial proximity of head, eye, and hand lends expression to such a union of observing, thinking, and doing.
If in the beginning talk was of memories, imagination, and worlds of thoughts and feelings with respect to reality, it can now be maintained that such components find their painterly equivalent in Bertenburg’s paintings. One could even say that those pictorial concepts that mutually add up and in part relativize and cover one another in a thinking process of painting result in an extremely complex relationship pattern appropriate to the concept of reality delineated above.
And yet in this painting there is no anarchy, no simple accumulation of disparate elements that somehow whirl or compete with one another. What is characteristic of the paintings is their peculiar cooperation of innerpictorial stability and concurrent dynamics, which on the one hand is based on the artist’s change of standpoint, and on other hand time and again challenges—also in a literal sense—the standpoint of the viewer.
And yet another feature becomes apparent following a certain involvement with and in front of these paintings. Bertenburg does not start out from finished, mediatized pictures, which is the case for some painters committed to Photorealism. Neither is he concerned with describing or even criticizing cultural exploitation and its associated eroding of paintings and their messages. Rather, he is more interested in the question of how images originate and how they unfold their specific imaginative power.
When, as happens time after time, we stand before a painting and believe to find something rudimentarily suggested in a blurred painted texture whose distinct reference is denied in the end, this opens up a possibility and an opportunity for an aesthetic experience inherent in these paintings which we should pursue—in particular in view of the change of standpoint described above.
Because if we begin to reflect our own perceptions alongside painting, we notice that images permanently arise in our minds, that we allow them to reach our imagination, so to speak. In the process, we fall back on images that already exist in our memory; we begin to relate or to directly transfer them to what we see painted before us. At the same time, we realize that these images originating in our minds do not even exist, that they only then “become” images with our help. And that in his work, this painter is ultimately also concerned with demonstrating this becoming, coming about, imagining comprised of so many components.