Magnus Plessen’s Freizeit at Galerie Konrad Fischer, Berlin
Artillery Magazine, Los Angeles
December 15, 2008
Over the past decade, Berlin painter Magnus Plessen has been meticulously refining an exceptional and individual method of painting. The latest six canvasses that make up his “Freizeit” (free time) exhibition at Galerie Konrad Fischer detail a practice that has become increasingly pared down while remaining compositionally dynamic and historically progressive. Rather than complicate matters with highly conceptual or legible political content, Plessen’s subjects are frank and formal, often to the point of seeming hollow. In addition, they are the subjects that have returned in modern art for centuries—room interiors, clowns, men drinking at a pub, and horses. As much all this might be common fodder for a painter, Plessen’s canvasses don’t fail to underline why these typical subjects are recurring aesthetic players. As it’s been noted previously in a catalog essay by curator Francesco Bonami, the painter’s images often represent the view that the world is increasingly destitute and utterly inane. However, the intellectual meat of Plessen’s work is in his treatment of this banal content. While the works are basic in design, what they accomplish is nothing short of a challenge to the formal deficiencies of much contemporary painting. Plessen’s process conflates painting with drawing and collage while dressing the discipline for an era after photographically engaged painters like Gerhard Richter and Luc Tuymans.
Plessen’s palette is narrow and exact. Earthy and somber, each work’s colors are the harmonious compliment to the techniques employed. Anything else would appear garish and ill-matched. Dabs of red offset the large streaky swaths of brown, and large patches of untouched white. Masking color to construct elaborate forms and outline negative space are Plessen’s entry point for pushing to the forefront the relevancy of abstraction in representational painting even after its deconstruction. Each work is made from strips of oil, sporadic and frantic expressive brushwork, and deliberate scrapes of varying widths. Layered transparently, the masks and scraps leave parallel veins of varying density across the canvas, some of the largest sections of color create the feeling of decalcomania, a Polaroid negative, or the pull of a screen print. Occasionally portions are scraped away with such care that the only remaining paint are specks - little bits held by the teeth of the canvas. The effect is one familiar to many painters, and those that frequent studios, but perhaps not so often seen by viewers—a canvas perpetually in process.
Rarely has absence and negativity been so visually fulfilling. Plessen’s pub drinkers feel like an Eugene O’Neill’s nihilistic dramas, and his clowns are dejected, but also irritably saccharine. His horses, the beasts of burden that they are, buck against the wooden slates of their stables. Each image is stricken by an undeniable sense of despair, smoldering along each crude, but calculated edge.