Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Dark Ice/Light Heart: The Works of Bruno Kurz at the Odon Wagner Contemporary Gallery

After Storm 1 by Bruno Kurz

We are very pleased to welcome a new visual arts critic, Donald Brackett, to our group. The piece below is an edited excerpt from his catalogue essay.

From the moment I first set eyes on this series of luminous images by Bruno Kurz I began to hear the sounds of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, a string sextet in one movement composed in 1899 and first performed in 1902 to the astonishment of those in attendance. I can’t account for this, and luckily I don’t have to, but these darkly intimate painterly gestures manage to convey a certain musical quality not unlike that of expressionistic and atmospheric soundtracks for dark, disturbing but beautiful films usually unfolding in cool northern climes. One almost expects the cloaked figure from a Bergman film to come looming out of their mysterious expanses. There is a lot of dark ice in these paintings, but they also have a light heart. And it beats in pure colour. These works are virtual diagrams of that limitless limit. Hallucinatory, reverie inducing, simply splendid, they invite us to view the transfiguration of the commonplace. Perception itself is their true subject. 

One image in particular sets the tone for what this subtle visual orchestra will later reveal to us when the rest of the instruments join in to the swelling sounds of spatio-temporal vision on display: Easter Vigil 12 plunges us into a compelling nocturne which is at once elegant and harrowing. Interstitially layered and complex, paradoxically both far distant and immediately up front, one cannot resist the sensual gathering of feelings available to the viewer who turns off their mind and lets their eyes do the thinking. The great poet Wallace Stevens once defined poetry as “the search for the inexpressible,” and in that sense, this painting and its relatives are all visual poems. They point at something deep, delirious, demanding: a sensation which would be unavailable without their quiet pointing. The way some music points at silence (John Cage or Arnold Schoenberg for example) they point at the invisible. They all do this, in different ways and means but with equal emotive impact: their serial nature suggests embedded geological time itself unfolding in a circular sequence without a beginning or an end, a sequence non-narrative in nature but one which still has a story to tell. A story occurring at the very edges of sight. The Vulcanic Island series have a raw elegance and savage beauty in which their resinous colours seem to not just depict the flow of lava contained in their construction but to actually transmit it to the surface from deep within some unknown underwater world of fiery furnaces plunging upwards to the air, towards our waiting but unsuspecting eyes. They literally appear to be cooling before our eyes, which in turn feel gently scalded by their strangely intimate grandeur. The molten magic they carry is arrested and yet still seems to continue flowing in front of us in a state of permanent flux. 

Easter Vigil 12 by Bruno Kurz.

This remarkable body of work, in its harmonious entirety, is the opposite of the hyper-speeds of technology and celebrates a perceptual slowness at the heart of all true seeing. In almost every single painting the actual subject and theme is the transmission of light and its impact emotionally on the viewer. Actuality shines through. Aura and affect are utterly unified in this suite for illuminated inner colours, a sequence which is both meditative and aggressively active simultaneously. In fact, one of the many charms of these works is how they function as floating constellations which orbit and interact with each other as structural units in a larger scale drama. The themes unfold in shocking harmony and are predominantly focused on time, colour and light as executed in a carefully crafted minimum of means for maximum effect. Time and its seasonal disguises are explored delicately, as in A Touch of Spring, with its full frontal embrace of subtle tonalities, or with the more muscular impact of Flickering Sea, a bold confrontation with an elemental power too huge to be grasped or controlled. We are mute witnesses to what used to be called the sublime. Shifting rapidly from smooth to rough, from gleaming to dark, this body of work contains polarities and dichotomies that many artists might be tempted to separate and emphasize, but Kurz takes a bolder approach, allowing not only paradoxes but also contradictions to be celebrated the way most artists settle for assumed certainties. Kurz however does not settle, he explores the very nature of nature: perpetual change and renewal, as illustrated so clearly by his Autumn Storm series. Here, one doesn’t just see the transformations inherent in season shift, growth, decay and rebirth, one feels it in the blood, which of course is what so many of his images resemble in the end: they appear to be biological entities, because that is precisely what they are, living things rather than representations of things. Early Morning and Early Evening, for example, both capture the essence of impermanence and the transitory nature of our experience, just as Very Far Away elicits the paradox of intimate distance, both physical and emotional.  

Very Far Away by Bruno Kurz.

Any honest but untutored notions that abstraction as an image format requires less technical virtuosity than more traditionally realistic renderings can easily be dispelled simply by a glimpse into the working methods and painterly processes of this German-based artist. Bruno Kurz's mastery of ground preparation, glazes, textures and the palpable presence of an echoing landscape figuration in his work demonstrates at least as much attention to detail and absorption with the magical properties of reflected light as that more usually found in the visions of a Vermeer or Turner. So much so that one feels that if Vermeer or Turner had lived in our century, they too may have embraced metal (in this case, aluminum), the ultimate resistant surface, rather than the romance of canvas, as the delivery field for images that attempt to render the amorphous and elusive energies of the many layered and rugged environments which live and breathe before us. The work of art in the age of digital reproduction, especially that of painting, is often believed to be a fugitive medium, trying frantically to keep pace with an ever expanding multiplicity of mechanical means for disseminating images. But nothing could be further from the truth, since as we all proceed deeper into the digital night itself, the analog mode of painting has risen and will continue to rise to the rarefied level of an almost fetishistic spirituality. Kurz’s body of work is ample evidence of this obvious fact, and his family of forms clearly evokes the earthy power and quality of landscapes which live, not just in front of us, but inside us as well. They resonate like tuning forks in unison, each one enhancing and amplifying a central horizon motif until we feel not just as if we are witnessing portraits of the natural world, but rather self-portraits of our own mindscapes in relation to it.

- Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the forthcoming book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016) available in November. In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008. 

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