Beyond the Looking Glass

Stephan Berg

Michael Kunze's paintings look as if one could, indeed must, understand them if one looked at them long enough. This is because they are painted in a way which seems to allow a direct reunion with the great mimetic tradition of the medium. The large formats in which Kunze paints, the composition of the pictures which remind us of the old masters, as well as the repertoire of themes complete the circle leading back to a past of historical scenes ) and grand global panoramas. In the context of contemporary painting with its partly scrupulous, partly pointedly energetic self reflection this can seem strangely irritating. The great confidence Kunze's painting seems to have in the power of allegory and metaphor surprises at first. Nothing in the paintings contents itself with a form of representation based on the pure power of the factual. What we see is an entire inventory of turgid puppets-like figures, of landscapes and architectural elements, a confusing microcosm of parasols, birds, chairs, guitars, pen- nants, water and clouds developing into a complete symbolic panorama. What we see has meaning not as that which is apparently objectively there, but only as that which it could mean. The world is not what is the case, but what lies behind the actual, the factual. Every thing comes into its own through its reference to other things, through the things which determine it.

The idea that the world can be painted so that every pictorial element is recognizable as what it is and at the same time can be assigned its place in a coherent whole that, so to speak, lies behind the world of appearances, can be traced back to the fifteenth century and basically dominates the discourse of painting until the end of the nineteenth century. Behind this idea lies a conception which braces together representation and reality in a contradictory but indissoluble way. The picture has its power in that it follows reality while at the same time distancing itself from that reality. Mimetic procedure does not culminate in the pure imitation of the real, but in its subversion. This manner of producing pictures served two purposes: The emancipation of artistic procedure as individual self-dispensation and at the same time the elevation of the banal facticity of the given to a completely ordered horizon of meaning. Painterly creation confirms the rise of the individual out of his self-imposed dependence as much as it proves his reliance on a super individually ordered progress with its divine logic on which the self relies.

The powerful cycle of paintings Michael Kunze has been working on since the late 80's reveals, superficially seen, all of the aspects of this dualism: An artistic self as a god-like creator of its own world who at the same time relates everything he does and shows to the foundation of the given structure of meaning in the world. The very scheduling of the project of painting during the course of the day proves this: Morning, forenoon, noon, afternoon, evening are the stations Kunze uses to divide and name the various steps in his work. Inversely proportional to the predictability and relative shortness of the course of a day are the labyrinthine abundance of what Kunze puts on display and the epic breadth allowed every single element. After a powerful "Morning" (see p. 179) a nearly ornamental panorama with 24 figures - the equivalent to the number of hours in a day - followed by a "Forenoon" (see p. 155) during which the accomplishments of central perspective are built into the pictorial scheme of three single panels joined together. With the arrival of noon, which consists of eight panels each with three figures, keeping the total number at 24, the eight panels correspond to the complete format of the morning. Kunze has completed half of his self-imposed programmatic path (which in addition to painting includes photography and sculptural work).

Kunze's daily production seems at first glance to be a poorly concealed metaphor for the painterly sketch of an entire cosmology in controlled proliferation. Are we again dealing here with one of the many vain utopian attempts to juxtapose a world coming apart at the seams with invented closed universe through the medium of imaging? On closer inspection of Kunze's last two large works, the seventh and eighth noon (see p. 39 and 19) should help to clarify this question. The seventh noon shows, as in nearly all the work of the artist, a scene dominated by architecture where a stage-like theatricality is combined with an enigmatic functionality. A steam roller is placed on the first place position of a gigantic winners platform; a building with a railing on the roof is planted in part with cypress-like trees; and a terrace on square columns appears as a platform for entering a swimming pool hung with life-preservers, although the swimming pool is some way away. In the eighth noon the swimming pool motif reappears, this time without water, in the middle of a scenery of cliffs under quickly moving black and white clouds. Next to the pool a gigantic tiled frame dominates the picture as a bottomless propped-up reflection of the pool. On its lower edge there is a chair. A guitar is leaning on the chair. The confounded architecture of both pictures makes them impossible to read, although their metaphoric composition seems to demand just this. Their functional lack of meaning corresponds with a typological and metaphorical lack of clarity. They blend on the one hand patterns which quote antiquity with allusions to Bauhaus modernity, and on the other hand paraphrases of pittura metafisica architectures with anonymous architectural pragmatism, to form a texture that is in itself contradictory.

It is exactly this structural lack of clarity which defines what takes place within the architectural framework. On the one hand there is nothing in these pictures that does not follow the rules of an ambiguity between what is shown and what is meant. On the other side what we see is presented in such a way that it neither appears as factual nor objective, nor could it be metaphoric. Every object, every figure in these pictures is already always an allegory of an allegory. The guitar on the chair has no prior existence as a factual object "Guitar", but also none as a metaphor - for example for a musical-feminine horizon of association. As it appears in the gigantic frame, it is the distillation of hundreds of art historical metaphors that it has passed through in order to be displayed in its full semantic abundance as a remainder: A textually diffuse amalgam of tradition-laden symbolic overflow and complete emptiness. The bases and frames, in and upon which everything stands make this clear: There is nothing to paint anymore which hasn't run through this process of becoming undetermined, at the end of which a thing is revealed as neither relevant to itself nor identical to its possible context of meaning.

Kunze illustrates this paradoxical constellation through the method of duplication, which shows elements of reflections. Nearly all the elements in both the seventh and the eighth noon appear as a double. This begins with the seventh noon with the two "admirers" who are holding out a jumping sheet for the girl balancing above them (a very much ironic reference to Ouch amps "Large Glass"). Next comes the chessboard floor, repeated on a small fenced enclosure in front of the pool, then there is the Baldachin covering the steam roller which is repeated one level below, as well as the sets of four panels each which show the numerals from zero through two in whole, and the three cut off - not to mention the two basketball nets in the diagonally opposite corners of the picture.

In the eighth noon the motif of doubling has become one of multiple reflection. This is clear in the frame structure which appears at least five times, and in the semi-circular opening to the sea, which is repeated in the out- stretched arms of the two men in the swimming pool and in the wooden suspension bridge in the foreground of the painting. The elements in the painting interlock in these complex forms of repetition to form a hermetic solipsistic circle dance, which revolves around an absent centre because the surface of the mirror in which the action is dou- bled and multiplied is itself invisible, that is, it remains empty. This structural emptiness, this hole in the centre of the picture also prevents the picture from being read as the sum of its parts. Instead it reveals itself as a fragment of a totality it constructs through repetition and multiplication of the motif-monads. For better or for worse this can be compared to the romantic projects of the nineteenth century, where castles were built as ruins. This at least made clear the fact that entirety and completeness are only an aggregate form of deficiency.

The compulsory and at the same time confusing effect of these panoramas is due essentially to the precise for- mal composition and structure on which Kunze's work is founded. The contingent narrative structure is apposed to a highly coordinated pictorial grammar in which the artist harnesses his pictures. The seventh noon is run through with a horizontal, vertical and diagonal framework to which all elements of the picture are mercilessly subjugated. The eighth noon is divided into a mathematically calculated, diagonally transverse lattice system that even transforms the clouds in the heavens into a three dimensional chessboard against a sky-blue background. Additionally, Kunze, as previously mentioned, does not only use canvasses of the same size for all of the works even when these are to be combined into larger pictorial units, he also always begins with the same number of figures for every phase of the day.

Kunze achieves this precarious balance in that he frees the painterly act, which on the surface clearly follows the classical model of the old-masters, through methodical execution from every genial peinture-charm. The pictures are borne of an abundance of closely woven actions in which every movement of the brush is connected to a certain semantic meaning - instead of being the result of a broad stroke of painterly autonomy Because of this the painting appears finally as text - as text that is not meant to be readable so much as it is meant to be a mixture of un-deciphered multi-valence and closure.

The scepticism expressed here in opposition to the possibility of unbroken readability and translatability refers to a deeper goal of Kunze's project: It is nothing less than a revision of the linear, progress-oriented demands of modernity Against the postulate of crystalline clarity and perfect enlightenment Kunze places a labyrinthine text which continues the writing and shaping of his own twisted logic. It is an endless band of a text which, in Kunze's words, "addresses everything and is about nothing." This is everything but a simple denial of the theorem of the 20th century avant-garde. It is instead an attempt to reach other conclusions from the historical development of the medium and its accomplishments, which cannot be ignored, than the dictates of modern art have allowed. The centre of Kunze's thinking is therefore not autonomy, radical zero-point purification and the deconstruction of the work as work, but instead the attempt to show that a medium which is too often chided for its anachronism is compatible with a complexity which proves it compatible with contemporary demands.

Each of Kunze's elaborate painted works is a highly artificial discourse in form as well as in content using all the possibilities of painting which have been sublimated by modern art. The potential power of the medium is revealed in the recollection and reviving of apparently anti-modern practices, for example the surrealistic tradition. Those strategies of metaphoric overindulgence and calculated contamination are proven heterogeneous means which Kunze systematically implements and develops. A panoramic view which is simultaneously incomprehensible can be easily short-circuited with the current situation to which contemporary perceptive praxis is subjected - following the transformation of the classical concept of education and upbringing into the category of knowledge we end up with the current concept of "Information". Just like the total accessibility of all information increasingly extinguishes the possibility of experiencing anything precise at all, Kunzes paintings are a visualization of a continuous informing of everything by everything. Steeped in and literally marked by total textualization, the text darkens and becomes its own palimpsest, a phantom text in spite of which the picture creates its own reality which cannot be sublimated.

Texts Without Verbs, Cologne 2002, p. 81