Behold the expanses, find one’s own, however far it may be.
In his generation, Thomas Arnolds belongs to a fistful of artists who have been critically examining and overhauling painting for some years now – mark you, as a whole not just its figurative or merely non-objective strand. By reevaluating painting he reclaims its unbowed possibilities. As insistently as consequently he demonstrates that an “absurdity” such as a painting can still concern and affect us, that painting lays into us as a relevant and timely form of expression.
A broader audience became acquainted with him during exhibitions like The luminous West at Kunstmuseum Bonn in 2010 or the newly-hung collection of Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in 2009. And as he already exhibited in Reutlingen in Wo ist hier? #1: Malerei und Gegenwart, we are glad to arrange his first institutional solo exhibition. Especially, because it preludes all upcoming presentations yet to be conceived and created for the Kunstverein by young, pioneering artists.
Personally, we got to know each other more than ten years ago when Tommy was still studying in Braunschweig. In due course we collaborated on our first exhibition but lost sight of each other, soon afterwards. Up until 2007 in Cologne when I found myself excitedly in front of some rather peculiar Lower Rhenish Clinker brick Expressionist paintings, a style I had not heard of in painting before. Soon, they turned out to be Arnolds’ first valid works, a fact that made me even happier than I already was on account of the paintings. From then on, we’ve kept close contact and continuously worked together for exhibitions and publications. However, what’s happened since?
At the outset Clinker brick Expressionism, possibly related to one’s own origins, to where one comes from, to memories of childhood and adolescence in the Lower Rhine area. Although seen painterly, Clinker brick Expressionism – a 1920s–30s architectural regional-style ranging from Westphalia to the Netherlands via the Ruhr and the Rhineland – extends a lot further. Above all, it’s about façade layout. And, bluntly put, painting upon the two-dimensional plane of a canvas is the very same thing.
Thus, Arnolds’ Clinker brick Expressionism does not at all present us with industrial buildings. In fact, we witness him tectonically opening up a thoroughly pictorial build-up. Witness him “raising” the picture plane from scratch, effectively, building it with individual elements brick by brick like a solid wall or façade situated right in front of us. By no means, we are confronted with a potpourri of Lower Rhenish motives. Quite the contrary, Arnolds conducts a painterly localisation preceding all biography.
Due to Clinker brick Expressionism he was able to grasp the fundamental dimensions, the elementary conditions of painting: height, width, depth, a painting’s basic directions, the jutting or recoiling, once tender, once rugged relations of colours and contrasts, the proportionality between all pictorial constituents, matter-of-fact statics, bulky dynamics and their considerably calculated, planar equalization in rigid grid-patterns, oppositional structures, or elaborately delicate textures.
While working on these paintings, he was thinking about the pyramids, he recalled.(1) A question of form: how to harmonise and mould small and unrelated particles into form, on barren terrain, against all odds? How to create consistent and enduring “monuments” from barely nothing? Opposed to all doubts with which the 20th century disputed painting, this is a decisive avowal for it. No “exit from” but an entry into painting.
The lifeworld, our world, is brought back into painting, in succession of Clinker brick Expressionism set in motion by the Kitchen-paintings. The outside world is strikingly transferred into the interior space of painting, real concreteness becomes non-objective chromaticity. After all, painterly “matter” never merged with its objective, motifal meaning. Accordingly, if Arnolds paints his own studio, it’s not a matter of naturalist depiction but a simple occasion. He couldn’t care less about the imitation of a world all too well-known to us. A private kitchen is »almost an awkward subject«, so banal and insignificant that maybe just because of this »at last painting«(2) emerges from it, as he once hoped. No more motifal deciphering but embarking on seeing painting itself.
Hence, we see strictly orthogonal interiors built with nothing else than the primary colours red, yellow, and blue. In its consequence this overstated exaggeration brings us little by little to see the thoughtfully balanced and levelled-out relations between colours, planes, structural grids, bands, and partitions as well as any other elements. What we see is »painting and not at all [Arnolds’] own kitchen«(3). The alleged home economics smartly turn into pictorial economy, house rules become planar order.
Considering the primary colours, it’s as obvious as the picture plane that Arnolds accrues from Piet Mondrian and De Stijl. For the primaries are the sources of all chromaticity and in such of every painting, too. Implying no reduction or restraint on the palette, they establish an enormous space of possibilities, instead.
Aside a faithful representation of reality Mondrian intended to reinstate painting’s very own and self-expressing means (plane, colour, form) as painting and reality are entirely different entities. Anyhow, among the pictorial reality alien to us there are things to be found equivalent to our world, to our interaction with each other, to our relations and proportions: what’s on top, what’s below, what’s circumstantial, things mutually battering or appealing to each other and so forth. By equalizing these contrasts and confronting us with them painting gives fresh impetus to us to reconsider our place in front of a painting or within the world and thereby gaining halt and stand for ourselves; without the need for recognizing any representational motif.
Arnolds absorbs and embraces Mondrian’s reflexion on the pictorial possibilities as well as Henri Matisse’s »purity of means«(4). (on the edges, Klee, Miró, or Picabia can be spotted) Once, that’s settled – and the primary colours are such clarification – he leaves the interiors behind and, in the following Stolling-paintings, definitely steps out, entering the rough expanses of the plane itself.
While the kitchens were dominated by frontality, the Strolling-paintings appear as views from above, topographical plans, or maps with countless, primary-coloured lineatures pervading the white and black pictorial fields like traces. Although, trace is not the most accurate term. Constantly, we’ve got the feeling that these lines are not the result of a bygone movement. Rather, we are seeing the vivid and immediate activity of colour always happening “just now”. Arnolds paces off the plane along protrudingly vibrant bands of colour, granting a firm, albeit tensely situated position to all things. Everything unfolds upon the plane, grounds, forms, and structures are inseparably “embedded into each other”(5), thus, while strolling even the figure / ground-problem dissolves practically into thin “air”.
At the same time as André Butzer, Arnolds expands his chromaticity by another primary colour in the °-paintings – “nude” or skin colour. The former presented his “Colour theory” in London: four huge paintings, three in red, yellow, and blue and a fourth one in flesh colour. Contemplating what painting is capable of, the necessity to augment the three, pure primary colours with a fourth, humanly existential one dawned on Butzer.(6) No matter how virtual it may be, painting is a permanent realisation, making present things absent, it is an embodiment of things and persons that are actually not there. Not without course flesh colour has been called incarnate. With most different preconditions both Arnolds and Butzer parallelly come to the conclusion that the biblical incarnation – becoming flesh – is always inscribed into and assigned to painting.(7)
Thereby, Arnolds finally gathered both the formal and colourous vocabulary to venture into his Air-paintings in 2012–13. Forms and colours loosen up, the pictorial field widens. Severely, Arnolds acts out the oppositions between close and clear visions, between the pull into depth and the impact of the flat picture plane, between single colours and the colouristic whole, between tight geometry and fulminating planar ornaments, between non-objective, pure colour and almost unspeakable, “impure” congeries (a sudden orange, violet, or even green), between meticulousness and impropriety, between sincerity and folly. Yet, even these “indecencies” are well calculated, consciously applied, and united in a non-yielding pictorial whole.
Tying in with this, he has created more than 20 purely white paintings for Reutlingen, during the last year. The harsh chromaticity reverts into bright white and in the process something staggering takes place. The pictorial fields turn into sites of sheer emergence: upon the same plane massive forms, most subtle textures, and structures emerge from the very same colour, appearing as indetermined particles of expression, prior to all meaning or objective attribution, in the glistening self-light of the white. The paintings reside in this abeyance, reconciling line and colour, and displaying their gradual construction while being seen. They reveal how from isolated elements at first new words, then coherent sentences and at last a complete language evolves – ever on the boundaries of austerity and kicked-over traces, of striking signals and meaningless signs.
That’s the whole point. For any painter the question is how to attain one’s own language, one’s own painting, constantly new and still constantly the same. Accordingly, Arnolds both challenges and invites us: to regain the paintings as paintings again, to behold painting itself. Many contributed to the success of our exhibition. First and foremost we want to thank Thomas Arnolds for the delightful collaboration and the reality check his white paintings give us.
(1) Thomas Arnolds in conversation with CM, Cologne, January 25, 2014
(2) Thomas Arnolds in conversation with Wolfgang Brauneis, in: The luminous West. A site assessment of the art landscape in the Rhineland, exhibition catalogue Kunstmuseum Bonn, Kerber, Bielefeld 2010, p. 138
(4) e.g. Henri Matisse, »The Vence Chapel«, in: Henri Matisse – On Art, ed. Jack D. Flam, Diogenes, Zurich 1982, p. 226: »examine every element as such within the pictorial construction: drawing, colour, the values, composition, and how these elements are united without diminishing one’s expressiveness by another’s presence […] that is to say, by respecting the purity of means« [translated by AS]
(5) q.v. Leo Steinberg, »Jasper Johns: the First Seven Years of His Art«, in: Other Criteria. Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, UCP, Chicago 2007, pp. 17–54
(6) see André Butzer, Farbtheorie : Colour theory, exhibition catalogue Alison Jacques Gallery, Art Quarters Press, London 2010
(7) furthermore, Christian Malycha, »You cannot picture a likeness of N«, in: André Butzer – Probably the World’s Best Abstract Painter, exhibition catalogue Kestnergesellschaft, Walther König, Cologne 2010, p. 76–95