Art Review Archives:
Udo Noeger: Paintings and Drawings
Since earliest time, thunderbolts and ball lightening have terrified. Will-o'-the-wisps, glowworms... static electric stings and their sleights-of-hand have inspired mens' awe and curiosity. The human creature readily identifies energy -- matter's alter ego -- whether violent or benign, with light. Mix the colors of the rainbow and the result is white -- additive color. (With pigments -- subtractive color -- the result appears as mud.) Udo Noeger's "Paintings and Drawings," at Fassbender Gallery, Chicago, begins with all that is commonplace, and proceeds into an art which captures a visitor's repeated attention and which provokes a lingering curiosity within the artist's inspiration. It will do so long after the exhibition's June 2, 2001, closing date.
There is a slippery nature to light. It seems invisible: we know it by effect. It has so many unrelated origins: it is more a symptom than a fact. Noeger employs these qualities as a medium. As a start, the paintings at Fassbender Gallery draw upon various mixed media: oil, acrylics and charcoal on layered canvas and muslin. Noeger then adds mineral oil to bring these to translucency, in effect, mimicking some of the natural behavior of light itself. A refined and luminous interplay arises as the multiple layerings reflect, alter and again transmit ambient light. As the viewer's position alters, or the surrounding lighting varies, still more subtle, complex visual nuances emerge. The overall curation of this showing is excellent, and although the track lighting in the gallery at times and in some places generates some glossy reflection (as with Lichtarena 2 [Light Arena] (1999)), the gallery does accommodate dimming or momentary lighting adjustments.
The essence of energy, and of light, is that they are not static. For them to be at all, there must be a transfer, movement -- they must flow. Udo Noeger's Me Water (2000:oil, acrylic, charcoal, canvas:73"x96") seems an apt introduction to this exhibition. In this piece, there are five soft-edged blunt spike-like contours; three are positioned in image left, two more arise at the right. All lie astride an upper, darker off-white field which fills the upper half of the canvas; the lower half is a rectangular field of lighter white. An interesting illusion is at play here. Many visitors at the opening seemed unaware that only the central spike, and one each at the extreme right and furthest left, reverse their infill tones at mid-section. They become lighter against a darker field, and yet darker against the lower, brighter background. The two remaining spikes are uniform, except for a subtle contour shading common to them all. Nonetheless, many viewers, automatically and without subsequent realization, remembered them all as uniform. The viewer's mind adjusted all the schematic incongruities. The overall image seems a cross-section... of individual hairs rising from within an epidermis; of burrows breaking through the layers of sediment; of lightening striking ground and fusing the surrounding soil. Noeger's Me Water lays bare a dynamic of flux which typifies both slow, liquid intrusions and the instantaneous strikes of energy. The artist's layering of reflective surfaces and his choice of a minimal palette focus attention on the painting's forms. These forms are then subverted, contradicted, if only in part, so that what the eye may see, and what is consciously perceived, are never quite the same. The mind attempts consistency, and a visual tension, a sense of action, animates the art.
Gleichfluss (2000:oil, acrylic, charcoal, canvas:80"x119") extends this strategy. Two chromosomal figures flank a center void of any focus other than the horizon formed by a lower half of darker tone which meets a lighter upper half of off-white. A careful viewer again discerns a visual inconsistency: the leftmost end of the 'V-shaped' form disregards the juncture of the two contrasting fields which it spans; the branch at right responds by reversing its infill hue. Here again, the artist's varied surface layers add a luminosity which lends unnatural depth to a flat, deliberately two-dimensional image. If energy is visualized in light, then the artist's liberties with what the eye expects unveils an indeterminant and changing truth more than the dissections of exact science. Noeger has noted that he proceeds as an artist, as a human striving to grasp phenomena, rather than as a technician with a knife. He seeks to seize the moving forms, rather than dissect. The title here does elude me. Gleichstroem is the German term for Direct Current, and I assume that Gleichfluss must read as something like 'Uniform Flow,' but I find it in no dictionary I have.
Energy and light, if anything, are not conformable. They are manifest in forms so conventional as to be a commonplace of TV ads, and, equally, reveal themselves in bizarre and nebulous phenomena. Even a single form, the image of a doughnut ring, resonates to haloes of the sun and moon, planetary rings, natural and aberrant electrical forms, and the modeled probabilities of subatomic particles about a centered nucleus. Lichtarena 2 (1999:oil, acrylic on canvas:78"x110") singles out that archetype in an ethereal and altering play of radiance which evokes both a steady state plasmic discharge and its analogs in biolumenescence: the light of jellyfish and fungal rings.
In the current selection at the Fassbender Gallery, the artist sets pulse and radiance -- the effect of his layering of painted surfaces -- against the formal two-dimensionality of the painting which bears the image. A contrast between empty, negative space and positive, delineated forms is central to his aesthetic. Although a viewer can discern visual affinities with kindred artists, a wide disparity in motivations and intents stamps the work of each with a distinct voice. Noeger's paintings could never be confounded with, say, a work by Agnes Martin or Robert Ryman. Unlike Martin, Noeger does not seek to isolate and analyze discreet emotional response to phenomena or experience; nor does a viewer feel that the German artist is wholly given over to the luxuries of paint itself, as in the case of Ryman. With Noeger, the easel painting is conspicuously a flat object, but its role as a bearer of significance, of image, remains, and the artist's content draws from abstracted subject, not a personal response of itself.
In at least one painting in this exhibition, the artist's abstracted subject is explicit. In Heads and Stripes 2 (1998:oil, acrylic, charcoal on canvas:107"x186"), the overall image divides into four quarters. At upper left, an off-white quarter contains four darker, irregular ovoid shapes, while in the area below, three such ovals, in white, float within a darker ground. At upper right, three darker stripes are spaced horizontally within a lighter rectangle, while beneath this, the motif is repeated in a reversed, a negative tonal scheme. The general impression is of a flag or heraldic pennant, and, were the artist American, one might take the painting as a reference to the Yankee Stars and Stripes. In this work of 1998, one feels the artist is still developing the vocabulary which is so absorbing in the subsequent works. With Heads and Stripes 2, the artist's conceptual sense, a recourse to personal symbol, still predominates over the more intuitive exposition of phenomena.
Energy and light. In the end, these are concepts of the physicists, the rationalizers. In our world, we know them only by appearance and effects. Our experiences begin in diverse phenomena, and are only later made analogies and abstract unities. We moderns have, to a very large degree, sacrificed our primal wonder and delight in the very stuff of energy and light. The current "Paintings and Drawings" of Udo Noeger, at Fassbender Gallery, Chicago, return the viewer to the wordless perceptions we otherwise recall exclusively in dreams. This exhibition is there until June 2, 2001.
For those who read German, Galerie Peter Borchardt supplies an essay and gallery notes on this artist: http://www.galerie-borchardt.de.
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: To accommodate some readers, the German Umlaut in the artist's surname has been spelled out in full. "ö" and "oe" are interchangeable.
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