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Dialetical Images
Peter Lodermeyer

JOHANNES GIRARDONI
Florian Steininger, Peter Lodermeyer
Translated by Elizabeth Volk
116 pages
Edited by Feichtner Editions
Vienna, Austria, 2007
ISBN: 3-9502072-1-X


I.

“…image is dialec­tic at a stand­still.”
—Wal­ter Ben­jamin, The Arcades Project

When it comes to acquaint­ing the impar­tial observer with the basic thoughts of American-based, Austrian-born artist Johannes Girar­doni, there is scarcely a better-suited series of works than his trip­tychs. The first thing that becomes clear in these works is that Girardoni’s art orig­i­nally devel­oped from paint­ing, and despite all the changes and devel­op­ments, he has never denied this ori­gin. Rather, he has sub­tly incor­po­rated it into the “appear­ance” of his sculp­tures and objects. Nearly all of his works hint at this in their given rela­tion­ship to the wall and their strik­ing pres­ence of color. We wit­ness both of these fea­tures in the trip­tychs. Take the large works Trip­tych — Cad­mium Green Light of 2003 or Trip­tych — Tita­nium White of 2007, for exam­ple. When closed, each appears as a two-part mono­chrome paint­ing. At first glance, the homoge­nous color sur­face, inter­rupted only by the ver­ti­cal cleft in the mid­dle, is what dom­i­nates over the three-dimensional char­ac­ter of the work. The gaze of the viewer is ini­tially riv­eted by the sin­gu­lar sur­face — though nei­ther shiny nor dull — of the pig­mented, wax-covered wooden pan­els. Only upon closer exam­i­na­tion do we dis­cover the metal hinges on the sides, which in turn indi­cate that the front sur­faces are in fact move­able doors that may be opened and closed.

Up to the present day, mod­ern artists have shown repeated inter­est in the centuries-old form of the trip­tych. Trip­tychs, how­ever, were mostly under­stood as sim­ple, three-part paint­ings, whereby the cen­tral pic­ture cus­tom­ar­ily received par­tic­u­lar empha­sis through its size, man­ner of cre­ation, or con­tent. A wide range of exam­ples may be found; think of the trip­tychs of Fran­cis Bacon or the numer­ous min­i­mal­ist and later, fig­u­ra­tive trip­tychs in the work of Jo Baer. What makes Girardoni’s trip­tychs dif­fer­ent from these works is the afore­men­tioned use of move­able side parts. Girardoni’s cre­ations are a play on the winged altar from the late Mid­dle Ages and its increas­ingly refined rein­car­na­tions in early mod­ern times. Thus, with his trip­tychs we are deal­ing with move­able or change­able three-part objects with a total of five view­able sides.

A gen­eral fea­ture of Johannes Girardoni’s works should be noted here: they always relate to art of the past, and ref­er­ence both tra­di­tional forms and more recent art, such as Min­i­mal Art of the 1960s. In doing so, Girar­doni does not quote, but rather con­cerns him­self with struc­tural, non-figurative trans­po­si­tions or approaches on a for­mal, fun­da­men­tal level. With the trip­tychs and dip­tychs, fairly clear his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tions may be made, (even where they have per­haps not been con­sciously intended). When look­ing at Girardoni’s Dip­tych — Yel­low Green made in 2007, you may be reminded of Roman con­sular dip­tychs, a late antique art form stem­ming from the 5th and 6th cen­turies. Made of ivory, their inner sides — designed to be writ­ten upon — were cov­ered with wax, tinted yel­low with orpi­ment. With other forms Girar­doni uses, the ref­er­ence to his­tor­i­cal mod­els remains sub­tle. His Drip Boxes, for exam­ple, blocks of wax that have been mounted on wooden bases and fixed to the wall, may con­jure the for­mal struc­ture of con­sole fig­ures as they occur through­out the cen­turies in the most diverse cul­tural cir­cles, but espe­cially in the Euro­pean Mid­dle Ages. The Face Boxes, on the other hand, appear to be an orig­i­nal answer to the tra­di­tional paint­ing metaphors of the win­dow and the mir­ror. The framed hol­lows in the objects of this series take up the motifs of the open­ing of the pic­ture plane and the viewer’s self-encounter, trans­form­ing both fun­da­men­tally by mak­ing it pos­si­ble for the viewer to phys­i­cally expe­ri­ence the art: the Face Boxes invite the viewer to press his face into this open­ing. The visual approach to the work cul­mi­nates in direct bod­ily contact.


II.


Let us return to the trip­tychs. In medieval and mod­ern reli­gious paint­ing, the broader cen­tral panel of an open trip­tych nor­mally com­prises the cen­tral motif, for which the themes of the side pan­els have a prepara­tory, sup­ple­men­tary, and aux­il­iary func­tion. In Girardoni’s trip­tychs, the viewer’s expec­ta­tions accord­ing to this tra­di­tion are dashed with a visual shock. When you open the aux­il­iary wings, instead of the pow­er­ful color of the out­sides you dis­cover: noth­ing … merely the naked wall, an empty sur­face framed only by sev­eral rough, nar­row wooden boards placed in ver­ti­cal rhythm. Here the con­crete real­ity of the works, the con­struc­tion out of wood and wax, is bla­tantly exposed. What does this empty cen­ter offer as a pos­si­ble inter­pre­ta­tion in terms of con­tent? The trip­tych as a winged altar is a form that was tra­di­tion­ally reserved almost exclu­sively for reli­gious themes. Through these, Girardoni’s works are inevitably charged with a cer­tain sacral mean­ing — a state, which may also be observed in many other works of his as well.

But con­cern­ing the con­tent, how may we bring the empty cen­ter of the work into con­nec­tion with this? Many inter­pre­ta­tions are plau­si­ble, since instead of the tra­di­tional por­trayal of the Divine there is only a gap­ing void. Can we see this athe­is­ti­cally as an indi­ca­tion that God does not exist? Or from an exis­ten­tial stand­point, as a sign of his absence? Or do we view this in the sense of neg­a­tive the­ol­ogy, more­over per­haps as the Jew­ish or Islamic ban on pic­tures, as a sign that God may not be por­trayed? And would it be per­mis­si­ble to use numeric sym­bol­ism to inter­pret the three empty fields in Girardoni’s newest trip­tychs of 2007 as an abstract indi­ca­tion of the Trin­ity? Or is it a purely for­mal exer­cise that serves to show how eas­ily (and also super­fi­cially) con­crete con­tents may be tied to cer­tain cul­tur­ally pre­de­ter­mined forms? Such spec­u­la­tions imme­di­ately trig­ger a feel­ing of uneasi­ness, caused by the fact that the most oppos­ing inter­pre­ta­tions are pos­si­ble simul­ta­ne­ously. Which inter­pre­tive asso­ci­a­tions are brought to the works appar­ently depends on the cul­tural and per­sonal dis­po­si­tions of the viewer. It is pre­cisely this ambi­gu­ity of the trig­ger — which allows var­i­ous inter­pre­ta­tions — that inter­ests the artist. Girar­doni has often referred to his works as “cat­a­lysts”. This is a very fit­ting term. Just as a cat­a­lyst in nature acts to ini­ti­ate a chem­i­cal process in which it remains unin­volved, the works them­selves remain neu­tral vis-à-vis all asso­ci­a­tions. They nei­ther dis­claim nor con­firm them. It is Girardoni’s inten­tion to make the viewer’s per­sonal inter­pre­ta­tion of the artist’s works pos­si­ble, while at the same time, avoid­ing any pre-determined inter­pre­tive con­cept. This is also why — as a rule — the titles of his works are kept neu­tral and descrip­tive: most of them con­sist of a for­mal des­ig­na­tion of what we see, plus the name of the pig­ments with which the wax has been col­ored. The cen­tral voids of the trip­tychs dis­play a fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tic of Girardoni’s art: namely that the intrin­sic real­ity of an art­work can be con­tained in the non-visible — in the sup­posed void. This is the clear­est sign of the open­ness of struc­ture and con­tent in these works, which avail them­selves of the viewer’s coop­er­a­tion as he looks, thinks, and senses. Thus, para­dox­i­cally, the voids are at the same time the dens­est places in these works. Men­tion has pre­vi­ously been made of the Face Boxes, whose hollowed-out spaces can take in the faces of view­ers. Bod­ily con­tact is closer yet in the Monopods of 2005, which have been placed on wooden sup­ports: the viewer is able to place his or her head and upper body inside their empty cen­ter. In Seven Silent Moments the title itself even refers to the seven ver­ti­cal voids within and between the indi­vid­ual parts of the installation.

Despite their asso­cia­tive open­ness, these works are, of course, not arbi­trary. The types of asso­ci­a­tions view­ers apply to the works show clearly that by using as sim­ple a for­mal means as pos­si­ble, Girar­doni man­ages to address fun­da­men­tal per­sonal depth-layers and thus, issues of exis­ten­tial rel­e­vance, which have to do with our feel­ings about our­selves as phys­i­cal and, there­fore, vul­ner­a­ble and mor­tal beings in space and time. Girar­doni is not con­cerned with the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of name­able con­tents, but, as he puts it, with the “com­mu­nion or com­mu­nity between the work and myself, or the work and the viewer.” We may also describe this with a word pair used by the lit­er­ary scholar Hans Ulrich Gum­brecht: in his works Girar­doni restrains the mean­ing effects, i.e. the mean­ings with regard to con­text, in favor of an enhance­ment of the pres­ence effects. Here the word pres­ence means the cor­po­real close­ness, the sen­sual inten­sity and tan­gi­ble pres­ence of the work of art. This not only appeals to the eyes of the viewer, but also to his or her other senses. The hap­tic qual­i­ties of the rough, weath­ered, wood sur­faces, the smooth­ness and the intense smell of the beeswax — all of these cre­ate an atmos­phere of intense phys­i­cal presence.


III.


“… oppo­sites and con­tra­dic­tions — this is our har­mony.”
Wass­ily Kandin­sky, Con­cern­ing the Spir­i­tual in Art

Open­ing and clos­ing, com­pact­ness and voids, color and col­or­less­ness, smooth wax and rough wood — the oppo­sites that may be found in Girardoni’s trip­tychs as for­mal char­ac­ter­is­tics run like a thread through­out his entire oeu­vre. Oppo­sites and con­tra­dic­tions, as well as the com­plex dialec­tic between them, are Girardoni’s fun­da­men­tal themes. The artist has pointed out repeat­edly that this inter­est in oppo­sites, and the (pen­e­tra­ble) bor­ders between them, goes back to his bio­graph­i­cal roots: Girar­doni grew up on the Austro-Hungarian bor­der, which was still a buffer zone between two polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary blocks in the 1960s and ‘70s. Added to this is the con­trast between his Euro­pean and Amer­i­can iden­tity since he was 15; and more recently, the com­mute between his stu­dio in Man­hat­tan and the Bur­gen­land of east­ern Aus­tria, i.e., between life in the metrop­o­lis and life in the coun­try. Bor­der expe­ri­ences and their dialec­tics as an artis­tic theme are no con­trived, the­o­ret­i­cal mat­ter for Girar­doni, but con­sti­tute struc­tures that are deeply anchored in his per­sonal experience.

For this rea­son we could term Girardoni’s works with a famous con­cept coined by Wal­ter Ben­jamin as “dialec­tic images.” Benjamin’s con­cern gave thought to the simul­ta­ne­ous­ness, the lightning-flash con­stel­la­tion of myth and the mod­ern: “It isn’t that the past casts its light on the present or the present casts its light on the past: rather, an image is that in which the past and the now flash into a con­stel­la­tion. In other words, image is dialec­tic at a stand­still.” We see an imme­di­ate encounter between moder­nity and the age-old, “the has-been,” in Girardoni’s works as well. The his­tory of forms, among these, the form of the sacral pic­ture, has been pre­served. His works have the effect of being at once “of today” and archaic or time­less. Girar­doni refrains from giv­ing in to the “urge to con­tin­u­ally find some­thing new,” which always makes a tragi­com­edy out of art, since noth­ing ages as fast as some­thing uncon­di­tion­ally new. But by the same token, he nei­ther suc­cumbs to nos­tal­gia nor returns to famil­iar forms; rather, he only approaches them by rad­i­cally reduc­ing and abstract­ing them, defin­ing them at a for­mal, basic level.

The dialec­tic in Girardoni’s works can be most clearly seen in his newest series called In Front of the Plane. In it, “the past,” and “the now,” coex­ist and are sub­tly con­veyed simul­ta­ne­ously. We might refer to these works as “tem­po­ral trip­tychs,” because in each of them, three “images” from three time planes are enmeshed with one another. The first stage, an instal­la­tion of thinly poured and then cut sur­faces of wax on the stu­dio walls of the artist, is itself not present, but only pho­to­graph­i­cally doc­u­mented and present for the viewer in the form of a reminder. The pho­to­graph, as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of this first stage, is the sec­ond stage. It is itself pre­sented as an object by hav­ing been installed, like the wax sur­faces it shows, at a short dis­tance from the wall. On the floor, stacked upon a rough wood base, are the wax plates of the wall instal­la­tion. This third stage of the work, its end state, is the plas­tic form of implo­sion of the instal­la­tion. What was once spread flat across the walls, per­vaded by light, has been con­densed and “archived” here. Stack­ing, as the sim­plest plas­tic inter­pre­ta­tion of min­i­mal­ist seri­al­iza­tion, is the clas­sic form of keep­ing things in archives: books and files are stacked in such a way.

In Front of the Plane also con­tains a com­plex mesh­ing of gen­res. The mono­chrome wax pan­els of the first stage — think, for exam­ple of the early encaus­tic works of Brice Mar­den, which served as impor­tant stim­uli for Girardoni’s devel­op­ment from paint­ing to sculp­ture — have an obvi­ous rela­tion­ship to the genre of paint­ing in the broad­est sense. Between it and the third stage there is pho­tog­ra­phy as a medi­a­tor, and as a tech­ni­cal archive medium. At the end of the process there is the sculp­ture, the medium that rep­re­sents every­thing Girardoni’s artis­tic devel­op­ment builds up to. Thus the gaze of the viewer goes back and forth between one medium and another, attempt­ing to con­nect the work’s present and past forms of appear­ance. The sub­ject, how­ever, is not only the mate­r­ial work, but also its spa­tial and tem­po­ral trans­for­ma­tion. In all of this, the viewer’s per­spec­tive can reverse and the first stage can once again become the depart­ing point for a poten­tial wall instal­la­tion that only exists in the imag­i­na­tion. With In Front of the Plane we are deal­ing with works that remain in con­stant motion with their three stages and two mate­r­ial parts, and where the view­ing will never reach a def­i­nite end. These are dialec­tic images “if it is true, that in Benjamin’s eyes the dialec­tic image remains fun­da­men­tally open and restless.”