NOTES ON THE WORK of TOBIAS SPICHTIG
IT'S 1998 AND HELMUT LANG is sending his ss99 looks down the runway: white techy silk and layers of translucent acid-house pink over human skin. No logos, no binaries (many styles are pointedly unisex). It's an iconic pre-Y2K staging of a post-millennial mood. The show lives on in '90s lore as well as via the wardrobes of Art Basel dealers for whom Lang's '90s asceticism-luxe continues to signify power Elysium-elite.1 Is it too romantic to imagine that this late '90s Lang, with its clean lines and user-friendly palette also envisaged the art world's digital presence to come; that it gave a code set for how the white cube would be translated to screenspace, the sans serif type and expanses of white, the 72dpi 'image galleries' of paintings photographed under ultra-florescent light above poured concrete floors? Asceticism, rationalism, frictionless scrolling.
72 looks from Lang's ss99 show feature in Tobias Spichtig's recent work, Die vier Jahrezeiten, 2019. They have been heat-pressed onto raw canvas to serve as the background onto which the rest of the painting is made. As it was for Warhol and Duchamp, Spichtig will also tell you that "the background is the hardest part to do...," which makes so much sense when you consider how, in art, a subject or idea only becomes legible when set against a certain ground. Figure/ground, a framework for understanding image-making as old as the discipline of art history itself. And it's one that still holds: without its contextualizing brand, a hot piece of streetwear is just a €10 shirt; without a background in place, a stock image is just a .tiff file in a server repository waiting for the next pitch deck.
But if fashion is the ground in Spichtig's Die vier Jahrezeiten, it arrives having been already cancelled. Cutting dramatically across this canvas is a tribal tattoo-type glyph, a massive hand-painted mark of #authentic #human #soul contra fashion's "new spirit of capitalism"-compliant grid. But deployed in a Western context, aren't tribal tats compliant too? Spichtig's amalgamated Maori-motif-slash-Chinese-character-turned-phoenix-rising is, in a sense, meaningless global culture trash. And as such, it is fully legible as free spirit in scare quotes, the kind of "free spirit" that would advertises himself as a guru of "open minded thinking" on Instagram.
But back to figure/ground because in Spichtig's painting, it's in this zone between the two where the work takes hold. Picabia's "Transparencies" come to mind here. The master shapeshifter, during his surrealist phase, layered non-sequitur iconography—a goat head, a woman, a double-helix—so that all of these signs were interrupting, cancelling each other and it would be up to the viewer to negotiate where the "figure" ended and "ground" began.
With Spichtig, however, the area in play doesn't end at the canvas. Often his works are installed in spaces that he fills wall-to-wall with multiples of a single type of domestic consumer good—mattresses, kitchen tables, refrigerators, couches—so that the paintings themselves are partially blocked from view. This means that the gallery floor, the viewer's literal ground (and one that, for painting shows, is typically kept Elysium-level pristine) is disrupted and unclear. Does one just observe from afar? Or does one enter into the space, hacking a path through this landscape of an entire eBay Kleinanzeigen2 search thread materialized in one place? In engaging in this extra-physical experience, traversing over or between objects to get a closer view, does the viewer herself become part of the work? Or is it all just part of a joke, a hyperbolic articulation of the opposite of one-dimensional screenspace? After all, it's such a simple idea, filling the space up with objects. It's like one you'd imagine in a test-run for a VR demo at a trade-show where the key trick to creating a memorable user-"experience" is to synthesize a shift in the user's sense of the ground.
There's maybe another connection in Spichtig's work to the semiotics of screenspace, though: the way that IRL objects are essentialized in his practice. Certain things—"sunglasses!", "mountains!", "flowers!"—are not just reoccurring motifs, but images deployed with the legibility of international signage. For instance, the iconic Swiss alps that have shown up several times in his work do happen to be personally relevant (the artist grew up surrounded by them), but in the life of these paintings they operate foremost as the sign "mountains" more than offering some personal clue. After all, they are not just any mountains, but Swiss mountains, the most iconic mountains, the mountains that get stamped on chocolate wrappers to signify "tradition of quality" and "luxury" and "European."
The same sign-factor is operative when people are depicted in his work. Take for instance Theresa, 2018, in which Spichtig depicts his partner and collaborator, Theresa Patzschke. Fresh faced, hair down, natural smile, she appears in this painting as the platonic ideal of youthful female beauty. This is all the more apparent when viewed, as Spichtig staged it in his show at Cologne's Jan Kaps Gallery, presented beside another painting of a shirtless, older Iggy Pop (Iggy Pop, 2018), which in turn hangs beside one featuring past-their-prime stalks of crimson lilies (Sie doch nihct so verloren [I don't think you're so lost], 2018), petals curling back, greenery browning. In this grouping, Iggy Pop appears the titan of all post-peak icons and the lilies are similarly totemic as a testament to "life having been lived." Beside Theresa in the Kaps show was a fourth work, Staring at Canvas Again, 2018, which is a "blank" painting but not really: the canvas has been sized with resin and brushed with diamond dust so that the surface is both translucent and literally brilliant. Individually, let alone taken all together, the connotations are almost all too much, which is the point because the too much is also what makes Spichtig's work, at its core, also funny—and universal, a kind of mediagenic openness that one finds on record covers and memes.
But this isn't to say that the biographical is to be entirely disregarded in Spichtig's practice. The personal sphere is the foundation of his practice and where every piece begins. The first action as he makes a new painting involves a selection from his immediate surrounds (think Jonas Mekas or Nan Goldin or Mark Morrisroe) or rather a selection from the flow of images he and his community collectively generate as they mediate their experience of this already surveillance-rich world. These photos—whether of his friends or references passed among them (i.e., garments from his stylist neighbor, a snapshot from last night, Helmut Lang grid)—are the ground on which everything else is built. Rather than sizing his canvasses with gesso, Spichtig primes them with the visual language of his network. And isn't this only natural given that it's through this hyper-mediation practice of social media, etc. that we (as part of the late 2010s Western world) do see our daily lives? Furthermore, isn't it this aesthetic act of image capture and selection (as opposed to the automatic data capture and processing of most digital interfaces) that, at least at this stage of automation, can appears as a decidedly human gesture today?
Returning to Die vier Jahrezeiten—particularly, the relationship between the Helmut Lang look index and the gestural mark layered on top—perhaps it can also be read in an alternate way: not only is the ludicrous free-spirit mark expressing the will of a human hand, Spichtig's selection of this particular Lang look index is too. In a time of increasing algorithmic selection and suggestion, to insist on the chaotic, complex codes of memory, on the improbability of these two disparate signifiers—tribal tats (Lollapalooza mass culture) and late-90s Lang ('relational aesthetics' elite)—sharing a word cloud or page is to assert human gesture, human expression, human gaze.
Published: Oct 2019
1. Elysium, a 2013 film directed by Neill Bomkamp that portrays a world starkly divided between the underclass, who are bound to a savage dystopian life on Earth, and an upper class existing in a sublime, verdant utopia installed on a massive terraformed platform orbiting Earth.
2. eBay Kleinanzeigen (or eBay Classifieds) is similar to '00s Craigslist in that if facilitates the exchange of typically pre-owned goods between geographically local users.
Caroline Busta is the editor of New Models.