Currently, a great deal of the painting produced in Vienna maintains an interesting stance a propos the whole problem linked to the heritage of history and its projection in contemporaneity. This painting is removed from the intentionally subversive attitude modernity pretended, and from the ironic and somewhat superficial cliché of the post-modern discourse.

This painting handles abstract and figurative languages without conflicts and has resisted the conceptual discourse  which, announcing the death of it, ended up being digestible and academizing ad nauseam. This painting, especially in the artist of the youngest generations, has reacted without complexes to the new resources (“New resources?” artist Claus Prokop wondered one time “For someone of our generation painting is a novel as video or a computer, seen as an artistic resource. At present, all kinds of technology are available to art students. I have, obviously, worked with video and other technologies, but I still consider painting the most interesting language”).

These artist find modernity’s heroic attitude meaningless, and as regards the long-announced death of painting, they seem to agree with Octavio Paz’s words: “I’m not saying we are experiencing the end of art. We are experiencing the end of the modern art”. Painting survives it. That is the challenge these artists have to face.

Of all of them, the most internationally renowned is Hubert Scheibl (Gmunden, Austria 1952). His painting has on occasion been positioned in the tradition of abstract expressionist painting. A tradition that the painting created in the 1980s expressed via different trends and groups which, at the time, wanted to connect themselves to specific nationalities.

The spatiality suggested by the vast surfaces of colour in Scheibl’s paintings, with areas bathed in blinding light and distant semi-darkness, allow our gaze to penetrate their depth. Yet these pictorial surfaces go beyond the mere visual experience to focus on the material impression of other senses. This painting evokes acoustic sensations, as if one could feel the resonances of the different pictorial elements. Large floating spaces conformed by pictorial blooms traversed by rays in igneous colours, like the sign of a vital flow that penetrates between drowsy shadows. Surging from these vaporous depths, reverberations of a light that is completely artificial and chromatic timbres that seem to have been set alight by an electric current create different sceneries of sensations. Sometimes, these forms recall fragments of electronic images; others, they astound us with figurative details (like Alfred Hitchcock’s silhouette) that appear to manifest their absolute lack of meaning.

Actually, under this cornucopia of feelings, the structure of the pictorial process involves a complex scheme base on a meticulous disposition of superimposed pictorial layers. Colour plays an essential role in this pictorial scheme. Each of Hubert Scheibl’s canvases could be defined by the colour, or, more precisely, by the combinations of colours. Each painting involves a specific relation of contrasts, harmonies and dissonances between colours, each disintegrating in a scale of different intensities and variations, allowing us to perceive from the faintest tonal difference to the loudest discordance. A genuine musical composition.

Furthermore, the oeuvre of Thomas Reinhold (Vienna, Austria, 1953) most complexly gives notice of the recuperation of historical languages from a contemporary perspective. The reference to the history of painting is a constant aspect in this artist’s work, giving it an eminently intellectual nature.

Reinhold employs different registers which he transforms into an elaborate formal structure. Each painting is a construction of different pictorial languages that compose a body with an architectural nature, in the sense of strength, thrusts and buttresses in equilibrium. At first glance, the splashes, swift brushstrokes and the deliberate blotches on the canvases draw the attention. A closer interpretation unveils a contained gesture; the drops of paint, at a certain point in the process, fall inversely and are, suddenly, limited by a well-defined outline. The initial brushstroke ends in an intricate filigree. This is a rigorous pictorial construction articulated by an internal, balanced, structure, to which a lot of thought has been given. There is a constant dialectic between the casual and the controlled, different pictorial languages and different issues set out over a whole tradition, in the history of modern painting. It is interesting to see how figuration is integrated in this constellation of different pictorial languages: some canvases portray isolated recognisable, identifiable forms, yet removed from their meaning. Renhold does not copy the objects themselves, but the reproduction of these objects –a text, a printed photograph- with the probable intention of extracting their meaning and taking the viewer to other associations or meanings beyond painting itself. The result of this process, as aforementioned, is a paintings that comes across as essentially intellectual, loaded with references to history itself and, in this sense, as particularly Viennese.

Gunter Damish (Steyr, Austria, 1958), overcoming the concept of painting as a formal entity, conceives it as a place of fiction. In the information age, virtual reality is part of our environment and the fictional is as effective as reality itself.

Danish studied painting trough drawing. For some time now, he has also been producing a vast graphic and sculptural oeuvre. His use of this variety of plastic languages appears in the careful precision of the most intricate details and the richness of textures in his canvases. Yet, which reality –“unreal reality”- does Gunter Damish’s painting represent? A living body, a moving structure, perhaps the vision of a microscope at a perceptible scale.Amoebas, stems, roots. Sideral bodies. Or, even better, a fragment of the cosmic space in its infinite dimension. Some of the titles of his works allude to the issue ambiguously, always suggesting the idea of movement, fluidity, organic beings that are alive, represented by intense colours, dynamic forms and loud protuberances.

After visiting Damish’s studio, our certainties are confirmed. Canvases hang from walls surrounded by dozens of plants and, among stems and creepers, figures from African and different animistic cultures crowd his workshop creating an atmosphere that is full of life. Despite the dull winter light shining trough the windows of his studio, Damish’s painting appears now more than ever with unbounded vitality and energy, and as real as our conscience itself.

In the cultured Vienna of the early 20th century, one of the major figures in the field of Aesthetics proclaimed ornaments a “crime”, possibly forgetting the beautiful belfries that crown the city, witnesses of the Oriental influence the Austro-Hungarian city has received for centuries. The ornamental, the decorative –pejorative concepts in the tradition of modern Western painting –is inherent to traditional Oriental art. The work of Claus Prokop (Klagenfurt, Austria, 1966) harmonises this contradiction, unveiling the pleasure of observing in a painting that finds one of its most attractive aspects in the ornamental.

Prokop’s oeuvre is defined by a specific motif as a constitutive element. A motive that, as an ornament, occupies vast stretches of the canvas. It is interesting, nevertheless, that the actual artist does no conceive the idea of the ornamental. Prokop refers to his paintings as “landscapes”. Non figurative landscapes that –as if observed under a magnifying glass- reveal their internal structure. The arrangement of the different layers of paint resembles, according to the artist himself, the different natural sedimentations of the layers of the earth, whose common and repeated element refers back to different geological formations.

This issue, that has an ontological nature and confirms the analytical aspect of Prokop’s painting, is reaffirmed in one of the artist’s most recent works. A video tape screening the action of balls bouncing at the same height, each following the same trajectory, with a difference between them. In this essential action, the artist works with a new element: the line drawn by the ball’s trajectory in the mind of the viewer. By introducing another element –albeit mental- that is repeated as the basic structure and defines the whole of each painting, Prokop extends the meaning of his analysis. His painting is created from elemental forms, the material result of its constitutive elements –a formal strategy to approach it.

Ancient painters from Pompeii used clever illusionist tricks to suggest perspectives of imaginary worlds that went beyond the limits of the walls on which they painted. The last of the so-called “Pompeian” styles, less interested in realistic details and based on vague brushstrokes and deliberate blotches, played with the global effect of painting using plastic arts to emphasise the architectural forms it used as a supports.

The cognitive process that mediates between the vision and the intellectual apprehension of what is seen is one of the classical issues in the history of painting. The works created by Esther Stocker (Schlanders, Italy 1974) tackle the matter of the legibility of this genre by means of a work based on the reiteration of the same module: a rectangle, a line, a square, forms that are always reduced to their most essential aspect. By employing a minimum variation or, simply, based on the presence or absence of said module, each painting presents the problem between what is “represented” on the canvas and what is “conceived” in our mind.

As did the trompe-l’oeilof the last Pompeian style, the paintings Stocker has created directly on the wall with visual effects that transform the perception of space. Emphasised by an absolute economy of resources (colour disappears in favour of white, grey and black), the works Esther Stocker conceives as installations obtain truly stunning results, with an extraordinary plastic effect.

These are but a few examples on the Viennese pictorial panorama.

Although we cannot provide a certain answer to the question regarding the connexion of a specific art to our global, multicultural society ,we can, in fact, say categorically that  there are locations where the weight of the historical conscience seems to be assimilated more complexly than in others. That historical conscience is translated in the capacity to assimilate and question aspects of the inherited modernity, and to integrate the new forms and stances of contemporary artistic languages.

The so-called “Central Europe”, a transnational territory that has assimilated different cultures, ethnic groups and traditions throughout its history (as describe excellently by Claudio Magris in his essay “Danube”, rom 1988), seems to be endowed with the brilliant capacity to develop the eclectic, even though some want to interpret this as the result of a sort of permanent identity crisis. (Hence the famous definition Franz Kafka made of himself, stating that the Czechs considered him German and the Germans thought of him as Jewish.)

The painting produced in Vienna, a city that is a mosaic of different assimilated cultures, is a reflection of these processes.

Pia Jardí Translation: Laura F. Farhall

(Lápiz N°213 May 2005)