Construction of the informal

Dr. Gabriele Uelsberg
Director of the LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn

An upbeat young contemporary artist fully in touch with the pulse of the metropolis, Christian Awe addresses within his oeuvre the traditional and yet also unconventional approaches of the 20th century in a working method that may be bewildering at first glance. No art history critic can miss the fact that the structures identifiable in Christian Awe’s paintings owe to an informal „all-over“ clearly and unmistakably tracing back to the post-1945 works of Jackson Pollock. In its conscious exaggeration of all “gradations of colorfulness,” however, Awe’s use of color contradicts with these Pollocktypical strategies, pointing to the earlier excesses at work in the Color Field paintings characterizing the artistic generation of the 1960‘s, which began distancing itself from painting as an outmoded genre.

In full awareness of the approaches behind these numerous citations, Awe fluently and effortlessly conjugates them within his artistic process. The works that result seem to connect back to more traditional forms; yet the process through which these works emerge is utterly different and transforms the ‚unpainterly‘ works of their predecessors into a pure form of painting. Just what does this mean?

After 1947, Jackson Pollock began to lay his canvas on the floor of his studio in order to move around it – or sometimes even across it – and to spatter, drip and pour the paint onto the canvas while in motion. He used this gestural technique to paint as directly as possible, in order to „literally be in the painting,“ as he himself phrased it. These works, now known as Drip Paintings, shocked viewers when exhibited for the first time in 1948. His renunciation of traditional techniques and the resulting insult he represented to conventional notions of art earned him the nickname „Jack the Dripper.“ In this reference to the infamous serial killer „Jack the Ripper,“ Pollock was regarded as the murderer of art in its entirety.

In his drip method, Pollock lets the paint flow or drip from the container or a stick straight onto the canvas on the floor while carrying out various gestural movements with the freely swinging container or stick. These form the pre requisites for an absolute emancipation of the painter‘s action. The fact that the canvas is spread on the floor and is large in scale allows the painter to enter into a more concrete, spatial and physical relationship with the canvas. In this way, as Rosenberg described, the canvas truly becomes an arena within which the painter operates. This relationship between the artist‘s space and the canvas inherently requires action in the truest sense of the word and not actually painting. In the drip method process, the painter can maneuver over the canvas without touching it, hence freeing his actions from direct contact with the canvas, the kind of direct contact that serves as the actual requirement for painting. The artist’s actions, thus, are not necessarily limited to two-dimensional, supposedly graphic gestures that make direct contact with the canvas. Rather, these gestures, in their action, encompass the entirety of the space. Walter Kambartel thus states in defining it, „Action, emancipated through the dripping-method, while it results in painting, does not have painting as its prerequisite“ (Walter Kambartel, Jackson Pollock‘s Action-Painting, in: „Gießener Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte,“ Volume II, 1973, pp. 263-279, here p. 268).

In 1945 and thereafter, Jackson Pollock made a break with the conditionalities of painting in order to gain new access to the forms of abstraction and expression. Pollock‘s works are all achromatic, mostly with black or dark brown paint dripped onto a white background. If one finds interjections of color in his works, they are reduced to the highest possible extent. The line as a phenomenon of dimension, in its „all-over,“ is unrestricted and “displaces” the viewer, as it were.

While he adopts these informal structures, Awe paints them. The placelessness of the lines and other traces in his paintings have another, further dimension. Awe came into his own within the field of Street Art, having dedicated the larger part of his time and attention to it as a boy. This gave rise to a fully new sense of dimension within his painting, a sense now increasingly subject to intensification and expression within his works. Awe develops his works through many layers superimposed upon a sprayed background with an atmospheric color approaching an illusionism of spatial depth. The strong colors of these foundations serve as the underlying basis for an endless multitude of colorful layers, which partly overlap and partly penetrate the foreground, thus postulating the interaction of foreground and background such that a space opens up within the painting, a space drawing the beholder into the composition in the very act of viewing it. The layers Awe precisely balances and explores connect divergent, apparently disparate elements. We recognize stenciled ornaments next to pictography that appears to have been dripped or gesturally implemented at random. The interweaving relationships between the various layered elements are so complex that the viewer, in questioning which elements are behind or in front of which, often slips into the haze of a bewildering simultaneity of utter color intoxication within the very act of viewing. In turn, the colorfulness Awe has developed not least importantly over the course of his artistic dialogue with graffiti and spray paint is reminiscent of the earlier Color Field paintings – their dissonances and consonances, their contrasts and mutations all creating a force field within painting in which the colors are brought to a constant pulsation that simultaneously breathes life into both canvas and viewer.

It must be said that Awe’s works arise neither out of purely gestural and emotionally charged actions nor from a virtually mandatory experiential composition born of color. Rather, Awe is a composer focusing his various techniques and structuralism time and again on the pure art of painting, assembling his works on the canvas layer upon layer while also deconstructing layers by tearing off entire sections. The result, while it gives the impression of coincidence, is meticulously planned, purposefully placed and elaborately worked out. Awe paints gesture; he constructs coincidence; and with that, he creates spatial paintings with gestural expression – works that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be nearly sculptural, inviting the viewer into his own personal cosmos.

What further distinguishes the works of Christian Awe is their internal architectonic coherence. If Pollock attempted to resolve architectural correlation, as it were, by taking the canvas down, placing it on the floor and focusing on his autonomic self as the central figure at motion in the round rather than orthogonally controlled within the canvas, Awe’s painting accrues out of his original affiliation with locations within metropolises where the primary concern always centered on buildings, architectural units and specific locations. This foreknowledge carries the works further within themselves, for they seem to have been taken from a concrete locality or, respectively, to have been projected upon it.

Against the background of his „urban space studio,“ it is easy for Awe to implement his paintings in the widest variety of dimensions. The formats he employs range from huge to midsize and small, each nevertheless asserting their own independent uniqueness and specific compositional structure. The paintings possess something of an inherent connection with and reference to architectonic localities and also allow themselves to be understood in full via their very materiality. Here, painting, rather than being something immaterial, proves itself in its layering and concentration to be the thoroughly material structure of a tangible, concrete presence.

With his virtuosically enacted paintings, Awe is closer to a Renaissance painter than to Jackson Pollock in terms of technique, even if his „paintbrush“ is the spray can or the spatula. The stable rationality of his individual elements, even when they work within certain conduits of coincidence, are always planned and also develop experimentally through the use of different materials, colors and structures. The rhythmic motion in his works, at first glance so consonant with interpretation as action, is ultimately also the result of musical adaptation present in his oeuvre not only within the titles of many of his works but also within a constant exploration of music – not least within the creative process itself. This rhythm is the rhythm of a great metropolis, one able to shimmer within the works. Given this context, concrete references to nature and landscape should not be dismissed out of hand, yet the actual element of the paintings is the urban subject matter in which they were created and rooted. This is the space defining their context, and as a multifaceted artistic composition, they also bear this space within themselves.

A further aspect of Awe’s works is their factual consistency. If the works of Jackson Pollock continue endlessly beyond their borders, the informal structures in Awe’s work ultimately seem to concentrate on the format size of the painting. Even when they transcend the painting frame and the endless structuralism becomes repetitive, the consistency of the painting surface as a closed unit within itself, also in terms of its material quality, is so compact that the painting forms a self-sufficient unit. The dimensions of the painting point more to depth than they do beyond their frame and here, too, prove their real tradition to be grounded in painting at its best, a tradition that manifests itself anew in these works.

In his latest works, Awe makes use of stronger figurative elements, inserting into the composition figures or objects reminiscent of object-specific forms or people. These seem to spring from the complex surface of the work and allow a clear view of the deeper, primarily ornamental surface beyond their concrete profile. This lends a more concrete and compressed character to the paintings that result. „Experiential spaces“ emerge that seem to grant us a view of jungle-like worlds without evidencing such in the narrative or illustrative approach of the artist. Then these “compressions,” like a collage, combine filled-in fields based on grid patterns, stenciled structures and templates of found objects, conveying the characteristic style of a surface that seems to have emerged at random or decayed over time, as if in reference to the décollage paintings of the 1960‘s. As in all his works, however, they are consistently based on a painterly expression and intricately planned underlying design set in direct opposition to any chance or found media.

Awe’s artistic path saw its beginnings within the action of street art, a genre that found its way onto the streets thanks to the direct and unmitigated influence of the Abstract Expressionism of the mid-20th century; and Awe, in his artistic development, has consciously chosen to travel the path back into painting – a form of painting that validates and undergirds the painting surface and its unmistakable purpose; a form of painting that, in all its vitality, seeming coincidence, wild colorfulness and irreverent deconstruction, confirms one thing above all: The art of painting is the expression of humanity’s abilities to reach the heights of abstraction.