by Wolfgang Pauser
The art of painting, strictly speaking, is different from other artistry in that here the rules of art are to be broken in an individual way which also meaningfully relates to the context of the art. The absolutely individual could not be read or recognized as such without code and context. The strategic answer to the context could also have been thought up by someone else. The art of painting is faced with the paradoxical challenge of unifying the development of an individual story with art history, and the history of the paintings; linking, in a new and meaningful way, two elements of a zipper: the highly personal, and the universal of society’s stock of images.
Traces of the Experienced and Transcended
To understand the painterly work of Franziska Maderthaner, we must view, at first as separate parts, the two narrative elements of the individual and of image history, so that ultimately they can interlink and zip up into one unit. The biographical starting point was when she, as an elementary school student, participated in a school drawing contest run by a crayon manufacturer, promising the winner an unlimited quantity of free crayons for many years to come. Franziska won, and did what no one expected: over the years, every few weeks, she replenished her supplies. Her father, an architect by profession, provided her with large sheets of scrap paper which his students had used to practice their technical drawings. The empty back sides of these sheets were destined for the creation of Franziska’s graphic world. The practice of drawing daily soon grew into an obsession. How did this come about?
The backstory of this (up to the present) daily occupation, long hours of creative effort, that not only, generally speaking, incorporated high performance expectations with little compassion and severe judgment, but also declared every childhood drawing unfinished until it had at least three hours of work invested in it. Put in intolerable situations, children see themselves forced to be creative, and find mental self-preservation mechanisms. Early on, Franziska saved herself by identifying with the aggressor. She coupled this, however, with a flight forward, so as to trick the instilled appeal for “shoulds and musts,” to flee the pursuing influence. She did not avoid confrontation, did not fall to the ground, but reacted so extremely by accelerating, heightening, outperforming the “shoulds and musts” that she turned the pedagogical system on its head and, in this way, regained some sovereignty. Also, as a competitive athlete in her young years, she performed like an overachiever, ran ahead of herself, and empowered herself in victory. Sporting competition usually contains the ambivalence that victory means giving in to the urge to win, as well as triumphing over it. Crossing the finish line, the victorious runner is not only ahead of the competition, as in the most strenuous of contests, but also one step ahead of herself. The flight forward has allowed her to overshoot the goal.
At the age of ten, Franziska visited the documenta 5 in Kassel with her parents. Confronted by large format paintings of American Photorealists, she experienced not only conflicting feelings of fascination and aversion, but also a certain dissidence: for these meticulously painted photos mocked everything her “progressive yet middle-class intellectual family viewed as modern painting,” such as Picasso, Matisse and the Abstractionists. Moving closer, she noticed the tilt effect, saw the realistic picture dissolve into chaotic-abstract dots of color. Under a magnifying glass, Photorealism can hardly be distinguished from Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism. To date, this tilt effect is rendered in Maderthaner’s paintings, without the need for a closer look through a magnifying glass. Placed on the same level, counterparts of art history—figurative and abstract art—are positioned towards each other and elevated, from aspects of similarity, to the topic of the painting.
The Cultural Innovations of the 1980s
In the early 1980s, Franziska Maderthaner started studying at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, and encountered a very surprising gender ratio there. In the class, the male students painted large format pictures in the style of the “Neue Wilde,” while the female students worked quietly at home on mostly feminist inspired photography, video or performance art. Franziska Maderthaner refused to show solidarity with the self-designated “poor suffering female artists,” and asserted herself as the first woman allowed to paint in class—with strong and loud colors, and in a large format. She preferred to compete with men, and positioned herself as a “modern strong woman” in the sense of the emerging variation of feminism in the 1980s, whose image was of women no longer as victims, but as self-empowered winners, iconically embodied by the pop star Madonna. It was a time when women wore wide shoulder pads and stiletto heels, not as a patriarchal walking impediment, but to be construed as a woman’s weapons. No more complaining, just pumping yourself up, was the new, highly controversial feminist means of a flight forward, which aptly suited Maderthaner’s character.
In music, the rise of the DJ, advancing from a disc spinner and between-records announcer to a sui generis artist, if not even elevated to a cultural leading figure of the era. The music-making of the DJs took place on the meta-level of musical art work, which s/he collected and degraded to material for her/his own compilation or composition. Existing foreign components were no longer performed, but integrated, intermingled, adopted, mixed in a collage, re-contextualized. “Remix, remake, remodel” goes the song title by Roxy Music. Sampling became a new cultural skill. What the DJ was to music, the curator was to visual arts. The curator, too, was a connoisseur of the archive and collections, and increasingly became more important than the artist, whose work was gathered as practically illustrative material for the curator’s thematic and hypothesis-presenting exhibitions. DJs and curators were the first meta-artists; their craft lay in deejaying and hanging up art; their work, however, consisted of sense-making compilations.
The cultural background of the rise of cultural skills that tore artworks and their fragments from their contexts and mounted them into something new was a structural shift from consecutive progress to a parallel, side by side, in the global archive. Under the concept of the postmodern, in the 1980s, the dismantling of the linear timeline and a sole fixed meaning was reflected and celebrated. Through this, humanity became aware of the contextual dependency of signs and artifacts. Globalization and the growing access of media disintegrated evolved correlations, and unleashed a great deal of courage for new, playful recombinations. One still cited other work, but no longer as a confirmation, but to dismantle the historic meaning. Long before computers and the Internet were readily accessible, the concurrence, availableness and combinability of all sounds and images from the global archive of cultural innovations of the century were already anticipated.
Franziska Maderthaner lived in the spirit of this zeitgeist, in music as well as with images. She spent much time during her studies in the library, where she acquired an extensive visual memory of art history. In her head, she set up an “imaginary museum,” that not only stretched from the Renaissance to the present, but also encompassed pictorial worlds of everyday culture. She cultivated and expanded this visual memory later in her teaching of art history and art at the Vienna University of Applied Art. Her passion for collecting, archiving, and recombining also extended to music. Repeatedly, the painter makes appearances as a DJ.
The Digital Paradigm
Cultural practices of expertly archiving, compiling, re-contextualizing, sampling, mixing, updating and presenting artifacts and their elements, gained such momentum with the spread of the personal computer, and later the Internet, that they practically have to be viewed as the most fundamental innovative cultural skills of the 21st century. Living in today’s digital paradigm means being at home in a total archive, which due to its overwhelming abundance of artifacts, simultaneously implies being estranged. If the 20th century was characterized by successiveness, by transformation and “revolutions,” then the central 21st century approach to life is the total availability of all existing pictures, anytime and anywhere: a simultaneousness and the necessity of dealing with it. The metaphor of time has passed over into a metaphor of space. Time references and historicity are positioned in the space of the now. In this way figurative and abstract art have been freed from their historic duel and their back-and-forth overtaking manoeuvers, and are both equally available in the present without anyone being able to say which is the more historical and which is the more “modern” one. Both are citations in the postmodern sense where the world is only made up of quotations and nothing is summoned up, but only presented in the here and now, in the manner of a DJ.
Early on, Franziska Maderthaner started working with computers and began to use (totally non-manual) technical means to produce her paintings, while at the same time continuing to paint by hand, and refining her technique. While many switched at the time to the so-called “new media,” she confronted this in painting, functionalized it, and reacted in diverse ways to its possibilities and impulses. A hint of the art historically, well-equipped, image DJane permeates her oeuvre to this day. The work of Franziska Maderthaner is a digital kind of painting, digital art in the medium of art that is carried out by a human hand.
Already in her confrontations with Neue Wilde colleagues during her studies, Franziska Maderthaner had no affinity for expressive gestures, for a notion of art expressing its inner soul in a manifested exterior. This notion assumes that an inner substance precedes its arrival into the visible. In her early work, influenced by Pop Art and Photorealism, the artist took an unflinching and matter-of-fact look at things and at the images surrounding her in consumer and media culture. She took into account that these two trends at the time had a negative impact on the art scene, and followed a path that for many years met with a lack of understanding.
Franziska Maderthaner also distances herself from Naturalism; even when she paints natural objects (e.g. profiles of standing horses), they are taken from photos of nature that she finds on the Internet, paints in detail, and enlarges. She not only transfers them into the medium of painting, but also draws her daring pictorial narrative into the extremely unnatural and dynamic context. To paint a photo runs counter to the mythological duel of art media in the 20th century: analog photography was denied recognition as an art form, because it was a purely mechanical, thereby a “soulless” unexpressive way of “merely” copying nature, while painting reserved the right to “humanly and artistically” express a subjective view and interpretation. From this standpoint, painting a copy of a photo in a naturalistic fashion is the absurd reversal of the relationship between the two media photography and painting. Maderthaner’s double citation—of an object and its medialization—is first comprehensible in today’s context, as a double negation of any subjectivistic-expressive manifestation of art, and as a reflection of our postmodern archive lives, where the subject tries to hold on in an unceasing inflow of images of images, and quotations of quotations.
Today the depiction of nature can no longer be interpreted as the subsequent act (“painted from nature”), but rather, in a world generally opened up to visualizations, the images are always ahead of and underlie our perception of nature. Aesthetic experience has gone from being an elicitor of depiction, to being a reenactment of images. This possibly disappointing epistemological insight, which the daily media has forced upon us—today’s inhabitants of the digital—is a further thematic thread woven into the art of Franziska Maderthaner, throughout multiple work groups.
Status of the Pourings
The anti-expressive impulse has a biographical and a painting historical component. In the early days of Maderthaner’s figurative painting, Abstract Expressionism was deemed an antipode of all representationality to such an extent that its rejection and repulsion was a powerful push for the artist to find her own direction. However, as the painting of paintings became evident in her work, Abstract Expressionism, in addition to many other quoted images from works by famous painters, also gained entry into Maderthaner’s pictorial world.
At first glance, one is tempted to view the artist’s paintings as a titanic struggle between the most notable counterparts of the 20th century, representation versus abstraction. Indeed, there is, strictly in regard to form, a strong contrast between roughly poured and delicately brushed zones on the panels. What this calls to mind is the myth of the savage versus the tame, the expressive eruption versus the act of recognition. But it remains inconclusive whether the pourings are the trace of an emotional body gesture, or a further citation from the history of painting, that, just as Old Master paintings were done, can only be produced technically through the reenactment of the historical painting technique of pouring. An argument in favor of the quotational aspect of pouring is that Maderthaner, already in the earlier phase of her work, toppled the abstract and the figurative when she draped the viewer of a striped painting by Daniel Buren in an identically striped dress.
Maderthaner’s paintings are shifting images where searching eyes have trouble conclusively identifying anything because everything can, underhandedly, change into its opposite, the longer one views it. Nothing is as it seems: the abstract expressionistic elements prove to be copies of Abstract Expressionism, while the figurative elements turn out to be copies not of objects, but of actual paintings. If one steps close enough to the canvas, the finest brush strokes appear to disengage from their representational function and become autonomous, just as Abstract Expressionism considered this its task to do.
Recently, a further apparently abstract pictorial element has been added to the pourings: wide bands of color with traces of the custom designed big and rough brushes used to apply them. They too suggest a prima vista, emerging from a wild, coarse, immediate, gestural and expressive act. Viewed from a distance, however, they look like classically painted brush strokes. The rough brush enables an enlarged representation of the primal element of painting. The illusion that a huge brush is at work here identifies the corrugated colored stripes as citations and copies of a small brush stroke. Here too, what we see fluctuates between several medial representational levels and aspects. The extra wide “brush stroke” is genuine and fake, painting and painted, representing and represented, at the same time.
Presenting as a Process
If we regard image citations from art history and pourings as similar elements of equal value, what they have in common is a surface that can be divided and set up so as to create a sense of space. Sometimes a copied fragment slides on top of a trickle of poured paint, and then again splashes of color flow over figurative sections. The eye views this overlapping from the front and back, but cannot orient itself in the room; a central perspective in a Euclidean space is not available. What appears to be the foreground, changes a bit further in the background, and so on continuously. The imagined pictorial space does not end at the edges of the painting, it appears—like a Baroque ceiling mural—to have the potential to extend infinitely. The images come across as cutouts, without one being able to say what they have been cut out of.
Maderthaner’s paintings seem like dream visions, for like dreams they merge together disjointed individual images that turn out to be not the visualizations they represent, but transformations into something else, appearing before us as a riddle emerging from an unintended occurrence. Though unlike dream visions, in Maderthaner’s paintings there is no latent dream content behind a manifested dream content. It is not about the results of compressing and shifting a primary process. The riddle of the picture content cannot be solved and projected back to what was secretly expressed before the work on the painting began. In psychological terms, the Rorschach test more aptly characterizes the work process, because the artist begins her work with pourings that produce random structures. She is inspired by these to form visual associations, using material from her memory and digital art archive. The next step is to combine pictorial elements on the computer, which she then paints onto the poured primary layer of paint. These figurative elements inspire new pouring interventions—and so on.
What matters is neither an expression, nor a message, but that she allows her associations to have free rein, and composes them based on aesthetic and formal factors. Sometimes topics that Franziska Maderthaner happens to be concerned with at the moment flow in, but they are not the main core, just possible components in the process of an emerging work. For the artist, it is not a matter of letting either the mounted images, nor the pourings, arise from the intention of a meaning, but to consciously leave things up to coincidence (and thus to what pops up in the unconscious). This aleatoric element is already demonstrated, in a more accentuated form, in an early series of her work, where she invited friends to pick by rolling dice the works of art which she then incorporated into new paintings.
Rooted in art history, the shift of intention in art production reaches back to Dadaism with the aesthetics of the absurd, and to Surrealism, which is said to have often derived its senseless combinations from Freud’s model of symptom and symbol formation from the unconscious. In the 1980s, which had a formative influence on Franziska Maderthaner, the French philosophy of Poststructuralism was reflected upon and discussed in Vienna. “The death of the author” was a topic, and Freud’s insight “the ego is not master in its own house” was further expounded upon by semiotics and linguistics. The traditional subjectivity model was reversed, according to which the signified came before the signifier, the meaning before the physical sign. The articulation of the signifier preceded the meaning, which is only projected ex post back into an origin in the subject. An original unity and substance was replaced by difference. Meaning was not the underlying concept, but an effect of a process of differentiation. Meaning was born from meaninglessness, sense emerged from senselessness, and not the other way round.
In Maderthaner’s works one can exemplarily observe how meanings are loaded up, even when no particular meaning is intentionally pursued. The artist hands over the genesis to a process, whereby the creation of meaning happens nolens volens secretly. She concentrates on the aesthetic and compositional dimension of the picture, and is distracted by the vigilant control of the ego over the incidences and coincidences that she runs into while pouring or painting. Only in this way does a highly condensed work that knows more than the author herself come into being, and surpasses every possible intention of meaning in its outcome.
In place of the intentional origin comes a chain reaction of mental leaps that certainly does not end with the completion of the painting, but subsequently, is almost forced upon the viewer to further pursue. In the reception, one is tempted to connect the unconnected in a context which spins out of an alternating interpretation of all pictorial elements. The willful image gains, upon viewing, its own individual meaning.
Maximalism and Musicality
Numerous periods of art history and her individual history flow into one another in the paintings of Franziska Maderthaner. Still, the artist continues to work daily painstakingly by hand for many hours at a time, and creates an external mirror for the digital image universe. Her early encounters with Photorealism left traces not only in a meticulous style of painting, but also in the shifts of perceiving images between micro and macro perspectives (as in the case of the apparently enlarged brushstrokes). From Abstract Expressionism, she imported the painting technique of pouring, without wanting to abstract or express anything by it.
She has remained true to her early impulse of competing against male dominated pictorial art and presenting an empowered image of herself. Being modest and backing down does not suit her, nor does a retreat into Minimalism, because she is a natural born Maximalist. Her colors are strong and loud, they are not harmonized, but assert themselves, each in its own place. Maderthaner does not only make large format paintings, but also space-generating and space-consuming ones.
The feminist aspect of her work does not lie in its seldomly occurring explicit thematic nature, but in Madethaner’s boldness in appropriating the works of great artists and using them as material for her own image worlds, in her way of quoting that forgoes adoration. As a “strong woman,” the artist positions herself with all the brawniness, skills and accumulations, with all the acceleration and one-upmanship inherent in her paintings, which can only be summarized with an aesthetic term that has currently disappeared from the art discourse, the term: magnificence.
But we can also easily recognize the image DJane, modernized art historian; the diligently drawing girl; the web surfer on a flight forward; and the anti-expressive dice player in every one of her paintings. They are pictures about pictures, meta-paintings, that shake up the symbolic order and make the meaning of an image flow, if not even dance. Franziska Maderthaner’s turbulent panels develop out of the process of their creation, which cannot be read out of, but must be read into by the viewer, who automatically begins to make connections where Maderthaner has originally broken them off.
Modernism was based—a hundred years ago—on the tabula rasa principle. History should be wiped clean in order to create the unconditionally new. Franziska Maderthaner finds herself in a picture archive land of plenty, facing a tabula opulenta. This she transforms, in her unique painterly way, into opulent panels.
The painting process, where meaning flows in unintentionally ex post, is similar to the aesthetics of music: “Nietzsche thinks of the recognition of music as an autonomous symphonic form together with a dimension of musical meaning. Namely, music is a game of signifiers that does not let itself be determined in any specific assignable significance; but this game is not insignificant. Indeed, no definite substance can be separated from the musical form, and still it is not empty. Nietzsche’s musical aesthetics cannot, therefore, be reduced to a mere aesthetics of substance and expression, nor to a pure form of aesthetics. […] The problem of a language view of music lies in the fact that music (like language) says and does not say; expresses something, but does not come up with the concept; signifies but does not denote.”