Ilka Becker

The Hang as Contextual Work

 

Pipes – Practices of Entanglement

 

Pipe is the English name for the vertical-bar punctuation mark now popular in informal writing practices within digital culture. At its most general, the symbol marks the end of one section and the beginning of another. It is a caesura, a cut, but one which at the same time reveals a connection. Strictly speaking, the pipe is not a generally recognized punctuating mark, unlike, for example, the slash (“/”). But the pipe symbol does have widespread use in fields including mathematics and electronic data processing, where it serves to denote a variety of separation and connecting functions, for example in creating associated “chains” of commands in computer operating systems. The symbol reveals the connectedness of the separate, while at the same seeming to undermine that very relation; ultimately, there is no connection without disconnection as a precondition.

Markus Saile’s exhibition separate | related uses the typographic pipe in its title, while also containing a group of new works referred to as pipes. The choice of the term points toward a double encoding. Pipes are both an image format and a symbol of connection, simultaneously an elongated upright-format painting, but also a way of connecting individual pictures both horizontally and diagonally, in order to explicitly incorporate the wall surface into the exhibition. 

For me, these pipes are works with a clear agenda. They reveal that Saile’s hangings – something he has developed in his exhibitions for some time now – are based on a logic of entanglement. This logic, among other things, invokes both historical and contemporary topoi of installation practice.[1] By thus expanding the methodology of his painterly practice, Saile reflects the architectural and institutional parameters of each exhibition space, activating reciprocal relationships between individual works. As carried out by Saile, developing a hang of paintings above all means the creation of a kind of dramaturgical context. This implies scrutinizing the spatial possibilities of certain intrinsic parameters of the image (with an emphasis on marginal areas, empty spaces, transparent zones, overlaps, gestures, etc.), but also the spatiality and objecthood of elements beyond the picture surface (the painting’s edges, the materiality of paint and primer). These elements, within and beyond the image, can be further related to the specific architecture of the site.

 

Bouncer

 

The motivations for the hang as artistic practice, as undertaken by Saile, are more conceptual and analytical than they are curatorial. Of course, his exhibitions still contain individual pictures, appearing as separate visual entities. This is also in keeping with the logic of their production, since Saile rarely produces work exclusively for a specific location, nor does he work with serial methods. However, the visual and material properties of his small-format paintings, as well as their references to (post-) conceptual spatial strategies, bespeak an artistic practice which attends to the frayings and overlappings of painting as a dispositive. In this sense, the entanglement of separation and connection implied by the title separate | related is a necessary condition for Saile, allowing him to draw on a stock of available paintings and create new temporary constellations, each specific to the exhibition site.  

Saile’s hangs are developed on site, since they relate to the specific physical space, with its various properties: the composition of the walls, the door and window frames, banisters, internal perspectives, technical facilities, etc. He often goes through several stages of trying out and discarding ideas, and swapping around and repositioning pictures. Saile is particularly interested in parts of the walls and other exhibition infrastructure which are ordinarily covered up or ignored in curatorial practice which deals with individual images. In some cases, he leaves unexpected empty spaces on walls which might have seemed ideal to display paintings, walls which would clearly intensify the symbolic charge of works placed on them. 

Like Saile’s other hangs, separate | related is characterized by this kind of unlikely placement. There are even two images (one pipe and one small-format painting) positioned at the entrance to the exhibition space, upstairs at the NAK - New Aachener Kunstverein. They seem like bouncers looming directly on and at the doorway’s frame. [2] Passing between the two, one almost seems to brush up against them. Physical proximity with such small, fragile-seeming image-objects – and the corporeal confrontation that proximity implies – begins to seem astonishingly aggressive. (p. 2)

What point of view does the presence of the bouncers create? They remind us that exhibitions are always linked to questions of access, in symbolic, institutional, and economic terms. Access to the space, and access to the pictures. The access arrangement for this exhibition presents a framing, a set of nested perspectives. When one approaches the entrance diagonally from the right, the two works create an aesthetic frame for a view through to the long, left-hand wall of the main exhibition space. (pp 4–5) On this wall, six small-to-medium sized images and two pipes are arranged so as to create a central horizontal axis running between them (a possible curatorial convention), while simultaneously deviating from this axis with a leaping, dancing movement (the eye scans and follows this movement along the wall). The framing at the entrance presents the hang as a syntactic constellation, into which one enters, and within which one moves. At the same time, the view of the hang reveals painting itself – or rather, a certain kind of painterly practice – as a performative stage on which different ideas of artistic agency can be negotiated.  

 

Showing the Edges

 

In other parts of the exhibition, Saile uses the edges of his paintings, similarly revealing their materiality as objects. Installed in one window embrasure, a small blackish-purple painting in a landscape format contains two broad brushstrokes superimposed over other gestural markings. The painting is placed precisely at the corner of the wall, thus exposing the viewer directly to its red, crusted, highly tactile edge. (pp. 32–33) This edge encounters a line of flight from the edge of another painting on its right, this one a darker, cooler, luminescent red. At the same time, the red crusted edge forms an effective rhyme with the red pipe on the opposite wall.

The ultra-slim format of the pipes mean they still just about count as paintings (at their narrowest, they measure just eleven centimeters across). However, their colored edges are less like a pictorial surface than something material that exists in time and space, a micro-archaeological deposit. This distinguishes them from, for example, the 1970s work of Mary Heilman, which consciously used color contrast to bring edges of canvases into play, making them a part of the pictorial space, at right angles to its main surface. [3]  However, the edges of Saile’s pictures are not equivalent; these are hybrid zones, or zones of material excess, which have not been deliberately had paint applied. They could also be seen as parerga, which call the gestural forms on the primary surface into question (the flourishes, garlands, little rolls and foldings, which seem to float and fall against atmospheric backgrounds), including their sometimes illusory effects. Traces of the many very thin applications of paint collect here on these edges. Bits of paint get caught in the crusted surface of wiped-away primer, making visible the process of production, revealed here as an mix of conceptual decisions and material and contingent events. Sometimes this results in highly unexpected elements of color. This analytic “side” – literally – to the images interrupts the complex overlays of paint in the image field proper, which seem at times to shimmer, at times almost to dissolve into nothing. It demystifies these overlays by disclosing their made-ness, bringing the three-dimensionality of the picture medium into play. The inextricable mutual reference of these two “sides” prevents one (the main painted surface) from tipping over into painterly illusionism, and stops the other (the image’s thick painted edge) from simply fetishizing materiality. 

 

Questions of Format 

 

In some cases, the image formats used by Saile are so small they come painfully close to being miniatures. But in this respect, they also diverge from historic forms of Conceptualism, for example the work of Robert Barry, the painter who in 1967 arranged four tiny monochrome squares into a grid.[4]  Probably only Gene Davis, the Color Field painter, worked with even smaller formats that that. His late 1960s Micro-Paintings took aim at the tendency in painting toward inflated, giant-size formats. Davis’s 1967 show at Jefferson Place Gallery in Washington DC featured several of his monochromeMicro-Paintings, minimal interventions creating relations across different gallery spaces, linking them together into a singular visual experience. The “micro-installations” pushed back against the intimacy which Robert Morris had ascribed to very small formats in art; Davis’s incorporation of the entire wall surface served to dramatize the whole exhibition environment. [5] As Brian O’Doherty emphasized in Inside the White Cube, this strategy on the part of 1960s art intensified the aesthetic power of the white exhibition wall. Relieved of its supposed neutrality, the wall was redefined as an element in its own right in artistic practice, with an active effect on the works which were displayed upon it. [6]

Saile brings the potential of wall and space up to date: in addressing these as parameters of artistic practice, he is quite well aware of post-Conceptual strategies since the 1990s, mostly associated with installation work, which have increasingly focused on what determines exhibition space itself. [7] However, his practice also testifies to the insight that conceptual and institution-critical methods have long since passed into contemporary art’s common repertoire. The explosive force associated with interrogating genre boundaries and transgressing painting’s two-dimensionality has now largely dissipated. For this reason, the key aspect of separate | related is the way it feeds off, on the one hand, the tension between pictorial parameters driven to their extremes, and on the other, a practice of the hang which pushes the limits of spatial possibilities. Inhabiting this tension, Saile’s work clearly puts itself at a distance from earlier Conceptualists, who almost reduced images to mere markings of the wall itself.

 

Backlit

 

So often declared dead, the singular thing called “painting” was anyway never a distinct, sealed-off genre. Nonetheless, panel paining has time and again been a point of reference for potential new perspectives, (de-)framings and re-positionings within artistic practice. Helmut Draxler, among others, has pointed out that the tableau format lives on in screens and that our perceptions, as formed by media, are partly worked out within painting as a dispositive. [8] In this way, the collapse of space-time effected by digital technologies contributes to the loss of spatial boundaries, but also to the specific actualization of painting’s potentialities within the art system. This means (historical) non-simultaneities can be brought into play, both within the dispositive of painting and in its hybrid entanglements with other dispositives (the computer screen, the cinema, etc.).

In Saile’s work, the primary references to other media which feed into his production include screenshots, zoomed-in details on touchscreens, artworks shared by cellphone, and backlit digital screens. This can be seen in considering one almost vanishingly pale blue image, produced by Saile using extremely diluted paint, letting the primer shine through. The picture seems almost to glow from within, reminiscent of a screen with an exaggerated brightness setting. (Fig. #) For the Aachen exhibition, it has been placed next to a window embrasure. The nearby window panes mediate between interior and exterior space; this calls to mind the screen metaphor, but also that of the picture as window, two historically-specific paradigms within the shifting dispositive of painting.

Another analogy between panel and screen can be found in a medium-sized, intensely purple image in separate | related(Fig. #). With various gestural fragments peeking out from underneath vertical stripes, the picture demonstrates the materiality of paint, revealing it to be both a surface “film of color,” as well as, literally, “ color film.” These fragments disturb the apparently clear distinction between painting’s direct indexicality, and the reenactment of that quality. Of course, “color film” here is produced by layers of translucent paint, not by any form of technical color reproduction. The slogan of the mixture could be: extreme liquefaction. Saile transforms oil paint into a kind of “color-inhabited turpentine,” [9] whose chemical flammability reminded Julia Scher of the unstable translucent layers of color celluloid. [10] His process-based method results in a variety of semi-contingent markings, overlappings, even streams and flows, where viscosity and gravity mutually influence each other, determining the ultimate result. This bears witness to the performativity and temporal quality of applying paint, and gives the unique fluid dynamics of paint quite a large amount of space.

Separate | related establishes possible references to celluloid through its highly permeable media. But it also makes the reference in another way, its artistic methods investigating the instability of color perception and reproduction in film and photography. In another example, the almost gauzy layers of one peach-colored image call to mind the dazzling performance of 1920s costumes in the opening sequence of Puce Moment, Kenneth Anger’s poetic short film from 1949. This sequence seems almost without end, as the costumes, one after another, move from the center to the edge of the image, then disappear out of the frame. The viewer comes almost to believe that the jerky individual images could be pulled out one by one (Fig. #). In this context, Anger once spoke of attraction: as both the inexhaustible flow of visions and the force of attraction they exert. His camp tribute to the goddesses of the Hollywood silent screen can be understood as a “small form” and thus an underground alternative to commercial cinema. But it is also, as Anger put it, a way of calling up “ghosts.” [11]

 

Reenacting Gestures 

 

Another reference to Anger’s idea of “attraction” can be seen in another of Saile’s images. This one (not included in the Aachen exhibition) is also very small in size, and presents a detail from a lively folding form created with a single gestural brushstroke. (Fig. # ) However, these forms do not result from intentional “painted” representations of external (image-) objects. Instead, the aggregation of visual experiences prompts the performative reenactment of gesture, a process in which distinctions between indexicality and symbolic effect (in the case of this image of the fold) are collapsed, in more than one sense of the term. 

In his use of gestural marks, Saile invokes a code within painting which, in a way akin to the metaphor of the veil, is a central paradigm of the medium, since it refers to the activity of painting itself, and thus to artistic subjectivity. It can be interesting and productive to return to a theme long after it was declared dubious and obsolete: in this example, by feminist and post-Marxist critics in the late twentieth century. This is especially the case when conceptual counter-strategies have hardened into stock contemporary conventions, which now have to be reframed. [12] For this reason, my assumption is that Saile’s forms of gestural painting, the techniques which produce his swirls, loops, sweeps, and garlands, are neither simply symbolic citations of the ghosts of painting’s history, nor do they reanimate them in an “authentic” invocation of artistic subjectivity. Intstead, the painterly drama of gestural marking is here re-enacted so as to revive and re-actualize its potential. 

One example of this reenactment can be observed in a group of images in the Aachen exhibition. All have corner areas which are overlapped with gestural garlands of paint – a bit like the long flowing fabrics held by putti in Francois Boucher paintings ( Fig. #) – which create internal framings within areas of almost monochrome color. However as truncated shapes, these appear to go beyond the limits of the painting’s surface proper. [13]  There are other gestural forms here too, ones which loop, sweep or even float, in a way reminiscent of Rococo painterly ornamentation. These forms push through to the center of the picture surface, attracting the attention, enticing the eye to infinitely trace their dynamic patterns. (Fig. #)

In some cases, these gestural forms are overpainted with broad brush strokes, some producing rectangular erasures; these layers seem to compete for visibility. (Fig. #) In any case, in this process every form or loop or coil is created by highly liquid paint being removed by wiping it away or washing it off. One could almost speak of a sculptural method. At the end of the process,  the ghosts of gestural painting visibly haunt the surface of the primer. These characteristics, and the infusions of his gestures with the animistic (every visible gesture here can take on animistic characteristics), mean some of Saile’s images seem to “behave like subjects” in their own right, possessed of the kind of agency which Isabelle Graw suggested is characteristic of recent painting. [14]  In the case of Saile, subjective agency within the paintings is marked out in the form of a re-enactment on the painting-as-stage. This can, for example, be seen when the paint goes beyond that surface, running down into the crusted primer at the picture’s edge. With this use of gestural forms, Saile makes clear that painterly practice is not in thrall to the phantasm of the “vital” image, including how contemporary paintings come inscribed with the neoliberal consumption of vitality. Yet art cannot rid itself so easily of the “vital” image phantasm: its entangled presence must be addressed, as a constitutive element of painting as a dispositive. 

 

Toxic colors

 

As a title, separate | related refers to more than just the entangling function of the pipes. It also relates to exhibition sponsorship by Twodo Collection, the collectors' collective. Once the NAK exhibitions ends, the separate works by Saile become the property of individual members, but their connection remains, based on the shared context of the collection. 

But there is (yet) another story hidden within the exhibition title. This publication contains installation views of two versions of the exhibition, represented in the two separate picture series in the book. The division in two dates to a fire which destroyed the extension to the NAK just hours before the exhibition was scheduled to open in May 2020. The moment was an intensely difficult one in the history of the building and of the institution. The fire filled the exhibition rooms with huge clouds of smoke and soot, which coated the pictures. The resulting damage meant the exhibition had to be postponed. Saile was forced to produce new images for the later exhibition, some referring to the fire and the associated affective upheaval. Soot plays an important role in these images, both as a substance which can be controlled and turned into black pigment, but also as a sticky layer of greenish-grey discolorations, often disruptive, which remain on the surface of the images. 

Saile proceeded to appropriate these toxic colors into his work, including them in a group of works from the second exhibition hang, which finally opened to the public in October 2020. This group of images was placed on the end wall, opposite the entrance to the large second-floor exhibition space (Fig. #). Viewed from outside the entrance, the group was also framed by the two bouncers at the doorway. The ensemble of works may at first seem poetic and restrained, resonating with the park where the NAK stands isolated, visible through the nearby windows. But in fact these pictures bring toxicity to bear, and do so with a view to counteracting melancholia and nostalgia. Their ultimate aim is enabling the temporal experience of a new, situated attraction. 

These forces of attraction create a set of connections between the individual works and the spectator, a constellation which emerges from Saile’s investigation of parameters of painting. In this way, the ambivalent relation between visual codes and material traces allows for his work to be experienced in different ways. References to Rococo ornamentation, both comic and erotic, are inscribed into the abstract imagery. Finally, the reenactment of gesture which Saile carries out in separate | related also extends to his organization of the hang, the contextual work which gives the forces of attraction their spatial dimension.

[1] The term “entanglement” takes into account that the fact that visual signs can be read as “authentic” or “vitalistic,” and images as “object-like” is a result of, first, the material and discursive structure of the image’s internal dynamics, and second, its broader spatial and institutional context, with irreducible relations between different elements. On this question, see Karen Barad’s use of the term in “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come” in Nicole Anderson/Nick Mansfield (ed.), Derrida Today, vol. 3, no. 2 (November 2010), 240–268.

[2] The formulation brings another example to mind: Nairy Baghramian's 2008 aluminum sculpture Türsteher/Bouncer, to which I would ascribe a similar function. Richard Artschwager is another possible reference here, likewise the Abramovic/Ulay performance Imponderabilia (1977).

[3] See Mary Heilman, Chinatown, 1976, 212.1 x 274.3 x 6.5 cm, diptych. The work can be seen in Mary Heilmann. Good Vibrations, exh. cat. Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht, New Museum Nuremberg (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2012), 39.

[4] See Robert Barry, Untitled, August 1967, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

[5] See Donald Wall, “The Micro-Paintings of Gene Davis,” Artforum (December 1968), 46. Davis’s Micro-Paintings ­– monochrome, striped or dotted – frequently were only a few centimeters in height. One work in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection measures 2.6 x 2.6 cm (acrylic on canvas).

[6] Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Santa Monica: Lapis, 1986), 34ff.

[7] As well as Nairy Baghramian, Michael E. Smith could be mentioned in this context.

[8] See Helmut Draxler, “Malerei als Dispositiv: Zwölf Thesen,” Texte zur Kunst, no. 77 (March 2010), 38–45.

[9] Julia Scher, Magere Zeiten, RECEPTION Berlin, 2014, http://www.markussaile.de/julia-scher-magere-zeiten.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See Hauke ​​Lehmann, Affektpoetiken des New Hollywood (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017), 193ff., and Kenneth Anger, “Modesty and the Art of Film,” Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 5 (1951).

[12] See Isabelle Graw's remarks in “Die Malerei gibt es nicht: ein Gespräch zwischen Isabelle Graw und Achim Hochdörfer,” Texte zur Kunst, no. 77 (March 2010), 47–57.

[13] e.g. François Boucher, The Rape of Europe (1747), Musée du Louvre Paris, and The Triumph of Venus (1740), National Museum Stockholm.

[14] See Isabelle Graw, The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium (Berlin: Sternber