From Washcloths to Dams – Klaus Dauven’s Light Outlines23 March 2012
ainting is about applying coats and covering something with paint. Nowadays, X-rays allow us to see how an artist slowly applied layer after layer of paint to a wooden substrate or canvas and reveals how many pictures the artist may have painted over before producing the finished work of art. When artists discovered the new type of acrylic paint sixty years ago, it allowed them to paint directly on unprimed canvas as though with watercolors. The results were canvases soaked in paints that were then stretched onto frames or hung freely in exhibitions. Laws of the art of painting evaporated. These days, oil paints, stretcher frames, and brushes are still sold as much as they ever were, but someone like Klaus Dauven can just as easily create paintings using a vacuum cleaner and washcloths.
In 1997, Dauven started to take large sheets of paper (185 x 185 centimeters), cover them with a thick layer of charcoal, and then “Hoover” them with various vacuum cleaner nozzles in order to vary the thickness of the lines he drew. In this way, he created circles, dots and right angles, “built” arches and created interior spaces. These drawings feature primitive blurring that is characteristic of pinhole camera photography. Or, to be more accurate, they are reminiscent of the cartographic sand paintings of the Australian Aborigines in the way that the charcoal dust piles up along the edges of the lines (although their “paths” admittedly have nothing more than an aesthetic binding-ness). The small (50 x 35 centimeter) vacuum cleaner paintings of 2010 are rather different, with clear, precise lines in light colors standing out like oscillograms against dark backgrounds, creating a sense of depth in which horizons are reflected symmetrically or ring shapes are repeated. The more Dauven masters his unusual drawing tool, the more he confines the effects of coincidence.
Can we still class something made of dirty cleaning cloths as a drawing? For the past two years, Dauven has been sullying dishcloths and chamois leathers with all sorts of different types of paint. He then leaves them to dry, applies stencils to them and clears, cleans and removes the paint from the exposed areas. Some of the cloths he sews together. He does everything he can to avoid the conventional crafts of drawing and painting, as if he came to hate them in his student days at the art academies in Düsseldorf and Münster. Dauven achieves incipience in the spaces he explores; childishness, innocence and a delightful freedom of experimentation. But he is not the first artist to work with stencils (pochoirs). The silhouette takes its name from Etienne de Silhouette, an 18th century French Controller-General of Finances, who opposed the lavish, ornate wall decorations favoured by his contemporaries and heralded the era of the shadow profile cut from black paper. The Lido series is reminiscent of those debonair Biedermeier-era silhouettes, while the plant studies on chamois leathers have something of the X-ray image about them.
Dauven avoids conventional drawings on paper and paintings on canvas. But neither does he go in for sandblasted images on glass, copper etchings, intarsia or lacquerware. Instead, his medium is images on cleaning cloths and chamois leathers. And he seeks his audience not in museums and art galleries, but in vacated rooms and on bridge piers. With his work, he continues in the vein of the Arte Povera movement.
In April 2004, armed with nothing but a wire brush, he etched windows with potted plants, a table and chairs, and a bottle rack into the layers of dirt on the walls of a poorly accessible cellar in Cologne. It took the visitors’ breath away, immersing them into a room in which it was not the residents, but rather the objects that had surrounded them, that lived on as shadows. There was an apocalypse lurking beneath the room’s modest and endearing intimacy. Dauven simulated a scene from Pompeii.
The task of scratching away and removing the layers beneath which artists conceal their pictures, their secrets, thereby revealing forbidden things, is the work of the conservator. This is something that Dauven has never preoccupied himself with. He isn’t looking to uncover anything that wouldn’t then be his work of art. But neither does he apply layers or cover things up. He doesn’t “sully” anything; he cleans surfaces and frees walls of the layers of soot from the past. The pictures that evolve are his pictures, emerging from the dust of history. Their aesthetics are penetrated by an ethos in which the message of the medium competes with that of the pictures which the medium creates. And these aesthetics are the reflection of a zeitgeist in which words such as conservation, restoration, cleaning, unearthing, reusing and recycling represent the dominant stimuli.
Among the legends regarding the evolution of the art of painting, there is the story of the beautiful Dibutades of Corinth, who drew the outline of her lover’s shadow on the wall when he left her. Contours, outlines, silhouettes and pochoirs are integral parts of the history of art and are still used today by the likes of Felix Droese and Kara Walker. They allow the artist to create highly recognizable head outlines, signals, emblems and symbols based on little data and with minimal interior drawing. If the substrate which Dauven uncovers were a shadow on the sullied surface, we could call his work silhouettes, or literally “shadow outlines” in German. But he does quite the reverse, freeing the substrate of the shadow cast by the dirt. We might therefore call them “light outlines.”
Gemini was the first large piece created with a wire brush, on the concrete triangle of a bridge base on the L 249 road near Kreuzau-Boich in 1999. It’s not the seven planets of the eponymous constellation, but fifteen light circles of various sizes playfully spread out. The next piece, Nymphéas, created in 2003, appears less coincidental, referencing a 1919 painting by Claude Monet: Le Bassin aux Nymphéas. In this piece, Dauven brushed up lilies as an ornamental frame on the flagstone surround of an artificial pond in Cologne’s Vorgebirgspark. And in 2006, he created Schöne Aussicht for the Galerie Lutz Rohs in Düren. It is a broad panorama of a landscape on a long concrete wall with real, lush shrubbery extending above it, leaning over the work as if in response to it.
This was followed by his two largest works – which are perhaps some of the largest works in the world (not including the Nazca Lines in Peru) – that were realized on dam walls in 2007 and 2008. First, came Wildwechsel on the Olef dam in Germany’s Eifel region, which is a panorama of huge animals from the air, the earth and the sea. And then there was Hanazakari on Japan’s Matsudagawa dam. Meaning “in full bloom” in Japanese, it depicts monumental flower heads reminiscent of cherry blossom or azaleas.
A manufacturer of heavy-duty high-pressure cleaners had been commissioned to clear the dam walls of moss, algae and lichens without using chemicals. So it was rather something that the client and the company chose to involve Dauven in their plans, and Dauven pulled off this tour de force with great aplomb. It is worth remembering that his task was to create pictures – precisely drawn bird feathers, fish fins and flower stamens – on surfaces measuring 15,000 to 20,000 square meters while suspended in a gondola.
Dauven liked the idea of the animals native to the Eifel region becoming visible and conjuring up images of German Romanticism, marksmen, gingerbread witches and the Ruebezahl mountain spirit in national and international pedestrians who passed by. The flowers on the Japanese dam, each with five petals, perhaps remind Japanese visitors of the cherry blossom that they look up to on trees, but could just as well be a global symbol of “flower power” reminiscent of the five-petal Flowers of Andy Warhol (among the grass we look into).
Painting is about covering something with paint. And there is no doubt that it sometimes takes the expertise of an art historian to uncover the things hidden in a picture. The idea of “mystification” is not only found in “high art” and is just as prevalent in street art such as graffiti, when the writers conceal their names or messages in their tags. Pochoir art, or reverse graffiti, calls for a greater degree of formal discipline than freehand spray gun pictures, and the artists are often able to work more slowly than a graffiti sprayer, being either tolerated or actually commissioned to create a piece. Dauven is far removed from the idea of “mystifying” his pictures. To Dauven, the dam walls, which forcefully change and encumber woodland landscapes, are nothing more than a huge surface onto which he can project innocent images of nature. Similarly, dirty cleaning cloths are nothing more than a medium through which to recreate pine forests, while a depressing concrete wall can be turned into a “Schöne Aussicht” (beautiful view). A blend of naivety and irony prevails here, bringing tears of astonishment to the eyes of the beholder.
The dam walls are the source of far greater amazement than Dauven’s cleaning cloths, cellar rooms and concrete bridge piers – we are overwhelmed by their size. But what matters to Dauven is an unusual setting, a medium which has little to do with art, and that breaks with convention. Ever since artists started to apply acrylic paints to cloth and pour molten lead into frames or shoot at pictures with guns and measure opera houses with loaves of bread, since adolescents armed themselves with spray guns to tag New York’s subway with their graffiti, museums and galleries have no longer been the exclusive realm in which art is made public, while public art is no longer just about decorating banks and public administration offices.
On the other hand, Dauven knows that artists who work in the public sphere encounter a great deal of distrust these days. If they are not working at the behest of those in power, it is said that their anarchistic protest gestures are polluting the environment. His access to the public sphere is therefore timid, gentle, sometimes inconspicuous, inviting, friendly and cheerful. He is among a group of artists who do not destroy the conventions of art, but rather soften and undermine them: they plant trees, decontaminate soil, plan park landscapes and clean. Dauven stands for what is now called reverse graffiti: an international movement of street art, urban art. He is proud of his authorship and of having developed this environmentally friendly method of creating pictures in 1997 and then demonstrated it in the public sphere in 1999.
One of the peculiarities of the modern era is the way in which it addresses its own ephemerality and transience. Unlike the era of the ancient Egyptians, it wants its descendants to remember the era itself, rather than the shadows that it casts, knowing full well that these shadows will never last for as many generations as the ancient Egyptian stone carvings unless they were preserved for eternity by ash raining down, as with the wall paintings in Pompeii.
Dauven adds a further dimension to the notion of transience: since 2003, he has been collecting “wind drawings” – the marks left on building facades by trees, bushes and grass, which are revealed when the shrubbery is chopped down or disappears.
Writing Credits: Wolfgang Becker is the Former Founding Director of the Ludwig Forum for International Art in Aachen, Germany. Becker has curated important solo exhibitions of Roy Lichtenstein, Duane Hanson, Luciano Fabro, A. R. Penck, Georg Baselitz, On Kawara, Imi Knoebel, Katharina Fritsch, Frédéric Bruly-Bouabré, Chéri Samba, Richard Tuttle, Nan Goldin, Christian Boltanski, Keith Haring and others. A distinguished critic and writer, Becker became a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in Paris in 1990.
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