Monday, February 9, 2009

Gerhard Richter: Overpainted Photographs

Being that photographs often represent one moment in time it may be a natural conclusion that by default they also represent a response by a photographer based on his or her mood at that moment. For mediums such as painting which can take days, weeks or months to complete one work, the artist can often bring a wealth of different moods to that individual work. The artist Gerhard Richter, who works meticulously layer by layer and is in a state of constant reevaluation as the process is engaged, has said of his painting that they "never come into being in a single mood." His new book Gerhard Richter: Overpainted Photographs from Hatje Cantz features work that can be seen as departing from this sensibility allowing for direct and rapid creations of painted works which act more to represent, like photography, a single mood of the artist.

Working with his own photographs printed as 10 x 15 cm quick prints as anyone would get from a commercially developed roll of film, he uses left over paint from a day's work scraped from canvasses and applies it to the photographs via pallete knives and doctor's blades. The application is done in an instant, the works are completed with spontaneity and with irreversible gestures. Those judged unsuccessful are immediately destroyed. This exercise, for lack of a better term, has produced over one thousand images from which 400 are reproduced here in Overpainted Photographs.

For many photographers the image has no surface. The illusion of photography in providing a window into which we perceive literal description and dimension by Richter's hand is now disrupted due to the addition of paint. Often a tense relationship, the results run the gamut of the surreal to the beautiful to the disturbed. It is all the more surprising that each in its perceived completeness was in essence accomplished by chance and trial and error.

The color of paint applied corresponds or contrasts the tonalities of the underlying photograph but link the two through formal relationships of the layers. A photograph of what appears to be a woman in a flower patterned shirt has her face obscured by a swath of thickly applied grey paint leaving her shirt uncovered and the blanket that appears on the lower half of the frame a formal compliment to the paint layer. A scene of houses in snow is disrupted by a "thicket" of amber paint whose sharp edges lends itself more to photographic description providing a less obvious manipulation. A vertical landscape of lush greenery and an idyllic road leading off to the horizon is left untouched as a "sky" of smokey grey tones sucks the earth up for the rapture.

The work represented in Overpainted Photographs spans almost twenty years from 1989 to the present. In presenting 400 of them I am equally impressed by the sheer number but more importantly, their consistency and ability to hold one's attention repeatedly. The book itself is handsome in design and printing and the tipped-in plate to the cover adds an elegant contrast to the plain canvas book cloth. Gerhard Richter: Overpainted Photographs was co-published with the Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen and the Centre de le Photographie, Geneve. Highly recommended.