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Free Radicals - Elad Lassry´s Hermetic Photographic Works
It's interesting to be unsure - A conversation with Lorna Simpson
The Human Dimension - Thomas Scheibitz at the MMK
Visual Encyclopedia of the People's Republic - Liu Zheng's monumental photo atlas The Chinese
On Disappearance and Illumination - Michael Stevenson in the Portikus, Frankfurt
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The Human Dimension
Thomas Scheibitz at the MMK


In 2005, Thomas Scheibitz exhibited in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennial, and he has been represented in important international exhibitions for more than a decade. In addition, many of his works are included in the Deutsche Bank Collection. Now the Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main is presenting the first large show of the artist’s work in Germany. Sarah Elsing met with Thomas Scheibitz before the opening.


A yellow block rests on a six-meter-high column. Geometric protrusions and indents pick up on shapes from the windows on the second floor. Yet the block seems to have a face: square eyes, a line for a nose, a box jaw. Like an abstract totem pole. Thomas Scheibitz’ sculpture EX Block, which is situated in the entrance hall of the Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, hits the nail on the head. For Scheibitz’ first big museum show in Germany is devoted to a central aspect of his work: the human figure. “Finding a contemporary form for this is the most difficult thing, but also the most important. Intuitively, I’ve always thought I’d arrive at this sort of result. But it took twenty years for me to describe it,” says the artist in a conversation with ArtMag.

Indeed, older works on paper from the Deutsche Bank Collection permit much more concrete associations with objects or human figures. Scheibitz painted them in the mid nineties during a study visit to Japan. These early works already contain everything that typifies the work of the artist (who was born in Radeberg, Germany, in 1969). They display the characteristic artistic language of interrelated forms the viewer seems to know from somewhere. And they reflect Scheibitz’ explorative search for a contemporary position between figuration and abstraction.     

“Thomas Scheibitz is one of the most important and interesting painters of his generation,” says Susanne Gaensheimer, the museum’s director, who curated the show herself. In 2005, Scheibitz and Tino Sehgal designed the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennial. “It was time to give an appropriate place to his work in all its fullness,” says Gaensheimer. And now Thomas Scheibitz’ universe unfolds on an entire floor of the Frankfurt museum. The show includes paintings, sculptures, large works on paper, drawings and sketches. On view for the first time are parts of the archive in which he has collected all of the things from which he distills his forms. “If I were to give a guided tour,” says Scheibitz, “it could start here.” In this room, which differs from the rest of the exhibition course in terms of the colors, among other things, his working method becomes clear.
 
In display cases and on giant pin boards, a seemingly unconnected jumble of material is spread out: pictures of every size and origin, record covers, advertising posters, odds and ends from the hardware store, a seashell. Like a classical art historian, Scheibitz looks for formal similarities, no matter whether the material is a Renaissance engraving or a picture torn out of an architecture magazine. He also uses films, literature and music as sources. He mixes up the found forms in his sketchbooks until they take on a new constellation and, after a multi-step abstraction process, fuse into something that later can become a painting or sculpture. It is a condensation of historical, invented and recognizable basic patterns that characterize visual life today.

This process results in works such as the large painting One-Time Pad, which, like most of the works on exhibit, was finished this year. Forms that look like letters of the alphabet are arrayed close to one another: a gray-yellow bar, a gray “n”; at the upper edge, white spots float like clouds in front of a blue background. Anyone who is trying to find a meaning or even a history behind this should think about the title, One-Time Pad, which is also the name of the exhibition. One-time pad is a type of encryption employed predominantly in diplomatic and military circles. The code can only be used once; it is considered indecipherable. The same is true of Scheibitz’ works. Although they conjure up memories of images and signs we all know, we cannot decipher them. It is like a déjà-vu experience, where we perceive something to be real for a moment but cannot pin it down as a real event. “Today people expect everything to be made plausible. They stand in front of art wearing headphones and want to hear an explanation. But that doesn’t work with my art,” says Scheibitz.

Nevertheless, in the archive room at the Frankfurt museum, he pins up miniature photographs of his works next to paintings that are similar in formal terms. This is highly reminiscent of the tableaus in Aby Warburg’s famous Mnemosyne Atlas. In the catalogue – which is more of an elaborately designed artist’s book than exhibition documentation – the artist proceeds in a similar way. Before the explanatory texts and interviews, tableaus and facsimiles from earlier Scheibitz catalogues almost didactically give an introduction to his method and artistic language. This is fully in keeping with Warburg’s apt observation that so-called  “head images” can convey a statement better than a “headline”. “It’s about activating collective memory, about things and images that we all know and can categorize, or at least think we can categorize,” explains Scheibitz. And this is the aim of his works, which are not committed to any specific genre, style or other ism. “For me, Warburg’s method of approaching images from an iconographic standpoint is much more interesting. I view everything without respect, but seriously.”

This does not mean, however, that Scheibitz simply photographs the models he finds in the everyday world, or simply paints them like other painters his age from the Leipzig School in order to imbue their works with political or historical meaning. This kind of procedure would be too direct for his taste, too journalistic. “That would be pure illustration,” he says. “You need a dimension that is between viewing, memory and invention.”  

Perhaps that is why it was so difficult for Scheibitz to find a way of approaching the human figure – close enough to the remembered model yet far enough away. Today he seems to have indeed found the right balance. At the Museum für Moderne Kunst, his portraits do not hang on the wall but on partitions in the middle of the space. Confronted with them, the viewer has to walk around them but cannot grasp them. In the oil painting St. Johann, human outlines are clearly discernible, and in the painting Henry Stand a constructivistically distorted masked face looks at us. But who exactly was portrayed remains a mystery. Perhaps the figures are a little like the artist himself.

The viewer gets this impression in one of the museum’s smallest rooms, where two unusual self-portraits hang: two steel balls painted with oil. Although there are many correspondences to the human dimension – the balls are suspended at a height of about 5 foot six, near head height, the light point recalls Scheibitz’ water-blue eyes, and the red bar could be his nose – one can cannot conclude that it is a human figure. But it might be one. The title of the second self-portrait, Goldilocks Zone, points to this realm of possibility. This is what space researchers call areas of the universe in which human life is possible.  Such possibilities open up in Scheibitz’ universe. They cannot be grasped, but they are there.


Thomas Scheibitz. One-Time Pad
29 September 2012 – 13 January 2013
Museum für Moderne Kunst
Frankfurt am Main




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