Creation and destruction
Taking in the paintings that make up “Na(h)tanz,” German artist Dirk Skreber’s new exhibit at the Aspen Art Museum, it’s hard not to be impressed by the diversity of the artist’s vision. His hues range from snow white in a painting of a string of trailers to charcoal black in an image of a group of bodies with a gun. One painting is an abstract composition of red shapes against a black background; another, “It Rocks Us So Hard, Ho Ho Ho #7” (the only piece in the show with a title), is an almost completely literal depiction of a car crash.The most recent works employ an original lined, layered technique that mixes print and paint and gives the pieces a textured, rippling feel. Some of the paintings are from a perspective that looks down upon the subject, an angle the 43-year-old Skreber has often used; others look from a more traditional, eye-level perspective. In their look, about the only thing that binds Skreber’s work is the size: Everything is large.Even in his imagery, Skreber is drawing from a large palette. There are human figures in some works; others seem to be marked by the absence of a human presence. There are geometric shapes, guns, cars and buildings.
“His freely moving between styles and materials is not uncommon in recent German painting,” observed Dean Sobel, the Aspen Art Museum’s interim director and curator of the current exhibit.Distilling a common thread from such diversity seems improbable. But dig beneath the styles, techniques and perspectives and there is an unmistakable sense of the destructive nature of the world of man.Skreber seems not entirely sure he wants viewers to see such a theme. At least not immediately, not before considering other, more formal elements of the work. And he certainly doesn’t want to provide viewers with a direct commentary on any sociopolitical statements raised in the painting. Skreber – who at first declined to be interviewed before spontaneously entering into a conversation about the work – is of the school that it is up to the viewers to engage with the work and find their own mean-ings. And in “Na(h)tanz,” there is much to see, from the juxtaposition of images and choice of subject matter to the colors and perspectives.”The thing with my paintings is you can make political interpretations. But I won’t confirm those,” said Skreber, a native of Lübeck, in northern Germany, who now splits his time between homes in Düsseldorf and Manhattan and a studio in Brooklyn. “It’s a struggle between colors and print and painting and how big should they be. For me, the questions in the foreground have to do with painting.
“But, sure, parts of it are political. But in a very emotional way. I like to give a basement, a ground for viewers to talk or think about it all. I do it, so I want my viewer to do it. I’m not a professional political guy. It’s more about intuition.”The wall text that accompanies the exhibit refers to “paintings of places and events whose identities are left uncertain.” But as Skreber pinpoints the sources of his images and ideas, those “uncertain” places take on distinct meaning.The basement Skreber speaks of, the foundation of meaning, begins with the title of the exhibit. Skreber was struck by the similarity between the German word nahtanz – a term used by German teenagers, meaning slow-dancing, taken from tanz, for dance, and nah, for near – and Natanz, the area that is home base for Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Skreber seems to be taken with the contrasting implications. Nahtanz, he says, is “a very heartful word,” and Skreber doesn’t need to continue that Natanz is a flash point that may lead the world to a nuclear showdown.Skreber said he liked using Natanz not only because of the play on words, but because “this is the area everyone is talking about.” But, again, he cautions against reading too much into the political weight of the place: “It’s not the main act,” he says.
Still, the best of the paintings in the current exhibit, Skreber’s first museum show in the United States, seems directly influenced by what Natanz – and nahtanz – represent. It features a couple, locked in a close embrace, dancing, floating high above a landscape dotted with institutional-type buildings. The landscape, Skreber informs, is Natanz, a satellite photograph he found on the Internet. The untitled piece is done in Skreber’s lined technique, and the lines are given a circular configuration. The piece suggests a nuclear explosion with an innocent, perhaps loving couple blown to heaven as a result.”It Rocks Us So Hard, Ho Ho Ho #7″ – the car-crash painting – is more straightforward on its surface, a roughly painted scene of a bad car crash. It is, in fact, one of a series of eight car-crash paintings that began when Skreber saw a poster of an old Volkswagen Beetle wrapped around a pole. (A book of the car-crash paintings has been published in conjunction with the current exhibit.) As with much of Skreber’s work, the image held an appeal that he didn’t question.”This scene, it was so perfectly symbolized and easy,” said Skreber, who in 2000 was awarded the inaugural Young Artists Award by Berlin’s Neue Nationgalerie. “I just wanted to paint it. I couldn’t stop. I was totally obsessed with this.” Apart from the sheer imagery, Skreber was attracted by what he calls the “Twilight Zone” quality of the narrative behind a crash. “Because this is not all of these people’s lives. If you survive it, 20 minutes later it’s like a pause. It’s like you were pushed out of your life for a minute. Then you reorganize it all and restart.”The painting of five identical white trailers in a line – against a white background – stemmed from a photo sent to Skreber by the Los Angeles gallery owner who represents the artist. The photo was of the building in Terre Haute, Ind., where Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed.
“I saw it and decided never to make a painting of it,” said Skreber. “But after a year or so, I saw the photo again. And in this photo is a wide trailer in front of the building where he was executed. I had no idea why this trailer was there. So I made a painting of only this trailer, five times, in a diagonal.”Skreber refers casually to the painting as “The Trailer Bombs.”Practically a polar opposite of the trailers painting – in color, tone and directness of the imagery – is the black-on-black painting of a jumble of bodies on a truck. Also discernible are a large gun and a fuel drum. Skreber explains that the image came from a photo from the first Gulf War. It depicts the victims of a fuel/air explosive bomb – known as an FAE bomb – whose bodies are lightly burned into the positions they were in when the device went off. As Skreber recalls the original image, there was a group of people, possibly journalists, posing heroically in front of the carnage.Car wrecks, bomb victims, nuclear weapons sites. Skreber’s take on the world can seem a bleak one, where life is extinguished through mishap and malice. But Skreber has at least some sense of humor about it: For instance, the “Ho Ho Ho” part of the car-crash title comes from a 1965 Bob Dylan interview, captured in the documentary film “Don’t Look Back.”
Skreber also has a sense of optimism about humanity. After explaining that I wasn’t fishing for any definitive statement from him, I laid out my theory on the Natanz painting – that it looked like two people being sent to heaven on a nuclear cloud. I didn’t expect a response at all. Skreber, though, had a revealing one.”But these two survive,” he said firmly. “I know these people survive.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com