Wolfgang Neumann: Labile Seitenlage,
Markdorf Town Gallery 2013 | Text: Andrea Dreher M.A.
And the show must go on …
“What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far from it: at the same time he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.” (Pablo Picasso “What is an artist?”, in: Kunsttheorie im 20. Jahrhundert, Harrison, Wood, eds., Hatje Cantz-Verlag 1998, vol. 2, p. 777)
While Picasso didn’t actually name the enemy of art he was fighting against in this statement, we all know what he was talking about: the embodiment of boredom coupled with the usual small talk. This enemy of art promises us deliverance from evil, assures us that everything is under control and shields our eyes from all the social suffering and political woe to give us peace of mind. The media is easily pleased and we consumers had better not kick up a fuss. After all, the world didn’t end, did it? The Deutsche Bank just had to stand in the pillory for a while. The Japanese can get back to building new nuclear power plants. And homeowners can add another layer of insulation to their walls to keep the frosty national and global climate at bay.
No wonder, then, that artists such as Wolfgang Neumann have devoted themselves to the hardships of our time. He is a painter and poet, a songwriter and tutor. An actionist who could do with 48 hours in every day to convert the constant flood of images into new and fresh impressions that are more than merely paintings. Neumann’s art sets a new tone and puts our conventional patterns of perception to the test. And at the same time he knowingly lulls us into a false sense of security.
The creation process for his pieces is neither linear nor conceptual. Instead, Neumann filters the “madness of everyday life” and holds on to these impressions in his initial sketches. If a picture is then born from one of these sketches, the inherent realism often has a very surreal feel, with the artist presenting parallel worlds which usually only exist in our minds. What’s more, Wolfgang Neumann takes our metaphorical language and faithfully transfers it to the canvas.
Take the feeling of being on a downer. We all know how it feels to be weary of everyday life. But have we ever considered what this might look like? What colours would we choose, what shape, what motif?
Wolfgang Neumann’s Durchhänger (“Downer”) depicts an exhausted clown being crushed under the weight of his utensils as well as the burden of having to constantly entertain the crowd.
Circus themes have become part of Neumann’s artistic repertoire in recent times. This microcosm, where man and animal, magic and sensation, freedom and confinement, perfection and farce come together, lends itself to the creation of new perspectives and attitudes.
Fire eaters, knife throwers, acrobats and animal tamers risk their lives in the circus ring every day, putting their existence on the line for the sensation-seeking public. As we observe these circus images, the artist provides us with a voyeur’s mask behind which we can lust after new thrills. The grotesque is often the focal point in Neumann’s motifs, whereby he makes use of masks to protect all his protagonists from our leering gaze. We bear witness to a colourful spectacle, but we will never learn the real truth of what goes on behind the curtain. Bussi Bussi and off we go. After all, downer or not: the show must go on!
A circus tent also appears in Hansel and Gretel’s enchanted forest. On taking a closer look, we see that the tent’s dome looks more like a mosque or perhaps a power station, and the letter “C” for CIRCUS stands proud on top of the dome like the crescent of the mosque or logo of the operating company. Have Grimm’s young heroes wandered into the wrong forest by any chance? The tightrope walker balancing high above their heads certainly doesn’t seem to be paying them much attention. Where the path divides at a safe distance, Hansel seems to have spotted the little gingerbread cottage, where a blonde in a witch’s mask stands drooling, her breasts covered only by a large gingerbread heart. The cottage is surrounded by toadstools, and we suspect that the situation is anything but harmless.
Gretel, for her part, plods on with her head bowed, seemingly blind to all the allures.
The tour guide dominating the front right of the picture in his blue pullover, red trousers and white Guy Fawkes mask seems equally oblivious. Relying on his smartphone to get him away from the madness of the forest, he appears keen to sneak off and abandon his duties; the umbrella used to signal his whereabouts long since closed in his right hand.
Indeed, not many of the eponymous heroes in Neumann’s pieces really feel at ease. Why is it that each scene threatens to escape our mind? Just when we think we’ve recognised the setting and associated themes, a glaring contradiction jumps into view.
In Schreber, we expect to see an allotment but are greeted by a caravan: oh well! Those poisonous toadstools that we saw in Hansel and Gretel’s forest are sprouting up in the garden, too. And then there’s an excavator threatening to deface the idyllic scenery. Our protagonist here wears a dolphin mask and red clown’s nose, both held onto his face by rubber bands. As if that weren’t enough, there’s a child’s party blower in his mouth, just about to unfurl as he breathes out.
In short, the grotesque has a firm hold on this scene and thus on us as viewers. The blue boxing glove labelled TOP TEN and attached blouson sleeve entering the picture from the left do nothing to ease the tension.
Quite the reverse: tension is one of the driving forces in Wolfgang Neumann’s paintings and drawings. He leaves himself and us with no time to pause for breath, and we are constantly on high alert in this hybrid realm where everything seems possible.
The dualism of rationality and fantasy which characterises the artist’s whole work means his paintings and in particular his ink drawings are in the vein of a great forerunner, the painter Francisco de Goya.
A key work of Goya was his “Caprichos”, a set of 80 prints created between 1793 and 1799. On becoming seriously ill in 1792 and subsequently turning deaf, it appears that the court painter to the Spanish Crown had nothing left to lose. He turned his back on the court life and his attention to the foibles of his time, such as poverty, class conceit, superstition, corruption and the brutality of the inquisition. Today still, the “Caprichos” are regarded as a symbol of stark social criticism, combined with a generous portion of eroticism and cutting satire.
How lucky we can feel that the inquisition is a thing of the past in our parts and that art is now granted the necessary freedom. After all, you can bet that Neumann’s pictures would have been on the authorities’ index at that time.
Let’s face it, his art is not Wischiwaschi, as the poster picture shows us. An energetic-looking gentleman in wellie boots and blue bomber jacket is swinging a red hosepipe around and seems to have been on the receiving end himself. We search in vain for a car that’s going to be washed or a tree to be watered, and have to content ourselves that the meaning can be best explained by the title, as there’s no wishy-washy without water.
In his drawings Sacktreter (“Ballbreaker”) and Marschtreter (“Rearguard”), Neumann gesturally and expressively puts onto paper what many of us would not even dare to think. These two prints appeared in a benefit exhibition for Pussy Riot in Berlin, as a symbol of artists’ resistance against the political arbitrariness of Vladimir Putin et al. The members of Pussy Riot have been imprisoned since, and the global outcry from artistic circles continues.
Sometimes it is a political headline or even just a word which sets off a chain reaction in Wolfgang Neumann and generates a creative space for thought. This then leads to a pictorial space with a powerful title which in turn connotes a message expressed in dialog with the picture.
In the alliteration Alter, Alpen, Aschewolke, we have a sense of foreboding from the title alone. The shepherd in the picture personifies old age (Alter), as he flees in his odd shoes; but what is he running from? The approaching cloud of ash (Aschewolke) seems less daunting than being dumped on by the giant pigeon flying over his head. The three sheep in the field look on, well, sheepishly, oblivious to any imminent danger. We see snow-covered mountains (Alpen) in the distance, which become more intense in colour in the foreground as if to reinforce the drama of the situation. The entire composition is oriented towards the front left of the picture and the shepherd’s figure. We see fear and desperation in the face of this man who appears to be running for his life.
This painting is archetypal for the conditional combination of colour, surface and space in Wolfgang Neumann’s art, as he counterbalances content and structure in each of his pictures with aplomb.
Wolfgang Neumann’s art cannot be put into any single category or be clearly verified in terms of iconography. This artist seems to draw on unlimited resources. He is a verist and dadaist, a historical and genre painter, and last but not least a relentless taboo-breaker.
 The title of the exhibition, “Labile Seitenlage”, is used here in the German original. This is a play on words from the phrase “Stabile Seitenlage”, meaning “recovery position”. The title suggests the contrasting notion of placing someone in a precarious/unstable position rather than a safe (recovery) position.
 Bussi Bussi: meaning the affected kissing of the cheek(s) seen especially in high society