Wolfgang Neumann – Hello, Goodbye
Filderstadt Municipal Gallery, February 21 – March 21, 2010
Ladies and gentlemen, Mrs. Schäfer-Gold, please allow me to offer you a warm welcome to the opening of this exhibition of Wolfgang Neumann’s work. »Hello, Goodbye« is how the artist greets the town of his birth – the bright, joyful »Hello« is quickly “thrown out” by the ensuing »Goodbye«! And when we see the four snarling bears on the invitation, which seem to be shouting the title at us, we can be forgiven for feeling a little uneasy: Are we the welcoming or farewell committee here? Yet the reception by these wild animals turns out to be a parody of sorts: whether it’s a »Hello« or a »Goodbye« resounding from their jaws, these are just stuffed bedside rugs. Rugs? Well, let’s be more precise when you’ve made the effort to be here at this early hour: They are paintings of bedside rugs. Yes, the bears are on the loose, but in acrylic, or perhaps in crayon. The realistic, indeed figurative schools of thought are having their heyday, and it is here that we are often confronted by the Gretchen question: What do you think about representational art? We’re fully aware that even the most realistic motif is still only a painted picture. This gives the artist unlimited freedom, as we will see.
One thing’s for sure: Wolfgang Neumann is serious about his unseriousness. Isn’t he? Going back to the bears’ greeting to the exhibition: Whichever way you look at it, I don’t want to bring back any unpleasant childhood memories by asking him about possible failings at school and would instead think of it in the sense of Bon Jovi’s hit »Never say Goodbye«. After all, Neumann still lives and works in the region and maybe the name of the exhibition is more like a running gag or a tribute to his continuous crossing of boundaries, his constant coming and going. Neumann himself speaks of a »comeback«. To wrap up this train of thought, the bear rugs, apparently sorted by size, end up taking on a rather homey feel. And I can reassure the audience here in Filderstadt: despite the sparseness of information available to the general public about the artist’s life, which will tell you that he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart and lives and works – as he describes it – »in, around and throughout Stuttgart«, he still spares a thought for his roots. When not being content to simply state that he was born, in 1977, the town in which we have come together today takes on prominent significance. On the other hand, one self-portrayal of the artist, who is found on the web under the cryptic pseudonyms of ›Drahthank‹ and ›Hoehlenmaler‹, is provokingly succinct: »studied, tortured and quartered (…) yet still alive and working«. Hello, Goodbye! In short, we have to be prepared to open Pandora’s Box if we want to look into his paintings in more depth.
We can’t always rely on the names of his paintings to get to the core of the message: plays on words are part and parcel of Neumann’s repertoire and, whilst using catchwords in the titles, he sets milestones in the actual painting to mark out exuberant and imaginative storylines which we still have to piece together ourselves. Unsurprising, then, that we end up with as many stories as there are viewers. This, too, is intentional, and what makes it so fun at the end of the day – the figurative approach of his work tempts us to decipher the image immediately while, every so often, Neumann mischievously set us on the wrong track. It’s just like in real life: the more information we’re fed by the media, the more time we spend engrossing our minds in all sorts of trivialities, and the sooner we reach the point identified by good old Socrates two and a half thousand years ago: we don’t really understand any of all this. But we have to know that in the first place, and that is quite an insight – if not the insight in life.
But I don’t want to send you to lunch on this sombre note. I’d like to call two names into play in my observations. Two people who, directly or indirectly, play an important role in Wolfgang
Neumann’s work and who typify the huge spectrum of subject matter and images which he draws on: Franz Kafka and Bob Dylan. At first glance, these two have nothing more in common than both having never been awarded a Nobel Prize for literature: for one, that ship has already sailed, and for the other it remains just a slender (albeit justified) hope. Before I look at these two hidden protagonists in Wolfgang Neumann’s work, I’d like to turn your attention to the tableau of a grotesque crime scene with the mysterious title »PPFF« or, as the subtitle is kind enough to declare: »Pole Position Füße unterm Tisch, Feuer unterm Dach« – the name of one of Neumann’s paintings from 2009, which is on show here today.
We see a chaotic scene and broken windows. A hooded policeman has his back to the viewer in the foreground. At least that’s what we’re made to believe by the P-O-L on the back of the jacket, even though the rest of the word can’t be seen. Or is this the first of many mistaken identities? The size of the letters and the space left on the jacket would actually suggest the »Pole« from the title. Indeed, this character does appear to have captured pole position in the picture, even though it isn’t much use to him. He is greeted by a madhouse, and a potentially explosive one at that: A presumed Islamist is crouched down in a far-off mystical land, dynamite in one hand, victory sign in the other, and we see the shadows of the New York skyline in the centre of the picture. It appears the usual suspects have struck again here. But what about the heads that appear to be sailing through the other three window frames – one as a bat, another as Putto, in between perhaps the Holy Ghost in person. It is, at any rate, a blood-sucking and hypocritical assembly. Yet, from our bird’s eye perspective, we are not looking down on a church interior – as the gothic-like windows might suggest – but on a urinal. A sheet of paper with illegible writing and an official stamp floats in through the window, drawing our attention to a sardonically grinning fellow (don’t ask me why I think of a banker) on crutches. Maybe this is the clue to solving this case. After all, he’s wearing clowns’ trousers that don’t quite match the jacket. We then discover the rest of the costume underneath the urinal. (The same mask can be seen on a gangster in a smaller painting upstairs next to the entrance.) A speech bubble rises from the urinal – or is it from the mask? – from which we can decipher an »AU« and, upon closer examination, an »AUch«. Before our heads start to spin, I’d like to draw your attention to the jack in the box at the bottom of the picture: Instead of a jack at the end of the spring, we see a pistol. Has the artist served us a cock-and-bull story here? Is it all just a figment of our imagination? Maybe it’s just someone on the way to the toilet with some rather wild thoughts in his head, churned up inside by an argument perhaps? So much for having your »feet on the ground « or starting a »fire under the roof« as the title tries to persuade us.
The ironic twist is clear, self-deprecation rears its head. We are all guilty of relentless consumption. The media beat us around the head with the good news and, to an even greater extent, the bad news, until we can hear or see no more. Another assassination in passing, a disaster report and trip to the toilet in the same breath. And if we haven’t had enough, the next fix is always just one click away in this “googling” era. By the way, and this might even come as a surprise to the artist himself, you can never be too sure of using acronyms in your work, no matter how abstruse they might seem: seriously, there are several official variants of PPFF around, such as »Plutonium Pit Fabrication Facility«, »Pan Pacific Film Festival« or »Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation«. So who gets pole position? Should we say: people, just see what you want, it’s only paint on canvas? Wolfgang Neumann fits together the shreds of images to form a whole, even if these fragments happen to come together by chance. He dissects the brave new world by quoting and satirizing it. And yet, I would assert, he follows a figuratively aphoristic philosophy.
The collage of themes is methodical. Wherever we look, Wolfgang Neumann presents us with more or less directly associable images and names to decipher. That brings me back to Bob Dylan, who said of the 16th century dramatist: »The only thing we know for sure about Henry Porter is that his name was not Henry Porter«. Or, as another dramatist, Arthur Schnitzler, put it »You can never be sure«. Wolfgang Neumann’s paintings and drawings tell their own stories, mixing déjà-vus with pieces from magazines; fiction with his own observations, to form an unlimited repository of anything and everything that makes up the world. The artist raises many questions, the answers to which simply present us with more questions. In literature one would speak of an aphoristic density: many small facets at some point produce an edifice of thoughts.
Four people are sitting at a café table, three of them painted over to offer anonymity. Does the word »Hell« drafted from the picture mean this is some kind of antechamber to the hereafter? On another piece we see a figure whose weeping mask has slipped from the face, whilst a nondescript character is busy tampering with a (perhaps his own) caravan. The flood of pictorial fragments is staggering. An odd-looking forest ranger rampages through his grounds with a chainsaw – by all accounts it’s the ranch of a former American president. Elsewhere, a demonic »hounding« wipes the smile from our faces. It’s no use counting on higher powers to escape reality: in dubious fortune teller’s images – or are they political performers? – the clairvoyance turns out to be something of a »prognostata«. The world is as it is.
I’ll end my ramblings there and return to Bob Dylan as promised. In two of his paintings, Neumann consciously establishes a connection to the sublime songwriter: »Shooting Star (Me)« and »Shooting Star (You)«. Here again, he synchronously and diachronically, at random if you like, collects all sorts of pictorial and literal fragments before our very eyes. We get a good reference to Dylan’s song from the title alone, and it serves to shed some light on Neumann’s entire work. »Seen a shooting star tonight / And I thought of you«, is sung in the first verse, then »And I thought of me« in the second – which matches the association of the two pictures. There is a touch of melancholy about Dylan as he sings about all the ultimate things, of trying to break into to another, unknown world, of the fear of losing oneself. The shooting star lights up only for a fleeting moment and then disappears as have many stars among men: »Seen a shooting star tonight / Slip Away« is how the song ends, even though we still hear the line »Tomorrow will be another day« as the song fades out – but no, it isn’t meant in a hopeful sense. Neumann’s commonplace heroes and heroines are not the kind who breeze through life. And the VIPs in Wolfgang Neumann’s pertinent work – from Superman to Barack Obama – do not fare any better. In his insightful history of Bob Dylan’s work, Heinrich Detering emphasises Dylan’s »variation of identity emotion and role playing«. That’s it: Neumann’s protagonists fall straight into line. The frequent use of masks and disguises is striking. The show is over, but the show must go on.
This is further underlined in a Kafkaesque sense: In »Ein Landarzt«, Neumann explores Franz Kafka’s short story of the same name. This isn’t meant as an illustration. But what we do recognise is the intricacy and inner tempo which characterise Kafka’s texts: being doomed to failure in the task of trying to save somebody, magical and creepy themes like the mysterious appearance of the »supernatural« horse, the contemplation of one’s own unidentifiable guilt and, not least, the hidden irony. »Tricked! Tricked!« we are told, with a wink, at the end of Kafka’s »Landarzt«. Followed by one of the most impressive lines in German literature: »A false ring of the night bell, once answered – it can never be made right«. We are constantly led up the wrong track, if we can find a track at all. In his artwork, Wolfgang Neumann attempts to make the route passable.
Wolfgang Neumann negotiates masterfully between satire and nightmare, between modern and Kafkaesque worlds. With the humour shown in his pictures and his witty titles, he captivates the audience at both ends of the scale and, at the same time, is able to create an intermediate or parallel world through the surreal mingling of space and time, fiction and reality. It is a world he says hello to as his own, with the cheekiness of a harlequin or the oracle of a disillusionist and says goodbye to as an artistic, or artificial world thanks to his common sense. You see, everything is under control after all … That just leaves me to say thank you for your time and goodbye, or in light of the culinary delights that await: Hello again.
Günter Baumann, February 2010
 In the German original: “Die Gretchenfrage”, often transcribed to “the million dollar question” or “the tricky question” in English. Originating from Goethe’s Faust, in which Gretchen asks Faust “What do you think about religion?”
 Literal translation: Pole position feet on the ground, fire under the roof
 In the German original: “Mix aus Prognose und Prostata” (a mix of prognosis and prostate gland)
 A Country Doctor, the short story by Franz Kafka