Life's a Dream: Benign Spaces of Lyrical Life and Utopian Remembrance
(The Paintings of Torsten Ruehle)
Our lips shouldn’t touch
Move over darling
I like it too much
Move over darling
That gleam in your eyes is no big surprise anymore
Cos you fooled me beforei
Doris Day 'Move Over Darling' (1963)
Often the paintings of interiors made by Torsten Ruelhe evoke a paradoxical response in the viewer. In the first instance they are filled with a sense of a seeming lyrical harmony, where there is a calming iconography within the language of suburban international modernism and its erstwhile 'life made easy' of benign consumption. But from a second point of view there is a clear feeling of visual disturbance, a rupture has taken place, and what was an initial sense of transparency becomes increasingly opaque both visually and metaphorically. As if to restate matters for the painter Ruehle, there is simultaneously clarity and ambiguous uncertainty that pervades and quite deliberately unnerves the immediate viewing experience of this artist's paintings. The use of a pictorial metaphor of a screening – or deliberate masking – informs the initial optical character of Ruehle's paintings at one level, while at the same time it further mitigates and exposes their actual material processes of production on the other. Thus what appears harmonious conceals a sense of unresolved inner dissonance.
The relationship between drawing as line – as distinct from the drawn as simple composition – is very important to Torsten Ruehle. In preparing the surface composition detailed line elements are set out and positioned, there follows a semi-opaque masking process as a gesso-ed ground or screen is applied and brushed over the original motifs. Thereafter strong singular black pigment-pen lines are drawn around objects and characters that are deliberately intended to equate with visual artifice, the illusory artifice of Ruehle's paintings as their expressed contents. If as Gertrude Stein humorously observed 'there are no straight lines in nature', then Ruehle's art just as readily re-asserts that his paintings and black lines (straight or otherwise) are not to be of nature but transpositions of a deliberately imagined and constructed world. In either case as Hegel long ago asserted art is the servant of artifice that triumphs over and above the transpositions of scenes of nature.ii And, traditionally like most German painters Ruehle is decidedly a maker of images clearly intended from the outset to be seen as paintings, and not as it were poetic parallels or challenges to the natural world. Though it may be just as evident that the artist Ruehle intentionally represents material aspects of the world common to the recent history of modernism. The strategic condition of this artist's sense of configuration is therefore to make line contain and expose, and that German art with its rich graphic tradition has ever been one that has foreground-ed the use of linearity. Or, to quote Klee, 'take a line for a walk'.
But what is the substance of this imagined world that Ruehle presents to the viewer? To ask it in a rhetorical manner such as this, is to express the question by engaging directly with the contents and the forms that the images suppose. What is presented in works like Love You? (2007) and Controlled Interior and Controlled Worlds (2008) are American topological designer-lifestyle environments of America's bourgeois suburbia.iii The obvious inclusion of international modernist furniture by the couple Charles and Ray Eames, and Mies van der Rohe, alongside the open-plan architecture of Richard Neutra represents something of the reflection of the bourgeois Taylorisation that was taking place in the United States of the post-war period.iv The seemingly West Coast Neutra-like house and pool are at the same time typical of numerous film sets found in the soft melodramas and comedies of the late 1950s and early 60s. The time period being, perhaps, the acme or highpoint of what was once called High Modernism.v However, within these interiors we frequently find Ruehle places anomalous aspects whereby bijoux animals, and objects of personal idiosyncrasy, undermine the purportedly pristine utopian design environments. In Controlled Interior it is a blue frog perched precariously on a low table next to an apparent answer phone (a piece of then modern design technology) foreground left.vi Or, an elephant ornament in the mid-ground whose extended trunk passes through the low coffee table of Controlled Worlds centrally placed. Thus in a deliberately ironic sense design questions of form-function-utility are made somewhat surreal by Ruehle. And, in all of Ruehle's interiors there is more than a hint of the surreal eye of a Diane Arbus meeting the world of US West Coast architectural interiors and swimming pools.vii
The age of McLuhanism may seem a strange concern for a German artist born in Dresden in the former East Germany, but this is to misunderstand the critical see through filters that Ruehle carefully employs.viii If the 1960s, was the age when West Germany thoroughly embraced America in the wake of the Kennedy visit and the Berlin Wall, it was presented as a dispiriting illusion to anyone who grew up in the East.ix A painting like Lucky Cat (2008), is all outline and definition, but with its melting sideboard elements and sense of drained colour Ruehle evokes quite another reading. The waving cat on the table is a more contemporary ironic twist of Chinese kitsch. Indeed, principles of the opaque and the transparent inform all of Ruehle's paintings. The objects themselves represent a litany of the new consumer durables of 1960s. Though never quite exactly recognisable, they appear within many of the interiors in their semi-opaque or semi-transparent state. The objects thus also take on a sense of faded memory and errant forgetfulness, a sense of presence expressed in the half-remembered. What appears to be an electronic footbath is found in the double panel painting called Inland Empire (2008), though strangely plugged into an armchair. A fascination with standing lamps, and various lighting systems, also appears important to many of the paintings. These concerns typified the illusion-based utopianism of the 1950s and early 60s time period. As with all the decorative objects referred to by Ruehle, though invariably period-based and stylistically recognisable, their contained lineament gives them a sense of frozen anonymity. Rather than actual possessions the contents of Ruehle's rooms seem to retain only the status of a metaphor of possession, rather than meaningful objects of personal affection. Thus far from the popular mediation that these McLuhan-like worlds might suppose, what we really experience is a sense of alienated distance.
As in those cases with the inclusion of human figures like Outland Empire (2008), and the large painting called Gravity (2007), they take the form of spectral entities in ghosting spaces. When initially drawn in some detail in coloured pencil the figures and objects are often highly finished. It is a finish that is then literally masked or over-painted by the subsequent opaque screening of white paint, and gives the effect somewhat as if a Renaissance velo or veil has been placed in front of the image contents.x The contour lines that are then superimposed on the opaque screen over the core subject, creating the effect of a free form contour stylisation. A whole variety of different perspective viewpoints are used, and in Gravity Ruehle adopts an aerial viewpoint, while in Outland Empire it is a raised centre field viewpoint. In both instances the female figures lounge haplessly on their would-be designer furniture, rather undermining the ergonomic design principles on which many of their functional qualities claimed to have been based. The settings are girls 'pyjama' or 'stopover' parties typical of the huge teenage female culture that was emerging in the 'baby boomer years' of the 1950s and 60s in America. The sense of artifice is reinforced by strained use of bleached electric lighting in these interiors. And, since most of the Neutra architecture was built on the open planning principle and favoured natural lighting systems, we could argue that this is also part of the intended perversity that Ruehle has adopted to deliberately undermine the lifestyle feigned by these faded utopias. Faded, perhaps, like the many period photographic images that the artist has inevitably sought and used as the main source materials in these paintings.
If photography provides a provisional source for Ruehle's paintings, the use of film and filmography is surely far more significant, and allied to that we also find indirect references to an earlier twentieth century tradition of American painting. It is surely a commonplace to observe in works like Drugstore (2007), The Visit and Dinner (2008) a certain Hopperesque conversion to another time period. Less that of the Depression Era of the 1930s, but a similar penchant for isolated and non-communicating alienated and existential figures, that have been transported to the purported consumer utopianism of the 1950s and 60s. However, the primary analogy in Ruehle's paintings is with film, film sets, and mise en scene, and Ruehle has made clear his fascination with films by David Lynch, the Finnish screenwriter and director Aki Kaurismäki, and the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu. Indeed, the surreal contents of Ruehle's paintings owes much to the 'surreality' of Lynch who has also set many of his films either in suburbia or the small town environments of 1950s and 60s America. Ruehle's recent exhibition was entitled 'Blue Velvet' after the Lynch classic of 1986, and included was a painting entitled Inland Empire, referring to a film written and directed by Lynch in 2006. The painting entitled Rabbits (2008), explicitly refers to Lynch's rabbit characters in the director's episodic feature series of the same name. The series plays around with no other characterisation than the sense of alienation and spookiness that it is able to provoke in the viewers. The dialogue between the rabbits is completely absurd like the situation in which these characters in the painting find themselves. However, if we look closely at Ruehle's painting we see it specifically evokes 1950s to 60s period stereotypes. The female rabbit is doing the ironing, while presumably her husband rabbit is sitting comfortably relaxing on the sofa – the rabbit provider and the continuous labour of the wife-homemaker. Seemingly, therefore referencing incalculable tropes drawn from thousands of advertisements and stereotypes of husband and the perfect wife that fits this pre-feminist time period in America.xi In the foreground stands a lectern with numerous microphones representing the plethora of television and radio stations (consumer excess) which were emerging at this 'the media is the message' period, a new reality first defined and characterised by the 1960s.xii A sculpture maquette of what might well be Rodin's 'The Kiss' appears on the side table. Nothing could be more ludicrous or incongruous juxtaposed to the remaining contents of the painting, since the rabbits could not be further apart in every sense.
Film as both scenario and setting is increasingly important to Ruehle, and film provides both the space and propensity for the subtlety hidden notions of the avant garde and kitsch I have already alluded to. The latter being the force that undermines any notion of there being the possibility of a plausible 'utopian modernism'. In a small painting like Sweet Dreams (2008) and the larger Controlled God (2007), the obfuscating issue of dream and sleep are introduced by Ruehle.xiii The former with its 'kitschy' title (derived almost certainly from the love song of the Country and Western legend Patsy Kline), could also pass as something from a movie with 1950s and 60s icon Doris Day. Hollywood's penchant for soft bedroom farces and comedies at the time of the late 50s and early 60s was insatiable. The obviously intended kitsch sentimentalism of such a painting is also complimented by the mawkish spookiness of Controlled God. Indeed, these are precisely the type of sources that David Lynch found and appropriated for films like Blue Velvet, and where he presents the semi-surreal ambiguities of each character role. In Blue Velvet the heroine says to the lead character 'I can't figure out if you’re a detective or a pervert?' The point to be made, beyond its facile simplicity as a statement, however, is that the collaged world of film (cut and edit) provides a far better fluid paradigm to understand the modern world than the lost illusions of high modernism's consumer utopia. In the diptych that Ruehle simply calls Pilgrimage (2008), the sentimental consumer relativism that typifies our age is made clear. On the left a kitsch repository of statues of 'Our Lady of Fatima, of Lourdes, of Guadeloupe' and no doubt numerous other places, while on the right is a kitsch world of dogs and cats as family pets. I suppose given the choice today of God or your pets it’s a pretty close run thing as regards pretensions to the spiritual and/or sentimental animal attachments. It is this very ambiguity and questioning dissonance that makes Torsten Ruehle's paintings so interesting. The persistent references to 'control' by Ruehle, are to be read intentionally as a form of deliberate irony. The Socratic convention of irony is to use precisely the oppositional words to what the meaning actually intends. Modernism's complete failure and ongoing self-delusion of a perfectible utopian lifestyle is thus fully exposed.
To return to the paintings of interiors like Maria (2008), if we have concentrated on American precursors, it is because in the post-war international modernism as lifestyle was marketed and first subjected to large scale consumerism in the United States. However, the interior contents of Maria could just as easily have appeared in 1960s Germany, since many of the international modernist designers were European in origin, and had moved to the US in consequence of the war. Thus Ruehle's painting Maria is particularly interesting in compositional terms since it echoes many architectural forms that were built extensively in 1960s Germany. The free floating or hanging globular forms to the upper left, are reminiscent in some respects of the preliminary sponge stages of Klein's Gelsenkirchen Opera House project.xiv But, perhaps, the greatest delusion of high modernism and the international style, was that for all its apparent confidence it was generated against the background of the Cold War, and the deterrent threat of a potential nuclear cataclysm. It may well be that the painting called Starter (2007) with its hints of rocket and carpeted military games operating in domestic setting, again points to the paradoxical irony of the false idealism that pervaded the modern style. This said, it seems a further ambiguity that Torsten Ruehle also has such a strong affection for modernist architecture and objects, while at the same time undermining them through his use of an internal critique. Perhaps, like the sentimental lyrics of Doris Day's song 'Move over darling', we find "that gleam in your eyes is no big surprise anymore. Cos you fooled me before." Today the past dissolved in the present is the coinage of contemporary artistic painting practices, it flows from the former divisions of East and West, processes that are still in the midst of finding a new and hopefully unique sense of historical equilibrium.
catalogue TORSTEN RUEHLE: FILTER (2009)