"This is my monastery," says Bernhard Martin, closing the glass door behind us. "The door is only open when I'm expecting someone. Otherwise I don't see anyone here all day long. It's absolute solitude. That's important for my mustering energy." Mustering energy, what a nice, old-fashioned expression. Outside spotlights shine on brick facades and dark office floors, making the courtyard of the loft complex in Prenzlauer Berg look like a backdrop. It's one of those November evenings on which you can already smell the winter. The only thing that's missing is snow, a white carpet blanketing everything and completing the romantic image of the withdrawn genius in his urban retreat, a painter not bound to the world but only to his work.
But this contemplative vision fades immediately. With Martin, you are confronted with a boyish, agile type who exudes nervous energy. A driven guy who seems to think, talk, and work incessantly, who can talk about virtue and cardinal sins as well as about fast cars or bouncers. Even externally, he looks like a walking contradiction. Sporting a gold tooth, a Rolex, and an immense golden ring, he appears to cultivate the machismo of the German painter princes of the 1980s. Yet at the same time he scuffles through his studio in clogs and a sweatshirt - like someone who very consciously refrains from putting on any airs. This understatement is counteracted, however, when you discover a similar pair of Swedish clogs in a conglomeration on one of his worktables, where they are worked into sculptures along with shells and shiny metal parts. You suspect that in Martin's cosmos there are no arbitrary arrangements. Everything here, be it his drawings, his sculptures, or his appearance, every gesture has something to do with a development of tastes, is combination, sampling.
And the different levels in his works look sampled as well. With a mix of styles, of themes, of high and low, with a touch and a boldness like the Old Masters, Martin has had a strong impact on the image of young German painting, with only very few other artists of his generation having as much of an influence. Along with the "New Leipzig School" and stars such as Tim Eitel and Norbert Bisky, his name was always mentioned in connection with the hype of new figuration. Still, Martin occupied a kind of loner position. He was regarded as being a bit more ironic, snotty, and unscrupulous than his fellow artists - more committed to the spirit of Kippenberger or the cool Neo-Pop of Michel Majerus than to coming to terms with pan-German sensitivities. He is a conceptual painter, he emphasizes repeatedly, as though he wants to give his work a stringency that one might deny. Indeed, at first glance Martin's paintings look like anarchic, excessive pictorial narratives. His dictum that "We're in a supermarket and I'm filling up the cart" is continually cited. In the paintings he executed since the late 1990s, girls wearing baby dolls or miniskirts bustle about in surreal compositions consisting of logos, paint smears, sunsets, design fragments, and comic figures. Martin zaps from media images and set pieces of mass culture to citations from art history. He virtuously conjures up the coloring, motifs, and style of his painter heroes from the last century, ranging from Cranach via Rembrandt, Velasquez, and Goya to Picasso and Balthus.
Those are big names that land in Martin's postmodern shredder. "We happen to live in an age in which a 17th-century Spanish oak cabinet is standing next to a display case by Beuys, next to an Indian miniature and a fully automated kitchen unit from Miele, in a half-timbered house with an annex by Herzog & de Meuron and a dating show on television." So it's no surprise that he compares his strategy with the Photoshop program, in which all effects are available that he seeks to achieve in his painting: speed, simultaneity, synthesis. The game aspect is an essential element, as was already formulated by one of Martin's idols, Francis Bacon: "You see, painting has now become, or all art has now become completely a game, by which man distracts himself. What is fascinating actually is, that it's going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to become any good at all."
In the course of the last decade Martin created a whole arsenal of paintings devoted to nothing other than deepening this game to a greater and greater extent - completely immersing himself in the system of painting until it finally became the system of Bernhard Martin. His works add up to a kind of visual, super-subjective diary. But while this diary is inspired by everyday life and autobiographical impressions, it doesn't tell any stories itself - other that that of his painting and the genesis of his works. "The figures in my pictures move in a world in between, in a vacuum,” Martin explains. “They don’t pay any rent, don’t have to go shopping or fill up the fridge. They are outside of our system. They don’t have any tasks to perform, they’re simply allowed to be. This is an ideal conception, a freedom utopia. The freedom consists in having cut yourself off from society yet still being part of it." And that's why Martin, by his own account, is not concerned with depicting societal reality, but with "describing states, themes that you can't really paint." These can be very simple things such as stomachaches, or they can be philosophical themes: "What has always moved me are cardinal sins and virtues. You have these states, but how can you describe greed? How can you portray greed?" The most amazing thing about his paintings is that they are pieced together from countless links and references, seem completely artificial, yet they make elementary, inner states palpable.
Greed, euphoria, lust, frustration: The feelings that flow into Martin's painting are not only presented as allegory, but above all as tangible questions of composition, style, harmony, and dissonance; as the question of what a picture actually is. Formally, his paintings function similarly to epic theater - they expose themselves, intentionally disillusioning the game of painting to make it recognizable as a construct. But while Brecht believed in progress and the possibility of political change, in keeping with the modern spirit, Martin calls himself a "fatalist." And in fact his works of recent years have become darker. While in works such as Tag der Röcke, WG 2 (2003), and Belluno (2005) from the Deutsche Bank Collection still radiated toy colors against black and brown, Martin's current exhibition Thema verfehlt leads straight into the underworld. The more recent paintings the Städtische Galerie Wolfsburg is showing on the occasion of the awarding of the Junge Stadt sieht Junge Kunst prize to Bernhard Martin lack a lot of the earlier lightness. In Der Richtigmacher (2006), for example, a ghostly figure shoots himself in a wine cellar. In Linksverkehr (2007), an underground garage is flooded by a stream of blood while a naked couple abandon themselves to sexual pleasures. In Daheim allein mit schlimmsten Plagegeistern (2005), a lonely painter-clown sheds a few colored tears into an all-encompassing blackness. "The painting of today is lying on a psychiatrist's couch," says Martin, and that doesn't exactly sound hopeful.
"A withdrawal trauma due to the end of modernism," was the diagnosis of the media theorist Norbert Bolz back in the mid-1990s. In his view, modern art was a dream and nightmare at the same time and overburdened us with idealistic demands and humanist ideals. That's why we have such an ambivalent attitude towards it today, he believes, and that's why it's so hard for us to enter a new era. In this respect, Martin displays serious serious hangover symtoms: "We have 500 years of painting history behind us and the 20th century cannot be repeated for the time being. Instead, we are moving in a loop like in the late Renaissance or in the Rococo period, when there were only very few formal inventions. And there’s won’t be any more for the time being, I suspect. We live in an age in which it’s really only a matter of nuances. When you view the Old Masters in a museum, the painting styles hardly differ starting in the 17th century. Energy fluxes or questions of content may differ, but in principle it’s all one big mush. And then, in the 20th century, everything is re-invented. But now the next step is missing. We are living in the 21st century, but in a 19th-century economic system. Right now, there is a lack of content and visions. As long as they are absent, we are treading in place."
In times of stagnation people often withdraw into the private sphere. While Martin explains that he wants to produce pictures – "because that’s my social duty. I view myself as a gift" – and talks about the farm house that he's rebuilding in Brandenburg so that he can live and work there as a self-supporter, the image of a monastery comes to mind again. Especially when he says that immaterial values should have more validity again and that he simply wants to be left alone to concentrate on his painting, you think of the romantic image of the artist that Martin conjures up in his works. You don't really need to be radical any more, you merely have to accept what "you are yourself," he remarks. If one is to believe Martin's paintings, this self would be a conglomeration of appropriated stories, fragmentary pictures, and memories. A modern Photoshop identity to which rural exodus, Rolex, and the search for the true things in life belong - part of the game called painting. And whose rules only very few contemporaries master as well as Bernhard Martin.
Städtische Galerie Wolfsburg
November 30, 2008 - March 22, 2009