Between dreams and memories
Perspectives on Uta Schotten‘s painting
Uta Schotten’s paintings are moving. Something happens to us when we enter into a dialogue with her works. At first they do nothing to impose, but rather they sneak up on us quietly. However, if we open ourselves to the images, they are capable of digging all the deeper into our subconscious and and washing what has been buried there up to the surface. At first it is difficult
to verbalise this experience, to find the right words to describe it. We are still entirely autonomous: not prepared to surrender things that we are not yet even sure of ourselves. This experience of the image derives from the subject matter and the painting technique of Uta Schotten. She works figuratively and by doing so, she creates an initial level of accessibility.
The symbolic series of associations which are triggered in our heads are reinforced by the method of painting – particularly by the indefinite mode chosen by Schotten. The question of the location of the subject matter depicted thrusts itself on us in many of the artist’s works. Due to the selected motif, an impression arises of being transposed into another time where we are faced with scenarios long since past. These scenarios are, however, updated by Schotten‘s unusual way of painting and processed for our immediate
present. This ‘temporal split‘ opens up between the motif and its realisation. As a consequence the works often possess a decidedly historical dimension. But how is this conveyed and what do we as viewers do with this insight? A constellation to be encountered
in numerous paintings by Schotten consists of buildings and groups of people (see p. 84). The figures depicted relate directly to the respective buildings, yet we learn nothing about their motivation, about their reason for being there. And the painting titles, for instance, Ankommen (Having Arrived; see p. 72), provide vague clues at best. Almost everything remains unclear. Who and what are the people waiting for? Is there a story or narrative to be found hidden behind what is depicted? The shift of media which comes about when viewing the works is also distracting. Such motifs are found again and again in photo albums from the first half of the 20th century. Families gathered in front of their homes for photographs to document the generational succession and their property.
This kind of photograph was the suitable modern medium to document and certify the situation concerned. These portrayals could not establish themselves as artistic motifs. They were too tailored to the private. Their settings were too unremarkable. The photo was, however, capable of transporting the decisive criteria of the motif: the easily recognisable place and the identifiable protagonists.
Correspondingly, Uta Schotten very consciously does without the tangible and the concrete in her painting. An impression arises of the artist being inspired by photo albums to transfer the decidedly private visual worlds into the undefined and the unreal. The faces, as well as any gestures, remain beyond recognition. A gender-specific identification is possible using the clothing hinted at, if at all.
The buildings are treated in a similar way. Occasionally country-specific traits seem discernible, for instance, with the wooden houses. On the other hand, the signs within the painting are too weak to make any such assertion. Uta Schotten‘s painting strategy places the viewer in a situation where he or she asks the paintings about the dimensions of the universally human and the fundamental.
Doing this, the artist sometimes opens up the archetypal reference framework and the constellations. The painting Die Geburt des Geistigen (The Birth of the Spiritual; see p. 71) from 2012 depicts a towering building, perhaps a farm house, the roof edge of which is intersected by the top canvas edge. The brushstrokes are clearly visible, or perhaps more accurately, the brush movements, with the aid of which Schotten puts blotched accents on the building façade and creates indefiniteness in the right foreground. Are we
to imagine a person in the horizontal brushstroke, whose legs are merely hinted at below the brushstroke or are we succumbing to the power of our imagination? The brushstroke on the left bottom edge of the painting works in a very different manner. Its dark phase loses itself more and more and merges into the light foundation, which presents itself as a path in the pictorial composition.
It is absorbed by the foundation, so to speak. An animated subsiding brushstroke, which does not appear to depict anything but the painting material, ensures that the light area attains a kind of counterbalance. The strongest chiaroscuro accents in the painting are concentrated around the entrance area of the building. A figure depicted in striking brightness – at least we project some such thing onto the white blot of colour – is on the threshold and is engulfed by the dark behind it whilst providing an exceptional contrast to that dark. The emblematic presence of the door area becomes more apparent because the building, by virtue of Schotten‘s even and homogeneous application of paint, does not have any openings, not even a window. How the building and the occupant are interwoven and form an inseparable unit which is mutually dependant is conveyed by the pictorial structure. The described entrance situation manifests itself as a decisive hinge in the pictorial composition. We might wonder if the building does not develop a life of its own through the artist‘s wilful realisation. A life beyond the usual associations in terms of the discourse surrounding buildings/
shells. Does it not have perhaps even a soul of its own – the title of the painting alerts us to the spiritual dimension which Schotten associates with the topic of the painting.
The same can be said of the painting, Der geistige Weg (The Spiritual Path; see p. 83), also painted in 2012. Yet again the title is used to invoke a spiritual level. What does the painting do with us? The technical structure of the painting looks very familiar. The Dutch village landscape of the 17th century, of course, worked with the motif of the guiding path. A path to facilitate the viewer‘s entry into the pictorial space. Much the same as here. That is, however, all we are given in terms of familiar art historical references in this painting. Even the colours here conjure up a disconcerting scenario. In particular, salmon tones but also pale, dark grey, and whitish tones define the painting. Nobody is visible. Regardless of this disconcerting village landscape, there is a sense of the archetypal components of housing/shelter. The artist scratched out the salmon colour on the fences as well as the windows and roof area of the buildings creating an almost fluorescent effect. If we look closely at the buildings on the left, the strokes which can be interpreted as
windows seem to glow in the dark. Can we interpret that as a sign of human life and presence? Or are we being led down the wrong path, led astray? Something else happens to us as viewers in front of the painting. The best way to describe this phenomenon is perhaps as a speeding up of perspective. The artist bypassed, in fact, the motif and the way of painting. By doing so, correspondences between the central path and the dynamic brushstroke, to which the central path owes its existence, have come about. The impulse
of movement is accelerated by the tapering fences between the fields on either side of the path. The observing eye sweeps passed the middle ground and barely acknowledges the farmsteads on either side. But what comes next? What is the meaning of the vanishing point which is hinted at but not visible? Again we are to left to our own devices. Where this path leads and what the destination is remain unknown. Considering the title of the painting, this path becomes a spiritual path which leads to the extensively visible matte sheen of the sky. Even if the colour value does bring itself to express some spiritual message, it can only do so in the
most transcendental of ways. First and foremost, there is an unsettling glow which defines the entire upper half of the painting. When viewing the 2012 and 2013 works dealing with the thematic complex described here, it becomes apparent that there has been a change in the manner in which they take form. In the 2012 paintings, the productive process can be seen clearly. In many places, the application of the brushstrokes remains visible. Wiping away and scratching out play a role in the structuring of the picture plane.
The dynamic of the act of painting remains indelible in the completed works. This is not true of a number of the works created in 2013, for example in the painting entitled Graues Haus (Grey House; see p. 51). The image of the building fills the canvas; a horse and cart can be recognised in front of its entrance. Although no one can be seen, viewers project the presence or absence of people on the basis of the cart’s being there. The artist uniformly extends the principle of indefiniteness to encompass the entire picture plane,
and we thus view the depicted scenery as though through a haze. Everything seems vague and schematic. Is the roof of the house covered in snow? Then why not the porch roof, as well? The grey palette of the painting, including the sky, certainly conveys a wintery atmosphere. Questions are raised which the painting does little to help answer. For example, what does the dark grey, vertical line extending upwards from the ridge of the roof mean? Does it stand for a mast? But what function is it to serve? We will never know.
In this case, indefiniteness proves to be a principle that seems to reinforce the expressive intention of the work. When we consider the paintings here, it becomes apparent to us that the depicted repertoire of objects points to a period of time that cannot be precisely defined, but is, nonetheless, in the distant past. The leap in time from our present as viewers to the past of the image, which is communicated by way of motifs, is generated by means of indefiniteness. That which once was can no longer be seen definitely, it
has become remote, can no longer be grasped, is no longer present. It no longer directly impacts our eyes, our senses. Only through viewers’ subjective associations is it once again filled with life. The indefinite mode described here was also utilised by Schotten in the depiction of figures. The motif of a dancer is present in two versions (see p. 35 and p. 45). The work in a horizontal format is a variation on the upper half of the depiction in a vertical format. The female figure, reminiscent of a ballerina, emerges out of the diffuse clouds of colour – only to immediately disintegrate once more. Using painterly means, the artist has shaped this perceptual impression in such a way that we perceive the dancer in terms of a dream figure whose diffuse presence is solely the product of our power of imagination.
Uta Schotten‘s pictorial universe sometimes also contains references to technological achievements. The 2012 painting Entgegensehend (Looking Towards; see p. 78) shows the figure of a mother, seen from behind and leading her two children by the hand.
They are looking at a Zeppelin hovering in the sky. The airship gently gliding along stands for the conquest of the air. Nonetheless, the artist does not take up a clear position in this case either. The image cannot be read as a critical commentary on technological progress nor does it glorify a faith in technology. However, once viewers have become attuned to this chronological horizon, they are no longer impartial in their encounters with the artist’s other works. This can be demonstrated with the help of another large-format painting from 2012 (see p. 91). A number of aeroplanes, which are arranged in a row, stand on a runway. In this example, Schotten once again conveys her message by way of the removal of colour. The entire painting is based on shades of grey. Because of this elimination of sensuality we are tempted to read the motif as historical. At the same time, a medial comparison with black-and-white photography comes to mind. We become more and more inclined to wander back along the path of time. The step from the 1930s scenery, featuring the figures and Zeppelin, to the bomber squadron of the 1940s no longer seems so far. Nonetheless – and this
is simultaneously the unsettling aspect – we believe that we see, although we, in fact, see far too little in the image. There are no reliable indications of any kind that these aeroplanes are meant to be considered bombers from the Second World War. In this case, Schotten’s paintings similarly touch on the complex of the collective memory but without depicting the object of the association in even its most rudimentary form. Once viewers have opened themselves up to this frame of reference, the paintings featuring people in front of houses – or also the work, Das Zeitalter des Kapitalismus ist vorbei (The Time of Capitalism is Over; see p. 79), which shows a horse and cart – can also be connected with the thematic domains of war and forced immigration. This shows how strongly we react to particular pictorial stimuli, which coalesce into concrete mental images in our heads and cause us to interpret a painting along very specific lines. Without doubt, the desire to recognise the concrete within the undefined – in the sense of an anthropological constant – is a part of human nature. Still, this is only partially sufficient in relating to Schotten’s painting. She deliberately remains indefinite in her works, deliberately obscures the recognisable, forgoes the articulation of details. This effect is intensified by the evocatively gloomy and often monochrome palette, which is only occasionally pierced by delicate pastel tones. We should see this as an opportunity. In this way the images are freed up for new, subjective conceptualisations. The spectrum of potential interpretations expands in a refreshing way.
The ambivalent, even enigmatic, character of Schotten’s painting can be demonstrated in a particularly convincing fashion using the example of three very recent paintings revolving around the theme of boat. In one of these works, the rowing boat occupies the entire breadth of the painting in a positively symbolic form (see p. 29). While the surface of the water appears almost black and underscores the mysterious impression made by the scene, the boat’s interior is drenched in a fluorescent violet that seems to be its own source of light. In the background, the painting once again becomes somewhat lighter. The vertical lines extending from the dark bands of the shore to the upper edge of the canvas call tree trunks to mind. The schematically presented events taking place in the boat seem vested with a certain amount of drama. A vague depiction of two people can be recognised: one of the figures is reaching out their right hand to try to grasp a figure in the water, in order to pull them back into the boat. However, apart from this narrative thread, we learn nothing about this constellation of three figures. The narrative has been reduced to this single moment:
the image provides viewers with no information about what comes before and after. The dramatic element in the second painting from this group of works proves more intense, as can already be derived from its title, Kentern (Capsizing; see p. 39). Here, the relationship of light and dark has been reversed. While the background has now been immersed in an unsettling violet that seems twodimensional and offers absolutely no indication of the nature of the landscape, the surface of the water has been kept much lighter and is more dynamic. We also see that there is already water inside the boat. The three people seem to be bailing it out. The figures and the water found between them form a flurry of motion that is charged with tension, cannot be untangled and is testimony to an exceptional dynamism. While the final conclusion of the plot also remains open here, the scenario is certainly highly menacing. In the third painting (see p. 9), viewers see the boat from a significantly greater distance and from a higher viewpoint. Despite the noticeably lightened palette, the landscape is covered in a haze and the trees on the far shore merge into it. The boat is now empty and
drifts across the surface of the water. But what is to say that this is the same boat as in the other two paintings previously discussed?
We are tempted to continue to elaborate upon the narrative thread. But the evidence is nowhere near sufficient for this. The fact remains: this image conjures up an extraordinarily wide range of possibilities. Whether a peaceful, calm scenario or the final phase of a human disaster – it is in the viewers’ own hands to define the framework. However, they are unable to control how the art affects them along these lines.
Uta Schotten paints open images that stimulate our contemplation – works in which we lose ourselves and which simultaneously nourish our imagination. Can we expect anything more of painting?