Ulli Seegers on the work of Ulrike Nattermüller
Ulrike Nattermüller is a painter from Cologne. With self-mixed acrylic paints she brings her imagery mostly onto large-scale canvases. She views painting as demonstrating the greatest conceivable freedom of artistic expression, the opportunity to “invoke other possibilities.” Painting in the early twenty-first century in a society marked by mass media and a flood of mediatized images—a challenge?
What possibilities does Ulrike Nattermüller have her eye on, which she wishes to invoke in her painting? Her pictures appear abstract, as they lack any concrete reference to an object that can be grasped conceptually. And yet Nattermüller rejects such a classification. Her works are in fact based on elementary experiences of objects, which can be vaguely perceived in many works through more or less clear-cut object and figural forms and in implied perspectival spatial situations. The object quality, however, is frequently broken by means of a two-dimensional realization of the figurative, spatial impression, or through the fleeting, blurred appearance of undefined worlds of things. The real object is dissolved into surface, form, and structure, and often carries bold, ornamental traits. The artistic dissolution of the material world into patterns of color and structures is a key characteristic of Nattermüller’s work. The artist herself speaks of “internal images.” Internal images constitute the visual response to the question “How can perception be linked to experience?” They are the result of superimposing two levels that have always been intertwined—sensibility and concrete experience of a situation.
In the mid-1990s, Ulrike Nattermüller created her “Idols” series, which by no means emulates actual idols. Here for the first time, her work is dedicated to the figure and its manifestations. For this series she harks back to earlier photo collages from the 1970s. A book on “Freaks” had appeared at that time, which left a lasting impression on the artist. One could see strongly misshapen, at times deformed human beings. Yet contrary to a socially conforming ideal of beauty, these people of small stature or with hunched backs, with their unusual bodies, are clearly not presented in the newly edited book for a voyeuristic gaze as tragically deformed or as anthropological curiosities; in fact, they instead present themselves ostentatiously in the anormality of their appearance. The self-staging at that time must have seemed nothing less than suggestively provocative, and it would not have lost any of this impact even today. “A powerful book with powerful images. I think it had to fascinate you; here were people who had a completely different form than what was familiar, and they emanated a sense of humanity and incredible strength; you were moved by their unfamiliar form.” Fascinated by the photographs, which undermined—even perverted—the prevailing one-sided sensibility for form and beauty, Ulrike Nattermüller set out in the 1970s to photograph herself and then cut up the pictures in order to recombine the pieces into overstated collages. Using this technique, which brings to mind the surrealist cadavres exquis (“exquisite corpse“), the artist created photomontages through which she “turned herself into a freak.” Twenty years later Nattermüller returned to these works as a foundation for her “Idols” series. Using acrylics, in addition to that which is exceptional in figurative terms, a new quality in her work emerged that can be seen in this work series for the first time: a purely flat way of viewing, disregarding any and all depth of field. The collage technique, which brings a new order to the different surface elements, already anticipated this to some extent. In painting, however, the interplay of flat surface, space, and body becomes thematic, both formally and in terms of content. “In-between spaces and larger in-between spaces emerge, and one can imagine how the surface folds out to form a space or the in-between space becomes a body. The figures themselves are initially background and only become a body as they are fit into other surfaces.” The painted idols that result take up the principle of the collage—the cutting apart and set-piece–like recombination—in a formal aesthetic manner. In place of unclean and abrupt transitions, which necessarily arise from the pasting and attaching of the collage process, comes a painting that through alternating background colors, geometric form-finding, and slightly shifted alignment itself appears as a bricolage at the now fabricated “transitions.” Ruptures and rapid cuts, distortions, and shifts: also in the medium of painting, the unity of the image object was dissolved into its individual parts. Only in the free play of the colored fields, liberated from the illusionism of three-dimensionality, did odd, “freaky” body silhouettes emerge. Ulrike Nattermüller deconstructs herself in this way and lets the deformation artificielle follow the deformation naturelle. In the process, along with the photographic image of her own form that is transferred to painting, she also dismantles the image of herself. The “artist’s own figure and her perception of self” through the painted image’s doubly broken variation of her own outward appearance lets the individual appear to be a changeable something that is isolated, cut up or cut out, and misshapen. “In a certain way, the star cult of the 1990s and the way the body was treated, with the self-mutilation fads in everyday life, caught up with my old idea.” Not only piercings and tattoos appear against this background as an unusual deviation from the norm, as a nevertheless voluntary and somewhat drastic “deformation,” which ironically has a place in the context of self-adornment. “Basically, it was already clear how the picture of reality must be, since to my mind it most closely resembles it in the unusual form.” From this perspective the “freak” inevitably appears as an “idol.” By reversing perspective and concepts, Ulrike Nattermüller is onto what is real. One strategy on this track already appears in the title of the work series “Überhöhung des Banalen” (Elevation of the Banal), which is not to be understood as a “transfiguration of the commonplace” in the sense of Arthur Danto’s definition of art, but precisely as an alienating break with what is common in order to understand what is real.
In addition to the “Idols,” another key group of works emerged that like this one seems to cut external forms out of their usual surroundings. The “Monuments” refer conceptually to that which is superhuman-sublime and in terms of content to large, “monumental” outdoor sculptures in the context of so-called “art in architecture” (Kunst am Bau). The “Monuments” also represent a recourse to earlier works, to her collaged photocopies of typical examples of architecture from the 1950s. Ulrike Nattermüller supplemented the pictures of residential furnishings, foyers, warehouses, and sales rooms in the style of the postwar period by adding “disruptive objects” (Störobjekte), that is, geometric forms that graphically overlay the purpose, functionality, and sense of style of the different spaces, causing a lasting, perplexing impression. The later “Monuments” series takes up the basic idea of shifting “outdoor sculptures” to interior spaces, and transports each of the spatial perspectives to the two-dimensionality of painting. The pictorial alienation, as was also the case with the graphic intervention on the architecture photographs, counteracts any idea of sublime monumentality through the virtually ludicrous positioning of large-scale outdoor sculptures in interior spaces, connecting two opposing levels of meaning. The perspective that is broken using the medium of painting and the emphasis on flat structures transports the notion of the grand and sublime into the game, indeed into the banality of mere constellations of color and form. By taking up models of “modern” architecture typical of the 1950s, the artist also appropriates her own childhood in a new way. That which is autobiographically special is contextualized with the general taste of the times and thus is reflected upon from the distanced view of the present, not only in formal aesthetic terms. At the same time, Ulrike Nattermüller’s “disruptive objects” undermine forms of ideologizing and auratizing art in public or private space, as was intensified since the postwar period. The previous “exterior image” of art in architecture becomes a dual “interior image”—a dysfunctional, unwieldy shape in interior space and an imagined picture, in which the specific experiences of childhood become linked with the perceptions of art in public space. The artistic intervention overlays two different perspectives, generating through a collage of that which is both temporally and spatially disparate a new, disconcerting point of view.
The next series, “Interiors,” also refers back to the simultaneity of inside and outside and thus to the notion of the interior image. In contrast to the “Monuments,” however, the “Interiors” series is not based on the artistic shifting of outdoor sculptures to interior spaces and thus the associated reversal of spatial relations and proportions, but on the permeation of concrete, situational spatial experience and the detached, distanced observer perspective. In her work series, Ulrike Nattermüller shows living spaces that seems virtually eerie due to their distorted perspective and bold two-dimensionality. The presentation of three-dimensional structures in strict two-dimensionality suspends spatiality and transforms living space instead into a flat, stencil-like vacuum devoid of space and movement. The former living spaces are “now clearly two-dimensional.” Stripped of any illusionist dimension of depth, they seem strangely disquieting, laid to rest in planar lifelessness. “I had the idea of passing by these spaces with the camera and being surprised at what I discover.” The real existence of the things dissolves into the phenomenal manifestation of undefined forms, colors, and structures that move past the viewer like meaningless decals. Wherever the perspectivistic, organized structure is broken open, the flat “thing surfaces” unexpectedly unfold a life of their own. The wallpaper pattern that becomes “autonomous” in this way joins freely flying geometric forms, and pieces of furniture, carpets, fabric, and other nondescript utensils begin a strangely virulent dance of the amorphous. Nattermüller’s playful, light treatment of everyday forms becomes a curious connection between fleetingness and strong structures. Implied figures—or are they merely armchairs?—merge with the notion of a mountain top in the background. Everything seems to transform into the other and nothing appears to be clear-cut and factual. In the wafting softness, without resistance, whatever enters seems to sink as if into a bog—the ground offers no footing in unsecured, unfathomable territory, and doors and windows appear to be a sinister entrance to the darkness of a ghost train, trap doors leading to a shifted world. The framing of the scenery in tile-like labyrinthine “grout lines” intensifies the impression of that which has shifted, the constant alternation between foreground and background. “At some point the room starts to tip and I no longer know very precisely whether I am outside or inside.” Am I alone or am I secretly being observed? “Depending on my state of mind the space is either foreign or familiar to me.” The harmless patterns, playful decors, and pastel-colored shades can do nothing to change the impression of latent eeriness. Only the oddly shifted vanishing point makes it possible to begin an escape. The atmosphere is simultaneously mysterious and ornamental. States of limbo that seem like the “mysterious becoming concrete.” Spontaneously it reminds me of a blend of de Chirico and Matisse. But instead of a classicistic architecture backdrop, Ulrike Nattermüller develops her stage into interiors. And instead of dissolving the object into pure ornamentation and exotic decors, her silhouette-like forms, fragments, and set pieces remain tied to informational content and levels of meaning that oscillate between the real outside world and her subjective situational perception. Living spaces as a collection of uncanny patterns and emotional constellations that refer back to patterns of thought and behavior of their inhabitants. “Interiors” of people and places as objectified internal sensibilities of a specifically designed spatial situation.
The “Picture of Reality”: In the “Cloth Pictures,” created starting in 1999, that which is “real” literally makes its way into the picture. Nattermüller adds a “new element” to her painting, “taken up in my pictures as a sculptural object.” She integrates actual pieces of fabric into her works, applied either onto or behind the canvas and which extend beyond the length of the support. In the first cloth pictures they trigger associations of curtains and drapery. Placed below the support—thus giving it a textile extension—the draped fabric with regular folds lets the canvas image appear as a window. Ulrike Nattermüller reinforced this impression by painting a frame at the outermost edges of the picture. But is this a view from inside to outside or from outside to inside? The paint, which is applied in several layers, is superimposed over a number of layers of the picture, so that the different layers begin to blur already during the painting process, making it impossible to clearly identify the viewer’s location. The shadowy subjects or motifs (landscape, group of people, rabbits?) remain distant and can only be vaguely perceived. They remain mysteriously inaccessible to the viewer. The implied window motif promises views in or out, but this expectation is not met. The “window” remains blind, thus increasing the potential for tension in the searching gaze. The window as an opening to the outside world or the curtained window as a retreat from it—the curtain implies both unveiling and concealment. It is the epitome of the separation of inside and outside, of the alternation between seeing and not seeing, between the modalities of the visible and the invisible.
In contrast to what was probably the most famous painting contest of antiquity (Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, book 35), in which the painted curtain of Parrhasius became the perfect deception of reality, an illusionist invention and phantasm, the real “curtain” in Ulrike Nattermüller’s paintings at first constitutes the only “real” thing. Whereas the painted motif is strangely elusive, the realistic quality of the fabric is unequivocal, even tangibly haptic. The more the actual image rejects any clarifying accessibility, the more the factuality of the cloth continues to dominate. As the image motif thus remains largely abstract and enigmatic, the concreteness of the cloth is all the more undisputed. While the curtain of Parrhasius imitates a picture of the outside world, Ulrike Nattermüller implies “interior images,” also in her works that integrate a three-dimensional element. Even if through the window motif she thereby places the viewer formally on the track of an outward glance, this cycle also deals with inward views, into the world of memory, situational awareness, and imagination.
As compared with the “Interior” scenes, the artist now seems to have stepped farther into the space of the painting, closer to the objects located in the space, which nevertheless remain unfocussed. Perhaps too close, since the individual things can no longer be clearly recognized and become blurred? She measures a space that is precisely marked by the contrasts of sharpness and blurriness, of overlapping, a lack of concepts, and reversibility. It is the “huge space of the unconscious,” which surfaces from time to time, sometimes more clearly, sometimes less clearly, but which is always present since we are constantly moving about within it. A space full of simultaneity and equivalence of external reality and internal idea, in which past and present, visual memories and present awareness of a situation, fade over each other indissolubly. “I stroll daily through my childhood—consciously and subconsciously,” says Ulrike Nattermüller, thereby referring to the early influences that no one can avoid, but which at best can be rudimentarily recognized. In the series of works captioned “Double Room,” she appears to translate the two levels of reality into a duality of images. Each work in this series is set up as a diptych. The two panels are juxtaposed directly and adjusted to one another in their duality, in the sense of the work even necessarily related to each other. The artist sees in her “Double Rooms” “object images with room for emotion.” For example, the left panel of a “Double Room” from the year 2000 shows streamlined strips on a white background, in which part of the in-between spaces are colored. From a blue strip, which resembles an abstract course of a river, a likewise sky-blue piece of cloth seems to stream forth, covering up almost the entire vertical length of the picture at the center and even continuing beyond the picture’s edge. On the right panel, three eerie silhouette figures can be seen. They seem to be dancing on a table of sorts, underneath which a huge tiger skin is lying with its jaw wide open. In the background there is perhaps a bed or sofa draped with a checkered blanket. The entire scene is drenched in a dark purple that is partly illuminated only from the upper right edge of the painting by an undefined light source and is otherwise covered with many small yellow dots—like the night sky with stars. Should the three conspicuous wheels around the group of figures perhaps indicate film reels and thus the bright movie screen in a cinema, that is, the virtuality of ephemeral images? There is something uncanny about the scenery, though painted in pleasing colors and childlike, rounded forms. It is not by chance that it reminds me of Füssli’s The Nightmare and its eerie, threatening atmosphere. In the middle between the two panels a yellow, slightly transparent cloth is also attached, which can conceal the right side of the diptych. In a veiled state, the white outlines of the group of figures and the large wheels appear even more dominant, and the other details of the painting become blurred in a diffuse light. A veil or “light filter” has covered the painting, immersing it in an enigmatic, nebulous mood. “The fabric, the ornament, that which holds the secret, the foreground, and the fact, behind which the painting again leads a life of its own.” The curtain, which can be hung either next to the painting, revealing it, or over it, concealing it, gives the diptych a variable appearance. But it is not only the cloth that allows different perspectives of one and the same picture. The idea of the “dual images” already exists in the diptych itself. The disparity between the two panels “thwarts the expectations of the image unity, which we prefer to grasp with a single glance.” In the “Double Room,” lines of sight are brought together and juxtaposed synchronously, as “that is the reality: There is not only one view.” Against this background, the left panel looks like a river of the subconscious, while the right appears like a veiled dream of consciousness. Through the piece of cloth and the implied cartographic contour lines, the left panel therefore in fact offers “room for emotion,” both concretely and symbolically. This is contrasted on the right side by an “object image,” in which cryptic, humorous figures can be discerned. The diptych thus combines different levels of the image and of reality. “Moreover, there is nothing to hold on to. If you are lucky there is a surprise that brings you further.” And this appears to be valid both for the external reality and the internal idea. The two dimensions of reality—here transferred into the simultaneity of their difference—do not differ fundamentally, but only in their manifestation. And yet there too they are ultimately related to each other. Parrhasius may have won the contest with Zeuxis, but he did not have his eye on the ambiguous secret of an image, for “strangely enough, it is the contrast that makes the image more real.”
Pieces of cloth have always been a key point of reference in the works of Ulrike Nattermüller. Already in the 1970s she created her “Knitted Pieces” (Strickarbeiten), which outwardly look like shirts, trousers, or other articles of clothing, but which—because they each have only one side—contradict the notion of their use. They are self-referential in their nature as things, directing attention to their external form, color, and material composition. The fabric becomes a property of the painting. The artist’s interest in cloth is also expressed in her own fashion collection, which she designed while still a student at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. It is not so much the clothing function of fabric that interests Nattermüller as it is the disguising function that is necessarily an aspect of clothing and fashion. Clothing as “costumes to be worn.” The thin, partly transparent (“like watercolors”) and partly iridescent sparkling silk yarn fabrics that the artist prefers to use make their wearer into a surface for projecting forms, colors, and structures. The person—and in this her later paintings are already discernable—appears as a three-dimensional pattern in which body, surface, and ornament are linked in a somewhat familiar and somewhat obscure manner. The sensuous, sculptural, at times haptic aspects are what Ulrike Nattermüller examines with respect to their spatial and structural qualities. Spatial effect and flatness do not form fundamental contrasts, but instead differ only incrementally through different perspectives. The connection between what appears to be opposites undermines the expectations of a conditioned way of seeing, sensitizing the viewer through ruptures and irritations. Also in the artist’s current jewelry collection “Bondehorsboro,” which she tellingly calls “Weichteile” (soft parts) in its subheading, the unusual becomes programmatic: All of the pieces of jewelry are made of knitted yarn. Rings, necklaces, and brooches convey the idea of that which is unalterable and eternal through their delicate and literally smooth softness. Materiality, sentiment, space, body, and surface thus make up the components that Ulrike Nattermüller constantly combines anew in her oeuvre and, contrary to conventional ways of seeing, brings into different contexts in sometimes curious and sometimes disconcerting ways. In doing this, at times she takes up earlier works, subjects them to a metamorphosis, and transports them into a new medium. This reflexiveness, clearly identified by the artist as a “component of my artistic approach,” leads to a constantly condensing network of her own artistic and individual permeation. This concentration sets in also through counterparts of groups of works or entire creative periods.
The spatial depth effect of her early acrylic paintings from the 1980s make up not only the artistic foundation, but also the contextual “opposite” for the later works with a more planar, two-dimensional effect. With several transparent layers of paint, the different image layers overlap, shining through to the surface either subtly or overtly. Nattermüller speaks of “more spiritual or cosmic spaces, where things simply appear, have a certain sound, and then disappear again—regardless of what they are. They are simply there.” The specifically atmospheric aspect that the artist transfers from (Polaroid) photography to painting is based in a markedly phenomenal view of the external world of things, a perception that reminds me of David Lynch films and explores the “potentials of ‘little things.’” This “foreign view” gives “the familiar environment more layers; it becomes more complex, like several pictures in one.” After her paintings in the 1990s, which translate this perspective into a clear two-dimensionality, Ulrike Nattermüller’s most recent works again refer back to the transparency of several image layers. The spatial impression of the abstract images result from a light, thin painting technique, which is additionally supported by the iridescence due to the metal pigments mixed into the acrylic paints. It is these pigments that let the works appear differently in varying degrees of daylight. The individual fields and shapes shift from the foreground to the background; or aspects that previously seemed dull and dusty suddenly shine very brightly. As compared with the earlier diptychs, in which the juxtaposition of the images created a simultaneity of what was different, each of the recent works displays a temporal succession depicting an entire spectrum of different images: the sparkling of the metal pigments in combination with streaks, loops, and surfaces; cutout-like “pictures within a picture”; isolated numbers and letters, which can sometimes be put together to form years or meaningful words and yet are sometimes purely graphical elements; the partly colorful, carnival-like, and over-the-top and partly monochromatic “empty” units. The soft sfumato of the transitions reveals traces of things and hints of moods, which soon disappear again into the basic color as the lighting conditions change.
One of the last works in this cycle is titled “Das Große Unbewußte” (The Great Unconscious) (see cover), which also appears on the canvas as ornamental, mirror-image writing along the bottom edge of the painting. The picture is divided in the middle into two halves, in which the left side has metallic-iridescent circular elements that contrast a surface on the right painted with dull, opaque white paint. Shapes and color generate a tension intrinsic to the image, which abandons the concreteness of the material world in favor of a soft sensation of suspended space and time. “There is no familiar external image, but instead more a thought, a feeling about it, a memory of something heard or read, of encounters.” The constant change between the levels of reality permeates the entire oeuvre. Two- and three-dimensionality, idea and reality, object and abstraction, present and past, image and text—Nattermüller’s “Interiors” are still lifes of the conscious subconscious and, understood in that way, are more real than real.
The author is an art historian and freelance art critic.
She is a professor at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf.
This text was translated from German by Allison Brown, Berlin.