Oona Lochner

THE NOISE OF THE TABLEAUS

 

Robert Muntean's paintings are generated out of the tension between objectivitiy and abstraction, between immediacy and process. The central and pivotal point of his painting is the figure, though it consistently eludes the expectations of figurative painting; Muntean's figures baulk at absorption under the concepts of representation or a superordinate narrative. (...)

The severe narrative reduction of Muntean's painting is all the more astonishing for the fact that its protagonists mostly stem from quite concrete contexts. The motifs are taken from personal photos and media imagery of pop culture from magazines, films and the internet. Blixa Bargeld, Joy Division and Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson alternate with film characters such as Quint, Brody and Hooper on the hunt for their great white shark. (...)

Once disassociated from their genesis stories the protagonists again find themselves in spaces whose fragments are often also taken from pre-existing imagery. It's not the recognition of definite places but the forms and structures themselves that are foregrounded here, such that a flooring pattern might be turned into a ceiling construction and windows or corners of rooms condensed into abstract planes of colour.

But though the spaces and identities of the figures are lost in these paintings, there is an implicit confrontation with visual sources that takes place in the background. The frequent recourse to musicians belonging to the various countercultures of the 1980s opens up a play with the "otherness" of the artist - a cliche´ that also fed into the debate around neo-expressionist painting in the same decade and has ultimately remained effective in both cultural spheres up to the present: the myths of the eccentric musician and the artist genius coincide in the idea of the artist withdrawing and distancing himself from the bourgeois world, eschewing its norms and expectations in order to defiantly oppose it through art.¹

Muntean does evoke this stereotype with his choice of motifs, but the figures begin to shed these attributes on their path from pre-existing media imagery and into his paintings. By disassociating them from their contexts and transposing them into ambiguous abstract spaces, he strips them of their identity and shatters the moment of representation along with the mythical charge of the artist personality. All that remains is a subliminally resistant attitude of introversion where formerly individual persons become types; representatives of all those who struggle to find their place in the world while eschewing certain aspects of it. The refelection and repudiation of the world here is by no means the privilege of the artist. (...)

In this much, figures drawn from the context of 1980s New Wave, No Wave and Rock - bands such as Joy Division and Einstürzende Neubauten - are more than just visual types for Muntean. Incorporating experimental and electronic elements, their music also finds parallels in his own painterly work. The open guitar tunings of Sonic Youth or the sound and noise employed as musical means by Einstürzende Neubauten; both stand in connection with the optical noise that proliferates in Muntean's painting. If one conceives of musical and painterly figures as being related, as the artist does, then the latter is the melody recognisable within the picture. (...)

Faint planes of heavily diluted pigment are contrasted with the areas of colour that Muntean applies with a broad brush, a spatula or directly from the tube, sometimes spreading it out by direct intervention on the canvas, when he wipes wet paint away here and there or draws hard ridges through it with a squeegee. Without the painting process having been planned in detail, these individual placements are nevertheless calculated and always made in response to what is already there.

Paradoxically, the clearly momentary element of painterly placement is firmly anchored in the process of pictorial invention. Neither the interventions on the canvas nor the smearing of paint directly from the tube are to be understood as impulsive gestures that might have been intended as some sort of expression of an inner state in a modernist, expressionistic sense. Rather they are the ciphers of an immediacy that Muntean posits precisely in order to expose the involvement of the individual gesture in the painterly process and thus to emphasise the working process over the work.² In an entirely similar way this is also the focus when Muntean makes new versions of the same motif again and again over the years. (...)

The idea of completed work is pushed aside in favour of the production process and, just as selecting the motif from the sea of media images is crucial to Muntean's work, searching and feeling around for new forms also takes on its own significance. More important than the motif itself, it seems, is the question of how to approach it through painting and why the answer to this questions is always different.

Repetition doesn't always produce the same thing, but rather change time and time again. Like memory, which shapes and concentrates an event in its multiple recollections, so too the repetition of the same motif condenses the already reduced narratives in Muntean's pictures such that the form disassociates itself all the more from the original context of the figure. His systems of reference, the stories narrated and thus also the meanings of his images remain diaphanous.

With their references to pop culture and to the way images are currently used, Muntean's works present a claim to be constantly renegotiating the relationship to their own social and cultural context. At the same time they pose the question as to how painting can mediate this today and fathom the possibilities of a painterly narrativity and referentality.

 

 

¹ According to Niklas Maak, ′without fail, press reports describe Neo Rauch as the lonely hermit of his Leipzig woolen-mill atelier.′ He gives alist of other examples. Niklas Maak, ′Manufactum on Canvas. On the widespread success of figurative painting′, Texte zur Kunst 77 (2010). pp. 117-121, here p. 118.

 ² Martin Kippenberger`s early work is described in similar terms by Isabelle Graw in ′Conceptual Expression. On Conceptual Gestures in Allegedly Expressive Painting, Traces of Expression in Proto-Conceptual Works, and the Significance of Artistic Procedures′, in: Alexander Alberro/Sabeth Buchmann (eds), Art After Conceptual Art (Cambridge, MA, London; MIT Press, 2006). pp. 119-133, here p.128