Andreas Dobler: Uncertain Scenes
Steven Cairns examines the fundamentals of painting in the work of Andreas Dobler
An intermix of aesthetically similar, but fundamentally different architectures (brutalist, modernist, minimalist and international style) and a system of objects, are composed in Andreas Dobler’s portentous visions-in-paint. His depictions of post-apocalyptic landscapes, or as they are frequently, sky or space-scapes, open the possibility of narrative while remaining refined enough in content to maintain their relationship to the historical canons of landscape painting. Although he often challenges traditions by his use of media, acrylic, oil and spray-paint. This has developed in a practice that, since the 1980s, has remained committed to paint throughout the changing perceptions of the medium.
The submissive positioning of painting within the wider contemporary art context has unhinged it from its rudiments; the painter and the dialogue with the canvas, coercing it’s application to illustrative theory and offering its art historical hooks to anyone who wishes to hang up their presuppositions. Dobler’s work is susceptible to the constantly shifting echelons of the genre. Painting seems to constantly be in flux with its audience, in a propaganda war between museum, dealer and collector, so when you return painting to the already troubled artist/canvas rivalry, post-photography, via these consequential detours, there is a lot to deal with. These tenets assert control not only over the medium of paint but the medium (painting) itself.
When Andreas Dobler executes his imaginary landscapes in paint, ink and occasionally sculpture, these histories and challenges are addressed. They are of course impossible to avoid; they are numerous in number and continually varying in degrees of relevance. They can however be divided into two clear groups: pre- and post-photography. The disaffection caused by popular media and its relationship to the mass reproduction of the image, along with the accessibility of the internet, has manifested in a return to the depiction of reality in aesthetics.
For Dobler this reality has been deconstructed to the point of disintegration; his practice is characterised by the fictive narratives he creates to replace these realities. This reconfiguring of landscape provides the opportunity to create an environment within which he and the viewer can exist, circumventing the surface of the canvas, and develop a dialogue that extends beyond the painting and his relationship with the work. The disaffected nature of the medium is harnessed by Dobler twofold, in content and approach, as well as in its positioning within a disaffected popular culture.
Dobler’s approach to painting is eclectic: composed from found images, photographs, memory and imagination, he depicts landscapes with familiar modernist endowments that are ultimately dystopian in content, but carry the aesthetics of modernist architecture with reconstituted intentions. What he gives us are ‘after the party’ landscapes, ‘untopian’ interpretations of the dystopic. They are futuristic, while keeping one foot in the present of continental Europe, where many of his source images are collected. They are also science-fictive to an extent: comparisons to the illustration of science fiction books covers are unavoidable.
Swiss landscape painting, such as by Alexandre Calame, and historic landscape painting more generally, is the foundation for Dobler’s practice, although for these pre-photography role models, landscape painting had different origins. This biographical heritage comes from a very different time, when the multi-image and products of consumer/capitalism, and their interrelation, did not affect visual perception in the way they do now.
Baudrillard’s writings on late 20th century culture sum up the results of these tendencies. Dobler represents in paint the same disaffection Baudrillard discussed in the 1960s with The System of Objects, in which everyday objects and living environments are examined for their use-values. Everything in Dobler’s paintings seem disaffected: holiday destinations, uninhabited travel complexes, furniture, all accoutrements of 20th/21st century living purposeless without the use of the people that made/define them. As in ‘Up in Smoke’, 2007, which depicts a mass of earth and Styrofoam, suspended elliptically against a streaky background, the Styrofoam being the negative space from an item of consumer electronics. Or, as in ‘%’, 2008, a percent symbol superimposed on a room set.
Dobler’s science fiction references seem to poke fun at the medium in the same way that his use of spray-paint does to the traditional values of the medium. Aesthetically his paintings have strong links to surrealism, but he always manages to derail them. Salvador Dali or Yves Tanguy come to mind, with a bit of Paolo Soleri’s architectural intemperate thrown in for good measure. There is a real sense that Dobler is trying to undermine his work with these devices.
His paintings contain imagery that does the same. The water slide in ‘Slidescape’, 2007, has been tagged. The devaluing of what is depicted results in the inverse in relation to the depth of the painting. So it could be said that he devalues his chosen subject in order to give them a sardonic value.
There is no accusation of Dobler having a neoconservative approach to his work: he has always been a painter with painterly values. But, what once was figurative in earlier works is now empty landscape bearing the mistreatment of the figure. He has a complex understanding of the function of the figure and figurative painting. You could say that even now his paintings are handled expertly figuratively; the figures’ absence from the scene is the scenes primary function.
In early works like ‘Despair’, 2000, his use of Henry Moore sculpture goes some way to suggesting the figure, and also references Dali. And since pop art diverged with the mainstream, connections with artists like Lichtenstein and Warhol are unavoidable. One of his large scale ink drawings, ‘Despair’ bridges the gap between the figureless landscape and the figurative painting, albeit, the Henry Moore ‘figure’ is bound in chains.
This sense of nostalgia for the figure is constant throughout his work, whether it’s in the deliberate suggestion of the figure in structural/compositional form or baring the mark of the person or personal, such as underwear or the fundementals of architectonics. This nostalgia is something Dobler uses as a device: a longing for something or somewhere other, from his paintings of holiday destinations void of people, to his ink drawings that reminisce over the illustration of teenage fanzines. These ink on paper drawings function in a similar way to illustration, gravitating towards narrative subject matter; but due to the medium they are freer in expression than his paintings. In contrast, these drawings are often small, and only occasionally of similar size to his larger painted works. Containing these narrative elements, they suggest stories wrought by the graphic nature of the materials used.
In his recent show at Evergreene, Geneva, 2008, Dobler took this sense of nostalgia and narrative one step further, directly referencing youth culture from outside the gallery, where the flat Platz in front of the building is used for skateboarding. Inside the gallery his paintings of skateboard ramps, spray-painted with tags, echo this element of youth culture. But Dobler is neither skateboarder nor graffiti artist. His use of these icons of youth culture zigzag back and forth between relevance to the artist and relevance to the audience, ultimately a failed exercise as both are neither. His understanding of the use-value of objects transcends their physicality: an aid that absorbs the viewer in the painted work.
The tactics and devices that engage Dobler with the medium of painting, that validate its relevance, do the same for the viewer of his work. His deceivingly kitsch aesthetic relies on the immediacy of the reproducible image, but immediately deceives the viewer in their lack or comprehension and understanding of the function of objects. In presenting the viewer with familiar images, but subverting their purpose, he creates a Duchampian possibility of function that is at times comical, while at the same time remaining ominously sinister.
For Dobler, the undermining of the image results in a field of expanding possibilities; not only for the artist as painter, but also for the viewers of works who exist within a culture that has a first-hand knowledge of post-photography painting and an understanding of the histories of pre-photography that is primarily based on photographic sources.
Steven Cairns is co-editor of MAP