… as we dream …

On the Paintings of Matthias Lautner

A large number of contemporary painters today are working at the crossroads of abstraction and representation. It is almost as if the potentiality of this transition is more important than identifying with a specific position. The two means of expression are no longer regarded as incompatible opposites in an ideologically determined antagonism, but are now rather considered self-evidently as equals existing side by side. Contemporary painters seem no longer fascinated by concepts of either/or; they are more interested in the free interplay of forms, the juxtaposition and interlinking of opposing painterly realities, the integration of digital pictorial media, and embedding their works in different cultural contexts. Painting is thus understood as an independent reality that is not limited to the representation or abstraction of the real world, but whose impetus lies rather in “potential images,” as Dario Gamboni calls them.

Matthias Lautner probes for these “potential images” in the tensions between abstraction and figuration by confronting and conflating their diverging means of expression and by precisely composing individual elements on the basis of perception paired with a subtle pictorial narrative. His paintings in the last few years were defined by expressive and abstract scenes in which he realistically painted figures expressing thoughtful and introspective gestures. His latest pictures, on the other hand, attempt to break with this clear juxtaposition by integrating the figures into what is happening in the picture in a more balanced way and by letting the abstract environment resemble a space or landscape more and more, his goal being to test just how close he can come to painting a landscape without getting truly concrete.

By combining painted landscapes, or what we associate as such, with figures viewed from behind, Lautner also evokes a painterly tradition, which found its purest expression in Caspar David Friedrich. During Romanticism, nature evolved from serving as a background into an autonomous opportunity for expression in its own right – in other words, to a world of phenomena through and behind which infinity and the inconceivable is suggested but not clearly defined. Because the goal was not to capture visual phenomena in detail, but to convey impressions, landscape in Romanticism was always a way of gaining knowledge about the self, and was never the object of knowledge per se.

It was Alexander Cozens (1717–1786) who already heralded the end of traditional landscape painting. His “blot” methods divorced landscape painting from its reference to reality. He defined a “blot” as a cluster of dark forms and masses that occurred more or less accidentally when ink was applied to a sheet of paper. These shapes could be abstract, or they could represent a landscape. Cozens was not interested in nature as a pre-existing world of objects (natura naturata), but as a constant creative process (natura naturans). With a rough idea in mind, he would first apply blots to paper that would then slowly crystalize in the artist’s eye into an image of a landscape based on memory. After Cozens, real and existing landscape ceased to be the subject of painting and was instead transformed into a metaphor through which artists attempted to represent those elusive qualities of experience that escape a concrete form or concept: “Landscape paintings have become a screen for multifaceted projections.”

In his pictures, Matthias Lautner developed abstract scenes out of nonobjective forms. Most recently, he also generates these out of a concrete image or a real atmosphere that he then transforms into an autonomous structure behind which a faded image, a memory of a space or landscape, lingers. These scenes are thus about ciphers (the signs in Karl Jasper’s existentialism) that express a subjective understanding of space and landscape and are no longer the illusionistic images we make them out to be. The representation of nature – in other words, space – is thus replaced by the imagination of nature and space.

The figures Lautner positions in these color spaces with increasing precision – see the pictures Girl Reading a Letter 5 or The Threat – are borrowed from his digital picture archive, his pictorial memory in binary form. That these can be portraits of friends or acquaintances, snapshots taken on the street, or images found on the World Wide Web is irrelevant for the pictorial content. He is primarily interested in a certain attitude, a gesture or bodily expression that captures and builds on the mood already inherent in the abstract structure. By taking the figures out of their own time and socio-political context, he transports them to what perhaps can be carefully termed “timelessness.” Although he extracts the figures from their own temporal context, their solitary state in his pictures can nevertheless be interpreted as a symptom of our day and age.

Every artist develops their own personal ciphers with which they approach the world: ciphers that reflect their subjective emotions and beliefs. Karl Jaspers did not regard these as encrypted symbols, but as thought experiences (Denkerlebnisse) that convey things that cannot be grasped materially. Based on this, it could be said that Lautner’s thought experiences are infused in his pictures – and because ciphers always mirror a social code of communication, beholders are able to comprehend these reflections and analyses as allusions, if nothing else.

In sum, we can say that Matthias Lautner’s paintings are defined by antithetical but also mutually dependent pictorial themes. They elude the character of subjective symbols, and they refuse an objective iconographic meaning. Their narrative connections are subtle and appear encrypted. As ciphers, they evoke the impression of something that cannot be defined, something that is not there, something missing. Their prevailing mood is melancholic, reminding us of the existential loneliness once described by Joseph Conrad: 

„We live, as we dream – alone …“