Works 1974 – 1991

Concentration and Liberation
On the new works of Helga Gerken-Grieshaber

Looking back at more than twenty years of intensive artistic work reveals both continuity and development. It in many ways feels like a spiral that comes back to the same point with every round, doing so on a wider circumference each time. This metaphor connotes a type of progress that leaves no room for stagnation. Its core and driving force is continuously reassuring oneself of one’s own existence – which at the same time addresses one aspect of continuity mentioned above.

Although Helga Gerken-Grieshaber’s pictures are not self-portraits in a conventional sense, their relentless self-reassurance is reminiscent of the obsessive consequence with which artists such as Dürer, Rembrandt or van Gogh looked into the mirror, searching for the nature and flux of their existence. In Gerken-Grieshaber’s drawings this self-awareness condenses into a visual message, leaving behind the private and subjective precisely because it is so strongly committed to the own individual experience.

It is a law of physics that the further a point on a revolving circle is away from the centre, the faster it moves. Without wanting to overstretch the metaphor of the spiral, it is nonetheless striking that the artist’s development is marked by acceleration. Perhaps this is down to getting older: ultimately everyone experiences the carousel of life spinning faster and faster as time goes by.

A comparison of new and older works shows accelerating dynamics. That is not to say that Gerken-Grieshaber’s art has ever been static. Rather, her recent works emphasise the fleeting and transitory much more strongly than her preceding pictures. While previously movement had referred to compact, tangible figurative models that were subject to vibration, were attacked, threatened, dissected and partitioned, figures in the new works – or rather what is left of them – seem to be liberated and active as opposed to passive. Out of nowhere they float, tumble, dance – being driven or driving themselves? – into existence and leave their non-existent stage as incidentally as they entered it. Indeed, props and relicts of an illusionist reality that were important in the previous pictures have now vanished. The frames that once restricted the figures – Gerken-Grieshaber was greatly impressed by Bacon – are now eliminated, the white of the sheet is no longer a mere image carrier but a constituting light space, a space where energy materialises, by no means esoterically blurred, but physical, tangible, erotic – however still not really palpable. Reality is expressed as what it truly is: the presence of a moment.

Anything that could be seen as an artistic end has in itself vanished, leaving a remarkable virtuosity in Gerken-Grieshaber’s use of artistic means. It is no surprise that these means are, first and foremost, the drawings: after all, the drawing, the direct and immediate manifestation of physical movement and gestural expression, is probably the most elementary form of artistic communication.

Painting plays a minor role in the oeuvre of the artist, but Helga Gerken-Grieshaber uses the medium of drawing in a distinctly painterly manner: she pushes the limits of technical possibilities, albeit always being committed to her metier. The line remains the starting point of the composition, ranging from finest nuances to sharp contrasts. Gerken-Grieshaber has abandoned none of this. Reduction, which is characteristic for her most recent works, does not mean restriction – quite the contrary, it translates into concentration and liberation. Surprising colour accents expand the artistic repertoire: basic but vivid primary colours take effect; a skin-like brown-yellow, a flaming red (‘my redhead’), a cool blue whose vastness frames a surprisingly ‘intact’ figure, the first picture of a series that varies subject, figure and space interactively and in many ways.

It may be useful to briefly outline the path that has led to these new, freer and more confident works. The pictures from the 1960s, produced while still at the academy, reveal the strong influence and inspiration of Gerken-Grieshaber’s teacher, Herbert Kitzel, and his tense and dynamic style, often close to abstraction, but never quite abandoning the figure completely. During the second phase around 1970, the pictures show large, clear, organic-anatomical forms in close-ups that densely fill the image area. The space is obscured and the physical sculptural aspect dominates over the area, with stronger and more pointed references to human beings.

In the pictures from the mid-1970s, the artist takes her distance. The cut-out-esque large-screen pictures evolve into space-filling snapshots, capturing ambivalent and nightmarish moments. Figures huddle in a corner, washed up like stranded goods, cuffed to a bedstead or entangled with one another, ambiguously and Janus-faced, in a Caravaggio-like, chiaroscuro scene, in which at times the motif of an electric lamp is used not only as a formal but also a content-related – that is as a technoid – antithesis to creatureliness. The pictures from the 1980s are more precise and more pointed, in which the contextual dimension gains importance. Subjective experience becomes a paradigm of the social and the starting point of political statements: ‘I put on my head myself’, the artist briskly proclaims. Ironically, she contrasts colourful cut-outs of pin-up models, which look ridiculously lifeless in the new context, with powerful female body landscapes in a collage composition. Other drawings show a tumbling, disoriented figure being violated by a steel spring pressing apart her legs. Physically palpable brutality, caused by a non-sentient, anonymous instrument, subtly expresses bodily harm: ‘raped by time’ is a feeling that is probably not only shared by women…

The 1980s are devoted to animals. The portrayal of a stallion by no means complies with common stereotypes of noble and graceful horse faces.

On the contrary, as dark, gigantic and menacing, the animal face breaks the frame of the picture. The drawing touches the motif, nervously shimmering between light and dark. Alien, demonic, snarling, dissolved almost beyond recognition, at times almost dissected, but always present in fascination and vivid monumentality, we encounter the provoking creature. Shortly afterwards, these artistic means are unsparingly transferred to the human face, building a bridge to the creatureliness that connects humans and animals. These drawings are clearly self-portraits, albeit not particularly flattering ones. ‘Smiling aids’ result in macabre grimaces; the face falls apart, freezes into a death mask, disintegrates into a bizarre landscape of graphical contrasts in which any integrity, any individuality is eliminated.

Evolving from the dark chaos of these pictures, the new works described above are ambivalent, but also liberated, bright visions of life, aware of darkness and no longer alien to the abyss.

Hans Gerke, Heidelberg, October 1992

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