Text about the works 2006 - 2008

Renate Olbrich – Beyond formalist aesthetics

Vagueness is a stylistic means of linguistic as of pictorial composition. Vagueness can characterize the indeterminacy of an object, and, no less, a multiple ambiguity. In the case of Renate Olbrich it is generated, alongside the lack of sharpness of the outline, also as sfumato, in other words as a haze-like veil. In both cases, the surroundings remain unambiguously recognizable. The further an object in the picture seems to have been shifted to the background, the smaller its dimensions become, and the more blurred the details of its outline alongside those of the internal drawing. It remains a silhouette in the haze. The vagueness of the central motifs in Olbrich’s photographic works testify to a private idyll. It is left to the interpretation of individual beholders how they assess the effect of individual pictorial elements. This in turn depends upon their predilections and the memories associated with them. These latter point to associations which can engender, from the vagueness, an indeterminacy between possible real situations.

Furthermore the vagueness in Olbrich’s work is characterized by individual mythologies, in other words her personal surroundings. She puts these across through her well-developed technique based on the process known as solarization, by which fragmentary pictorial details are, so to speak, reprocessed. While the powerful coloration is deployed as an emotional indicator, the solarization intensifies the transience of the moment which is already inherent in photography. In the large work “Collage Sayonara” (2008) objects and elements of the domestic environment – human and animal figures, fabric etc. – are symmetrically arranged. In Olbrich’s “Tropenhaus” series (2007/08) floral motifs confront animal figures in a geometrically loose composition, complemented by abstract shapes which the beholder cannot necessarily identify more exactly. The objects that appear in the picture reflect the artist’s passion for collecting: for her the act of collecting represents “the furnishing of one’s own nature beyond formalist aesthetics or decoration”. Olbrich’s works belong to the genre of staged photography no less than to that of documentary photography. 

The “surface statements” of an age heavy with images, writes Siegfried Kracauer in his essay “Das Ornament der Masse” (1927), say more about the place of the epoch than do its “judgements of itself”. Olbrich articulates in her solarizations a fundamental scepticism towards these “surface statements”. With their skilful shading, whose palette ranges from reddish orange via yellow to purple or bluish-green, the photographs are seamless and come across as seductive. All the time there appear meticulously worked, detailed silhouettes against the light, so that some of the individual pictorial elements can only be perceived as a monochrome surface, while integrating harmoniously into the intensely luminous colour-play. As a result of this aesthetic, the solarizations develop a positively painterly character. In this way Olbrich succeeds in linking painting and photography. This is hardly surprising, as the artist has, after all, been more a painter than a photographer. While the solarizations developed out of her earlier paintings, the photographs have in recent times given rise to paintings conspicuous by their reductionist form. Here too, in a series of works that Olbrich likewise includes in the “Tropenhaus” series, vagueness is employed as a stylistic means. As in the solarizations, the focus is on the outline, applied lavishly direct from the tube, along with monochrome areas, thus emphasizing the reduction of forms, which once again are composed of objects and elements from the artist’s immediate surroundings. Colour nuances result from the superimposition of numerous layers of paper applied to the ground of the picture. 

The painterly act consists in the application of colour glazes within the individual motif fields, which are separated from each other by the bulging contours. Newsprint is laid on the glazed surfaces while they are still wet, and immediately stripped off again. The surface structures of the newsprint are blurred by the rapid removal, but convey the character of filigree folds or creases, the impression of a juxtaposition of numerous silhouettes. Olbrich repeats the process of glazing an stripping several times, until she has achieved a result she considers ideal. As with the solarization, this technique also takes up fragmentary pictorial details and subjects them to intensive further processing. Here too, powerful coloration is deployed as an emotional indicator, while the process of continual glazing of colour areas and the subsequent stripping off of the paper enhances that fleeting nature of the moment which is also characteristic of photography. 

Renate Olbrich’s world of pictures is dissected into its individual components, recomposed, de-familiarized and dissolved, dramatized and banalized, invented and composed, in order then to assemble individual elements into a newly varied, relationship-rich whole. Modern tales meet the myths of Antiquity in the process, pictorial icons encounter art-historical quotations. After Olbrich, no artist should try merely to approach stories in pictures, or try to see him or herself as being in search of absolute truth. Rather, artists must use a multitude of stories to tell their own story, and thus remain objective in their subjectivity. 

Oliver Zybok

Übersetzung: Michael Scuffil