In: Siegfried Gohr in the book Jochen Mühlenbrink: Laster, Radius-Verlag, Stuttgart, 2010
An upright rectangular format is divided into a narrow black band at the bottom and a large, dark blue area above it; the blue grows duskier toward the top, such that the light that illuminates the plane from some invisible source picks out the image of a cardboard box. This casts a shadow on the blackish-blue plane such that the strip of color gives rise to an illusion of space. The box seems to have quite a long life behind it, as suggested by the open lid and the many signs of use.
Pieces of tape, paint remnants, stickers, rings left by some oily substance indicate that this object has passed through a checkered history before being placed so prominently, as if it bore a great significance, in the picture space. Not only the paint traces but the painting’s title, Malerkoffer (Painter’s Box/Valise), suggest that this ordinary carton is associated with an activity that is not at all ordinary – that of painting. What might be found or have been carried in this box? Likely paints, brushes, rags, sketches – everything needed to make pictures. But why in a “valise”? Don’t we tend imagine an artist working at a particular location, the studio, so often depicted and described? Doesn’t the artist who owns this dirty, paint-smeared “case” have any peace, time for contemplation, abode of inspiration? Is he able to work just anywhere? Can he live out of his valise? Apparently so!
The painter who owns this carton seeks inspiration for his works not within himself or through intuition; he finds his motifs outside, on the street, in residential areas, along railroad tracks; or in some interior space that initially seems to have nothing out of the ordinary about it. And yet on longer, more careful scrutiny, this mundane world begins to appear alien. The box, too, possesses this quality, which makes itself apparent as an unnoticeable transformation. This takes place not though narrative indications but through painterly treatment. On the face of it, the composition evinces a sharp contrast between two very different approaches – a flat abstraction and a marked realism which can extend to photographically precise documentation. When we become aware of our own perception of this conflict in the image, further effects come to the fore. The smooth and uninterrupted background plane only emphasizes an aspect that conveys an unpleasant feeling. Sticky, dirty, tangible, yet unattractive, the “painter’s valise” takes on the character of something superfluous that really deserves to be discarded. A certain disquiet arises as we look at the image, a disquiet that is continually reinforced by the discrepancy of the stylistic means employed.
Ever since historical Surrealism in the wake of the First World War, a specifically modern experience has been rendered visible – the alienation of human beings from the things they use. These things began to take on an eerie, even threatening aspect. Precursors of such estrangement were rediscovered back in the Romantic era; Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland provided an inexhaustible source of this sort of fantasy. There ensued psychological interpretations of, and projections on, objects. Still, Mühlenbrink’s paintings cannot be associated with this understanding of objects as things that elude human control.
There is another modern tradition, the brand of realism that culminated in Edward Hopper and was reinterpreted by a painter like Eric Fischl, a tradition that ended before Mühlenbrink’s conception began. It might be tempting to suggest parallels with certain tendencies of contemporary photography, when it attempts to penetrate to the surreally artificial. This path reflects a certain current sense of time that is shared by many who would lend visual expression to contemporary visibility. Yet the “painter’s valise” keeps its distance from this approach as much as from the tautological character that forms the point of departure for certain other approaches, especially that of moving pictures.
This painter cleaves to things glimpsed in passing. Yet still, the corner of a room, a window, or an Intercity Express train rushing by, are transformed by palette and illumination – but to what end? The answer is not easy to put into so many words, if we really want to put our finger on these visual phenomena in all their innovativeness. It would seem to me that the aggregate state of the artist’s observations is altered by means of painting. The aim, however, is neither a narrative nor a tacit symbolism. Drama is absent as well. And still, the possibility of disaster shimmers through the apparently pristine world of these motifs. Quite unnoticeably, mundanely, as an accident or failure in the system, as destruction, irresistible movement, as a mood grounded in the consciousness of disaster – this is the effect of the artist’s painterly charging of the realm of objects. The apparently banal is rendered transparent to menace. Sometimes this becomes truly visible, for instance when the world appears consumed by a white void, or when fire breaks out on an Intercity Express or in an imaginary room. Then the tacit tension in the motifs is revealed. We realize that a certain symmetry can exist between death by cold and frost, and death by fire and heat. On the margins of the objective world looms calamity, which can occur as unpredictably and mercilessly as in antiquity, when blind Fate reigned. By this point at the latest, we as viewers become aware of the fact that Mühlenbrink employs the mundane as a sophisticated painterly camouflage.