Dangerous Beauty

Wolfgang Becker, January 2010
Translation by Sabine Kranz 

On the new paintings by Bernard Tullen

Different from the past, nowadays everyone who consumes photos and films in the mass media is familiar with pictures and images of many spheres of experience. Although the industries processing these photos attempt to represent the objects they show more and more sharply and even three-dimensionally, all this is not necessary to understand or rather recognize them. Einstein's head or the Eiffel Tower are so familiar that few raster dots or pixels are enough to evoke their image.

The degree of spontaneous recognition decreases in correlation to the unfamiliarity of the subject. In other words: an unfamiliar object demands a higher density of information to be recognized.

Between the degree of resolution at which an object can no longer be recognized and the other stage, which reproduces it in what one may call over-defined, we find that undefined, poetic zone of softness which has fascinated painters since the monitor engineers started working at resolutions and compression with rasters and pixels. Anonymous postcards (Gerhard Richter), tourism posters (Malcolm Morley), film stills (Andy Warhol), newspaper photos (Richard Artschwager) served them as surfaces in the years around 1970. Painting, in contrast to drawing, can be raster- or pixel art! That was a discovery which inspired many artists. Bernard Tullen is one of the few who decided to make this blurred zone of softness the exclusive focus of his exploration.

The competition of photo engineers is overwhelming. They developed soft focus, filters resolving high-frequence signals and producing the "Gaussian blur", they structured the "image noise" which is produced not only by rough graining but especially by long exposure times in digital photos, and they found the Japanese word "Bokeh" for a technique of producing lenses which can give the background of a photo various textures. The photo engineers attempted to continue the history of painting with different means.

Compared to their laboratories, the studio of the painter is equipped modestly, his tools being pencils, brushes, pigments, oils, water, paper, canvasses. But it is this very monastic sparseness that endows the works being created with their vibrating life, their uniqueness. Like the tips of an iceberg, they rise above the ocean of mass media images.

For Bernard Tullen, the zone of blurring seems to have lost its neutrality, its "innocence". It seems as if he defined this zone as - let's say - the zone of common video cameras serving as security cameras. That is how the objects he depicts also loose their innocence when he allows the suspicion that they were recorded by CCTVs: poppies growing in dubious agricultural areas in Afghanistan, elusive objects being hidden in forests in the undergrowth, thickets forcefully destroyed, rooms that look like laboratories, people in protective clothes working at huge machines, heaps of rubble giving evidence of catastrophes, faces belonging to clairvoyants with "second sight", multifaceted characters offering their services in the classified ads of daily papers. The atmosphere of danger we associate with CCTVs prevails.

CCTVs, however, are just an example of the restlessly searching, curiously exploring photographic view. It is independent from a camera, it may also be the eye of a tracker following the trace of a fugitive and focussing on a broken twig in the thicket of a forest that his companions do not notice. Tullen dedicated a voluminous series of small paintings to this focussed observation of a tracker.

In these square panels he by no means renounces the specific perspective of a camera with a wide open shutter focussing on an object and representing its background as "soft". If the paintings were photos, one would detect the beam spots in the background as reflections of the shutter from a very close distance. Only special lenses allow the "smooth transition focus" which corrects this fault. But a regular "noise" can be created effortlessly by a varnishing brush.

In this sphere of uncertainties the viewer, too, becomes a tracker who follows the eye of a camera. It represents the objects in black and white, kindly refers him to the history of photo and film and hints at the opulence and beauty of nuances between light and dark suggesting dew and fog and silvery lustre.

In a group of large works on paper, a dark thicket of forest is mysteriously concealed behind barbed wire extending over the whole format. The paintings are so large that the look of the approaching observer submerges in them. They infect him with a criminological curiosity characteristic of Antonioni's movie Blow up. They were created in what one may call negatives, that is, Tullen used the clear white of the surface for the barbed wire and the lights in the background and painted the dark areas into it. The white of the primer pierces and overexposes the layer of paint, the pictures scintillate, and a breeze seems to move the wire mesh in folds like a stage curtain.

Tullen has worked for many days on these paintings and has been forced to keep changing the distance between an overall view to a singular wire sling. The viewer searches for traces of spontaneous brush strokes. They are concealed in squares the size of only millimetres. Yet he soon discovers that he is looking at "handiwork", and even the photographic reproductions of the paintings reveal that they represent painted papers rather than photos.

Tullen rarely uses blurs to depict acceleration, speed, the passing of time. They would ask for spontaneous horizontal brush strokes and would interfere with the calm, moderately structured surface of the painting. They would have to be sharp.

Up to the invention of glasses, the majority of older people had a blurred perception of the world and experienced the same insecurity that a short-sighted person taking off his glasses is familiar with. But this "zone of blurring" is also that of sfumato, of the fog, the poetry of approximation; it abounds with illusions so that everyone leaves them irritated. He has experienced something he may call beautiful. He has participated in a banquet, but he does not know what he has eaten.

I suffered this conflict between the familiar and the unfamiliar myself when I took a series of small, blurred, coloured pictures for holiday photos depicting his family in bathing suits on a sunny beach. I was almost ashamed to intrude upon his privacy. He laughed: he had used photos from a travel brochure showing the heavenly holiday resorts at southern beaches. This error offered us a chance to talk about the difficulty in understanding and deciphering messages transmitted by mass media. This is the most vital source of his work.

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