On his new canvases, Magnus Plessen continues his endeavour of projecting circumstances and conditions of existence using representations of the human body. An earlier series of works displayed the industrial destruction to which humans were subjected in the First World War in the form of the industrialisation of their bodies. With prosthetic armouring— expressed in painterly terms by surfaces set in front of each other and overpainting, by a layer of paint doubling the canvas and coloured sediments—a functioning body was reconstructed.
1914 was the title of Plessen’s 2014 show at Konrad Fischer Galerie in Berlin, addressing a point in time one hundred years ago, the start of the First World War. By contrast, the title of the current exhibition in the gallery’s spaces in Düsseldorf, 2118 , designates a date two hundred years after the end of the war and one hundred years in the future.
Most of the forms in the new paintings are legible, albeit not always unambiguously. They are forms that translate parts of the body, which lie on the white canvas or protrude from its black ground applied with a palette knife, but they are not interconnected according to the customary body image the one deems natural. As opposed to earlier paintings, the connections between the individual parts have been loosened or dissolved, substituted by other, strange and inexplicable relations. A pictorial logic can occasionally be found in these assemblies, for example, when a sequence of three heads reminds one of the musical notation of a chord, when disparate parts circle around a centre in a rotationally symmetric fashion, when the figuration is opened up along a horizontal axis like the inkblots of a Rorschach test, or when pictorial elements follow the four sides of a canvas. Yet none of these constellations are compelling; a correlation emerging in one picture is replaced by another in the next. Cohesions are irregular and unstable; they are momentary stoppages in the course of liquid states. Viewed together, the works of the exhibition evoke a sequence of endless reorganization, transformation without finality. Even more intensely than in his paintings from early 2018, smooth forms of eroticized flesh now emerge from orange and pink coloured patterns. If one were to attribute these paintings to an established iconography, one would have to call them ‘Death and the Maiden’. The banal inscription refers to how Plessen’s disembodied bodies originate: through horror and desire. There are indications of processes going in opposite directions. Libidinous energy (cathexis), something obsessive but also volatile, disperses a given body image, while on the other hand making an indifferent surface sporadically bulge to create bodily concretizations. The conditions of existence that Plessen’s new pictures evoke are the mechanization of the body, on the one side, and its algorithmic optimisation, on the other. The titles of the exhibitions, 1914 and 2118 , refer to these alternatives.
The presence bracketed out by the indication of these years, however, is the presence of the paintings themselves. Some parts correspond with each other, while others are driven apart ?by massive differences in size. Plessen applied various techniques that make the picture surface a corporeally varied territory. To dab the paint of the skull, he used soft paper, which left its pattern. Wet paint was wiped with a cloth to create the illusion of curved skin. Paint was applied in horizontal strokes and scraped off in one go with a palette knife to show the picture support including the concealed substructure. The artist possesses a large collection of patrixes and templates that cover the entire studio floor while he is working. He tapes the cardboard pieces to the canvas to try out arrangements of individual parts and in the end translates them into delineated units of painting.
In the presence of a painterly, unplanned praxis, memory and prescience collide, without being clearly distinguishable.