Christoph Schreier: Culture Paste. The Rebirth of Modernism out of Nutella Spread and Penaten Baby Cream
Catalogue essay from the exhibition “Thomas Rentmeister. Objects. Food. Rooms.”, Kunstmuseum Bonn, 19.10.2011 – 05.02.2012; in Thomas Rentmeister. Objects. Food. Rooms., (cat.) Kunstmuseum Bonn and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Cologne 2011, German p. 25–31, English p. 32–38, translated from German by Michael Wolfson.
Those who chuckle about Thomas Rentmeister’s refrigerator installations or his sculptures made from Nutella brand nut-nougat spread are basically only indirectly confirming how little modernism has succeeded in bridging the gap between art and (everyday) life. The – still – “fine” arts are not allowed to operate with such prosaic materials as paper handkerchiefs or Nutella nut-nougat spread as a matter of course, and whoever does so anyway is soon regarded as the class clown of the exhibition and art business. It is overlooked in the process that Rentmeister, despite all his humorous touches, takes the crucial question of modernism very seriously: How does art conduct itself with a view to the non-artistic or not-yet-artistic? Is not banal everyday life itself the authority against which the transformative power of all aesthetic utopias are measured? Be it the Expressionists, the former Constructivists who had turned into Functionalists or the artists of De Stijl, Bauhaus and Pop Art, all of them not only wanted to reform art but life as well, to fill in the trenches that the growing autonomy of the arts had ripped open in the first place.
And Rentmeister? He is surely not naive enough to offer fundamental solutions to modernism’s key questions. Always fleet-footed and relaxed, his artistic work operates instead in the very same, once hotly contested tension field of art and life that is still awaiting a redefinition after the end of all utopias.
Numerous examples of his work could be called upon to document Rentmeister’s enquiries and attempts to position himself on a terrain with a difficult history, but we will first cite one work here that has a nearly programmatic character in the described context. It concerns an untitled picture from the artist’s early academy years, more precisely from 1985, on whose surface he affixed the mortal remains of 36 flies with bizarre meticulousness. Nicely arranged in serial rows of six flies each, the flies have become part of an artwork, a privilege for which they admittedly had to pay the ultimate price, namely with their lives. In the end, the rarefied air of art is too thin for the Musca domestica, the common housefly. They had to die in order to become one with art’s cosmos, or more concretely with this still life’s highly artificial, minimalist and consequently equally hostile environment. True to the motto “ars longa vita brevis”, the flies’ involuntary dance of death accordingly ratifies the primacy of an art that is apparently not founded on contingency and life but system formation and death instead. Rentmeister’s piece in any case leaves no doubt whatsoever about this inherent truth about art. But Rentmeister would not be Rentmeister if he did not incorporate a further dialectical sleight of hand into the piece. Art’s victory over life is namely a Pyrrhic victory to the extent that the flies contaminate the ideal white picture surface recalling the aesthetics of Robert Ryman’s paintings, thus calling art’s lofty aspirations into question. One of the lessons that might be learned from this piece is that art and life form two competing entities that cannot be harmonised with each other, let alone reduced to a common denominator.
It is by all means possible that this was precisely for this reason that Rentmeister tested the darkest recesses of this conflict, but in any case this early, still small-format work on canvas points to themes that he would return to over the course of his further artistic activities. In the process, it was Minimal Art, whose severe stylistic vocabulary he would freshen up with a healthy dash of Post Pop and Dadaist nonconformity, which served as his point of reference as regards form and style. But what was it that would attract a young artist of the 1980s and 1990s to the geometrical exercises of Minimal Art that were already historical by that time? Rentmeister’s interest is surely not accidental to the extent that Minimalism, of course, embodies the ideal image of a self-referential art that is thus detached from life. To break open his hermetics (or his autism?) and contaminate it with products of an everyday reality therefore represents a special challenge and it is interesting to observe the different paths that Rentmeister took to pursue his own objectives.
At least one characteristic of his artistic approach falls into a category that could be called a “strategy of affirmation”. While this strategy encompasses the adapting of Minimalism’s pictorial and stylistic vocabulary, it is counteracted at the same time by means of small alterations and shifts of context. Ursula Panhans-Bühler spoke in this connection of Rentmeister’s “impure minimalism” [*1) Ursula Panhans-Bühler, “Sweet Heaviness and Gravitational Sweetness”, in Thomas Rentmeister. braun / brown, (cat.) Kölnischer Kunstverein, Ostfildern 2002, p. 60.] that often employs a formal assimilation in order to develop its subversive force.
This procedure can also be illustrated by means of the two “paintings” or wall pieces of almost the same size facing each other in one of the rectangular spaces in the Kunstmuseum. They each have a wooden substructure which has respectively been coated with a monochrome brown and creamy white, at first glance indefinable “colour” paste. Experienced museum goers might regard these colour fields as variants of monochrome painting, and in fact much can be said in favour of a purely aesthetic discourse. [*2) A conceptual precursor for this type of work can be seen in the wall pieces in which Rentmeister transformed truck tarpaulins into monochrome paintings; see Thomas Rentmeister, untitled, 2001, truck tarpaulin stretched on wooden frame, 225 × 330 × 7 cm, reproduced in Thomas Rentmeister. Zwischenlandung, (cat.) Kunsthalle Nürnberg, Ostfildern 2004, p. 39.] As Rentmeister himself has emphasised on various occasions, he is certainly interested in formal aesthetic questions, in this case in the effect of a brown and a thick creamy white mass of colour within the clinical white of the exhibition space. But when the viewer then also contrastively relates the small-scale gestural application of colour with the work’s total geometrical form that reflects the different consistencies of the brown and white colour, he has, to be sure, gathered some aesthetic experiences, but he has also fallen into a well camouflaged trap at the same time. The whole aura of the rarefied aesthetic air literally dissipates into nothing when he smells the white and the brown paste and identifies them to be in fact Penaten baby cream and Nutella. Despite the supposed relationship to the application of paint, not even referencing the “everyday creativity” of the breakfast spread’s modelling qualities is of assistance here; [*3) See Ute Riese, “Thomas Rentmeister”, in Skulptur 2000, (cat.) Kunsthalle Wilhelmshaven, Bielefeld 2000, pp. 46–51.] the drop height that can separate art and life becomes measureable.
How can this plunge be explained? Surely not from the fact that Rentmeister has made use of unconventional materials; others have done so before him as well. Something else is of decisive significance here, namely the fact that the materials he employs retain their identity with the context of the piece. They preserve their intrinsic qualities and do not subjugate themselves to the sublimating force of the form that would preferably have the viewer completely forget the work’s material components. Such a dominating primacy of form does not exist for Rentmeister. His art is never a hermetic, self-contained work, an aesthetic monad; the identity of the non-artistic materials always remains recognisable.
This is vividly documented in the expansive, usually untitled sculptures and installations he has made since 2002 with refrigerators grouted with Penaten baby cream. Their cubic appearance as well as the dialectic of sculptural presence and concealed inner life that is inherent in the use of the refrigerator as a building component, might bring a masterpiece of the “Second Modernism” to mind, namely Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau in Hanover from the 1920s and 1930s, but Rentmeister’s constructions lack the environment’s concealing cavelike quality. As a monumental counterpart they seem much stricter, and it is impossible to resist the feeling that we are confronted with the cool authority of avant-garde art in these works. Seen from an atmospheric point of view, this is not at all surprising because we are encountering the imperative of modernism embodied in the form of refrigerators! There is much humorous criticism of the system involved here, but on the other hand one should not be too quick to prejudge. Whoever only sees a sign of postmodern irony in it is off the mark because this case also shows how perfectly Rentmeister has mastered the balance between renewed pathos and humorous distancing, yes even disillusionment. His works are open to a wide range of interpretations which he has addressed himself on occasion. Asked about the context in which the refrigerator pieces were produced, he explained: “The basis for the creation of this group of works was the accidental discovery of a kind of absurd logic in the encounter between a refrigerator and Penaten baby cream. It surely goes hand in hand with the painterly effect resulting from the interaction between the yellowish white colour of the cream and a refrigerator. The fact that Penaten baby cream also contains zinc – i.e. metal – contributes to this logic. Refrigerators are mostly made of metal. The smell of Penaten baby cream that is inseparably associated in the depths of collective memory with the smell of baby poop – a mixture of fragrance and odour – is hierarchically confronted with a further widely known category of smell, namely that of musty refrigerators. The chambers with their individual scents are encapsulated air-tight with the baby fragrance mass. But it was especially the cream’s wonderfully firm, gluey and sticky consistency that delighted my sculptor’s heart.” [*4) Translated from Ellen Seifermann, “Minimalpop. Thomas Rentmeister im Gespräch mit Ellen Seifermann”, in Thomas Rentmeister. Zwischenlandung, (cat.) Kunsthalle Nürnberg, Ostfildern 2004, p. 74.]
As his distance to the concept of the Readymade already highlights, this “sculptor’s heart” can consequently not be denied the opportunity for creative expression. While the idea of the Readymade consists of smuggling a neutral everyday object into the context of the museum or the exhibition, enabling it to function there either as an emotional reference to reality or as a disruptive factor, Rentmeister’s works stage a dialogue between art and reality that requires a director and designer, consequently the artist. He liberates the objects from their functional ties and makes use of the formal potentialities laying dormant in them for his own artistic objectives. He thus makes art out of “everyday substances” such as paper handkerchiefs, sugar cubes, cotton swabs and tampons without requiring the materials to deny their origins. In accordance with the logic of his material realism, the Nutella spread remains Nutella spread even when used as a material, just as the frying pans he uses in another piece remain frying pans.
They correspondingly function as the autonomous, and in this sense also as the clearly identifiable components of a five-part sculpture from 2007 that stages an almost surreal encounter between the incompatible. Rentmeister namely combines the frying pans with unornamented concrete columns of various sizes that literally seem to be growing out of them. Once again he links the cool, here – as far as the columns are concerned – almost classical minimalism of modern art with a – in this case “warm” – quotation of reality in such a way that it results in a bipolar constellation of tensions. An everyday object confronts the self-satisfied abstraction that follows its own laws, which admittedly does rule out the two elements from entering into a relationship. They do so by means of the simple fact that the volumes of the columns are harmonised to match the cooking surface of the frying pans, enabling the columns to find their perfectly measured out base in them. They match, just as other connections exist between the contrary components in these works in terms of form as well as associative contents. The grey of the concrete accordingly accentuates the frying pans’ own colour as well as their reduced design that is now suddenly perceived as such, perhaps for the very first time. [*5) In addition, the column’s centred form contrasts the inherent asymmetry of the frying pan resulting from the handle.] The concrete columns, on the other hand, lose their hieratic unassailability because they are earthed by the everyday reference in such a sympathetic way that their lofty aspirations melt like vegetable fat in a frying pan. And even if Rentmeister’s excludes an ultimate fusion of art and life, he is nevertheless interested in their collision points and interferences which, almost as a matter of course, are located beyond a clear decision for realism or abstraction.
As such, his works are neither pure Ready-mades nor autonomous, self-contained sculptures, even when his pieces made from polyester resin in particular might make this impression. Seen constructively, these works involve the thin-walled hollow bodies of various colours and shapes with which Rentmeister has become known to a larger audience since the early 1990s. They are produced in an elaborate process that Rentmeister has described as follows: “A 1:1 scale model is made first. I characterise this process as the materialisation of a form about which I have a more or less clear idea. Small doodles help me in the beginning to make these sometimes only diffuse notions a reality. The patient material plaster enables me to generate the form in a working process that can in part encompass many months and then to render it more precisely later. Like in the case of a 3D computer programme, I observe the object that has come about from every possible perspective. Looking closely, I control the respective contours of the changes that come about when plaster is applied or scraped off. Over time, the form swings into a final version that can perhaps lay claim to a hint of objectivity or absoluteness for itself.” [*6) Translated from Uta M. Reindl, “Gespräche mit Künstlern: ‘Monochrome Malerei aufblasen und ad absurdum führen.’ Interview mit Thomas Rentmeister”, in Kunstforum International, vol. 141, July–September 1998, pp. 334–343.] When this point has finally been reached, only a cast of the model has to be made for the sculpture to attain its ultimate form.
Installed in exhibition spaces, the pieces then possess exactly that “hint of objectivity or absoluteness” that one would attribute to autonomous sculptures. But in the end, it only remains a hint because its form does not possess, nor does it want to possess the validity of a form that can only exist in this way and in no other, the unconditional authority of a clear sculptural positing. It appears elastic and flexible instead, organic and vibrant, and prepared to cast all eternal sculptural values overboard.
This can be exemplarily seen in an untitled work from 1994, which has been in the collection of the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach for a number of years. While the brownish drop shape stands in stark contrast to the colour-neutral floor, it has on the other hand the tendency to melt in the space, as it were. These sculptures’ transitoriness and processuality, their already correctly referenced metamorphotic qualities [*7) See for example Peter Allmann, “Zu den Skulpturen von Thomas Rentmeister”, in Thomas Rentmeister, (cat.) Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach 1995, unpaged.] is heightened even further to the extent that the objects possess reflecting surfaces, thus defining themselves as media of light and space. As such, the polyester works oscillate between an object-like presence and an almost immaterial virtuality, between formal assertiveness on the one hand and contextuality on the other, thus characterising an ambivalence that even affects their reception. With all due respect to the distance-seeking aura of the artwork that these sculptures likewise emanate, the viewer would like nothing better than to touch them, to stroke them and to make them a part of his own everyday reality – to which they in any case already feature a large number of references. Don’t Rentmeisters polyester objects look like oversized drops, can’t one nearly taste their sweetness, and don’t they even resemble other scurrilous comic figures? [*8) See for example Thomas Rentmeister, untitled, 1998, polyester resin, 105 × 257 × 149 cm. Reproduced in Thomas Rentmeister. Skulpturen, (cat.) Städtische Galerie Nordhorn, Nordhorn 1998, p. 13.] Once again his sculptures reveal themselves to be materialised interference phenomena located somewhere between art and reality.
As such, it is better not to assign them to the one or other side to the extent that they negate a final decision regarding their true direction towards the “great abstraction” or the “great realism” that Wassily Kandinsky demanded from modern art in his essay On the Problem of Form. According to Kandinsky’s understanding of history, the art of the future must develop in one or the other direction so that it can detach itself from the historically passed down connection between abstract and realistic components that had previously determined the work of art. “According to Kandinsky, the traditional artwork based on imitation contains a ‘representational’ component as well as a ‘purely artistic component’ and as such (...) the representational corresponds to the realistic while its idealisation and shaping resulting from the purely artistic corresponds to the abstract. Kandinsky believed that the real and the abstract interfere with each other in this combination with regards to their true intrinsic resonance; the depicted representation as the real interferes with the experience of the inner sound of the abstract; the abstract as the idealised artistic form interferes with the inner sound of the real. To experience the inner resonance, one therefore requires either the great abstraction, i.e. the artistic form that has been freed from all representationalism and representation recognisability, or it requires the great realism, i.e. the actual representational that has been freed of all artistic form.” [*9) Translated from Max Imdahl, “Is it a flag, or is it a painting?’ Über mögliche Konsequenzen der konkreten Kunst,” in Max Imdahl. Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 1, edited with an introduction by Angeli Janhsen-Vukicevic, Frankfurt 1996, p. 161.] As summarised by Max Imdahl, this is Kandinsky’s artistic programmatic that simultaneously represents a prognosis for the development of art in the 20th century. And this differentiation into the “great abstraction” and the “great realism” has in fact taken place up to and including a polarisation of the positions that had a long and virulent influence on the debate concerning the art of the past century. Today, already in the post-modern era, the ideological trench-warfare between the proponents of representational and abstract art have long been a thing of the past – and this can ultimately also be demonstrated based on Rentmeister’s work. His art has substituted the “either realism or abstraction” stance with an “realism as well as abstraction” attitude because his approach is influenced by the overlapping of internal and external layers of artistic meaning.
A final example should confirm this thesis. It concerns a multipart piece made of chrome and metal joined together by paper bands that is as monumental as it is filigree and whose clear, serially repeated basic form is easy to describe. It consists of a circular base over which an arch stretches. In this way, stability is linked with lightness in accordance with a design characterised by a precise form and a great economy of means. These are paradigms of a constructive as well as minimalist aesthetic, but these principles not only prevail in art but in the production of commodities as well. Perhaps Rentmeister’s metal objects recall industrial products, or more precisely enlarged design objects because the viewer in any case senses that he has already seen this form somewhere. And this sense of déjà vu is also justified because the piece was modelled after an ordinary paper towel dispenser. Rentmeister simply enlarged it, thus enabling an aesthetic perception of form, which a utilitarian object from the field of hygiene would otherwise never experience under normal conditions. But now it has become an object whose “indifferent pleasure” lasts until at least the viewer has been brought back down to earth when he finally recognises what the object is – a paper towel dispenser. As formulated above, this can certainly have a disillusioning effect, but it can likewise also heighten the original interest in the object when it becomes clear with what a wealth of forms we deal with, usually unconsciously, on a daily basis. And one can only imagine how this rich diversity of forms unfolds when the viewer is confronted with it, enlarged many times and sublime, in a museum’s context! At least such an appreciating interpretation of the objects seems possible and in no way excludes an ironic questioning of the art context in which all and everything can become an artwork. Rentmeister’s work oscillates between an emotional “will to art” and a humorous art and institutional critique, between a reference to everyday life and the aspirations of art, between “great realism” and “great abstraction”, whereby the artist carefully avoids taking a clear stand.
The interpretive richness of his works is rooted here and nothing would be more inappropriate than to see him solely as a provocateur or as a buffo in the guise of an artist. He instead rubs salt in the wound of lost modernist utopias whose objectives he renews with an unmistakable ironic undertone. His accomplishment is a new staging of modernism detached from all pathos and from all false innocence and carried by the awareness that the dialogue between art and life can only be tested in a model experiment that does not hide the fact that the partners are far apart from each other. [*10) It consequently concerns a distancing assertive rewriting of modernity; see for example Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Re-Writing Modernity”, in SubStance, vol. 16, no. 3, 1987, pp. 3–9.] No one needs to be saddened about this reservation, not least Rentmeister himself who would only react to the state of things with a shrug of the shoulders or with a smile. One must comprehend him as a calm and in fact even happy Sisyphus who tests the coincidence of opposites in all his works, thus risking the impossible.
His tools are humour and his approach is that of the parodist. Using the means of parody he attacks art’s lofty aspirations which in the confrontation with the realities of life – regardless of whether it concerns paper towel dispensers or refrigerators – appear unsuited and in fact grotesque on occasion. That is the one side of the medallion. On the other, however, following the definition of parody, he shows his respect for art’s contents and themes when he, as described above, investigates material, form and space. The parody then namely confirms the parodied model and becomes an ironic homage to modernism that “only” loses its lofty tone and dogmatic rigidity through being contaminated by life. And why shouldn’t paper handkerchiefs, tampons and Nutella spread be components of a work of art? In any case it gains new expressive possibilities through the employed materials while these previously overlooked everyday items can in turn attain their art status.
In this sense they undergo a revaluation, an ennoblement that consists of the fact that its materials have been utilised artistically and that its significance is dealt with beyond its mono-functional, unconsidered employment. Everything can become art: that is the battle cry of modernism that Rentmeister has likewise appropriated for himself. In the process, he concentrates his interest on foodstuffs and utilitarian objects, mostly from the field of hygiene, i.e. objects that maintain a direct and in fact intimate contact with the human being and his body. Everyday life is substantiated in them, in the things with which we come into contact on a daily basis; it is quite a banal life in many respects, one that seems far removed from the world improvements that art and artists have propagated for such a long time. They are now really a thing of the past and one should really reflect on what relationship art and life should have with each other in the future. Rentmeister’s answer is playfully formulated; in any case it is a preliminary one. He sees less the tragic abyss that separates art and life than the possibilities of a productive dialogue that even today could result in surprising solutions that are mostly accompanied by a smile. One only has to endure the tension and employ them artistically, like Sigmar Polke, whose legitimate successor Rentmeister can be seen in some respects, endured them. And one can do so with some confidence because even more exciting things will come about as a result of this “clash of realities” – not least from the hand of Thomas Rentmeister.
© Christoph Schreier