Thomas Rentmeister

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Annett Reckert: Thomas Rentmeister: Hostal

Catalogue essay from the exhibition “Thomas Rentmeister. Hostal”, Städtische Galerie Delmenhorst, 25.09.2015 – 17.01.2016; in Hostal, (cat.) Städtische Galerie Delmenhorst, Delmenhorst 2016, German p. 45–53, English p. 55–62.

The museum is a hotel by the hour for the eye. Shoals of petrified heroines in a department of antiquities prompted the French author and ethnologist Michel Leiris to put forward this delicate theory. Whereas his essay “Brothels and Museums” [“To me, there is nothing that resembles a brothel more than a museum.” Translated from “Michel Leiris: Bordelle und Museen” (1939), in Walter Grasskamp, ed. Sonderbare Museumsbesuche (Munich, 2006), p. 31.] deals with the unique character of viewing art in a museum, it also suggests itself to transfer his comparison to what is exhibited in a museum: a museum is a hotel. The exhibits are guests that under the pretext of a planned exhibition are removed from the depot and busily sent back and forth in the international movement of loans or are delivered as temporary custom­-made items. This is how they arrive at accommodations either with simple standards but a family atmosphere or in luxury hostels. The latter shine in the best light and make a case for their ideal climatic conditions. The curator and his team see to their guests’ wellbeing. This business has room service, which is also offered in Haus Coburg at the Städtische Galerie Delmenhorst. Since 1974, more than 300 guest performances have preceded the exhibition Thomas Rentmeister. Hostal in the history-­laden spaces of the former villa owned by a physician, whereby Hostal alludes to the villa and its remise, less from a historical point of view but with a large number of intuitively developed elements. In this respect, the custom­-made installation of the same name that occupies the entire upper floor is more of a loud squatter than a discreet guest.
A massive construction made of chatoyant brown, corroded steel with vertical and horizontal square tubes consti­tutes the centerpiece of the installation Hostal. It announces itself in the villa’s so-­called winter garden, which is visible from the stairwell, in the form of a solitary outpost. It approaches the public on the landing as a tower with rungs that nearly reaches the ceiling only to extend into two further spaces by way of hollow sections through the doorways. Those who follow these offshoots to the left or to the right may perceive Hostal as a contradictory guidance system: it repels and absorbs; it disrupts routine gaits and is reminiscent of the perfidious rhyme of the words Gast (guest) and Last (pest). [An inscription on the ceiling of the study in Haus Coburg reads: “A happy guest is not a pest.”] At the same time, it requires being walked through and circumnavigated. In doing so, the rectangular structure provides various “passe­partouts” for the curious inspector who peeks over and through the bars. They reveal unexpected views of spaces – including a literal translation of oft-­cited tunnel vision.

The loft-­bed­-like structure that lends Hostal its actual appearance is oppressive: on each of the five tiers a snow­white, conventional mattress with a quilted diamond pattern and loosely hanging carrying loops on steel plates. Even the distance between the tiers is too small for anyone to imagine lying on one of the mattresses, as petite as one might be. A permanent irritation. Ultimately, hardly anyone can help reading the bed as a metaphor for the human body. It is an existential place where people sleep, make love, and suffer, where people are born and die. The ceramic sculptures viewers gradually encounter in the space seem all the more surprising: whimsical, shiny white little guys, little snowmen standing askew with orange carrot noses that give the scene an absurd turn: two “patients” on the floor as if they were having a chat, a single “patient” standing proudly on its dark brown, tall pedestal in the oriel of the room—a little guard that monitors the situation.

The path, obviously well thought out in terms of its dramaturgy, that Hostal visitors take leads through a small intermediate room whose perspective causes one to already expect a reencounter with the large steel structure. However, the small room retards; it is filled with the aura of an object. A cast-­iron sculpture on the wall that lends wings to the public’s empathy and at the same time causes one to forget its heavyweight appearance. It is as if a body was hanging there, a velvety, peaceful being. Thoughts come to mind of an organ, a truffle covered with cocoa powder, a gymnastics apparatus upholstered with sweat­-drenched leather. Still under the alienating impression of the steel beds, here it is the contradictory amorphous form and its powdery, brown­-orange surface that evokes a multitude of mental images.

It is subsequently again the Hostal construction that contributes to these images. A double bed connected head to foot, the installation takes up the narrow proportions of the space. Two knee­-high supporting surfaces, wide rusty stretchers, on them large greasy lumps: a mound of Penaten Crème and a mound of Nutella. The sight is unsettling and amusing at the same time. And a long orange ceramic sculpture in the corner of the space thumbs its nose at it.

The fusion of the rigid steel with the greasy, sweet smelling masses involuntarily triggers strongly body-­related emotions. What comes up are memories of a childlike need for protection and comfort, of relief from pain, of a sudden insatiable craving for something sweet, but also practicing hygiene, modesty, and moderation. And those who become aware of the visual congruence between Nutella and excrement trace the fine line between pleasure and disgust.

Thomas Rentmeister, born in 1964, grows up in Reken, Westphalia, in the Münsterland, where the fox and the hare say goodnight to one another. He describes a middle­ class parental home with a red peaked roof, full of furniture, woodchip wallpaper and wood paneling on the walls. [Thomas Rentmeister in a conversation with the author in fall 2015.] The television is turned to the ZDF Hitparade with Dieter Thomas Heck (“Engineering: Joachim Czerczenga”) and Disco with Ilya Richter (“Light out! Spot on!”). The family celebrates slide evenings with chips and puffs, there is Nutella for breakfast, and there is always a round, light blue tin of Penaten Crème in the bathroom, on the lid the iconic depiction of a shepherd in front of a round yellow sun. [The product name Penaten, which has existed since 1904, can be traced back to Dii Penates, the Roman patron gods of households, food, and families.] An idyll, not only clean but pure. Madge and Mr. Clean see to that. Go outside and play, and be home when it gets dark is an appeal that is often heard. Thomas Rentmeister describes this world that definitely benefits from the liberation in the sixties, even though it is subdued and deferred in the eternally asynchronous province. Like many children in the country during this period, he also grows up between the poles of reprimand and freedom. He experiences both the accuracy in his parent’s home as well as nature as an adventure: meadows, fields, and forests with all of their scope and wonderful dirt.

The fact that Minimal and Conceptual Art are making grand appearances in nearby Düsseldorf and Cologne are far from the boy’s interest. Later it would be these artistic developments in the sixties and seventies that play a role in Thomas Rentmeister’s sculptural oeuvre when it is about vigorous and clear structures, about a specific purism, about the use of industrially produced modules, about principles such as repetition, addition, or accumulation.

Joseph Beuys died six months before Thomas Rentmeister began studying at the art academy in Düsseldorf. In the plethora of obituaries, Beuys would all the more become the hero of an entire generation of artists. References to Beuys’s concept of sculpture are palpable in the formal and color language of Hostal, as well as in other works by Thomas Rentmeister. What is meant is his idea of the basic driving forces of warmth and coldness, of the chaotic­-volitional and mental­-form­-related, of organic and crystalline, nature and mind, of these polarities that can be found in individuals and which can be transcended all the way to an idea of society. But when it concerns such utopian content, that is when Thomas Rentmeister at the latest comes up with an ironic rebound. By using Penaten and Nutella he provided the fat and energy theme with a kind of update, which earns him the collateral fame of the universally familiar brand products—and in passing strikes an arc to Pop Art. But even the latter remains in the phase of allusion. In the exhibition, and in a narrower sense in view of the installation Hostal, there is no loud chromaticity and boldness. Instead, a mistrust of the suggestive force of the colorful becomes detectable. Brown and white dominate. A combination that is reminiscent of a bandage with coagulated blood or of melting snowflakes on a field as well as a cup of latte macchiato. When rust trickles onto the mattresses or Penaten oozes over a steel edge, for all of his references to Constructivist approaches the artist crumbles and smudges the visions of the pure and the sublime that the avant­-garde once proclaimed. This also applies to another work, white shelves that the artist had fitted exactly into a white space on the upper floor of the Städtische Galerie Delmenhorst. Compartments of the same size make for a clear, aesthetically reduced ordering system. “Firm and rigorous” one might say, and thus quote the maxim above the front gate to Haus Coburg. But anarchy prevails in the shelves: an opulent chaos consisting of white linens and white objects—plastic utensils, toys, candles, trash. It is as if the furniture had always been there, a remnant of the interior that weathered the decades. Each compartment can be seen as a picture, and from a distance the whole thing becomes a painting that in numerous variations deals with fabric as a shell for the body and with the fall of folds so often addressed in art and art history. Even though painting is a field of reference for Thomas Rentmeister with his decidedly impasto use of Penaten and Nutella, a look at the shelves reveals a reference to the genre of the still life.

The shelf scene unleashes an explicit urge to tidy up and numerous stories among the public. It has to do with the history of the building, to which Thomas Rentmeister also reacts with this work. For the artist, typical materials, objects, and concepts of form converge in a relaxed way with reality. Two generations of physicians practiced in the villa who had to deal with fears, worries, suffering, and pain. Children were born here, and at times it had hospital beds. Knowledge about these things involuntarily influences the way one or the other work is read, which is lost in its presentation at another venue. The sculpture Untitled (2015) is reminiscent of coral, cartilage­ like branches, microscope images of nerve structures. In view of the title of the exhibition it becomes a bandaged bed frame that has been thrown on its back and is extending its four legs upwards.

Rentmeister’s neologism Hostal evokes associations with the words “hotel” and “hostel” on the one hand, and with “hospital” on the other. It also resonates with the uncanny proximity of “hospitality” and “hostility”. What is astonishing about the date of the exhibition opening in fall 2015 is the coincidence of the exhibition planned long in advance with the advent of a refugee crisis in Europe and the plethora of images accompanying it. Media images of camps, beds, mattresses, or clothing. They inevitably constitute the background for viewing Hostal, and the hackneyed idea of the artists as a sensitive seismograph of social develops involuntarily crops up. Especially in these days, Hostal causes us to think about basic existential questions: about leaving and staying; about the search for safety, protection, and peace; about the body’s basic needs; about life and death. However, Hostal would not be an installation and an exhibition by Thomas Rentmeister if he did not put a spoke in the wheel of temptation of an all too narrow interpretation. He bursts this image with his Patients, with these absurd ceramic sculptures: a thick snowball on rusty steel, a “duetto buffo” that could have come from a comic opera, a cheeky guard, and the nose reminiscent of Nikolai Gogol’s surreal fantasy thwart the un­ settling Hostal scenario. In a humorous way, Thomas Rentmeister’s ceramics raise the question of the very basis of creative sculptural work. As wrongfully neglected “folk art” of the kind shown year after year in the form of temporary drop sculptures in public space, the snowman becomes a key witness. In view of Hostal, the deformed white trolls and their detached components cause an all too great interpretative gloom as well as a short-­term political interpretation to melt. They point out that in Thomas Rentmeister’s oeuvre, including all of the allusions and references whose spectrum his drawings also reveal, it is about no more and no less than material, form, volume, and space; about a repeatedly new assertion of strong sculpture.

© Annett Reckert

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