February 15 – March 15, 2012
Magnus Plessen, Listening to colors, 2011, oil on canvas, 37 7/8 x 55 1/8 inches
Copyright Magnus Plessen / Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels
Born in 1967, Magnus (von) Plessen is approaching mid-career status. Though he did make his name in Germany with an innovative take on figurative painting in the 2000s, a time when the resurgence of this genre became über-publicized, he was never a protagonist in Neo Rauch’s Leipzig school. In fact, to be geographically precise, Plessen originally heralds from Hamburg, but lives and works in Berlin.
If Plessen has followed any particular artist in the past, it must have been Gerhard Richter; Plessen’s early works, at least, read as somewhat of a brew of both the master’s realist and abstract styles. But then, what German painter of Plessen’s generation could escape the influence of Richter’s legacy? Despite occasional references, Plessen has worked hard to define his own voice. He has found it in the intermingled forms of abstract gesture, geometric structure, and figurative subject matter. As his work has matured, his expression has become increasingly more natural and fluent.
Plessen’s fourth solo exhibition at Gladstone Gallery reveals a sense of continuity. He still adds paint and subtracts it with the help of palette knives and rubber tools, navigating swiftly between positive and negative space. He also continues to contrast clusters of dense information with areas that are spare and at times empty. There is the artist’s signature handling of push and pull effects, yet in this exhibition of work, applied with more inherent tension.
In the past, Plessen’s subjects have ranged from portraits to still lifes and interior spaces. Collage and folk art are frequent references. His palette meanwhile has been equally eclectic, occasionally embracing saturated hues or appearing strictly muted. In the face of this diversity, it is his structural organization of paint that has remained a constant. By now, this grounding force has become the artist’s trademark and here, Plessen again does not stray.
His brushwork is tactile and made of several rhythmic, lateral strokes. The resulting patterns provide each composition with an overt architectural quality. Plessen’s approach is reminiscent to that of a sculptor, who carves a stone or piece of wood in parallel movements to slowly feel out its forms. His strict adherence to technique is certainly due to aesthetics, but it might also be explained by the fact that Plessen is largely self-taught; he relies on it as his skeleton, his alphabet.
In this installation, Plessen’s imagery is largely suggestive. He hints at rather than renders specifics, preferring a touch of mysticism to precise narrative. At Gladstone, he presents two new series of large-scale paintings: one explores the abstracted image of a pregnant woman in a Matisse-inspired manner, the other, sparked by the structural concept of rotary movement. In the case of the latter, Plessen positions the form of a head, for example, at the center of each canvas. As the compositional core, it becomes a metaphor for a human nucleus, shiftless and steady in the midst of cosmic confusion. Both series embody contemplations of life and its various aspects such as fertility, birth, growth, beginnings, and endings; areas where the subtraction of paint has left faint ghost images become metaphoric for loss and renewal, while denser sections allude to growth. Such appear to be existential ponderences and they are expressed well through Plessen’s signature style.
Technically and in terms of content, Plessen is evenly interested in what was there, what is, and what has vanished from view. His focus is time and his ambition is to find a solution for how to capture the passage of this temporal quality in paint. He succeeds in those compositions that are less complex. It is when his paintings become too cluttered that they begin to lack immediacy and impact. Plessen’s style demands clarity of thought. When at his best—and we do find ample evidence of this at Gladstone—he delivers this idea well: direct, poetically abstracted, and in a visual form that is all his own.