Blending In While Standing Out

"A canvas is never empty." —Robert Rauschenberg 

When you go to see art you normally expect to see, well, something. There is an object, a form or a subject, that becomes the symbol by which you will remember that piece (a semi-smile, a starry night​, or a shark in a tank) – but the whole point of Clemens Tremmel's recent body of work titled "Between Loss and Refusal" at Morgen Contemporary, is to show us…nothing.


Now, you might be imagining some avant-garde concept exhibition, minimalist to the stretches of laziness, or a fresh-out-of-art-school artist exhibiting a series of unpainted canvases titled 'untitled.' But way back in in 1918, Kazimir Malevich had already snapped up that idea with White on White. Consequently, this also became a seminal work in developing the ideas and aesthetic of the Monochromatic painting movement.  Although young (born in '88) and still studying his Masters, Clemens Tremmel is not a student trying to break new ground, but rather shows an extreme maturity towards his practice.

Unlikely Liaisons 

Conjoining two painting styles to illustrate his concept, the artist shows a sensitive and obvious talent for a realist, old masterly style of landscape painting, and then uses this to crash head-on this with a more contemporary and contested style of Monochromatic painting. Between Loss and Refusal manages to produce a clever marriage between brilliant technique and the twist of a somewhat frustrated painter. Tremmel also references art history and makes his own commentary on modern day social constructs by challenging our memory and imagination.

Oderbruch, 2013, oil on wood, 55.12 x 57.09 in. Photo: Chris Phillips

At first glance, these paintings may appear more like semi-sculptural wall installations – somewhat Rauschenberg-esque, yet much more carefully constructed. Upon closer inspection, we see that an intricate oil painting of a landscape was once here in its entirety, but has been methodically and selectively vandalized. Parts of the painting are physically removed or covered up. It appears as though a thief has meticulously removed the most important pieces of the pictures, leaving an unsolvable puzzle. Here's a haunting scene of a ______ on a dark and foreboding sea, and here summer______wistfully dance in the dusk breeze of spring. Leaving blanks, Tremmel censors parts of his pictures, giving us hints but also​ keeping us guessing.

Construction via Destruction

In the destructive act of physically cutting, blanking out or replacing entire forms and planes of his paintings to make new compositions, Tremmel's painter-frustration does not appear in angry splashes of Pollock quantities, we rather see the careful and measured traces of the hand of a finely-trained classical painter destroying his own work with an ulterior motive. In Trinitatisfriedhof (Trinity Cemetery), we see a picture of a beautiful garden with a huge chunk of the story literally and physically missing. Traces of a concrete sculpture or structure hint to something once being there, and we try to guess at what it was and why it is not longer there. The title gives away a little of the story, but mostly the viewer is left feeling lost or frustrated with the paintings refusal to give concrete answers—which is exactly the painter’s intention.

Trinitatisfriedhof (C.D.F.), 2012, oil on wood, 39.37 x 66.93 in. Photo: Chris Phillips

Quoting Caspar David Friedrich, the 19th-century German, Dresden-based romanticist landscape painter, among one of his influences, Trinitatisfriedhof is actually an image of Friedrich's grave (without the grave). With both Dresden and landscape painting being the more obvious links between these two artists, the conceptual background of Tremmel's works is also loosely based on Friendrichs' ideas that landscape painting is a "symbolic vehicle for the projection of emotions." In Tremmel's paintings, however, reverse this emotive aspect by being the provocateur and playing with the viewer. As we look around the room to find the evidence, the pieces of the missing puzzle, frustration is instilled in the viewer. Is the cutout somewhere else on display? What has the artist done with the rest? The frustration in looking at Tremmel's work is also one of aesthetics: how can such a skilled painter literally cut out the most intricate and laborious parts of his work? Did he really paint the whole painting and then destroy it?

As confirmed by the gallery, yes, the artist paints the whole work before selectively removing its parts – and it is unknown what he does with the remainder. When we realize the treasure hunt is fruitless, we feel the loss. There is nothing to grab on to as the tiny hints left behind are often not enough to invent a memory or even formulate a story. And then we realize: maybe Tremmel doesn't actually have anything to say, and he is literally covering this up. Or perhaps it goes deeper: does he have something to hide? Is he blocking out his own personal histories in a conscious 'selective memory' process?

Absence, Presence

Dealing with memory, imagination, censorship and as the title clearly suggests, "loss and refusal", one gets the feeling that this might just be a frustrated traditionalist painter lost for ideas and that, in place of coming up with new concepts which might be kinder to his talents for his medium, he has instead turned to structural reconfiguration.

Installation view of "Weg" and "Weg (2)" by Clemens Tremmel at Morgen Contemporary. Photo: C. Phillips

On the information sheet for the exhibition it states in caps: THE ARTIST WILL ATTEND. Seeing as most of the time the artist is present at his or her own opening, this text struck me as unusual. Is the artist usually a recluse? For in this show, not only do we wonder what lies behind the painted absences and cut out mysteries in the works but also about the person who holds the key to them. The artist’s hand is so present in these pieces, yet the person is somehow so very absent. He has hijacked the key pieces to his puzzles and ran away. Much like his works, Tremmel is a mystery.

Article by Lara Merrington