“Well, thank God, art tends to be less what critics write than what artists make.”
—Jasper Johns, “Letter to the Editor,”
Arts, vol. 33, no. 6 (March 1959)
An exhibition of work by Matti Braun, the Berlin-born, Cologne-based artist, is always something to which one looks forward. At BQ, Braun has made a show that speaks for itself more than just visually, extending any singular interpretation of the works with the simple device of an exhibition title. What does Ave Vala mean, by itself or in relation to the exhibition? Braun has provoked different associations and references with an exhibition title before; in this instance, Ave Vala might refer to an avenue, to Ave Maria, or to Walhalla. Or perhaps the reference is to the Finnish epic poem “Kalevala”—appropriate, as Braun is himself part Finnish.
Matti Braun: Ave Vala
January 14 – March 3, 2012
Interwoven with stories of the invention of the world from an egg, a virgin birth, and many metamorphoses—including the transformation of animals into people and of gold into a woman—the “Kalevala” encourages readers to draw connections with the myths of Pygmalion and Dionysus, the Nibelungen legend, and Christian religion. Just such a combination and migration of tradition has been key in the concept, form, and method of Braun’s work.
Two types of painting Ave Vala comprises. Small and medium paintings of the first type, made on silk with textile dyes, derive specifically from the techniques of Javanese batik. These paintings are beautiful and strange, luminous and dark. It’s not surprising that Color Field painting comes to mind, as the flow of brushstroke-free staining recalls obliquely that particular way of working. The look of the paintings is, however, something very different. An intense brightness and translucence reminds one of an out-of-focus and backlit image on a light box. Like a cross between a sail and a stained glass window, a large painting on cotton functioning as a window screen sends a diffuse, ethereal colored light into the gallery.
The second type of painting, medium in scale and hung close together, is as materially present as the textile dye paintings are radiant and spatial. These paintings are black and gray, made from accumulations of pooled acrylic paint and varnish, on a rough support of raw silk. An explanatory text is not necessary to unlock the meaning of the paintings—they can simply be absorbed. In the telling, much like a myth, they produce different versions from in the looking. There is even a sense of foreboding in the dissonant colors and tonal contrasts, similar to those of Joan Miró’s painting “Still Life with Old Shoe” (1937), which is itself a synthesis of Catalan folk art, cosmopolitan Parisian Surrealism, and remembered hallucinations (due to Miró’s skipping meals when he was completely out of money).
Braun has long been interested in what he describes as “cultural misunderstandings,” and he has researched the results accessed when the objects and crafts of one culture are used with or upon those of another: The consequent hybridization produces an entirely new meaning. Such assumptions, inherent to the physical or referential use of an object, are exposed productively. It could even be said that, due to the huge traffic of images in the contemporary world, cultural misunderstandings are integral to our experience, if not unique to it.
Braun’s exhibition demonstrates a concision, intelligence, and visual invention that are consistent with his work. One leaves the show with the feeling of wanting to return to look for longer. An openness between the paintings and the ideas they communicate is achieved through Braun’s direct and unpretentious approach to the making of objects. There is no need to talk of Conceptualism or its perceived opposite. These are successful as paintings rather than as works about painting, and as such they offer a multiplicity of thought-provoking alternatives to any fixed idea of meaning. Has everything already been done in painting? Obviously not.