Exhibition visit – Marcel Odenbach: Works on Paper

Marcel Odenbach is a German artist, best known for his work with video. However, his current exhibition at the Kunstmuseum, Bonn (in its last few days) to celebrate his 60th birthday, focuses on work on paper.  I was not familiar with his work and so visited in the spirit of exploration.  Since the mid-80s, Odenbach has produced a series of large mixed media and collage works.  Initially, these were a combination of graphite drawing and collage, but most recent works in the current exhibition are primarily collages. I did not take photographs and can only find a few of the works on the internet. This brief review relies on the notes that I made during the exhibition yesterday. I have included some basic illustrations taken from these notes and there are several links to images of Odenbach’s work.

My main focus was his technique: I was interested in how he had constructed his collages, which are massive, intricate pieces of work. A lot of Odenbach’s earlier work, in particular, uses book pages as a ground.  Pasted onto large sheets of paper, they serve to provide visual interest while strengthening the support.  Books used for this purpose that I could identify include the Communist Manifesto, pages from the Bible and some unidentified text relating to the national socialists activities against the Jews in the 1930s. Later work uses text in a different way: repeated text and images have been dyed with ink and used as collage elements.  Some work uses both of these together.  Most recent collages are like vast paper jigsaws produced from these tinted illustrated papers.  They remind me of newspapers, and some of the images must have originally come from the media, but there are also historical images.  Moving chronologically through the exhibition it was possible to see the development of technique from pure drawing to drawing and collage incorporating some collaged images, to creating papers with images and text which were then used as material for entire collages.  In these most recent pieces, drawing must have been used in the planning stages but is not evident in the final piece (although pencil is often cited as one of the media used but I couldn’t find it!): the lines created between the edges of collage pieces become the drawing.

There is a strong cultural / social / political bias to a lot of Odenbach’s work, including a strong African component, strong enough to make me question his ethnic background, knowing nothing about him beforehand.  Much work clearly reflects that the artist grew up in post-war Germany and addresses the issues that faced this country during those years.

An early drawing with collage elements is “Der Not macht erfinderisch” (1984) which I translate as “emergency makes (us) resourceful”. This work consists of two large vertical (portrait) panels, side by side, each depicting the half-opened shutters of a window. The shutters are drawn in graphite but the shadows on the shutters have been created using a combination of rough pencil shading and collaged images and text. The effect is convincing when viewed from a distance and intriguing close up. I have not attempted to interpret this image and am taking it at face value.  The technique interested me more than any message that might be there.

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A drawing / collage work that interested me for the way in which collage was used to evoke texture was “Der Lack ist ab” (1990), which could be translated as “the paint is coming off”.  The subject is a close-up of an industrial tower, perhaps a gasworks. The sort of structure that sometimes remains in Germany, particularly in the Ruhr region, under Denkmalschutz (protected status to preserve it as a structure of cultural, architectural or historical relevance). However, this particularly structure is clearly not valued sufficiently and looks as if might decay sufficiently through neglect to be pulled down.  Left and right of the work in two narrow vertical panels are the words: “Die letzten Denkmäler sind noch nicht befallen / aber jeder Schlag könnte der richtige sein”, which I translate as “the last memorials have not yet fallen but any blow could be the one to do it”.  This work was produced in 1990, a few months after the fall of the East-West divide in Germany and I presume is a reference to that.

The main structure was drawn in pencil and the surface was depicted using pencil and collage.  Odenbach’s collage pieces have rounded, flowing edges and when sparingly applied to the surface in different colours, or different tones of the same colour, realistically evoke the physical appearance of peeling paint through subtle tonal contrasts. The paper he used carried text and images (he seems never to use plain paper) and was pre-dyed with emulsion paint.

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Die Weckschnapp (1997)  is the name of a tower in Cologne apparently used as a prison during the Middle Ages for a particularly gruesome form of execution, although it is unclear whether this really happened or is a myth – I prefer to think it was the latter.  I have translated the following from Wikipedia so cannot vouch for its reliability (Wikipedia’s or my translation): from the ceiling of the prison, the guard hung a piece of bread.  The prisoners were deprived of food so they would try to run up stairs to catch the bread, fall through a self-opening trapdoor and fall through a knife-lined shaft into the Rhine. Only a prisoner who was particularly thin succeeded in reaching the river alive.

Odenbach’s work by this name is a form of triptych.  Right and left of the central panel are panels which are reminiscent of army camouflage. I didn’t know about the purpose of a Weckschnapp when I saw the work yesterday so my notes on the work are purely descriptive. The central panel depicts the inside of a modern concrete tower, looking up towards the roof, which appears to be a modern day response to Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine chapel, even though  the effect is more implied than explicit. The contradiction of the visible bare concrete tower and the recollection of Michelangelo’s ceiling is uncomfortable but also interesting.  Knowing now the purpose of a mediaeval Weckschnapp, Odenbach’s Weckschnapp seems to be analogous, a tower of aesthetic deprivation but, extending the analogy, I wondered what the punishment could be, assuming there was a way up?

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Whereas in earlier work, collage is a technique which Odenbach combines with drawing, in his most recent work, collage is the medium and I gather that these connect in some way with his video pieces. He has created large-scale works including portraits and interiors, as well as others that defy easy categorisation. Where he has depicted wood or cement surfaces, he appears to have incorporated elements of frottage.  His primary material appears to be large sheets of pre-printed and dyed paper which he cuts into elaborate “paper jigsaws” which require the viewer to admire them for the overall composition but then to come in close and marvel at the painstaking complexity of his technique.

Here are some examples of his work, which can be viewed on the internet but were not in the current exhibition:

You can’t see the forest for the trees in the MOMA collection.  Odenbach talks about this work and how he created this collage in this audio link.  Close-up detail from this work can also be seen here – it gives a good idea of how he assembles his collages and how he uses text and images to achieve tonal contrast and depth in his images.

Leipzig Church also in the MOMA collection (they currently have 11 works by Odenbach)

Ein Tag am Meer (A day by the sea) – click on the small image for more detail.

More information about Odenbach’s video work, including excerpts with explanatory contexts and rental / screening options, can be found on the LIMA website.

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