The Ecstatic Static
June 25 – August 20, 2021
We are very pleased to present the solo exhibition The Ecstatic Static by Robert Muntean in our Berlin gallery. On view are 22 mostly large-scale paintings in which the artist undertakes a condensation of his previous works where the body is understood as an outer shell or cipher of emotion.
Muntean was born in 1982 in Leoben, Austria, and has lived in Berlin since 2008. Since studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and Leipzig, he has developed an idiosyncratic painterly style that oscillates between abstraction and figuration. At first glance, both his canvas and paper works give the impression of purely abstract, gestural painting. Only on closer inspection, however, does one discover figurative elements underneath, which are mostly bodies and people, and are often taken from photographs of pop stars or cult figures.
In Muntean's new exhibition The Ecstatic Static, the figures themselves now come to the fore for the first time. They become the defining, immediately recognizable element of the paintings. The abstract, gestural painting style is still visible, but now serves to outline the figures of the bodies and bring them to the fore. Their posture – their being bent, their standing upright, their squirming – becomes the essential means of expression in which emotion, fear, hope, confidence, or doubt are reflected.
The exhibition focuses on several series that formulate and define the artist's new concern with understanding and using the body and the figure as a metaphor for inner states in a multilayered way. In addition to the series The Ecstatic Static series, which gives the exhibition its title, this is especially so with the Two Lovers series.
The scenario of Two Lovers is a standard existential situation, or at least a horizon of longing to which people's libidinous energies are directed like iron filings. Whether the two lovers symbolize fulfilled happiness in life or serve as a cipher for a situation experienced as unsatisfactory is irrelevant. They represent a constantly fluctuating center of energy around which many other things – economy, politics, intrigue, death – circulate. Only in the gravitational field of mutual attraction is it charged with that force that can lead to constructive or devastating action.
In order to extract the archetypal that characterizes the Two Lovers situation, Muntean resorts to photographs that may be assumed to be generally known in the global circulation of images. They are often depictions of famous (film) couples, which, beyond their iconicity, each carry metaphorical added value: in Two Lovers (1962), for example, Romy Schneider and Alain Delon, the emblematic couple of French cinema, who both in real life and in a series of celluloid works such as Christine, L'assassinat de Trotsky or La Piscine, embed their passion in different epistemological mixtures. A passion too great, or, more precisely, too magnified in public perception, to be true, so that one can only classify it in terms of epochal history in both its luminescent and catastrophic dimension in retrospect, enlightened by knowledge, of Romy Schneider's death, which was still imminent at the time.
Another pairing that appears in Muntean's painting as a pictorial model is embodied by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton—the dream couple of all those who subscribe to the motto, “You gotta say yes to another excess.” Burton and Taylor lived and loved the emotional and alcoholic dissolution of boundaries as a permanent public spectacle and gave the idea of a “society of the spectacle” – as outlined by Guy Debord – a spin into the existentially cathartic, which is mirrored and transcended in the swirl of colors and forms in Inside Richard Burton.
In the work Atmosphere, the visual reproach is a photograph of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, who was trapped in, to quote New Order, a “Bizarre Love Triangle,” suffering from depression and using drugs; here the counterpart is not another person, but the dark side of himself that eventually led to his suicide.
Finally, LJJW—the title of the painting derives from the initials of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—shows a solitary figure with his eyes fixed on the ground, somewhat reminiscent of the 80s pop phenomenon “shoegaze.” Bands like My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Spacemen 3 built up dense, compact, and at the same time melodic walls of guitars and favored a performance style in which the static protagonists looked a bit sheepishly at their shoes instead of into the audience. “Dancing with myself” could be said in reference to Billy Idol: self-forgetfulness tipping over into self-indulgence. And the fantasized “mirror direction,” the look in the mirror, turns the narcissist into a couple.
In the context of the Two Lovers series, it is necessary to emphasize the importance of the figure(s) and the symbolic space associated with it, because Muntean emphasizes that for him an aesthetic shift has occurred since his penultimate exhibition, Sonic Wave, which translated noise into painterly gestures: “The figure is now more the door into the work,” says the artist, “and it should also be easier to read. My idea is that the complexity unfolds in the figure or with the figure.” A figure, however, that appears transparent and permeable, washed by the sea of colors –a fragile self-assertion in that transcendental homelessness that characterizes our epoch of instability and constant upheaval.
Whereas in earlier works by Muntean one could gain the impression that the figure emerges from the abstract tumult of colors and forms, now, as described mentioned, it comes almost alone into the foreground, composed with the means of abstraction and reduction. The contrasting areas of color and lines, delimited by the outlines of the bodies set as signifiers, evoke the suggestion of the pastose, even sculptural. The respective postures between energetic vigor and lust
for action, between intensely staged togetherness and slightly bent solipsistic self-absorption announce bodily tension or, on the contrary, contemplative emotional relief, as if the figures had been hypostasized into monuments of themselves and their existential potentials.
Other innovations in Muntean's current works also contribute to this, by, for example, implementing an additional element in the picture structure: the canvas is covered with tape and in this way becomes geometrically structured. The sketched forms are in turn pulled off collages that function as a kind of backdrop and are not on view in the exhibition. This results in a principle of order, a kind of a priori positing, which is again dialectically called into question in the intuitive play of the brushstroke. Bringing chaos into order: this is one of those pragmatics that lend the second large group of works in particular –The Ecstatic Static –its special signature.
To remain within the paradigm of the analogies to acoustic pop phenomena that the artist likes to employ, one could also speak of “Signal to Noise,” that is, of the signal-to-noise relationship that is repeatedly subjected to new experimental arrangements. However, if the 2018 series Sonic Wave was about the pulling out of figurative contours from a visually conceived “noise environment,” in The Ecstatic Static the gestalt-like is additionally confronted with the adhesive applications, which in turn, according to Muntean, refer to a digital invention of form achieved by analog means: the visible tape evokes the constructed nature of a variety of forms calculated on the computer and indicates a virtual structure of the image behind it.
Order into chaos, chaos into order: for the binary principle from which Muntean's painting draws its tension, the artist takes inspiration from the most diverse aesthetic and scientific sectors: he refers, for example, to measurement technology, where he takes up the relationship between “useful signal” and “noise signal” and translates it into visual parameters. In literature, he is fascinated by the French author Raymond Roussel, whose novel Locus Solus (1914) sets out in search of new linguistic forms. Meaning, according to Roussel, cannot be fixed, but strives for variability. This, in turn' evokes Muntean's deconstructive painting technique, which dissolves supposedly fixed pictorial content in the act of gestural exaltation and, with a constantly mutating color palette, polysemically transfers it into ever new forms.
The “Doppler effect” aimed at by Muntean can be illustrated particularly well by means of a “Japanoiserie” set into the picture by him: the painting Merzbow is a portrait of the eponymous wall-of-sound musician (aka) Masami Akita in action. Muntean chose a special color palette for this work: the figure of the noise aesthete himself appears in tones between purple and orange, infused with lines and color flows in such a way that a perspective seems to emerge. Through the figure, a space opens up into the depths—perhaps again a form of digital matrix. The background of the painting, however, freezes in crystalline colorations between sapphire blue and pale green, which are not part of Muntean's standard color repertoire. He studied Utagawa Hiroshige, the important Japanese woodblock printmaker at the end of the Edo period in the 19th century, intensively, the artist tells us, adopting some of his coloring principles.
“In the Merzbow work, I was already aware that the pastel was very influenced by Hiroshige, because I always flip through his catalog. But it wasn't a conscious decision to use his color palette. It came about with Merzbow, and then acted as an initial spark that continued with the other paintings.”
The dual principle according to which Muntean proceeds is presented in a different way once again: here Hiroshige represents the order of things, while Merzbow stands for noise, the acoustic unleashing, the derailing noise attack. The colorful constriction of these two principles tames the chaos of the noise bands fraying at the edges. The formal rigor and coloristic discipline of the Japanese old master is only conjured up as a hallucinatory imagination. What in older works by Muntean implicitly took place in the confrontation between visual utility signal and noise is here externalized, as it were: only through the implementation of an Other into one's own – one could also say through the infection with the color ideas of a mind that is self-sufficient and autonomous in its own way – is the surface of one's own artistic ideas pierced so ruthlessly that a profitable artistic gangrene is created.
All these annotations show that Robert Muntean's art is in a constant process of transformation: not revolutionary, but evolutionary. If one looks at the production of several years simultaneously there are recognizable elements, but also new elements that – for instance in the sense of Lacan's objet petit a – break up, even tear open, firmly established structures, and, in the most favorable case, are able to make the body sing electrically. Or, as Walt Whitman puts it in his famous poem:
“All is a procession,
The universe is a procession with measured and perfect motion.”