journeys into space

On Roland Geissel's Wall Works
by Prof. Dr. Matthias Bleyl

On Roland Geissel's Wall Works

Painting which covers entire rooms constitutes an extensive domain within Roland Geissel's oeuvre. Since 2000, ten such spatial designs have been created. A few were made in relatively small rooms in private buildings; most however in sizeable spaces, some - an old prison, a former factory canteen - no longer otherwise used, and in commercial galleries or public exhibition spaces. This purely temporary painting typically covers all surfaces - walls, ceiling and floor equally - using a matrix-based, enveloping structure. Only a few shades are used, typically three or four. The artist calls these works 'Spatial Drawings', but to be more accurate, they should really be described as 'spatial paintings'. This description is legitimized by one of his statements regarding the name: 'Whether we are talking about environments, wall drawings, installation, spatial painting or spatial drawing, can be left to others to decide.'1 Although other artists such as Sol LeWitt and David Tremlett also call their works 'Wall Drawings', strictly speaking these are 'wall paintings', apart perhaps from the earlier experiments solely using black lines. In any case Geissel's paintings are based on photographs, taken from the same position as the subsequent shots of the finished painted spaces; using the photographs as a template, the artist makes countless sketches to establish formal and chromatic relationships.

The net result however is a form of painting covering whole rooms. Painting which transforms entire spaces - principally walls, often ceilings too, but certainly never floors, except using separate decoration such as mosaic - is an artistic genre with a long tradition, described as 'wall painting', 'fresco' or 'mural art'. Starting with prehistoric cave paintings or the various painted walls of early civilizations, and progressing to paintings of Roman antiquity, largely lost, but of which we can gain an inkling from the finds at Vesuvius, we soon see that countless examples of wall painting remain, simply in Europe, particularly from the middle ages, whether they be decorative mural designs or narrative sequences in religious buildings - fewer secular examples having lasted, although some do exist. Since the Italian renaissance many designs have been created, mostly in impressive surroundings such as churches and palaces, which have shaped our image of wall painting to this day. They can be divided essentially into two varieties. On the one hand are decorative schemes which cover walls and also ceilings, fitting within the given structure of the space, taking its form into consideration; on the other are those which seek to create an illusion, quadratura, and transcend the given, able to keep it in abeyance it seems. Between the late fifteenth and late eighteenth centuries various typologies of spatial designs were created following these principles, partially or wholly enveloping the space. We need only think of Michelangelo's famous frescos in the Sistine Chapel, Raphael's Stanzas in the Vatican, Giambattista Tiepolo's paintings in the Würzburg Residence, or those of his many colleagues to be found in churches throughout southern Germany. Even in the nineteenth century, with Eugène Delacroix or Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, the Nazarenes in Rome, Alfred Rethel or Hans von Marées, or in the early twentieth century, with designs by Theo van Doesburg or Oskar Schlemmer, later with the murals by the Mexicans José Clemente Orozco, Diego Riviera or David Alfaro Siquieros, we see important examples of high-quality wall painting, although they gradually thin out. Today we encounter it mostly in restaurants seeking to appear folkloric, but there are still prominent artists creating important works in the tradition, such as Sol LeWitt, or more recently Katherina Grosse. Thus Roland Geissel's pieces may be seen as a serious, contemporary contribution to the genre, all the more so since the system behind his work cannot be elucidated using conventional models.

The group of works follows a structure which Geissel had already used for the wall objects he calls Melusines. A precisely-measured matrix, three units wide, three units high and three deep, is imposed on the surfaces of these small-scale block-like objects - not of course visible on the side facing the wall - varying according to the dimensions of each block. Every subsidiary unit thus has exactly the same
proportions as the whole wooden parallelepiped (a solid body of which each face is a parallelogram). The paint sometimes transgresses the boundaries of the grid however, creating new units, of pigment. Thus under no circumstances is the matrix emphasized - as in Stuart Arends' wall objects,2 in which the application of paint underscores the grid, the emphasis is on the new formations of pigment, based on the grid, which in turn retreats behind the painted forms. In a sense Geissel has simply turned this system inside out and used it on the six surfaces of the interiors, so that we now perceive each space as an enlarged object defined by pigment and seen from within, although this may alter the frames of reference: 'The artistic responses to questions of space, plasticity and volume, of outside and in, of sculpture and painting, are various and unique in each different group of works, even when they address the same subject.'3 Here the grid imposed over all planes also provides the framework for joined-up areas of pigment, in which several grid units are united chromatically. Clearly this methodical system does not follow the architectonic givens; it bypasses them. The colour-fields do not align themselves to the orthogonal lines - nearby or further-away - of the rooms' windows and doors, or fixtures and fittings such as lights or stoves. Instead they follow their own set of rules, dictated by the imperative to divide the space into thirds, leading to tense moments of friction which an interior designer or decorator would probably have avoided. Thus for instance (in Intervencje, 2005) the vertical border of a blue colour-field in the upper third may miss the vertical edge of a small projection in the wall, reaching from floor to ceiling, by centimetres; the horizontal of a red colour-field may fail to meet the top of the doorframe; but this is not however corrected in the possible interests of an overall uniformity. The work thus has nothing to do with integrated interior decoration. However any form of quadratura, referring to architecture, is also alien to Geissel. Mere colour-fields per se cannot create the illusion of spatial depth, even though varying intensities of colour can create a layered effect. To evoke real depth, simulated three-dimensional architectural elements must be deployed. However effects are occasionally created - whether intentionally or not - which, while they do not correspond to genuine illusionism, can certainly confuse our sense of spatial reality, and take on a life of their own; unexpected mutations in our perception of space occur. Without touching each other, three dark L-shaped strips, each spanning several planes, clamp all six surfaces together (Stargarder Strasse 72, 2005: back-wall/left-wall; front-wall/ceiling; right-wall/floor). These effects only become conspicuous in the photographs of the spaces, which then seem like remote peep-show scenes. The painter says of this: 'When viewing the photographic works it becomes apparent that spaces appear in the Spatial Drawings which do not exist in real space, and which are only perceived in the photographs. Depending on the location, new, unreal spaces are created.'4 Although every photographic representation tends necessarily towards remoteness and flattening, the wide-angle lenses required here sometimes accentuate the axis of perspective. Thus certain relationships between surfaces are articulated differently from the way they are perceived and sensed in the location itself, which then influences our image of the space; the corners of the room may seem more pronounced for instance. In the Spatial Painting made at Fehrbelliner Strasse 52a, the yellow-ochre stove seems to stand in a second space containing a horizontal red band. The upper and lower, white-painted thirds of the space are radically severed by the adjoining grey-green and dark-red areas, forming a 'cabin', closely resembling a vitrine, but this effect only works in the photograph, appearing very much in the background of the room, whereas in reality the room does not seem so deep. If we look at corners treated in a similar way, at Galerie Breitengraser (2000/1) or Kunstverein Schwerte (2002) - not frontally this time, following the peep-show principle, but along the room's diagonal - reversal effects occur similar to those familiar from James Turrell's Cross Corner Projections. Instead of following the receding walls and shrinking into the corner, seen from an angle the colour-fields seem to do the opposite, to protrude into the space, and build transparent parallelepipeds in the room. Within Geissel's painting however this does not represent a genuine attempt to create illusion. If Turrell's projections seem to create glowing bodies in the space - which even change, analogue to the viewer's location, allowing one side or the other of one of these illusory objects to be seen better - this effect doesn't really occur in Geissel's spaces. Standing in the room, the viewers could not be expected to receive this effect, which only works from a certain distance, as they are almost always 'right inside', where there are fascinating constellations in front of their eyes, above their head and under their feet, but where a cartographic total view, as it might be called, is not possible. If the Melusines represent the structure used for the Spatial Paintings as a globe represents the world, so the photographs are in effect a flat projection, similar to a map, which allows the paintings' almost 'unreal' appearance to be perceived properly. In this way Geissel's merely temporary painting acquires a longevity beyond mere documentation; the photographs are a dense block of work, offering different and particular spatial information to that of the Melusines or the painting itself.