Peter Lodermeyer : Questioning the Reality of the Picture

Thoughts on Paintings by Dirk Salz

The painting as a window – the painting as a mirror – the painting as a wall. These are the three paradigmatic metaphors that have repeatedly emerged in ever-new variations over the course of the history of painting, indicating how we as viewers perceive painted pictures. The painting as an open window – „quasi una finestra aperta“, this being the classical formulation stated in Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise on painting from 1435/36 – constituted the central metaphorical image from the Renaissance to early modernity, which governed the relationship between painting and viewer: It was painting as the illusion of gazing into another space that lay beyond the aesthetic threshold of the frame. The painting as a mirror is a much more open notion, showing up in extremely different ways anywhere from Jan van Eyck’s „Arnolfini-Portrait“ to Gerhard Richter’s real mirror objects. By contrast, with the painting as a „wall“, i.e., an opaque material surface that the viewer’s gaze is unable to penetrate, it is primarily perceived as an object from which every vestige of illusionism has been banished, as a thing with characteristic features. The paintings by Antoni Tàpies with their graffiti-like incisions that make them appear like pieces of a wall are a prime example for this.

The particular aesthetic attraction of numerous works by Dirk Salz derives not lastly from the fact that, for all their contrariness, they bring together the two notions of the picture as a window and as a mirror and thus reveal themselves to be highly contradictory structures. „Window“, of course, is not to be understood here in the sense of the modern definition of painting where the picture frame causes the gaze to fall as if through a windowpane into an illusionistic picture space governed by a homogenous central perspective. Rather it affords an insight into a complex pictorial depth, an amalgam of real space and illusionistic space. These paintings – if we may simply refer to pieces by Dirk Salz as „paintings“ – actually do indicate a very real depth. It results from the specific painting material that Salz has been using for years now. His painting method does not have much in common with the traditional notion of applying paint with a brush to a picture carrier such as canvas, wood, or paper. Instead he distributes a certain number (or none at all) of more or less thick layers of epoxy resin enriched with paint pigments upon multiplex boards, occasionally also aluminum, and generally primed in black. Epoxy resin is a transparent material. This has the effect that the gaze actually penetrates the picture, traversing a real spatial depth of several millimeters. But the spatial depth that is experienced visually often extends far beyond this. Epoxy resin not only has a transparent character, when drying it also forms a hard, for the most part smooth, surface that strongly reflects the light. This now means that a gaze to Dirk Salz’s works takes in and must deal with contradictory visual data: the partly real, partly virtual color depth of space that coincides with the reflections on the surface, whose intensity and information content inevitably depend on the spatial situation and the persons and objects who are also in the respective room, the light situation, and the vantage point of the viewer.

It is worth noting that both the depth effect and the reflection are heavily dependent on the color and the intensity of the pigments used. In particular the dark colors such as blue or green create an immeasurable spatial depth, a transparent continuum of color, for which the gaze encounters no definable boundary and into which we as viewers imagine we might almost physically delve, especially with regard to the large-format works. Likewise these dark paintings are the ones that display particularly strong reflections. It follows then that such effects are considerably less strongly pronounced in the case of the brighter paintings in white, gray, or pastel tones. In order to accentuate and work out more distinctly the specific quality of the bright paintings, for a while now Salz has been removing their reflection entirely by subsequently sanding them down. I will return to this subject later.

A well known, often quoted, witty remark by Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal goes something like: „Depth must be hidden. Where? On the surface.“ We can readily apply this statement to works by Dirk Salz and with it, we touch upon an essential point of his claim as an artist. In Hofmannsthal’s remark referring to literature, depth and surface are meant figuratively, intellectually, whereas with respect to Dirk Salz’s pieces, the painting depth is literally counteracted by the surface sheen and the mirroring characteristics of the painting material. The verb „to hide“, used by Hofmannsthal to mark the actual intention of the poet, is very decidedly a term used by Dirk Salz as well. In conversation, he is fond of emphasizing that for him it is always about hiding certain features of his works. The reason for this is that he wants to encourage, even force, the viewer to take a closer and longer look. In particular it is the reflections that are suitable for „hiding“ other picture parameters. Paradoxically, it is the surface with its shine and its reflections that is supposed to prevent the viewers from contenting themselves with the superficial view and cause them to engage more intensively with the works instead. But what are the characteristics that are hidden in or by means of the surface? Primarily it is the composition, but it is also the color.

It is an aesthetical experience hard to describe in words when we gaze at a dark, large-format painting by Dirk Salz in a room flooded with bright daylight falling at a slant from the side. What then appears on the painting surface is a complex mixture of visual data, which may only be classified and attributed with difficulty. Lines, colors, and nuances of color as well as differences in brightness need first be understood and defined. Depending on our angle of viewing, the painting may be so overlighted that the reflections push to the forefront and it is above all ourselves or the objects in the room we see being mirrored. However, the reflections are „colored“ by the intrinsic color(s) of the paintings, and what is more they are blurred and deformed, since the reflecting painting surface is anything but smooth as glass – this is about a piece of art made by hand and not about an industrially produced, „perfect“ design object. The surface reveals slight bumps and dents, which we only notice once we move around before the object. But often, at first glance it is not possible to say which lines, forms, and levels of brightness „belong to the painting“ at all (providing this may be stated so naively) and which of them are „mere“ reflections. Visual data that are internal and external to the paintings overlay one another in a confusing manner. So as to be able to sharply distinguish them, it is in turn necessary to move about, assuming various distances and trying out different viewing angles. In order to be able to ascertain details, it might be a help to get very close to the painting surface and shade parts of it with the palms of the hands. Yet even then we may be mistaken. The large green painting, for example, which was showcased in 2015 at Salz’s solo exhibition „In Situ“ at Museum Katharinenhof in Kranenburg, contains no green pigments at all, and we can assure ourselves of this by examining the drip traces and “stalactites” of epoxy on the sides of the paintings where we find exclusively yellow traces of pigments in the resin. Before the picture carrier primed in black, surprisingly the yellow pigment embedded in the epoxy with its specific light-refracting characteristics looks bright green. The drip traces and resin drops are direct and certainly revealing traces of the painting process. For this reason, after initially taping up the sides of his works, Dirk Salz opted to accept them as an integral part of his paintings.

Thus, all in all, the painting we gaze at proves to be a complex structure that all but begs for the viewer to move about. Particularly with the dark paintings‘ highly reflecting surfaces, Salz demands from his viewers that they cast a „mobile eye“, employ a „peripatetic gaze“. Through movement, the gaze is sensed as a physical perception that tests various hypotheses of experience. This makes clear that Salz’s intention as an artist is not solely aesthetic, but also epistemologically motivated: Moreover, he is always driven by the question concerning the reality of the painting, the matter having to do with the differentiation between appearance and reality in the act of perception, and the issue concerning the scope of our sensory cognition.

Let us return to the large, dark yellow-green painting. What at first remains hidden in it is the composition made up of surfaces, lines, and gradated intensities of color, which may only be grasped in total if we manage to look through the reflections on the surface as such, to „subtract“ these from the perception and thus expose the characteristics of the painting’s innermost itself. (Incidentally, just to mention an interesting phenomenon here, it is not only the color depth and composition that are hidden on the surface, but the surface hides itself, since although the light reflection takes place on the painting’s outer skin, it creates a deceptive spatiality, namely the reflection of the surrounding environment, which we might then falsely assume to be wholly or in parts painted areas of the picture.) For the most part, Dirk Salz invents his compositions, i.e. the borderlines of the surfaces that are covered with the paint material, at the computer, always with the option to change them during the painting process wherever this seems to be appropriate. His language of forms is familiar to us from the history of modern painting: apart from a series of his own works with compositions consisting entirely of circles and arc segments, they are exclusively horizontal and vertical strips or surfaces with horizontal and vertical borderlines, which may be described in total as parts of a virtual grid. – The grid is generally acknowledged as the central paradigm of the flat, formalistic, self-referential modern painting and as the basis for what we normally refer to as constructive-geometric or concrete painting. Dirk Salz makes use of this formal vocabulary, but he liberates it from the role of pure self-reference by „hiding“ it in the surface reflection of his paintings and thus shifting it to a dialectics of visibility and invisibility.

Up until now, reference has only been made to the dark, highly reflective paintings, though these do make up the majority of Dirk Salz’s pieces that stand, as it were, at the center of his work. But they do not constitute all of the artist’s oeuvre. Since Salz takes a strong interest in probing more closely the various aspects of his works and in accenting them even more by focusing the gaze and reducing the formal means, he has created additional series of works in recent years, which have led to an increasing differentiation in his understanding of painting.

An important aspect of his painting compositions is the gradated depth effect that results from staggering the resin layers with and without pigments. This feature is probed in a series of works, for which Salz consistently dispenses with compositional elements so as to concentrate on color depth and density. Instead the intensity of the color is continually heightened from the painting’s edges to its center. This effect is attained by stacking layers of very slightly pigmented resin, here not applied to a flat board, but to a concavely bent, bowl-shaped picture carrier. True to the nature of this form, there are fewer layers of the pigmented epoxy resin up towards the edges, whereas logically there are more layers that overlay in the middle. Hence, the depth effect, or respectively the color density, steadily intensifies towards the middle, or at least it does so in a way that transitions remain undetectable and there are no inner details in the paintings to deflect the gaze. The emphasis on the overall appearance of the painting is all the more enhanced due to the fact that this series of works consists mostly of unusual formats: much elongated upright rectangular formats, but above all circular painting shapes. By means of these dominant forms, these works seem more like painting objects than actual paintings in the classical sense. With their compact, closed forms, they are like giant, preciously shining gemstones.

Another series of works, more extensive in terms of numbers, is the brighter, white, gray or pastel-colored paintings mentioned earlier on. Due to the fact that the effect of the reflective surfaces is much less pronounced with these pieces than with the darker paintings, Dirk Salz came to the conclusion to eliminate the reflections entirely by means of sanding the painting surfaces. By roughening the surfaces, these paintings admittedly lose some of their power of excitement and irritation, but for this they take on a very special color depth, peculiar vibration and spatial effect, which are only fully grasped after gazing long and attentively. The particular effect of these bright, matte paintings stems from the numerous glazed layers of white or colors underlaid with black priming. This black, „hidden“ on the bottom of the painting field, which we may perceive (or at least surmise) after gazing long and attentively through the layers of color lying above it ensures a colorful spatial effect as a polarized moment of tension vis-à-vis the bright colors. It follows then that these works demand of the viewer a different attitude than their highly shining dark pendant pieces do, which, as explained above, depend on a „mobile eye“, i.e., movement on the part of the viewer. The bright paintings, however, require a more static, patient, or even contemplative gaze and call for an insightful honing-in to the respective color atmosphere on the part of the viewer and an immersion into the space of color that slowly opens up. The fact that works by Dirk Salz are often perceived as „color painting“ is somewhat justified precisely with regard to this series of works.

Despite recurrent forays into exploring color and color effect, the interplay between transparency and reflection nevertheless remains the central theme for Dirk Salz. This also holds true for the objects and installations, which accompany and comment his painting. With these the painting metaphors of window and mirror are still in part more literally a theme than would be possible in the case of the paintings. The simpler objects consist of a multiplex wall mount, in which several colored pieces of glass in various sizes have been embedded, and which jut out at a right angle from the wall. What is confusing about these objects is that it is not evident how we are supposed to look at them. There is no main view, no privileged vantage point, but rather a large number of possible aspects for which the viewer must decide for himself or herself the extent they inform us of the artist’s intention. For example, it remains unclear where the boundaries of the artwork are. Does the work only consist of what belongs to it materially or might the reflections and colored shadows it casts depending on the light part of the work, even possibly be the actual intention? Such uncertainties also arise in the case of the large room installation that Salz designed on the occasion of his solo exhibition in Kranenburg mentioned earlier. On the first upper floor Salz had partly covered a large, multi-part, window that tapered towards the top with blue foils that were transparent to various degrees or else reflected light. In addition he placed a large, blue sheet of transparent acrylic glass in the center of the room. When the sunlight hit it, the walls and floors were strewn with fields of light and colored shadows – visually the room came alive with light and color, causing the question concerning the „correct“ vantage point for the viewer and the boundaries of the work of art to become especially conspicuous.

To interpret Salz’s objects and installations as if they were jaunts into the field of sculpture would be a misunderstanding. The concern is always for painting, whose characteristics the artist tests in various experimental arrangements and under the conditions of real space. This becomes very clear with the most recent objects, which are nothing other than customary paintings with epoxy resin, though they forego the presence of a picture carrier. The bare epoxy resin „plates“, to which varying degrees of pigments have been added, Salz places tersely on the floor leaning against the wall, whereby sometimes they are backed by a black rectangular surface. Depending on whether we view them before a white background or the black wall painting, the painting surfaces differ very greatly in terms of contrast and color intensity.

The question concerning the boundaries of a work of art that becomes so apparent with the objects is also justified with respect to the paintings. Where do the boundaries of the painting run? What all belongs to the painting itself? Is art only what it consists of in terms of material or are the contingent, ephemeral reflections on the painting surface that are dependent on the space and light conditions an integral part of the work? To pose this question differently: Is the work of art a static, unchanging structure or does its actual value lie only in the lively, but fleeting moment of gazing at it? This is a question for the viewer. The paintings themselves proffer no answer.

Gerhard Richter, a painter Dirk Salz greatly esteems, once said about those works of his that deal directly with the metaphors of the painting as a window and a mirror: „The doors, curtains, surface paintings, sheets of glass etc.“ – here it would be nice to include the colored and non-colored mirror objects – „are perhaps parables for despair over the dilemma that, granted, allows our sight to recognize things, but that at the same time limits and renders partially impossible the knowledge of reality.“ This quote may equally be applied to works by Dirk Salz – with one exception. Also for Salz there is no question that the finiteness and limitedness of our senses mean both, a condition for making possible and limiting our knowledge of the world. Objective sensory knowledge is not possible. The fact that works by Dirk Salz reflect this in the medium of painting turns out for the viewer, however, not to be the expression of despair over knowledge theory, but rather it awakens curiosity and a desire to discover and makes way for unexpected insights into the nature of gazing.

By Peter Lodermeyer