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Wolfgang Till Busse

Out and about in the land of Dreamtime
By Wolfgang Till Busse
Art historian, museum educator

Laudation on the occasion of the exhibition on January 11, 2013 in Cologne

Silent Sounds - Loud Sages

Claus Knobel has been traveling a total of three times in the interior of Australia, in the so-called outbacks, where it can sometimes take a long time to get to a water point and sometimes 100 miles to the next pub. He toured the inaccessible areas on a motorcycle and sought direct contact with the Aborigines, even managed to find entry to reserves that were actually inaccessible to tourists. As if on the way to a distant country, he also embarked on a journey inward, the ramifications of which are reflected in the cartographies of his paintings. Knobel's motorcycle tours have taken him to different parts of the world, to Corsica, the outbacks, and will soon take him to Namibia. There are always places that stand in contrast to our urbanized, over-civilized and planned world; they are places that can dictate unforeseen directions to the traveler and unexpected turns to the artist. On each trip, Knobel discovered different topics and thus developed different styles and forms of expression that seemed appropriate to these subjects.

Knobel's earlier, almost abstract pictures of Australia are based on experiences of the landscape and fall back on the textures and colors of the outback. Here, the water-blue tones inside a cave meet a few green areas and rust-brown sand that was applied to the surface of the painting. In this way, these works also develop an extremely haptic peculiarity that they still have in common with an older group of works created in Corsica. Refractions and double reflections, stripe-like structures play a certain role here and create a multilayeredness that already refers to the works of the past four years that are mainly exhibited here. The stripe structure, the choice of colors and the materiality of the color refer faintly to the late, pre-Cubist landscape paintings by Cézanne.

Some of the works show interiors, such as an old train from the colonial era, in which the lighting conditions have been turned upside down, because the light of the landscape that has been subjected to these colonial trains flows in from all sides and occupies the compartment. Here, Knobel plays with the symmetries created by the unreal light by simply leaving out the supports of the bench on one side.

The interior views of so-called roadhouses, which are reminiscent of Edward Hopper's pictures in their serenity and silence, were also created in the outback. Here hard-boiled drinkers are already at 10 o'clock in the morning in a self-forgetfulness and a forgetting of time, which may not only be due to the alcohol, but also to the place in the middle of nowhere. The actual core of the picture is formed by the clearly documented handles of the refrigerator doors, behind which the coveted beers are hidden. Knobel, who can certainly count Jan Vermeer among his artistic role models, works here with deliberately arbitrarily set sharpness, blurring and highlights that allow him to direct the viewer's gaze to important details. It is precisely in these inhospitable taverns that time seems to pause as in a murky, stagnant body of water.

The painter usually creates his newer paintings, mostly made in 2009, in four layers. Intuitive drawings that are reminiscent of anatomical studies, among other things, are created on a light primer. Perhaps one also thinks of the mapping of water veins, which overgrow the canvases like a network with written historical notes, personal thoughts and travel biography information. This Ecriture Automatique, which was created out of the gut, has a certain similarity in its ramifications to the work of Bernhard Schultze, but is much more graphical and therefore more precise.

In between there are empty spaces, fallow land, which gradually fill in a patient, technically solid process with several layers of images and levels of meaning. The templates for these airbrush paintings are photos, which the painter often deliberately changes and alienates. The airbrush technique is quite typical of the generation of hyper- or photo-realists who ushered in a renaissance of the handicraft in the modern age at the beginning of the 1970s.

So he soaks silk scarves in acrylic and lays them in several layers over this skeletal, graphic framework of his work; the spray gun fills the canvas with motifs, which in turn are covered with a whitish veil and sanded off. This very idiosyncratic technique, based on traditional European glaze painting, creates images full of contradictions. A basically abstract and an objective reading level communicate with one another on these surfaces. The various abraded layers form pearl-like or stripe-like structures through the saturation with binder, which then cover the narrated motif like another veil. Often there is a sharp contrast: on the one hand the organic growths and texts in the depths of the works, created as if half-asleep, which then seem to float in the foreground with sudden sharpness; on the other hand, the coldness of capitalist palaces: bank foyers, slightly showy shop fronts of a jeweler, cafes from the founding boom around 1900. Everything under a mirror-smooth, seemingly cold surface, while in the depths, as in the dream time of the Aborigines, mysterious scores of unknown melodies emerge. In these palimpsests, Knobel takes up the superimposition of two opposing cultural layers. In fact, the stories of the Aborigines are repeatedly connected to certain places marked by special energy, which one would perhaps call sacred places in Europe - and the visual art of the Aborigines repeatedly tells of existentially important stories that have happened there and of paths that had to be covered. Perhaps Knobel's ramifications and thoughts fixed in writing are reflexes on this form of art. However, he lays the superstrat that now dominates our world and thus also Australia, the smooth worlds of the West and western faces without history, slippery shadows that often make phone calls - with the omnipresent cell phone in hand.

A group in contrast to these works are the black and white portraits of Aborigines. The faces of the portrayed are also combined with spontaneous, intuitive signatures. In their concreteness, they stand in sharp contrast to the western motifs and to the figures in the other group of works that slip away from the viewer; on the contrary, here every face appears like a rough mapping of human failure and suffering, every face like a desolate, dry continent full of cracks and ravines, in which passing catastrophes have left their paths.

At some point Knobel had to ride a motorcycle through an Aboriginal settlement because there were problems with the shock absorbers. Sudden contacts arose with the residents of a retirement home, whom he got to know and photographed and whose stories he gradually learned. They told him about genocide and the destruction of culture, about losing parents and being forced to settle down, about drunkenness and drugs and poverty.

On one of the colored pictures, Knobel tells in a text passage how an independent modern painting of the Aborigines began. For some people, art can become a way out of social misery, but this western form of narration is also the result of an acculturation process in which, for example, western social workers introduced the Pintubi to painting panels as a kind of occupational therapy - new in a culture that on rocks and roofs, on skin and earth, but had never painted on canvas before.

One painting in which the two very different groups of works meet is the study of an elderly man shuffling barefoot through a settlement in the outback. Knobel struggled with this picture because the contrast constructed here initially appeared to be too striking, but the message of the picture was important to him. One could interpret the stroller's posture as somewhat helpless and absent on the one hand, on the other hand he seems to stroll calmly and unaffected or unmoved through his surroundings. A shop window appears behind him as a foil in which hot jobs are advertised, for work as a soldier. The supposedly secure job as a mercenary is advertised here as a way of rescuing from social isolation and economic misery, and yet the white-haired old man strolls out of the picture, perhaps knowing that they are looking for cannon fodder with lies. Similar posters advertised Afghanistan in Alabama or today in Uganda for so-called security companies operating in Iraq.

It seems as if the old flaneur ignores the lazy magic of this colonizing strategy and expects it to pass soon, like so much in the 40,000 year history of these peoples.

Claus Knobel tried to develop a contradicting visual language in accordance with a certain cultural conflict, which unites occidental fine painting from Van Eyck to Chuck Close with empathy and dreamlike forms of pictorial discovery. Nonetheless, the images keep themselves in balance and create, in addition to the amazement at the virtuosity of the matter, moments of floating and silence.

© Dr. Wolfgang-Till Busse
Art historian, museum educator
Siebachstrasse 6
50733 Cologne

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