Medium to medium, style to style
A glimpse into Sigmar Polke's plucky sensibility
One might be tempted to say that Sigmar Polke's work will inevitably always be judged in the shadow of Gerhard Richter's post-modern Germany – one where the Wall existed not simply in the mind of the artist but in his politics and aesthetics as well. For Polke that constant struggle between the ideals on both sides of the Wall manifested themselves in his artistic endeavours from the mid-sixties right until his death. Often framing a painting with a comic book style caption beneath it, he sort of creates an image of what life is like on the other side of the wall and then deludes it with his self-imposed words. It would do him a great disservice if one were to say he pushed the boundaries of painting, he was never after that. All he wanted was to examine where the oft described dying art of painting could be taken and toyed with.
The exhibition of his works in Dhaka unfortunately did not include his masterpieces but introduced us to his gouache works which, while lacking the intensity of his major paintings, brought his sarcasm and politics to the fore. The exhibition came across as a sort of poster inspired homage to the land that was divided Germany and for the most part worked quite well.
With almost all of the work dating back to 1996 it was easy to understand why they were lumped together for this exhibition. One could hazard a guess that they were produced in quick succession yet a few stand out in terms of detail and style. 'Future growth depends on knowledge,' seems almost fjord-like with many islands of knowledge surrounded by an almost enclosed space of water. With only one narrow neck of water leaving the image, the question that seems to be posed is a pessimistic one. Will our knowledge have to shrink to pass through the corridor of uncertainty or will the waters rise and simply eat away more of our isolated and broken islands of knowledge, leaving us with minute attention spans?
'Left, right which way should the federal eagle look?' is one of his most politically-charged pieces in the exhibition and that is saying a lot for a man who runs a gamut of political questions through the ringer of his art in this exhibition. The tall economic ladder that needed to be scaled post the fall-of-the-wall is left conspicuously empty, with the chaos of the free market economy represented by the wild pink lines which look more like shattered tiles than a giant cobweb.
One of the few autobiographical pieces in the exhibition was, 'Black with good memories.' A sort of tip of the hat to his work from the late 1960's when his 'Modern Kunst' ruled the roost while also deconstructing the foundations of formalist abstraction of late-Kandinsky.
His work in the 1980's which pitted representation against abstraction as The New York Times would say, '[A]lbeit self consciously and often ironically,' led him into the 1990's where the paintings were simply replaced by gouaches, with a hyper-critical poster style only adding to the mash-up of his art that demanded attention and often got it.
The exhibition was easy on the eye but tough on reunification. It seemed to thrive from the chaos of the fall of the wall without ever picking a side which is unusual yet believable. His political message may be not to put all ones eggs in one basket and that has seemingly been his artistic forte as well. Much like Richter, he has moved from medium to medium, style to style but never very far from his plucky sensibilities.
'Music from an Unknown Source', Sigmar Polke's exhibition that travelled the world, was an initiative of Goethe-Institut Bangladesh. The exhibition was presented in the Exhibition Hall of the institute during July 15 to August 2, 2010.
Sigmar Polke, one of Germany's foremost painters and successful representatives of contemporary German art died recently on June 11, 2010. Goethe-Institut Bangladesh honoured the artist by bringing a collection of 40 original gouaches to Bangladesh.