Silence on Edge

Kenneth Baker, Art Critic San Francisco Chronicle October 23, 2004


The black watercolors of German sculptor Joachim Bandau at Patricia Sweetow Gallery can induce in viewers a mental state parallel to the artist’s own as he made them.

They illustrate nothing yet create the sensation of looking at gosamer sheets of smoky gray material stacked upon a white page until they blot it out completely. In an especially fine untitled piece from 2003, the layered “sheets” vary in dimensions considerably, though their edges stay roughly parallel. We see through the various layers around the periphery.

Sorting out the details thoroughly requires the same sort of concentration and commitment it cost Bandau to make the pieces. Even a viewer unacquainted with the incorrigibility of watercolor – its refusal to be forced, the difficulty of keeping dark washes unmuddied – will intuit the technical feat Bandau’s pieces represent.

In a departure from his first show at Sweetow, Bandau also presents a couple of very lightly worked watercolors. They construct transparent volumes of planes so proportioned that we can barely keep their edges in view when looking at the smooth gray fields themselves.

Bandau, 68, belongs to a generation that took process seriously. The successive application of watercolor layers echoes the tendency of some artists to make sculpture by stacking. The sense of deepening silence that Bandau’s black watercolors evoke brings to mind the big stacks of felt rectangles that Joseph Beuys made, intending to give silence tangible form.

Rather than reaching for allusions, Bandau’s works seem to gather references to them. In a sequence of four big sheets, framed separately but in tight proximity, he has slightly pinwheeled the layered planes. The resulting graphic stutter effect may bring to mind the stroboscopic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge or even Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a staircase” (1912), which an American journalist famouly ridiculed as “an explosion in a shingle factory.”

Bandau’s show divides a little puzzlingly into recent watercolors and drawings, and small wall sculptures from the ’70’s.

Stand close to the gallery entrance and you can see the rough affinity between the grindingly worked graphite “Bunker-Architektur”18.5.1977” and an untitled black watercolor composed of aligned vertical rectangles.┬áThe graphite drawing and the mixed media “Vormarsch” depicts a wave of construction turning a landscape of rhombohedral figures into barrackslike buildings, evocative of both concentration camps and postwar urban planning.

Even this scant background lends the darkness of the black watercolors added metaphorical depth and makes one wish for a broader view of Bandau’s art.