Gestural Abstraction in the Information Age
David Pagel, art critic Los Angeles Times
In terms of materials, Markus Linnenbrink’s paintings could not be much simpler. Wood, pigment and epoxy resin are the only elements that make up every one of the visually resplendent abstractions the artist has made over the last twenty years. None of these substances is particularly sophisticated, especially when compared to contemporary technologies of communication, which include head-spinningly quick data processing, mind-blowingly speedy transmissions of information, and incessantly updated software, each version of which replaces—fast and frustratingly—rapidly outdated formats. In contrast, the supplies Linnenbrink employs belong to the pre-digital world. That world is often called ‘analog,’ but Linnenbrink’s works are made of such basic substances that they call to mind times long before the contrast between digital and analog came to stand as the boundary between two types of technology and to form the border between two ages, each accompanied by a different way of understanding one’s surroundings, of experiencing life, and, ultimately, of being in the world. That fundamental shift took place around the turn of twenty-Hirst century—give or take a decade on either side of the new millennium. In any case, signiHicantly longer spans of time are evoked and embodied by Linnenbrink’s color-saturated compositions, all of which invite viewers to travel, in our imaginations, far back into history and well into the future, right here and right now. Born in Dortmund, Germany in 1961 and based in Brooklyn, New York since 199x, the hard-working artist uses age-old materials to put us in touch with ideas about originality and happenstance that are nothing if not radical.
With Linnenbrink, everything starts with stuff. No metaphysician or latter day Conceptualist, he goes into the studio with the conviction that matter matters, and that it’s his job to do something interesting with it. His second-floor workshop is more of a one-man factory than a romantic refuge from urban life, not to mention industrial production. Drills, routers, platforms, racks, stands, trays, and exhaust fans have been arranged so that Linnenbrink can labor with assembly-line efficiency, moving from work to work so that no time is wasted as his thick layers of pigment-impregnated epoxy resin dry and harden. Equally if not more important the customized setup gives Linnenbrink lots of options when he goes to work. His human-scale factory allows him to move from piece to piece, step to step, stage of production to stage of production—drilling, routing, pouring, mixing and prepping—as the mood suits him. That freedom is part of what distinguishes his work in the studio from the drudgery of punching the clock—or working on a schedule set by bosses or managers who couldn’t care less about the whims of creativity or the importance of doing one’s work in sync with the rhythms of the day, week, and season. The other element that distinguishes Linnenbrink’s art from business as usual has to do with the magic that happens when he gets his hands on otherwise unremarkable materials. Like some kind of light-industrial alchemist, he wrestles great freedom out of humble materials, cajoling and compelling them to convey secrets not even he knew existed.
Each of his works, which range in size from approximately one- foot-square gems to modular, mural-scale extravaganzas, begins as an ordinary sheet of plywood, reinforced by sturdy struts so that it doesn’t bend or buckle. There’s nothing fancy about the wood Linnenbrink uses. And wood has been with us forever, used by humans all over the globe since we walked on our knuckles, if not before. The other two ingredients that go into Linnenbrink’s industrial-strength abstractions are neither newfangled nor exotic. Pigments have been part of human history for almost as long as wood. Our cave-painting ancestors rubbed, smudged, and smeared organic and natural pigments, mostly ochres, iron oxides, and carbon black, on the walls of their homes 350,000 to 400,000 years ago. Synthetic pigments have been with us for more than 4,000 years, put to good use by Egyptians, Greeks, and Phoenicians. In the 18th century, the variety of pigments made possible by the ScientiHic Revolution expanded exponentially with the Industrial Revolution. That is when prices plummeted and once exotic, inordinately expensive colors became readily available, even commonplace. Rather than having to grind pigments from such semi-precious stones as lapis lazuli or to make them from the mucous of snails found in South America or the excrement of insects, they could be cooked up in the lab. For its part, epoxy resin is the newest material Linnenbrink uses. Even so, it’s been around for nearly a century: In the 1930s and 1940s, various versions of it were discovered and patented in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. It is now used the world over; to protect equipment from the effects of weathering, to insulate electronic circuitry, and to suspend powdery pigments in liquids that dry clear and tough while reHlecting and refracting light like nobody’s business.
That is the attraction epoxy resin holds for Linnenbrink. It lets him strut his coloristic stuff, like a peacock on steroids, and then some. He uses wood and epoxy resin as vehicles that let pigment do its thing:change the color of reflected light by absorbing specific wavelengths. And his colors are vehicles that move viewers: Bright, blazing, and over- abundant, they are too much to take in on first glance. But give them a little time and it becomes clear that they have been laid out in meticulously engineered arrangements that are deliberate and dazzling and stunning and sexy. Linnenbrink’s colors compose themselves in a wide range of open-ended rhythms. Each sweeps you up in fluid movements so that your emotions burble up from beneath the surface of buttoned-down rationality and even-keeled restraint, bursting forth, unexpectedly and unpredictably, to surprise you with a lasting jolt of electrifying energy and an undercurrent of subversive power. There’s nothing detached, old-fashioned, or distant about Linnenbrink’s abstract panels. Coloristically, they’re among the most sophisticated on the planet. Their intensity and complexity and amazing orchestration of information overload are all suffused with a type of generosity that never gets old—even if it goes out of style and bucks the trends that define our times, which often seems mean-spirited and mendacious, short-sighted and defensive, self-obsessed and self-congratulatory.
In contrast, Linnenbrink paints himself out of the picture. His paintings fly in the face of the idea that art is all about self-expression. They do this by distancing themselves from the deep-seated belief that the whole point of gestural abstraction is to expose the painter’s inner sentiments to viewers, as nakedly as possible. That idea has been with us since Romanticism. It reached its apogee with Pollock’s drip paintings. Then it floundered in all sorts of Pollock knock-offs, in types and styles of painting that lacked the vitality of the Abstract Expressionist’s magisterial works not because they were unoriginal imitations but because they got Pollock wrong. Mistaking his wildly adventuresome gestures as expressions of the painter’s inner sentiments, they missed something essential: that the paint was not flung on every which way, but was, in reality, contained and controlled and composed by a consciousness in love with formal toughness, with physical bluntness, and with psychological nuance—not his own, but that of viewers, with whom Pollock wanted to communicate. Rather than revealing his inner subjectivity, his goal was to start a discussion about the external world, which we all might share, if we only pay attention.
The idea that Pollock’s paintings—and all forms of gestural abstraction—are all about self-exposure sells art short. It also short- changes viewers, especially those of us who turn to art to reorganize our relationship to our surroundings by reorienting ourselves to the objects in front of us. Linnenbrink insures that we do not look at the marks he makes in his paintings as authentic traces of his self or his soul by stripping away every last vestige of the nonsensical sentimentality—or fetishized breathlessness—that has grown up around the idea of the “artist’s touch.” In the old days, the touch of the artist’s brush, or the draftsman’s pencil, were the signatures of a work’s authenticity: the immediate, inimitable path from his body to his spirit, from his flesh to his ineffable, unrepresentable self. Linnenbrink is entirely uninterested in following that well-traveled, cliché-laden path. So, rather than using a paintbrush or a pencil, he pours, drills, and uses a router to cut deep incisions into the surfaces of his works.
Using off-the-shelf pint cups, Linnenbrink pours pigment- augmented epoxy resins onto the top edges of large panels, letting the liquid’s viscosity and volume interact with gravity to “draw” three- dimensional “lines” on his paintings. Collecting the runoff in trays, he transforms the spillage into the foundation of other paintings. To those, he pours layer upon layer of his rainbow-tinted resins, covering each sedimentary-style coat with so many others that it’s impossible for him to remember the position and sequence of each. There’s nothing precious or fetishistic or micromanage-y about the way he applies paint and carves out compositions. It’s rough and tumble and, by any stretch of the imagination, indelicate and unlovely. The results, in stunning contrast, are supple and nuanced, their laser-sharp clarity and hair- splitting precision a delight to behold.
There’s only one reason to make a painting—to do something you can’t do with other materials and processes. Linnenbrink does that in spades: delivering eye-popping, jaw-dropping, mind-blowing arrays of color and shape, composition and rhythm, texture and sheen. In all of his works, scale shifts, from micro- to macro- and back again, catching you in a hallucinatory whirlwind that is exceptionally pleasurable—and just about impossible to repeat. Made up of too much information to commit the whole thing to memory—or to translate into words—Linnenbrink’s paintings isolate viewers in the moment, presenting us with the opportunity to experience something up close and in person, intimately and as if made for us and us alone.
The paradox of time—and art’s powers over it—takes stunning shape in his sumptuous paintings, which also wreak havoc on the old- fashioned idea that control and abandon, or intention and accident, work at cross-purposes. Turning the relationship between order and chaos inside out, Linnenbrink’s stupendously sensuous paintings simultaneously make pleasure purposeful—without ruining it. More fun to look at than just about anything else out there, his lusciously layered abstractions invite viewers to eat our cake and have it too. After a few generations of art made by artists who seem to believe that the pursuit of knowledge and that of pleasure follow paths that go in opposite directions, it’s refreshing to come across Linnenbrink’s works, which, in their multi-directional ambidexterity, both insist and demonstrate that physical pleasure and intellectual stimulation work in concert, enhancing and amplifying each other’s best features while fueling the Hires of a viewer’s experiences. Sharpening perception, challenging our capacity to make sense of a superabundance of stimulation, and, most important, deepening our understanding of our surroundings, Linnenbrink’s paintings do not make time stand still so much as they Hill every moment with so much that is so satisfying that it’s difficult to imagine all of that being jam-packed into a moment—which is gone before you know it.
Disbelief is integral to the experience of Linnenbrink’s paintings. But so is the clarity that comes with number-crunching objectivity, with the unblended intensity of the unnatural, industrial-strength colors he cooks up in his laboratory-like studio, and with the laser-sharp precision of the junctures where colors come into contact with one another in his polished paintings, forming circles (concentric and otherwise), lines (parallel and nearly), and, most recently, rippled indentations (which resemble, simultaneously and alternatively, the patterns sand settles into when water Hlows over it on streambeds and beaches or the wavering glitches that appear on digital monitors when a transmission is on the fritz). Hands-off detachment, unsentimental experimentation, and quasi-scientiHic exploration play potent roles in his complex compositions, whose surfaces take painting to extremes, both sculpturally and coloristically.
In terms of philosophical propositions, Linnenbrink’s paintings make big ones. One of the things we say about painting or art of any kind is that it could not be any other way than it actually is—that, if its composition or palette or scale or format were changed, it would be diminished. In this way of thinking, originality and brilliance go hand-in- hand with the artist’s finding a kind of order that is singular, resolved, and perfect: a masterpiece. Think Mondrian and what would happen if a black line were widened or a rectangle of yellow were changed to red, blue, or, horror of horrors, green. Or to go back to Pollock: Imagine what one of his drip paintings would look like if he had put the last color on first and continued to drip in “reverse,” changing the sequence so that time, as it were, traveled “backward.” In both cases, the results would be ugly, discordant, or, in polite terms, “not quite right.”
Something very different happens when you look at a painting by Linnenbrink. It’s easy to imagine what any one of his works might look like if he had drilled a hole in a slightly different position. Or to a different depth. Or if he had drilled a whole slew of holes in different positions, at different depths. Or had altered the number, position, or tint of some of the rivulets of epoxy resin in his poured paintings. Or used the router to incise different cuts into the surfaces of other works. Or had poured the layers of resin in a different order. Some of these variations would, no doubt, result in images in the mind’s eye that felt wrong, unresolved, and ugly. But others might very well be just as beautiful and astonishing and mesmerizing and moving as what Linnenbrink has ended up with.
That is a radical proposition. And it is one that Linnenbrink insists on. As a painter, he does not play a zero-sum game. He is as interested in what he has done with wood, pigment, and epoxy resin as he is with what these materials do in our imaginations—in other possibilities, other worlds, alternative universes, as it were. Such optimism is rare. So is such humility. It is a kind of coincidence that is as focused on the artist’s own accomplishments as it is on future discoveries, especially those that involve a viewer’s capacity to understand a painting’s potential and our place in it. In a world overrun with narcissistic self- involvement and authoritarian pronouncements of all shapes, stripes, and sizes, it’s thrilling—and inspiring—to be in the presence of Linnenbrink’s anarchistic paintings, whose genius resides in good will and generosity.