Werner Büttner: Humour in Darkness

Port speaks to artist Werner Büttner about growing up in East Germany, the experience of moving to West Berlin just before the wall fell, and his new show at the Marlborough Gallery

Viel Raum für allerlei Glück , 2017 © Werner Büttner, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Provocative art tends to take a post-modern form, whether that be film, installation or performance art. In transgressing the boundaries of traditional media, it signals its subversive tendencies. But for Werner Büttner, once a member of Germany’s Junge Wilde or ‘wild youth’, figurative painting holds far greater expressive potential in all its narrative lucidity and metaphorical inference.

Büttner relishes each brushstroke, applying the paint in layers until he has built a thick crust. Every inch feels powerful and deliberate, yet Büttner insists he has no emotional relationship to paint, “I try to enslave it [only] to end up in splendid arbitrariness.” The images themselves are astutely observational with a dark, comic edge. “Humour is the only appropriate reaction I have found facing what’s now 64 years of the ‘condition humaine’.”

At his latest London show, Plenty of Room for all Sorts of Happiness at the Marlborough Gallery, works from Büttner’s early years fill the downstairs gallery, with more recent painting hung on the upper level. “I liked the possibility of walking around one floor and seeing works by an author in his thirties and then seeing the same author in his sixties on a different floor,” Büttner says of the strict division. Creepy and caustic, surreal but incisive, the early works are tonally dark in every sense. In the Vineyard, a painting from 1981, readily evokes a desolate graveyard with a monstrous, ghostly, almost illegible figure emerging from a wild gale that ravages the landscape.

Ein geschundener Gaul [A Flogged Horse], 2016 © Werner Büttner, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

His contemporary paintings are lively and less perverse – a bright pastel pink brings ambiguous meaning to A Flogged Horse (2016), while the streaks of orange in Holding Loop in the Void (2015) are positively kaleidoscopic. In Büttner’s recent work, his social commentary of the 1980s is as present as ever but he more freely dabbles in the ridiculous and the mundane. He admits that “the guy who did the paintings on the ground floor seems a bit more mournful and upset than the guy upstairs… I like my most recent work best.”

Born in 1954 in Jena, East Germany, Büttner spent the first seven years of his life living under the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic until his mother took him to Munich, just before the construction of the Berlin Wall. Büttner’s childhood is addressed in On Thrones and Entanglement, an unusually solemn self-portrait in which Jena is foregrounded by a young boy on a pony. The painting’s title refers to Martin Heidegger’s theory of ‘throwness’, the idea that we are thrown into existence without our consent and must attempt to exercise autonomy over our lives.

Danke Frankreich (für Monsieur Monet und Hhle Lascaux) , 2017, © Werner Büttner, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Once thrown into the world, as Büttner says, “you are immediately entangled in many calamities… in a landscape and a language, in a climate and social order, in a political and economical system… all this limits somewhat your freedom to design your own fate”. Appearing to ride away from the town that is neatly bordered off into the background, the painting depicts an alternate existence that was left behind, at the last moment, but whose legacy endures. For Büttner, living under the regime was formative but his escape was liberating in more senses than one – “the delight of having two opposing systems made me flee all systems, made me distrustful, sceptical and melancholic.”

By the late 1970s, Büttner was employed as a social worker at the Berlin-Tegel Prison, despite having studied Law at university. He broke onto the art scene in 1979 when he took part in Elend, a group exhibition in the Büro, a loft space set up by Martin Kippenberger and inspired by Warhol’s Factory. He went on to appear in a string of fringe shows with other members of the Junge Wilde. Belonging to the avant-garde community was extremely seductive – Büttner joined after a chance meeting with Albert Oehlen, the flatmate of a one night stand.

Diet – Geißel der Postmoderne , 2017 © Werner Büttner, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

In romanticised recollections he describes the shared “hunger to be heard, the same heavenly pubs, the urge for attractive and digestible company”. Ultimately however, he saw the group’s activity as “foolish dalliance” rather than a guiding force in his art: “I was more influenced by dead colleagues like Magritte, de Chico, Ensor or Goya.” As Büttner became increasingly recognised, the inevitable forces of establishment took over and within a decade he was appointed Professor of Painting at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg. It marked the start of a new phase for Büttner, with the groups he belonged to disbanding.

When pressed on his motivations he offers only a cryptic hint: “My laughter is self-sufficient; in other words, extremely clever. By this you avoid the silly longing for applause.” Plenty of Room for All Sorts of Happiness reveals that, three decades later, the irony of his youth endures.

Plenty of Room for all Sorts of Happiness runs at Marlborough Gallery, 6 Albemarle Street, London until 23 June 2018.

Jules de Balincourt: Precision and Abstraction

Franco-American painter Jules de Balincourt ruminates on abstraction, utopia and the accessibility of art, at the opening of his latest exhibition

Another Divided Island, 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

If contemporary art is frequently found to be conceptually obscure, exasperatingly self-referential or weighed down with lofty ideals, then the vibrant works of Brooklyn-based artist Jules de Balincourt may be just the antidote. With nothing more new-age than oil on panel, he has produced paintings that project a powerful radiance from within an abstracted haze. Imposing landscapes inhabited by roaming communities, each work is arrestingly aestheticised in a way another artist might find beneath them, but De Balincourt owns it. “Art for me, it always was about beauty and seduction at a certain level, the first thing that draws you to art is to be pulled into it, seduced by it.” He hurriedly adds, “but it can’t just be sugar-coated sweetness, I need an edge or tension or… I like the idea of these paintings standing at a crossroad where it could go either way. I like to leave that suspense.”

If Queens Ruled 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

De Balincourt was born in Paris, although from the age of nine he was raised in Malibou Lake, California. He has stated in interviews that he doesn’t identify as either entirely French or American, although with France recently voting in Macron over the far-right, populist Le Pen, it is clear that his mind is very much focused on the troubled and divided times facing the United States. It is almost a year since Trump’s inauguration when I meet him at the installation of his new show, They Cast Long Shadows, at Victoria Miro in Mayfair. Perched on stools in the main gallery, we are surrounded by these new works, and he gesticulates energetically whenever he seeks a point of reference.

Troubled Eden 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

The show is an accumulation of activity from only the past few months, although this is in fact an arbitrary marker. “It’s just a continuation of what I’ve always done in some ways. There’s never a big drastic shift… I consider each show like another page in the same book.” De Balincourt is very precise about his process, if only to articulate its imprecision. Each painting is begun in abstract until, floating in the brushstrokes, “I find something to grasp onto and it eventually becomes figures.” These little populations in turn create a landscape from the floating impressionistic forms by transforming their surroundings into a coherent space. It is unplanned and instinctive, and de Balincourt eschews the use of photography or preliminary sketches. “I’m always working intuitively and unconsciously, I’m interested in my own self-discovery through making this work.”

This approach has informed the show’s installation process too, “I’m interested in the free-associative elements that come up when two completely different images are juxtaposed but I know they still somehow relate.” For all their chance origins, De Balincourt’s landscapes are highly expressive and their metaphorical power leaves them steeped in narrative potential.

Big Little Monsters 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

The island, a recurrent motif for the artist, who is also a keen surfer, has unfixed and shifting applications. In Island People the pastel pink island is an ‘Edenic comfort zone’ or a sanctuary where people freely congregate. In Divided Island, however, a gathering perches on one island and stares across a channel to another larger land mass that recedes into the distance. It speaks of islands that are insular and isolating with a resonance that is at once timeless and timely, as de Balincourt confirms – “it’s a subtle jab at Brexit”.

His work has long toyed with a tension between the utopian and dystopian, although he admits, “I think my work, when I was younger, was a little bit more direct. Now I push myself to delve more into the unconscious, the abstract, the intuitive and see what comes up.” This is inevitably influenced by real world events, which have recently loomed in the minds of many. “The real challenge under the Trump administration is how to confront the current situation at all… I don’t really know how to address it directly but I know that subconsciously I am concerned about what’s happening in America.”

Repeated Histories 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

In his recent move towards greater abstraction, de Balincourt has found avenues to address those issues. Even the most obvious work, Repeated Histories, in which a robust orange-faced man directs a small accusatory finger towards a row of black men, makes use of abstracting techniques such as repetition and distorted scale to reflect real power structures. Other works in the collection take a softer approach, and one that is distinctly undogmatic. The art is deliberately accessible, with de Balincourt entirely unconvinced by the social or political impact of art that he considers “convoluted and hyper-conceptual… completely wrapped up in a hermetically sealed corner of the art world. My work is in a weird way a resistance to that pretentiousness and elitism,” he stares intently at a canvas across the room before turning to me with a grin, “but then again, you know, I’m starting to sound like a Trump supporter.”

Cave Country, 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

De Balincourt’s work seems simple, yet strikes to the core of a complex conversation. In these dreamy worlds, at least, the utopian defeats the dystopian and de Balincourt announces, “I wanted to be optimistic. I wanted to still give hope.” At one point he gestures towards Cave Country, a large canvas in which a deep crevasse of hot oranges and warm pink cuts into a turquoise rock to house a crowd seeking refuge. He pauses carefully before declaring, “I like to think of it as a place away from the chaos of the rest of the world.”

They Cast Long Shadows is at the Victoria Miro Gallery until 24 March 2018.