Baselitz (Royal Academy of Arts)
The pixelization of google maps when at the highest magnification is irritating. Just when you want to see the detail of where you once stayed in another life, the back garden and rectangular rooftop just become bigger, and the cars smudge against the road. It's clear you never got closer at all. A drab drag of trying to stick your nose in further than it will go into the illusion of the past – a dark, wet little crevice stinking of rotting leaves and shells of old wasps, just when you want to get there, google maps pixelate. I have to admit, I thought an address in Ocala, Florida, might yield more fertile ground, being American and therefore having had more work put into it. But no, it was the same. The image of Publix supermarket car park in Churchill Square was no better than that of a small B&B I know in Lancaster. And where are the people? Maybe they were lying around on the pavements, just about to get in to the car, or lying next to their lawn mowers, all having just collapsed inexplicably at the same time the satellite went over with its scan, to wake up a little bit later as if nothing happened. But there are no traces left. Someone has carefully erased them all with a cloning tool.
Now, to come back to Baselitz, a man we haven't even mentioned or broached yet, a man standing on his head in full bloom before he himself was erased - unless he was lucky enough to be inside at the time - he could be orchestrated to the tune of flattening pixel reproduction. I have no idea, but with all that happened and its impending sense of rationality gone mad, it must be depressing to try and paint its image in some strange constructed magnification. And the acknowledgement of this can possibly be seen in some eventual problems being built into the very program as it went along. Not unlike Richter in the loss of message, an angel fading and forgetting what it was going to say by the time it reached our planet, but far more physical in his initial lumpen arrival, wingless and fat. Like the back garden from sometime when, the thing that gets magnified just gets bigger, not closer, while its own message, embedded in the detail, gets slowly eradicated from above. Whoever collapsed sobbing on stage, script flying asunder, eating himself and frustrated by his own limitations (unable to reach the truth), has been covered up by a cloning of his own surroundings.
With this loss of message, and no doubt connected through its present surroundings, comes the question: Is this a small retrospective, or are the paintings bigger than in real life? The Academy is an odd scale all of a sudden, and memory plays tricks as to whether retrospectives usually have more cubic square footage than this, or whether the Academy itself is holding back, raising the floor a meter or two and bringing in the walls, with the dexterity of a learning pool at the baths.
It makes sense… Heroes painted in the mid-sixties with their tinkles out. Or maybe not tinkles, heroes have bigger nobs to play with, although it's all relative. Standing, all things considered, aghast - actually quite relaxed - with their trousers open and bearing standards popular in the 16th century. Or crucified, big baggy game-show suits and tiny pinheads snaking away via a loose brush stroke, the big friends off to work in 1965, through a burnt-out landscape, still with their flies undone though. Before that, by two or three years, just lumps of flesh resembling the watermelons of Yogi Bear when approached from behind. The lumps landed off stage with a dull thud from a previous life no doubt, which Baselitz caught the tail end of. This initial work is offal, ripe and fresh, and still muttering in the bucket. Sludged on and dapped with a face cloth, tiny eyes that you often see set in bloated faces with thumpingly high blood pressure from too much salt and fat, just as the hair begins to be pushed out in clumps. These things, populating dark and cramped spaces are similar to potatoes of the kind of you find under the fridge, sprouting little white semi-transparent bean sprouts. According to HélŹne Cixous, the final thing humans end up bonding with, or relating to, are plants; in whichever form they arrive. More so than mice, she says, which are, lets face it, odd little creatures to relate to and ones that I would of thought would be reserved for the very last moment. But plants are the last. Kafka 's last writing was messages of instruction to his carer regarding the flowers in his room.. He empathised with their needs. And in Baselitz' case it takes root early on in the form of festering root vegetables already sprouting new stems in counterpoint to their rank bodies. But it is not until his late work that the stems really stand alone in the form of Munch's white legs, brittle and in a glass vase, wearing socks and shiny black shoes. The legs, placed in fine clear glass vases, freshly watered and tendered to, have snapped. There is love in the later leg-stems but only from the bedridden who have the wherewithal to send their tiny scrawled little messages. The initial growths of 62-63, sprouting from some pretty unwell people having a big night down the pan, have a long way to go. But to move on from there… I mean you could go one way or the other, a bit touch and go. But Baselitz is not mad.
The attempt to do anything else for him meant a different focus. It meant that the conventions of painting, known to be wilful, had to be - how should I put it… 'Corrected'. Fine rural hunting paintings, a la C. W. Colbe, chopped up with an axe in the late 60's and stacked in little pieces, or simply rearranged like happy families. And when the landscapes and portraits wouldn't yield, they had to be corrected too, opening the door for Guston, stuffed in a can and fed to the dogs. The initial statement became clinically organised and a commitment was made to a history that, once picked up, led only to itself and its own distortion. Not grotesque, that was already there, just a technologically cool, almost corporate distortion. What did smell, what was locked away, what didn't manage anything but its own self-consumption and degradation, lying in its own stinking bed sheets, was neatly dealt with, as were the small notes that might or might not be written, and, if so, written in a language that probably wouldn't be understood anyway.
The beauty of Baselitz is not in the grotesque, nor in the loss of its own detailed message though its own magnification, it was in his initial lumpen statement so final that, despite attempts such as these, couldn't be escaped. It was an initial statement that began at the end and posed as a beginning. He shut his own door before he even began, affording him only the company of screaming ghosts that could only expand or shrink, sprout or fracture. This initial statement, growing from within its own knowledge of history, was blunt enough to take root, but not to go forth. It managed to mutate and change shape; even look as if it was roaming freely amongst the landscape, following L.R. and any number of solitary walkers. But it was all growing from the same nugget of paint matter. And in case we forgot this, the walkers hung upside down in the swirl and latticework of their own environment, the visiting guests hung like bats, and the head grew bloated with colour. It has to be said that Munch standing between a clock and a bed in Oslo never looked so light as in the reflection of these paintings. His late self-portrait looks as if it has been painted the wrong way up then stood on its head, allowing Munch to stand upright after all and float in some drunken release of energy upwards. Baselitz' guests hang at the table with the weight of cows, bat-cows, allowing others to bend over and show their own fat arses.
Baselitz' paint appears to mutate the chemical composition of its own weight as it sits there, static in the shadow. Its lack of forward movement leads to Baselitz at the end of this exhibition not looking back, but back to front, and painting from the glass of his own container seeing his own green and slender reflection in the glass. He has moved from being some old vegetable matter, happy family member, Nordic post officer with an orange stuffed in his mouth. He is now the stem of Kafka's flower. He has placed himself in a vase, and is splendidly waiting to grow. What goes through the mind of a flower as it sucks up water with all of its being, imperceptibly swelling and, at a stronger rate, contracting back? Clouds of off-white underpaints swirling around but no trousers, just the small scrawl, enlarged, of a message to himself as to how to approach his own work: 'Please move that one to the left', 'this one needs more water'. 'The hero needs more light'. The magnification that serves to get us no closer now forms a message of its own care, and simple request replaces an audience expectation.
© David Mollin 2007