The Pure Metal Paintings of Andreas Nottebohm
The death of traditional painting gets perennially exaggerated. But as it has proved time and time again, painting has more lives than a shut-in's runaway litter of freeway darting felines.
Even as nowadays, many conceptually-oriented contemporary painters are becoming more apt to paint with pixels rather than with traditional oils or acrylics, there is that occasional eccentric who manages to put a new and unabashedly low-tech spin or two on this messy indestructible medium as we delve deeper into the Digital Age. One such figure is German-born Bay Area-based Andreas Nottebohm whose recalcitrant, industrial-chic paintings on raw aluminum (and occasionally copper) hover evocatively halfway between painting and sculpture - resurrecting mid-60s fascination with "object-hood" even as they obliterate the minimalist's obsession with order by cultivating the potential profundity of randomness. If these robust, shimmering, objects don't exactly bring to mind those new-fangled gimmicky designer canvases that churn colorfully inside glowing LED monitors today, they nonetheless eschew easy pigeonholing and blithe classification, preferring instead to exist in a state of baroque, genre-blurring flux, wryly morphing into something dazzlingly new in effects that depend on how light strikes their reflective metallic surfaces. Here, we need to realize that Nottebohm's brush is, in fact, a power sander-grinder that operates in a similar manner to a sculptor's chisel. So it comes as little surprise that the resulting scraped, scratched, scumbled and pocked surfaces give rise to crater-like light traps. Fortunately, what emerges from this corrosive process usually rubs viewers the right way.
Whereas geocentric Renaissance painters, with their minds and feet planted firmly on the ground under Newton's apple tree, viewed their paintings as 'windows onto the world', Nottebohm refers to his paintings as 'windows into the Universe'. Unlike a 'timeless' Renaissance painting depicting, say, a Madonna and Child in which the figures remain frozen in time, bound together in the familiar pyramidal composition - that most stable of shapes -- Nottebohm's universe marks the passage of time as the viewer's shifting vantage point plays a pivotal role in bringing his paintings to life. Indeed, the constituent -elements - here remain paradoxically, in flux and while some of his paintings appear at first glance to ostensibly border on the non-objective anchored to nothing, on further perusal allusions --or illusions-- to art history and nature abound: Leonardo-esque sfumato (smoky mist), German Romanticist seascapes, Zen-flavored abstract expressionism offshoots, for a start.
Before the direct use of color began leeching out of his paintings a few years ago, Nottebohm's work was a phantasmagoric cornucopia whose colorful, light-soaked landscapes combined the terrestrial and the celestial - to boldly go where no painting has gone before, as it were: Luminous abstractions chock-full of black holes, worm holes, celestial orbs that doubled as an atom's nucleus, gravity, and myriad Electro-magnetic radiation. One might expect to behold ribboned Aurora Borealis-es shooting up from craggy, primordial rock formations stretching across the horizon. Their incessant, bilateral symmetry, meanwhile, bring to mind trippy, acid-soaked George O'Keefes. In rendering the invisible visible, the artist seems to be saying that 'reality' - that most slippery of terms -- is more magical and fantastic than we can possibly imagine. Perhaps this is why the artist considers himself a 'realist' painter rather than a simply an adroit creator of fantasyscapes or purveyor of psychedelic science fiction.
A recent piece like the large buff silvery gray painting [Nottebohm prefers to leave his paintings untitled, playful quasi-scientific designations - KN-1686 or OP30 - sound like outtakes from the Elemental Table - designation 0P30 -] would fare equally well inside a dilapidated bomb-shelter or corporate lobby. While it might not rock the boats of most corporate movers and shakers, it's smoke-ring sfumato, moody tenebrism, and broad circular swaths coalesce to suggest waves or some other natural tempest ala Turner's 1843 Morning after the Deluge, and contribute to a decidedly neo-romantic aura. The aluminum 'canvas' calligraphic abstract field of marks and scratches, in turn, also locates it within the abstract expressionist realm. Another recent large painting (48"x48") with its wriggling flurry of lines receding into the distance, is embedded with wiry rivers of molten light whose abstract rivulets of energy make it look as if the artist has laid bare an unending bio-electric circulatory system. This is a particularly good example of how the artist deftly conflates the subatomic, terrestrial and cosmic scales.
Needless to say, Nottebohm's art hovers at the interface of art and science on a number of fronts: The ghostly vapor trails and Zen-like wisps that dance across the buff surface of becoming and vanishing bring to mind elusive subatomic particles inside Donald Glaser's bubble chamber. It's little wonder that his art has received raves from the likes of people such as legendary science/fiction author Ray Bradbury (noted physicist Stephen Hawking owns a piece) For the past two decades, Nottebohm has literally been NASA's poster child periodically called upon to document events. If some of the NASA poster commissions occasionally sputter operatically over the top, the best (i.e. more restrained) posters conjure up the sublime canvases of 19th century American landscape painter Frederick Edwin Church.
As compelling as Nottebohm's abstract energy fields can be when seen under natural (or artificial) illumination, the real magic takes place when the lights go down. Here, these monumental paintings' fundamentally flat surfaces assume an added dimension as they morph into 3-D hologram blues that seems to hover tantalizingly just beneath the surface (akin to those glittering vodka ads in one might find in, say, TIME Magazine). I've long felt the holographic paintings would be a next step in the evolution of traditional painting. Perhaps Nottebohm will be seen as a pioneer in a field that has just begun to be mined. (Not surprisingly, light is the critical element that brings holograms to life. Viewed in a dark room with changing lighting, where icy blues give way to smoldering reds, the metallic tabula rasa generate something akin to a trippy video installation. The effect can be quite mesmerizing.
As always, the hallmark any work of art is to successfully withstand the test of time. With its taut melding of visual ('retinal' in Duchamp's reductive terms) and conceptual components, there's a lot more here than first meets the eye. Indeed, Nottebohm's raw yet refined paintings on aluminum lend themselves to rich multi-layered metaphors seemingly capable of continual regeneration that give viewers something very complex to look at and think about over time. And in doing so, Nottebohm has made an admirable contribution to help painting elude the grim reaper yet again. - Harry Roche
Harry Roche is a Bay Area Based Art Critic and Curator at Large ("Stupid Cupid" V-Day '05. He is currently Associate Editor f Tea Party Magazine, has been a contributing editor to Artweek and has written art criticism for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, East Bay Express, Sculpture Magazine, SF City Search, among other publications.