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Art in Focus: ‘Untitled, 2018’ by Jan Pleitner

Young German’s work ‘has a lot in common with that of Caravaggio’

Untitled, Jan Pleitner, 2018, oil on canvas

What is it?

Untitled, 2018, is a painting by German artist Jan Pleitner. It is a slightly dizzying abstract painting, with a psychedelic edge. It combines aspects of Jackson Pollock (and perhaps one or two other American abstract expressionists) with echoes of some German expressionist artists of the early 20th century and the more recent neo-expressionists – one of whom, the controversial Jörg Immendorff, who died in 2007, was one of Pleitner’s teachers.

How was it done?

Pleitner uses fairly strident primary colours and drags and slides them around on a ground of thick, flat, glassily smooth gesso primer, so that they clash and merge in jagged, swooping rhythms. Pleitner likes to keep the eye unsettled and moving, never quite letting the viewer’s gaze rest. Like several forms of contemporary music, his work creates an overall mood or environment rather than articulating a particular representational image or theme.

Where can I see it?

It is one of a series of works that make up Pleitner’s exhibition “Helios” at the Kerlin Gallery, Dublin (until April 28th, kerlingallery.com). It’s his second solo show at the Kerlin after his first, “Water for the Tribe”, in 2016, proved to be enormously popular and successful. Helios is the sun god of Greek mythology whose chariot racing across the sky begins and concludes each day, and it is the bright red pigment Pleitner uses in the paintings.

Is it a typical work by the artist?

It is typical, though that said, Pleitner is still a young artist. Born in Oldenburg, he earned his MA at Düsseldorf’s Kunstakademie only in 2010 and is still based in the city.

Two imposing rectangular arches form part of the show. Painted plastic is stretched over structural armatures to create sculptural paintings that the viewer can walk through. These arches or gateways accentuate Pleitner’s desire to transport us into another state of mind, recalling Aldous Huxley’s use of a quote from William Blake for his essay, “The Doors of Perception”, on his experiment with taking mescaline in 1953. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake had written: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”     

Pleitner is trying to deploy the same essential elements, including pictorial space, colour and light and dark

Pleitner’s way of working generates a shallow, broken pictorial space with a kind of flickering, restless light. While he avoids harmonious arrangements of colour, the astringent clashing quality that he favours is very effective, and a couple of very dark paintings in the exhibition, together with the painted arches, suggest that he is looking to move forward.   Rather than marking a rejection of the work of his predecessors, Pleitner is trying to deploy the same essential elements, including pictorial space, colour and light and dark, in search of something unknown. Painting is a point of departure, but with the aim of exploring aspects of the world rather than abandoning it. Much the same could have been said of Caravaggio in his time, and the character and appearance of Pleitner’s work suggests that it has a lot in common with that of Caravaggio.

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