Composition and Colour in the Work of Pia Fries

Heinz Liesbrock

Pia Fries’ concept of painting as it has developed since the late 1980s is, as one can see from this exhibition, deeply implicated in the history of painting as crisis. What is meant by this? If we look at the development of painting in a long-term art-historical context, we can see a fundamental change from about 1800. At this time the familiar ground on which painting had moved for centuries begins to tremble. The reason for this disruption has to be understood as something wider than merely aesthetic, it concerns our position in the world as a whole. For the self-evident truth that there was a verifiable and generally valid understanding of reality, which had sustained mankind, and with it the arts, until then, begins to crumble. Nietzsche describes the end of fundamental certainties, of a binding concept of truth in religion, philosophy and the sciences concisely, when he speaks of the “perspectivism” of our knowledge: “insofar as the word “knowledge” has a meaning, the world is knowable: but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.”

The fragmentation of the unity of understanding is not without consequences for painting. As a result we observe at first in the course of the 19th century the dissolution of clearly defined genre boundaries.

What traditionally constituted a portrait, a still life, a landscape, could only survive as long as the categories they were based on, man, thing and nature, were accepted without question. When that ended, what took their place was the artist in his unique and personal individuality. The only restraint on his feelings and understanding, and on his practice of his art, was himself, and no longer the traditions and binding truths in the world outside him. Instead the work of art became the place where the author met reality. With the external certainties broken off, the picture in its own reality becomes the subject. Questions now arise like: what is the status of the surface to which the paint is applied, what constitutes colour and line in their own language?

Since then, we observe the development of the picture to the point of self-reflexivity and abstraction. This new approach causes a continuous stream of stylistic changes which succeed one another at ever shortening intervals. It now seems as if every generation of painters questions the achievements of its predecessors and responds to them with assertions of its own. What a picture actually is, what its expressive possibilities are, are no longer fixed points. This uncertainty, the constantly renewed search for a workable basis for painting, in fact becomes painting’s main asset in the 20th century. Beginning in 1913 when Duchamp did away with the picture and Kandinsky and Malevich at the same time first trod the terrain of abstraction, the development of painting has been in permanent crisis, but this has simultaneously been the source of its constant renewal.

Against this background the achievement of Pia Fries as a painter becomes clearer. When in 1980 she started as a painter – she had just completed a course in sculpture at Lucerne, and had come to the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf to study under Gerhard Richter – many artists and critics felt that painting had once again reached the end. People hardly trusted the seemingly aging medium to provide valid answers. This was when the rise in the popularity of the so-called new mediums of film and photography was beginning, and that rise continues to this day.

They seemed to offer more direct, unfalsified access to reality than the ageing medium of painting could achieve with its many layers of idiom.

Pia Fries’ response to this situation takes the form of a return to the fundamentals of painting. She begins at point zero in that she abandons all the supposed self-evident truths governing her activity. She starts from the broken certitudes in painting, which she literally takes at their word and shapes into the elements of a new syntax. In doing this she anchors her new concept by concentrating particularly on the expressive potential of colour. Colour for this painter is a medium able to accommodate an unlimited number of forms. This flexibility offers the possibility of representing the breaks which now characterise the traditional conceptions of painting, and of then bringing them together in a new pictorial unity that is capable of communicating directly with the viewer. It is this insistence on the capacity of painting at its sensual core to make its own absolutely individual statement that makes her pictures unmistakable. And this is also the point where she diverges, for example, from the position of Gerhard Richter, whose pictures were once hailed as an example of painting as a “historically demolished model of visual experience-differentiation” (Benjamin Buchloh).

How does this unity arise out of the fragments of the tradition? What first attracts our gaze is a form of wilfulness in the conception of colour. It is the expression of the rejection of any pre-formulated order of the picture, but it simultaneously opens up a free space. Pia Fries seems to dissect colours in her work. Despite their eminent tradition in European painting it is no longer firmly established what statements they are capable of. But this uncertainty also opens up a field of fruitful research, and out of it a directly sensual form of vitality emerges.

Colour, as quickly becomes clear, is not characterised only by surface appearance. It is equally to be understood in terms of physically emphasised mass, which is in turn characterised by weight and a particular consistency. The haptic and material application of the paint is contrasty and many layered. Pia Fries lays the paint on in blocks, stripes, lines or blobs. It can be applied with brushstrokes, with bare hands, shaped into relief, applied with a palette knife, or as glazes, or in heavy impasto layers of pigment.

The variety of treatments derives from an almost childlike curiosity that is devoid of preconceptions, and it seems to be a typical example of the kind of direct mode of expression in painting that primarily interests Pia Fries. The peculiar energy of the colour is revealed when it is turned inside out. In some places the painter slits open a long blob of paint with a knife, separates off a segment, or with a serrated paletteknife opens the surface of a passage of paint that has been built up with several layers. In this way many colours are directly connected with one another, and the viewer gets an insight into the otherwise hidden inner life of paint. The entire vocabulary of possibilities of colouristic expression is displayed. An increasing use of elements of screen-printing has become part of this in recent years. They are based on photographs of details of her own paintings and lead the tension between the sensual appearance of the colour and its materiality in the opposite direction.

They are quite deceptive and doubly transfer concrete painting into another medium.

The pictures move us with their fullness and sensuality. Often the tones of the whole colour circle sing out, with red, yellow and blue and the complementary colours in all their combinations. The dynamics of the colours and forms on the surface draws us directly into what is happening in the picture. In the network of colour connections warm tones predominate, the colours of earth, the body and vegetation, yet neither human, nor animal nor plant associations arise. A powerful, amorphous vitality predominates. Different constellations of colour are formed and break up, then enter into another combination. Here everything seems possible. Even the shapes that they form are characterised by an extraordinary multiplicity. They run from amorphous figures to rectangular architectural elements, arches are formed or drips of paint run down. This form of painting is a contemporary example of natura naturans, nature allowing us to experience directly her fullness and her inner structural principles.

Pia Fries is interested in the energetic qualities in colour. In her pictures colour seems to be carried by a movement that resides within itself. The painter creates an order on the pale grounding of the picture surface, and this sets up connections between the colours without domesticating their powerful individual energies. She subscribes to a compositional principle which seeks to mediate between control and chance. This reticent conception of composition does not aim to exercise authorial control, it places itself in the service of colour, wishes to free space for the colours to move in. It entrusts itself to colour, conforms to its particular language. It is consistent with this conception that the painter repeatedly sets shapeless colour elements that she has applied directly from the tube in motion by swinging or knocking the support, so as to integrate the resultant forms into the composition.

Colour is applied, removed and joined up again after various detours.

We observe the unstable equilibrium of their composition as if from a bird’s eye view. The white spaces between the groups of colours allow us to look through the gaps, but they also create a lightness which contrasts with the weight of the pigments and sets them in motion. The colour and the pale grounding seem both to be engaged in one circular flow, and this flow takes the place of a fixed composition. Lightness, but at the same time abrupt collisions, characterise the events on the canvas – subtlety and coarseness alike. Pia Fries in her paintings manifests beauty by avoiding beauty.