Spectral figures float against shadowy backgrounds as if emerging from dust or smoke. These are the surreal, monochromatic visions of Berlin-based artist Ruprecht von Kaufmann, who returns to the medium of drawing for his latest solo exhibition entitled The Three Princes of Serendip at Kristin Hjellegjerde’s gallery in Wandsworth, London. Rising out from the artist’s marks with charred wood-dust on white paper, each scene appears caught in a state of constant becoming.
The exhibition takes its name from a Persian fairy-tale and whilst von Kaufmann’s images make no direct reference to the story’s narrative, his work functions as a kind of visual fairy-tale in which the viewer is welcomed into a phantasmal world where the lines between reality and imagination are blurred. This blurring extends to the artist’s practice in which blends drawing with a sculptural approach, and an exploration of the three-dimensional. This series, for example, is directly inspired by Greek sculpture, but in contrast to the static durability of marble, von Kaufmann’s figures are soft edged and rippling with the ghostly presence of the artist himself. ‘By using just your hands you can slowly pull an image out of the fog of grey that first envelopes the paper to create a sense of space and movement,’ commented von Kaufmann. On a metaphorical level, the fog becomes the imagination from which both images and stories are drawn, making the act of creation itself seem otherworldly, almost unconscious.
We are given a sense of the images emerging before our eyes from the deep, absorbent black of the charcoal. The contrast of white and black conveys a spaciousness, which seems to expand beyond the dimensions of the paper to suggest a continuation. It is this space that invites the viewer to engage creatively. ‘Much of what we read in a drawing as sky, soil, air space, fabric or human flesh is just changing patterns of light and darks that are pieced together by our brains into things that we recognise. This becomes incredibly tangible in charcoal drawings. Like in a good Chinese ink drawing, the viewer experiences a sense of colour and texture in the black and white image. It's the pure power of suggestion,’ said the artist.
The use of monochrome also emphasises further contrasts in the work: fragility and strength, depth and lightness, creation and destruction. Two of the images, for example, have been partly shredded as if the artist contemplated their decomposition only to find that through destruction something new has been created. In the largest-scale drawing, a man with a thin long neck is shown pushing his head against an enormous, muscular bull. The contrast of their physicalities is exaggerated to the point of surrealism and yet, the artist is drawing our attention to a reality in which humans over-breed animals to the point of monstrosity, whilst continuing to assert our superiority as rational creatures.
‘It’s the hubris of man’s evolution, that we have managed to venture forth into abstract thinking so far that it has allowed us to think of ourselves as beings that can conquer with our minds. But at the same time our abstract thinking doesn’t allow for us to see ourselves as vulnerable little lumps of flesh hurtling through an endless universe on a small sphere of rock,’ commented the artist. Significantly, the work is pervaded wiht the presence of the human skull as a classical memento mori. Two out of the six drawings depict skulls, whilst all of the characters in the other works are all headless. Alongside the drawings, are sculptures of heads, mounted on the wall like taxidermy. These three-dimensional skulls are crafted out of the artist’s discarded stencils for his paintings. Their colourful shades are bright in contrast to the severity of charcoal, offering a more playful perspective on human identity in which the artist reduces humans to the status of a hunted animal.
Interestingly, the most ‘human’ character in the collection stands out exactly for the reason that it appears mundane. The drawing depicts a man wearing a suit with his legs crossed, whilst his head is severed by the dimensions of the paper and a scattering of cut holes. Instead of looming out of black expansiveness, he is static against a sterile white background. ‘The suit is man’s modern-day armour. It has a shell-like quality in the way that it hides your personality,’ says the artist. The soft, smudged lines of the charcoal create a tension between the perceived stiffness of the suit and the vulnerability of man’s posture. Without a head, the man is indistinct, fading into blankness. In this way, the extremities visualised in von Kaufmann’s work transcend aesthetics to function as an exploration of human significance.