Skin Removed, Entirely: Illusionism in the Paintings of Eckhard Etzold
The protean paintings of Eckhard Etzold originate in the intersection of diverse phenomena. Etzold finds his subjects in Natural History museums, where he first captures them photographically. Typically, animals (birds, fish, mammals) preserved in glass vitrines, but occasionally also furniture or handcrafted objects (e.g., vases), attract his attention. After producing a sketch on the canvas with the aid of a slide projector, layers of acrylic wash are gradually applied.
Considering that the projection involves the painted reproduction of a photographic reproduction (of reality), as well as the fact that the painting technique allows the support (Etzold uses canvas, linen, or wood) to show through (making possible a dialogue between the painted motif and the structure below), it is clear that an analytical approach to painting itself is one Etzold’s artistic concerns. The artist is occupied primarily with process-related and sensory moments of perception, and he shows us how they merge in an identifiable object. However, he does this with cool hyper-precision, which intensifies the characteristics of the projected transparency and, as a result, increases the distance from the flat, 1:1 reproduction of the object. Etzold avoids one-dimensional, panopticum-style naturalism and includes in some pictures, for instance, the representation of actual reflections of the specimen in the glass vitrines as destabilizing moments—though the condition of the displayed animals is given less emphasis than the status painting, which here becomes recognizable as a reflective pictorialism.
Etzold’s painting is post-conceptual, his
realism actually more an informal gesture of the hand, one that doesn’t
interpret or imagine with emotional investment; rather, it makes visual
distinctions, and sorts objects and perceptions simultaneously. The relation
of painting to photography and their relation to the reproducibility of
reality are called into question by Etzold. His paintings, despite their
apparent clarity, deny straightforward visual access. They lay themselves
like translucent skin over the picture support, like a web of contradictions.
Effects of blurriness and simulated elements (e.g., the sawn-out “bullet
holes” in the 29-part work, Home Game) contribute further to expose
reality as something indistinct that lies clearly before our eyes.
A 1998 painting by Eckhard Etzold of a bonsai tree (Big Bonsai) is, like many of this artist’s works, deceptively straightforward, and it takes a while to fully absorb its numerous complexities. Intricately rendered in Etzold’s ultra-realistic style, this painting features, at least at first glance, nothing more noteworthy than a potted tree on a shelf. Granted, gorgeous details abound, including russet-tinged leaves and the gnarled, curving trunk, suggesting that Etzold is a noted purveyor of nature-oriented beauty and has a pronounced painterly touch. Still, this whole, spare scene has a willfully unremarkable look, until one notices what an unusual nature-culture hybrid it really is. A label at the bottom tips one off that this tree is some sort of botanical specimen, perhaps in a laboratory or museum. Pronounced reflections, such as one would see on display windows in museums, and prominent tubes in the foreground, introduce display mechanisms as pictorial forms and emphasize that one sees this tree through a screen of technology, ideology, and institutional force. Then there’s Etzold’s choice of subject matter. Bonsai trees are, of course, famously pruned and sculpted in order to achieve a particular look that ultimately has little to do with them, and everything to do with us; they’re extreme examples of a hyper-manipulated nature in which the manipulated version is pretty much assumed to be the tree’s “real” look. However, in Etzold’s painting, a “big” bonsai tree, while still contained in this display or research environment, has been allowed to grow naturally, beyond its typical cultural confinement. Its significantly wilder look startles, and effectively counters the surrounding orderliness. This seems, in fact, like a bizarre mutant tree, or a tree wholly imagined by Etzold, or a better yet a tree hallucinated by Etzold, even though he faithfully recorded exactly what he saw. Ultimately what happens here is a cathartic encounter with nature, replete with mind-bending aspects, but a nature embedded in a dense array of controlling and regulating mechanisms.
In his paintings of plant or animal life, museum dioramas, ethnographic tableaux, shop window dummies, and various cultural artifacts, Eckhard Etzold explores precisely how all of these things are molded by ideologies, narratives, and systems of control, especially having to do with how information is organized and presented in various institutions. Typically, Etzold photographs his subjects, including exactly how they’re displayed, whether in cabinets or vitrines, behind windows, or with accompanying informational labels. Back in the studio, these slides are projected on canvas, and Etzold then painstakingly develops the image through meticulous brushwork, air brushing, and the application of multiple layers of acrylic wash. As much as Etzold exposes systems of display, he also questions and destabilizes them. Labels, when they appear, are unreadable; reflections obscure parts of the image but also have a kind of free-form, partly abstract beauty; otherwise educational narratives get completely undone. At the same time, Etzold also takes pains to expose the painting’s own technology, letting underlying layers of color, images, and material remain partly visible, and letting the wooden supports behind the canvas also have a visual presence. Etzold is an empirical painter, and he typically eschews anything smacking of subjectivity, fantasy, or emotionalism. Still, he consistently comes up with images that are visually striking and that also suggest multiple meanings and associations, just not the ones originally intended in situ.
Consider Coyote (1999), which uses this animal (as Joseph Beuys did before) as a quintessentially American icon (Etzold, incidentally, has lived for several years in New York City, and this is one of series of works that have recognizably American themes.) If museum dioramas invite a suspension of disbelief—in this case seeing a coyote loping across an open prairie in the American West—the exact opposite happens with Etzold’s painting, which underscores the artifice of the scene. Thus, it isn’t a loping coyote that one sees, but a coyote stuck in a circumscribed box, sealed off behind a window, frozen in a museum display. Meanwhile, the painting’s yellowish tint recalls aging newspaper, and suggests that this “wild” scene has likewise faded, as indeed myths of American innocence¾really of being free and unencumbered in a vast, bountiful land¾are rapidly fading right now (just barely visible in the background is a stars and stripes motif, like some ghost reminder of a vanished idealism.) At the same time, several luminous rectangles, which are Etzold’s rendition of reflections, float in the foreground with an aerial exuberance, while the coyote itself is riveting, adding up to a lustrous visual experience for the viewer. In any event, exacting realism and unorthodox abstraction, nature and the museum, photography and painting, all flourish together in this exquisitely hybrid work, but then again Etzold’s art always traffics in such combinations. Other works in his Americana series, focusing on Native Americans such as Indian 1 (1999), and Diodrama 1 (1999), use streaks, drips, washed out areas, and crinkly newspaper in the background to thoroughly transform the pristine simulacra of museum displays. This willful scruffiness is telling. Implicit here is a recognition of the staggering violence done to Native American cultures, and the way that violence rarely enters the frame when it comes to the feigned authenticity of museum dioramas.
Transformation, in fact, is a key to Eckhard Etzold’s art altogether, even though he courts a quasi-photographic replication of found objects, especially those found in museums. With Pull (1999), a mannequin in a museum winds up looking like a futuristic cyborg, with the head separated from the neck, and the torso in two sections. However benign in intention, many, and probably most, of the kind of ethnographic displays this mannequin inhabits have suspicious effects, namely reinforcing that “we” are analyzing and being entertained by “them,” whether they are pre-modern, of a different race, or of a different culture that we deem to be exotic, and that we have the license to do so. Merely by focusing on this dummy as a dummy, Etzold lets it have a surprising new impact, and it abruptly breaks with the presumed cultural politics going on to inhabit a new, far more unpredictable milieu. Meanwhile, the pilot in German Pilot (1998) seems like a forlorn action figure inexplicably trapped in a cubicle stuccoed with dozens of faded newspaper articles¾ a wonderful image that captures the befuddlement of a media-saturated era when confusing messages barrage one from all sides. In both cases, Etzold infiltrates the museum to confound its narratives, he invites a startling reappraisal of historicized material, and asks significant questions of just what is being represented, and why.
In these, as well as other paintings, for instance of glass flowers that mimic flowers for real, of contorted stuffed animals in tiny simulated natural environments, of a rifle in a vitrine arranged alongside its small working parts, and of a cat’s skeleton in a vitrine laid out very much like the rifle, Eckhard Etzold situates his art in a hyper-mediated realm where the borders between nature and culture are thoroughly scrambled. The remarkable thing—and what really distinguishes Etzold as an artist—is how his own kind of mimicry challenges the methods by which knowledge is categorized and presented, in images that often have a subtle sensuality and a pronounced visual power.