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A new dimension in painting

Michael Burges has achieved in doing what artists have strived to do for centuries: transcending the picture. By Gerhard Charles Rump

Since the earliest times, it has always been one of the major aims of painting to transcend the picture plane, and attain a pictorial autonomy above and beyond the image. To create a space that will open the gates into another dimension, into a world beyond colour, technique and motif. The two-dimensionality of painting can be acknowledged and underscored, but it can also be seen as an obstacle. Only when it is overcome can a picture come into being in the mind of the viewer.

Images courtesy of Michael Burges.

An early method seeking to attain that goal was the "artificial perspective", the invention of pictorial space. Very early on it was seen that a picture only gives the impression of being a picture when it is tailored to and corresponds to the make-up of the human perception system, the "grammar" of seeing – one of the basic preconditions of painting.

Another procedure for transcending pictures was the use of colour. This led to such highly abstract and sensual methods as the gold ground in the painting of the Middle Ages, which stood for the transcendental, or – even more significant for later development – colour as a symbol for light. Colour is known not to be a characteristic of the object (like form, for example), but merely a visual appearance dependent on the object's surface structure, which reflects a certain part of the light spectrum. Colour is also conditioned by our perception apparatus. For example, people can't see ultraviolet light, but bees can.

The concept of "transcendental luminescence", as we know it from Grünewald's "The Resurrection", comes from Wolfgang Schöne (in his "Über das Licht in der Malerei" - on light in painting): luminous colours that do not represent physical light in the painting, but transcendence.

As well as this may have functioned, the image always remained locatable on the surface it was painted on. It displayed technique, a certain "style" and was readily accessible to the observer. It took until the Baroque Era for the next step to take place, in which sculptural elements, for example an angel's leg, were carried over into the two dimensional painting. But this sort of transcendence, although it rendered exact localisations of the subject impossible - at least on the margins - did not succeed in removing the painted image from the sphere of the physically clear-cut. To be sure, with this development it was impossible to say from the desired position exactly where three dimensions become two. Yet it never broke free of the painted illusion.

In modern times, many attempts have been made to take things a step further. Op Art played with interferences and contrasts. Barnett Newman overpowered the viewer with large, monochrome colour surfaces. Julio Le Parc, Dan Flavin and many others play with real light. Yet the picture, however much art tried to achieve the "numinous" or transcendental, always remained an accessible, definable and ultimately haptic - or tactile - image.

With the new works by Michael Burges, everything has changed. After his beginnings with installations and informal structures, Burges developed an abstract form of painting which physically, formally and conceptually hones in on his idea of a painted "virtual space". To do this the artist, born in 1954 in Düssledorf, puts his work in a box in which it cannot really be seen, but only recreated in the mind of the viewer as an imaginary "image".

Here a new dimension of painting opens up in which painting is effectively transcended, relinquishing its physical location determined by the viewer's perception. Now the painting wanders over to that place where the image really becomes an image: the viewer's mind. Conceptually, the deciding factor is that the image that is seen can be perceived, but not located. It floats freely in space, and is transformed as the viewer moves. No one can say where it actually is, apart from the effect it has on the viewer's mind.

The transformation of the image with the viewer's movement also implies a multi-dimensionality - resulting from reflections and interferences - which is not achievable or even intended in works applying paint to a conventional support. But here the variations relying on the observer's movement are entirely intentional. In this way a complex product emerges which corresponds to the complexity of the observer's emotional reactions, and reflects these aesthetically.

The decisive thing is that the transcending of painting happens through painting. In addition Michael Burges adds a technical element: a diffuser disk. In contrast to Stephan Kaluza, who aims to achieve a certain effect by raising the concrete subject to the general level by hanging a darkened disk in front of his paintings, something entirely new happens with the diffuser disk in Burges' work. The painted images as a physical object is totally overridden, it floats freely in the room, is transformed as the viewer moves and becomes entirely positionless. This happens above all because what is represented is at no time present in the "original". This is what differentiates him from Christa Winter.

The observer has no access to the painting without destroying it. He is thrown back upon himself, and has to live, aesthetically speaking, with the fact that the resulting images are continually created anew in his own mind. In that way they in fact become transcendental experiences, for, horribile dictu, everything that had remained of the tradition has disappeared: the artist's signature, technique and texture. In its place is the ability and the will of the observer to perceive, and this, in turn, is referred back to the grammar of seeing.

Because, as opposed to in the entire history of art, the viewer is facing a non-haptic image, he is radically excluded from the space occupied by the painting, which becomes virtual. It exists, but it is not "there". And if it is present, then only in a way that is not accessible.

What Michael Burges is attempting is a systematic grasp of the "science of painting". On the one hand he abandons subjective gestures as the expression of a subject which – regardless of how – is suffering. And on the other hand he systematically investigates what an image can be, how it functions internally and externally, what effects it can bring about, and how it relates to our powers of perception. All of Burges' paintings, even the early ones, are attempts at making us conscious of the characteristics of thinking and perception, and ultimately our knowledge of the world.

This occurs with renewed vigour in the new "Virtual Space" paintings, as the observer does not have access to the physical paintings. Just as the quantum physicist cannot simultaneously determine both a particle's speed and its location, so the observer of Michael Burges' new paintings can only perceive one aspect, one of a series of possible states.

Because they are conceptually free from materiality - in the sense of corporeality - and target the viewer's perception and aesthetic capacity for analysis, the "Virtual Space" pictures address the question of the image anew, more radically than ever before: Where is the picture? What is the picture? What is a picture at all? What can it achieve? Here painting becomes both spatial and immaterial, and yet it remains part and parcel of painting. Michael Burges has given painting a new dimension. His new paintings are so to speak "white holes": They radiate everything, nothing sinks in. Everything happens in us, provided we have the relevant knowledge of visual grammar. If we don't, they can teach us.

The "Virtual Space" paintings by Michael Burges are represented by Galerie Heinz Holtmann in Cologne, among others.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on August 27, 2005.

Gerhard Charles Rump is art market editor at Die Welt.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european