The Archeology of Shadows
I have known Rita Wolff’s work for many years. Yet, each new painting has, at first, a somewhat irritating effect. It shows characteristics and developments which one could not possible have anticipated. Or – would it be wiser to say – which one did not want to anticipate because its well established imagery fitted so well into the box labelled visionary architecture. The adjective visionary meaning here the darker rather than the lighter side of the unusual and the noun architecture meaning not only a single house but whole clusters of buildings and even geometrically structured landscapes.
Those who like to make sweeping comparisons would quickly establish a link starting with early Schinkel via Felix Vallotton on to Giorgio de Chirico. By doing so they would neglect the fact that Rita Wolff’s current work can hardly be explained in the light of that cultural background alone. While expressing an August Strindberg narrative quality, the imagery of Carlo Carra and the music of Jan Sibelius, it blends the nordic and the mediterranean, the heavy and the light, the straight and the curved with growing ease.
Comparing Rita Wolff’s early work with paintings done since 1992, we quickly notice that a change has taken place, a move from the simple reproduction of accepted images to representations of imagined experiences. To put in a different way: her work tells stories, dark and sometimes disturbingly tragic ones where as her earlier paintings were mainly illustrations, albeit highly skilled but, in the end, she adds rather than creates anew. This is to me the real sensation.
Rita Wolff’s new paintings have but little in common with her previous work. A profound transformation (even if only perceivable from a safe distance) must have taken place: totally new subjects appear, new colours and formats and on the whole, a new quality inspired by human history. We have to remember that where art expresses joy, it barely transcends the level of applied art; where it expresses graveness and sorrow, it becomes moving and exemplary, human and real in the sense of being part of human condition.
Without really knowing the person, we can only guess at what changes have taken place, but the fact that they have taken place is signaled by every new painting. It goes without saying that a lot of what we see today manifested itself earlier on. To take the afore mentioned thought a step further: what is only outlined on a small scale is fully expressed in a large format, it depicts, explains and attains the dimension of a symbol and far transcends mere representation.
Three painting seem, in my view, to illustrate this thesis: the man with the boat, the man with the fish and the man with the shadow (with which he struggles). All three paintings take their leave of earlier preferred more picturesque (and only superficially interesting) work and reveal a transition towards representing a story, a symbol embodying a story.
In these new paintings three elements stand out: first, the strong, almost brutal reduction of formal planes, second, the dramatic concentration of colours and third the almost solemn illumination of contours. A marvelous and gripping simplification of an artistic signature.
The casual onlooker sometimes knows how many steps one has to descend into the shadowy underworld of the soul to re-emerge with such images as an ambassador of the (archeological) ME. He might even sense that this is the essential task of the artist (and that he is doing this for us). He might even acknowledge that these paintings are the precursors of this memories –or to be even more precise– that these paintings become memory at the moment of being seen so that the onlooker might have the impression of déjà-vu and of being familiar with them.
Is it not so that we often only see what we really know and often only recognize what we have within us. Even if, in search of further enlightenment, we move in the straightest line possible on this globe away from our innermost core, we will reach it all the more quickly from the other side.
In this context, Rita Wolff’s new paintings may also appear somewhat disturbing and sometimes somber and black. They convey a hermeticism from which there seems to be no escape and to which there may, ultimately, be no access either. Painting after painting shows fragments from an imaginary never ending story. But they also illustrate, as it where, that unresolved paradox: while we may guess at a possible meaning, we are gazing into that labyrinthine prison of ours from where meaningful images can only reach those who, armed with sympathetic resolve, are able to break the lock.
Thus a singularly inquisitive interest emerges: following the steady stream of her production, we are moved by the paintings in these rooms (literally dragged onto dry land) and at the same time we can hardly wait to find out what iconographic discoveries Rita Wolff will present to us in the years to come.
Köln, January 1995