The Mystery of Painting

"In fact, painting has never gone away; like a virus, it has mutated, imprinting its genetic code on an entire new generation."

Sybille Rath has been investigating the no man’s land between representation and abstraction for many years. Her paintings sound out the equilibrium between abstract color gestures and allegorical, narrative perception. Circling around the role of the figure in an image, she establishes herself as a draftsman, capable of subtly uniting linear symbols with painterly perfection. Her paintings not only poach in the fields of art history, advertising and the everyday, but, through the development of her own stylistically complex iconography, simultaneously mobilize the potential of abstract painting as well. The abstract and figurative elements of the paintings are all created equally, in order that they may communicate with each other, both formally and contextually, within the painted plane on various levels. In the timeless and locationless structure of this space they can strengthen as well as undermine each other, ultimately leading to a new reassessment of painting and its possibilities, executed using contemporary means. The works are, thus, always engaged in an investigation of their own existence as images: their achievement consists of their ability to fuse the heterogeneity of the motifs and structures that emerge in the paintings into a homogeneous pictorial cosmos. The works, nonetheless, remain mysterious, offering no solutions, but are rather disturbing, provocative and stimulating.

In "Lucha Libre“ (2002/2003) the artist’s various principals interlock with one another in an exemplary fashion: opaque strips of color are alternated with color planes that are more like washes, layered and transparent. Dynamically crossing the pictorial space vertically, they instigate a painterly game by creating various surfaces and depths. Woven into this space are figurative, linear structures. Within these often large format, open dialogues with the painted surface float intricate or clearly contoured figurations that provide space for a wide range of figurative possibilities. It is in this manner in the painting “No Way Home,“ a poetic, narrative work of intense colors that almost seem to blossom like a flower on the canvas, that the contours of a woman turning out of the painting can be discerned in its lower right half; like a quote from an old master’s work, she seems to be dressed in an old German costume. It is often comic-like figures, such as those in “Jack the Rabbit“ (2005) or ones from non-European contexts, as in "Auf der Rolle“ (2004), which interest the artist. Concrete commitments are rare; more often it is the diverse lineage of the artist’s paintings with often fairytale-like titles, such as "Hüftengold“ (2005), "The Beautiful Island“ (2006) or "Am Wunschbaum“ (2006), that opens timeless areas of thought in which the coincidental, found and intentional engage in a densely woven relationship.

By regarding a thing’s reality in its fundamental meaning within its overall context, Sybille Rath creates a cosmos of pictorial elements between the zones of recognizability and subjective codification. The orientation towards people and the potential of interpersonal communication as the basis for our understanding and fundamental expression of our existence is obvious. The elements of the paintings are ripped out of their coherent spatial and temporal structure, isolated, charged with a valid meaning specific to the context of the given work, eve closing themselves off to readability altogether at times. Reduced to forms equally concise as puzzling, they are integrated into the painterly image concept. They become codes that relay their contents in condensed form or, appearing in an almost suggestive manner, broken linear configurations that nonetheless include the viewer in the inner pictorial conversation of the forms’ activities. The markings of the past and the history of painting are once again approached in a refreshing way, vitalizing the medium anew. (Translation: Marie Frohling)

© Dr. Patricia Drück
Douglas Fogle, The Trouble with Painting, in: Painting at the Edge of the World, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 2001, S. 18.

Blossoms and Beasts

Of the large format paintings on canvas by Sybille Rath "Am Wunschbaum" (“At the Tree of Wishes”) (155 x 125 cm) seems to be the least finished. The unprimed, raw canvas has been left visible on the lower left and around the edges. Alternating vertically and horizontally arranged layers of painted brush strokes fill areas with orange, blue-green and black, which superimpose each other in part, thus appearing to be united in a structure. A block of white stands isolated on the left. In a final act, numerous black and white cipher-like elements have been painted across the colored surfaces and the exposed part of the canvas. Most of these motifs appear simply as outlines or fragments.

In part because of the painting’s title, a striking tree catches the eye. In its top appears the figure of a man who is pulling a branch towards him, as though he wishes to smell a blossom. This hunched back figure reappears frequently, like a leitmotif, in Rath’s paintings. The strange tree climber is reminiscent of the drolerie on medieval structures, just like those Rath sketched in the Cloisters in New York. In a black zone beneath the man is a drawing of a box, out of which peer sculpturally painted beasts in the style of Goya, a painter much esteemed by Rath. A mask, painted in the same realistic manner to the left of the box, appears to be inspired by another pioneer of surrealism, Ensor. Farther to the left white brush stokes mark a robust arm whose hand grasps the sharp cover of a “drain.“ The arm grows out of a black body that is wearing a closely tied bodice and whose head loses itself in uncertainty. Looking more closely, we also notice a pot-bellied Laughing Buddha, reminiscent of the currently much loved miniature, surrounded by two figures of Asian priests and tooth bearing wild animals, into the jaws of which Rath may have peered on one of her several trips to Latin America. In the circle drawn under this one can discern a disc with the inscribed torso of an athlete, whose detached arm is swung back, ready to throw. In the upper right hand corner of the painting God’s blessing hand can be made out.

The varying width of the lines and the linear perspective allow us to perceive what was initially described as a structure of colored planes as something distinctly spatial in character. The protruding perspective of the color red and the varying direction of the brush strokes, as well as the silhouette-form created by the unpainted canvas, emphasize the impression of a slightly forward tilting head in three-quarter profile that is cleverly cut off in the hair and behind the ears. The strangely disconnected images that project from the continuum of the colored surfaces and then loose themselves in it again like shadows appear like the sensations, memories, dream images, wishes and thoughts belonging to this head. This wondrous painting, which initially seemed so unfinished, did it not transform itself suddenly into an introspective self-portrait of the artist? (Translation: Marie Frohling)

© Dr. León Krempel

Musical Columns

Anybody wanting to become a master has to start practising early on. Enthusiastically, we played Musical Chairs. There were heated struggles over the scarce resources. Anyone less nimble and less rough than the others sooner or later was without a chair and started bawling with disappointment. The rules seemed strange to me to the very last. Why on earth were the chairs musical when I was the one who ran for the life of me to change chairs, while the chairs, completely true to their nature, stood unmusically unmoving?
Sybille Rath has been playing Musical Images since early childhood. In doing so she has become a passionate painter, moves musically and develops her images further. That’s the way to do it! The genesis of her images makes unexpected cartwheels in the most recent phase of her work. Demons and fabulous beings that inhabit the capitals of Romanesque columns agilely change their dimension and, on the flat image-plane, seem to have been set free. On paper or canvas, they make vacation far from the drudgery of bearing loads, stretch their limbs and relax. Formerly rigid, standing images, the figures in the capitals shake off all their loads. No longer having to bear a weight makes them seem as light as a feather, and even their lucid painted bodies she transforms into weightless airy spirits.
And yet, the line sketch of the gargoyle still gazes powerfully and looks down on everything and everybody. Only the fresh blood-red patch of colour next to the gargoyle which, breaking the fragile line, threatens to flood everything, can become dangerous for it. The wafer-thin line-beings at its head, however, cannot. Like sketchy notes that have landed on the wrong sheet of paper, those fluttering gnomes with their oversized, comical noses do not appear to belong here. Hybrid beings from another dream, they do their confusing mischief and pose questions which nobody, apart from the silent artist, knows how to answer.
Change of image. Owl-cat, fabulous animal, speak to me. Interpret for me your wondrous grin. Now I recognize you! Alice helped me; you are the grinning cat from Wonderland. And you also like to be an owl. A complete bird's body; I see wings, not fur, but plumage. Change through and through. Sybille Rath's images leave a lot of room for viewers to look around and to try things out. What comes to appearance as held fast, immediately lets go and makes place for another. Musical images, changing shape! The game subtly played by the painter quickly takes hold of us viewers. We enjoy it and allow our eyes to run through the painting, never becoming satiated.
In the intoxication of change there is no end to be seen, and the making of faces from rags of mist could go on and on. There, the red tongue on the owl-cat's back, put there intentionally on the grey ground, makes us pause and abruptly puts an end to work on the image, just as a full-stop separates one sentence from the next.
To extend the richness of images, Sybille Rath moves within a widely spanned horizon where her expressive images, situated between figure and abstraction, push forward into appearance.
About Heinrich Heil
Heinrich Heil comes from philosophy, living as a freelance writer in Düsseldorf. For many years in his publications and talks, he has engaged with the fine arts and photography. In 2006 he was appointed Cultural Affairs Officer in the office of the Mayor of the State Capital Düsseldorf.

© Heinrich Heil

The return of Artemis

The Ancient Greeks had a god or goddess to accompany any particular mood or experience. One of these was Artemis who is usually just consigned to the role of goddess of hunting. People outdoors used to suspect her presence if they suddenly sensed someone unseen was observing them. Artemis loved to lie in wait and then suddenly descend on the scene with no warning. She was unpredictable and therefore somewhat aloof. Consequently she is portrayed as a shy and gentle, but almost feral and wild creature. Her character combined happy and elegant with distant and secretive traits, making her seem enigmatic and even eerie.
Anyone wishing to understand, or redefine what the Ancient Greeks thought about Artemis, needs look no further than Sybille Rath’s pictures. These pictures are also initially unfathomable, appearing often slightly detached and dismissive, but they surprise and delight by revealing tender, fine and graceful sides. Although bold brushstrokes, murky colours and blurred, virtually unrecognisable subjects might seem alienating at first, delicate details, subtle changes of colour and comical or whimsical forms are suddenly there to enthral. As a result, anyone prepared to take more than a cursory glance will be rewarded and literally able to start reading the pictures. Familiar symbols and additional levels are constantly discovered.
Sybille Rath’s subjects are rooted in mythology and history of art and even in foreign cultures she has visited. But above all they are drawn from her own imagination. A glance at more than just a few of her many pictures reveals the impressively wide variety of forms, objects and aspects that emerge without ever repeating themselves. Surprises are a possibility here too and once again enhance the Artemisian experience.
Sybille Rath’s considerable creative powers also of course foster the imagination of those looking at her pictures. And as a result, the pictures are a response to demands frequently placed on the artist since Romanticism. Artists’ works are expected to conjure up ever-changing pictures in the mind’s eye to allow constant scope for different interpretations. Instead of clearly defined subjects, pictures should also transform depending on a given situation – just as Artemis did not wish to be defined solely on the basis of one characteristic.
In the spirit of Romanticism August Wilhelm Schlegel put this aspiration into words: “Some people prefer to look at paintings with their eyes shut, so that their imagination is not interfered with. Pictures should avoid being too focused on messages and obsessive – too unambiguous and blatant.” Schlegel was concerned that many works of art did not live up to this ideal and dominated the imagination of those looking at them. But Modernism provides frequent examples of pictures that no longer require you to shut your eyes. Sybille Rath’s works in particular present themselves in a way that fuels the imagination. They reflect what the individual envisages.
Without their Artemisian side, this would however be impossible. The fact that they also conceal aspects and never divulge everything is therefore essential. This is the only way of adding the missing parts from your own imagination. Only by interacting with the actual picture and the one in your mind’s eye will the full picture become apparent. In many of her paintings, Sybille Rath suggests faces, figures, even whole scenes. She allows certain strokes or areas to relate to one another in different ways. By using layering techniques, she ensures that other levels and colours emerge on the same picture, depending on how far away the person is standing. So, she cleverly opens up opportunities for visualising details or thinking up a whole story.
If Artemis was discreet in her reserve, you could call Sybille Rath’s pictures courteous. Nevertheless, the pictures never disillusion, but always give full rein to the imagination. However, we are never encouraged to linger for long periods of time before one picture. Perhaps the picture might be perceived like an image on a screen which is shown again and again. In this respect Sybille Rath offers a remarkable comment on a question she considers obsolete – is painting passé? As long as it can captivate us, like moving images in a new medium do, it is still a contemporary force to be reckoned with.
As Sybille Rath’s work is only complete when it has penetrated people’s minds, a proactive attitude is vital. If your aim is purely to be entertained, but you lack a practised or lively imagination, or the sensitivity to discover the richness and nuances behind the reticent façade, Artemisian art is likely to quickly be beyond your grasp or even bore you. On the other hand, if you enjoy lateral thinking, or conjecturing on the merely partially concealed and are prepared to play a game of concealment and surprise, Sybille Rath's art will even unveil eroticism in its most pleasant form. It will tempt you, let you dream and lead you out into the open. If you seek to enrich your mind with pictures, Sybille Rath's work should not be missed. And August Wilhelm Schlegel should keep his eyes peeled.

© Prof Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich

> Entdekungsreisen für die Augen - Bettina Krogemann - DIE WELT - 13. September 2008 > Pdf