It’s beside the point to consider any single painting by Kerstin Brätsch; her pieces accumulate in power like tomograms taken from a wider, ecstatic, outward-reaching project. Her signature works – oil paintings on large sheets of transparent Mylar or paper – harness a heady amalgam of the lacy striations of agate, the swampy figuration of Jean Dubuffet, the twists of radiated entrails, the striding black gestures of Robert Motherwell, and Jersey Shore airbrushing. But while her style is distinctive, Brätsch’s forms and methods are diverse. The Hamburg-born, New York-based artist, who was the recipient of the Edvard Munch Art Award 2017, returns to the embryonic elements of painting – pigment, oil, and light; the artist’s hand and the movement required to constitute a gesture – subjecting each to various operations of distillation, chance, out-sourcing, and layering. Her aim, it would seem, is to coax from painting what might still be unknown.
For this reason, it’s not immediately apparent why Brätsch’s work should so often warrant inclusion in exhibitions that tackle the now old-chestnut dilemma of painting’s status in ‘the digital era’. She was, for example, included in Museum Brandhorst’s sweeping Painting 2.0: Expression in the information age (2015), MoMA’s The Forever Now (2014), and the Fridericianum’s Speculations on Anonymous Materials (2014). Her reckoning with the impact of the digital on visual culture – its networks and atemporality, its conduciveness to sampling and versioning and editing, and the ubiquitous frame of the screen – is explicitly material. Though her paintings translate lusciously to a screen, they also double-down on every ineffable and substantial thing that evades reduction to a pixel. Notwithstanding the modern techniques available to her, she turns continually to ancient technologies of marbling and glasswork. She turns to the earth, and to spirits, and to the people surrounding her.
A central tenet of her praxis is collaboration – the more hands on a project, the better. She works with artists, artisans, and with psychics and shamans (her 2006-08 series Psychic consists of abstract portraits she painted after meeting with clairvoyants in New York). These partnerships allow her to experiment with painting in a social context, considering its circulation, its relationship to sculpture, or identity, or marketing. They also question the nature of authorship, by foregrounding the community that always participates in the knowledge and production that ultimately constitute an artwork. As the text that appears in a painting as part of the installation Sigis Erben (2012) reads: ‘DID I DO IT MYSELF? / IF SO – HELP ME / IF NOT – JOIN ME.’
Read Annie Godfrey Larmon’s full interview with Kerstin Brätsch in Issue No. 22 of the White Review.