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Oily Substance

Emil vd Pol-Engels

Signs and symbols have become a new material for many young artists. They appropriate certain returning elements of the global image industry – ranging from logo's and typefaces to heraldry – and use templates and printing techniques to make them the building blocks of their work. On this foundation of references they then create space for a personal artistic positions, an attitude, which gives them a certain sense of control over (capitalist, geopolitical) processes of depersonalization. This way, the logo of a brand of energy drinks suddenly becomes a symbol for the promises of the system and the following inevitable disappointment of the individual. A fake Louis Vuitton bag filled to the brim with Pringles, lying on the bare wooden floor of a squatted apartment. Opposite to the overwhelming forces of globalization and monoculture, these artists place the question what the agency of the individual might still entail. They are deliberately sloppy in their workmanship and show the doubts they have while creating works as an indictment of a uniform and interchangeable professionalism.

Paradoxically, the reason that these logo's and symbols can act as materials can be traced to the weightlessness of digital visual culture. A generation has grown up with the screen as an extension of their habitat. They think in vectors and unlimited scalability. For them, seeing the Nike swoosh sign as pixels on a screen or as paint on a canvas is part of the same domain of representation. This while they are obviously distinctly different renditions. The one is a very temporary composition of colored lights, while the other is a eternally solidified gesture in paint. Here, the Internet functions as a sieve for meaning. Through boundless repetition and perpetually changing contexts the form is shaken loose from its marketing strategy – its mission, motto and slogan – and becomes part of a collective image database. This database is put to use to create memes, a contemporary response to the allegorical image.

Niko Riedinger is very aware of the interplay of appropriation and reference in his work. He views it as a game traditionally driven by power and exclusion. By questioning the universal validity and historical shelf life of a symbol, he resists systems in which the recognition and understanding of a sign is a rite of passage. Or rather, systems in which certain – socio-culturally determined – readings of the sign have become an oppressive norm. In fiery strokes of paint and hysterical compositions he claims control over the signifier. He tries to open it up for subjective interpretations by breaking its armor of absolute reproducibility. Is the abstracted image of a pine tree – a recurring visual element in his work – a reference to the dark woods of his native Germany, to the iconic air freshener or to the fact that humans like to reduce their lived reality to bite-sized portions? Niko seems to ask for a postponement of the answer, a moment to take in nothing but the shape and they way it manifests itself in paint.


The new artists of the symbol refer to idealism in painting while realizing that these proposed utopias are anything but objectively desirable or even attainable. Their raw style of painting critically considers the lofty aims of their peers and predecessors. By combining modernist compositions with recognizable signs and symbols they emphasize the inherent laziness of the human mind. It will always chose the path of least resistance. Initially, it will settle for a quick recognition of the sign in favor of a full understanding of the context of a work of art. Stick a discount coupon on a Rothko and

the room for esoteric explorations of the soul will quickly vanish.

For Niko, this idea meant that he had to critically re-evaluate the appearance of the symbol. Usually, it will show itself in a reproduced form, irrevocably detached from its origins on the drawing table. It appears as a simulacrum, a copy of a long lost original. Generally, its physical form is flat and without a trace of its production. It is deliberately kept outside of the experience of the passage of time and materiality. Coca Cola has been the same brown substance for over a century. Very few people wonder about the origins of its raw materials. The branding creates an illusion of infinite reproducibility in a finite world. This realization has made Niko reconsider his chosen material as an artist. During his residency at Artlabb he switched from acrylics to oil. Where the qualities of acrylic paint are well suited for direct recognizability of a symbol, oil is much more appropriate for registering an artist gesture. Using this new material, he can show the public the production and origin of a sign. In this case, the brush moving along the surface of the canvas. By doing so, he is able to disrupt automatic and normative interpretations of the symbol itself. The material is useful for an exploratory method of painting with an open ending and no preconceived composition. A striking contrast with the precharged and closed symbols he chose as his subject matter.

By painting directly in wet paint that is applied very thickly, Niko can sculpt his symbols in and out of the image. Colors and shapes blend into each other on the surface, acceptance and denial of the sign are removed from each other by just one gesture. This results in works in which foreground and background shift relative to each other depending on ones ability to recognize certain elements. Young, or non-western eyes might not know of the appearance and significance of the templar's cross that often appears in his work. At that point, the shape is part of a general abstract composition. Eyes that do connect with the historical significance of this symbol see a very different work, rooted in questions about (cultural) identity. This dynamic in much of his work touches upon a central thought in his practice: Do the cultural roots of our identity determine how much of the world we can honestly see?


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