The Ambiguity of Imitation
Tom Früchtl’s Three-Dimensional Reflections on the Stupidity of Painting
We live in paradoxical times. Even while the art system increasingly demands the establishment of a clear artistic identity and ever-recognizable signs of branding, only those cutting-edge artists, who produce unconventional or even paradoxical images or things, appear the most intellectual. And that is exactly what Tom Früchtl does. In 2001, Früchtl exhibited a normal brown paper bag. Another stupid readymade, and almost one hundred years after Duchamp? But if you turn away bored, you will miss everything and above all, the fact that everything does not quite add up. The shadows on the crumpled bag look different than if they were cast by real incidental light. Which is no surprise since the shadows themselves are painted directly onto the bag. Since time immemori- al, creases and cast shadows have belonged to the domain of optical illusion in trompe l-oeil painting. The rivalry during Antiquity between the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasios has been told many times before. Zeuxis tricked birds with painted grapes, but Parrha- sios actually won the contest by tricking Zeuxis. He asked him to pull back the curtain in front of his painting. But, the image of the curtain itself is what he painted. Trompe- l‘oeil reached its greatest virtuosity in still life painting of the seventeenth century and in the decoration of Baroque castles and churches. In the nineteenth century, the use of illusionism’s optical techniques waned, and in modern art, those techniques were further avoided and even attacked. Except for the field surrounding Surrealism, perspec- tival and spatial depth, as well as lifelike imitation, hardly continued to be a concern for painting. With the onset of color field painting and Minimal art’s objects, anti-illusionism reached its culminating point in the United States after the Second World War. An image should still only be an image, an object only an object. Art should just “be,” not try to tell stories or prove anything.
Tom Früchtl engages with the tradition of illusionism as an attempt to take it to its furthest limit. And the illusion becomes explicit almost always only on the second glance. That is how one in the first moment sees the “curtain” that Früchtl paints on the paper bag like a contemporary Parrha- sios—no more real as with the box sculptures that either hang on the wall, or constitute an see- mingly unintentional sculpture that looks like an haphazardly piled up heap. The colored dots and tape, which initially appear to be common traces of use, are actually meticulously painted onto the boxes. Still more hidden are the interventions Früchtl introduced on the furniture covers that he has been stretching onto stretcher frames of different sizes since 2002, Upon closer inspection, the dirty grey blankets made out of shredded old clothing consist of a myriad of small colored threads from manipulated pieces of clothing. He paints over each individual thread with their respective color, emphasizing them, giving the impression of an all- over painting, reminiscent of the work of informal painting and particularly of Jackson Pollock’s drips.
Before it advanced as a means of artistic expression, the all-over composition was a preferred technique of military camouflage. And Früchtl’s work has a lot to do with camouflage, but in an inverse sense: his over-paintings do not conceal, but copy things and spaces so accurately that it is at first hardly noticeable. Or does the concealment, the camouflage, more likely take effect because everything is right there in front of your eyes, and that is why we do not see it — like Edgar Allan Poe’s famous purloined letter that the investigators overlook because it is simply resting on the table?
In 2003 for the first time, Früchtl built a sound amplifier and loud speakers out of cardboard and jute. These objects relate to the beloved artificial stage designs that rock bands used for their concert performances in the 1980s. But they are also reminiscent of the paper models Thomas Demand photographs and then exhibits on large Cibachro- me photographic prints in order to recreate the ambiance of famous photographs. Here, the simplification compared with “nature’s example”—serving as a model—is con- sciously pointed out.
The use of a photograph would indeed contradict the artistic significance of Früchtl’s work, in which he continually skirts the boundary between image and object, presentati- on and the presented. It is in this way that he scatters the melody lines he plays during his performances, before they are played back though a loop machine, producing a sound closer to white noise, as if thirty or forty guitars were playing at the same time.
Like the recreated equipment, these performances of the last ten years evoke Früchtl’s earlier career as a rock musician. The same can also be said whenever the artist compares his process of painting color or shadow gradations directly onto pree- xisting objects to the amplification and tuning of sound, a relationship that some of the titles of his work also reflect (like pumping up the volume).
Above all, Früchtl seems to be interested in the technological, the machinic, and replication in music when he works as a visual artist. And what exactly does his painting do? It imitates, paints over, slavishly copies that what already exists, making it exactly why one often describes it as “dumb.” But what is the fundamental difference between Früchtl and other contemporary painters who simply copy their motifs from projected slides? He manages to evade the many critiques of supposed “dumb painting” because his very act of copying and imitation introduces not only a doubling, but also a polysemy to the work. And Tom Früchtl puts his finger, so to speak, exactly upon this ambiguity and also its paradoxes, again and again. Only it is not — as in the common German say- ing—like putting a finger into a wound, but a blind spot.
Shortened and edited version of a text that appeared in Kunsttermine Nr. 1, 2005.