Rainer Gross, Contact Paintings– “Twins”
In the case of the paintings by Rainer Gross known as “Twins,” we are dealing with diptychs, i.e., two-part works which, when the two same-sized canvases are placed horizontally next to each other, yield an overall picture. At first glance, we encounter intense color and an enormous presence of the heavy application of layers of paint organized in flat planes. The spotty distribution of various colors conveys an impression of an organic proliferation of, say, colorful lichen, or of the weathering processes of the earth or other surfaces. Now and again, this assessment also applies to Gross’ paintings based on irregular strips of paint.
Despite these first associations, the works do not depict anything. Color and its appearances are what determine the works, and hence, they are unequivocally classifiable as non-representational color painting. But are we dealing with painting in the classical sense at all? No, and yes!
With Contact Paintings, Gross provides a term for his unique procedure that makes use of both classic artists’ oil paints as well as copious amounts of initially dry, actually powdery, color pigments. Particularly interesting in this respect is that the pigments are only bonded to become color matter once they have been applied to the canvas. This is accomplished by moistening the canvases with various liquids as well as by applying pressure, specifically by pressing the two sides of the painting together (“contact”), which Gross does by hand. This act is no less guided than the artist’s arrangement and layering of color when applying the powdery pigments.
Among the decisions Gross makes is determining how long the two sides will make contact. He defines this—in some respects alchemistic—process with utmost precision, deciding how long the liquids saturate the pigments and the extent to which he allows the overlaying paint to dry.
Finally, Gross separates the work’s two parts. It’s here that a kind of calculated chance becomes manifest as the painting comes about. Exactly which pigments or layers of paint detach is something that is, apart from the artist’s experience, only conditionally predictable. This ultimate moment of surprise is what the artist is looking for and savors, one in which for him—as in nature—the inherent dynamics exceed human control.
Taking a closer look at these paintings, we discover sensitive, delicate parts, subtle color compositions or perforations, and also an energetic, vehement tempestuousness, full of contrasts that seem like injuries. Areas of pastosely-applied paint are clearly visible, as well as grainy pigments, sometimes smooth, sometimes rough, and treated almost plastically. In a visual comparison of both parts of the diptych, we recognize their relatedness from their imprint procedure. Clumps of paint that adhere to one side as if they have been added are rendered as dents on the other side, for the most part drawing the gaze to the sediments beneath. This factor is mutually distinguishable. The two panels of the “Twins” are similar, but these are fraternal, not identical, twins.
In addition, Gross determines their arrangement in such a way that one half of the painting is, more often than not, turned 180 degrees. He provokes us to contemplate the two parts’ relationship to each other, since a dependence is obvious, though its deciphering is not directly apparent. No one side is the printing block; no one side is the printed result. Both sides are both. In the most literal sense, they have mutually created each other under the artist’s guiding hand.
Only once we have the key does it become clear to us that, with respect to the paintings’ effect, the genesis of these paintings, and their destruction, i.e., the “injuries” to the painted surface, are simultaneous. As with all creatures and things, the demise is inherent in the genesis. In this regard, in his paintings, Gross creates a memento morifor paint.
Of course, these are not injuries in a literal sense. Rather, the bulges of paint are to be interpreted aesthetically, like the openings of the picture surface in works by Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), or the traces in artworks made of torn-off posters, such as those by Raymond Hains (1926-2005). Gross was weaned on such positions in the avant-garde art scene in 1960s Cologne. He was similarly confronted, for example, by paintings full of color contrasts by the likes of Clifford Still (1904-1980) and other representatives of American Expressionism, when he settled in New York in 1972, making it his primary residence. This art historical system—up to the dynamics of tachistic placements—is something Gross also invokes associatively in his works.
His native Cologne and his adopted New York home also perhaps fueled the artist’s dialogue with the theme of the diptych. Immediately prior to beginning his work on the Contact Paintings, he rendered the twin towers of the Cologne Cathedral, an inscribed symbol of home for all Rhinelanders, in an abstract painting from 1996 called “Colonia Twins.” And for decades, the towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the “Twin Towers,” were a landmark in the New York metropolitan area. Gross gives his “Twins” last names as titles: for example, “Schmidt Twins,” or “Elder Twins.” These were selected blindly from the New York telephone book. By using such random names, he releases the works from his care to their own existence. Here as well he emphasizes the autonomy of his artifacts, which have created themselves mutually during their process of origination, as described above.
Unlike positions in analytic color painting, such as those in works by Marcia Hafif (1929-2018) or Joseph Marioni (b. 1943) (who, for example, primarily question painting in pure self-reference concerning its parameters, the nature of the picture carrier, the character of the color material, and the technique used for paint application in relation to light and space), Gross succeeds in delivering a synthetic approach to color painting by evoking associative and narrative levels of meaning, in addition to analyzing the medium of painting and the painting process.