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I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue,
than why I have one.
(Marcus Porcius Cato)
A discussion on contemporary art usually runs out of steam once the point has been made that art has gone past the point of no return and is inextricably interlinked with other genres, particularly the new media, should the definition of art be pushed to its limits. When Peter Weibel posits that all artistic disciplines have been changed by the new media – by dint of their universal impact, meaning that all art forms would dance to their tunes – his position is entirely defensible from his point of view, yet only one way of defining modern art. Valentin Oman (*1935 in St. Stefan, near Villach) has helped fashion contemporary Austrian painting like almost no other – while consciously straying off the beaten path dictated by the spirit of the times – in a process-oriented engagement with the constraints of his media. His themes and figurative representations of the human form place the present firmly in the context of the past and the future, revealing yet again the power of painting or drawing to extract the temporality of an image from the immediacy of its evolutionary process and to anchor it in a dimension which transcends all time. Working in layers with multifarious strata of paint or print is the artist's most characteristic trademark. "Oman is not only very tolerant of fuzzy contours, he positively aspires to them. He allows the viewer plenty of space. Not because he's indecisive but because he's very conscious of the fact that the outer shell, our matière brute, is ephemeral", is how Martin Traxl once put it when writing about Valentin Oman, "traveller in time(s)". Oman addresses universal life themes in his works; alongside landscape as an entity, the human figure is the focal point of his visual concept. But not only the human being as ecce homo, but also – if not principally – the images that humans create of themselves, replete with all their societal and social connotations. "He is a citizen of the world(s)" according to Peter Baum, who thus outlined the socio-political aspect of the artist's work. Oman's landscapes and stick-like images of the human form are always right at the interface between figuration and abstraction. Even though his paintings are anything but a "naturalistic" reflection of the world, and the immanence of his materials comes to the fore, Oman's works make deeply political statements through and through. Primarily because they endow the news of the day with a philosophical meta level for debate. Our grappling with the fundamental questions of our existence is not only endorsed but also expected by the idiom and composition of Valentin Oman's paintings. Materiality and content depend on one another, underscoring the large question mark hovering over our heads between coming into being and leaving this life. The human form or the landscape leaves its traces, weaving in and out of the layers of paint and print.
Since the early 1990s, monuments have been a recurring feature in Oman's works on paper and canvas. Even his photographs going under the collective working title of "Fossil" – seldom exhibited to date, more's the pity –fit in well in this context. They were taken on his many travels, without specifying an actual geographical location. Oman is an inveterate collector of visual impressions in his photographic works. Inconspicuous details become the focus of attention. No matter where he might be, Oman follows underlying traces, capturing the moods and impressions of a country or a place which remain hidden from view to run-of-the-mill tourists for as long as they focus on representative sights. Yet much of the detail would also be alien to the locals, familiarity serving to conceal the exceptional. "Maybe the real traveller is always in the eye of the storm. The storm is the world; the eye is that with which he views it. In the eye it is quiet and anyone who is in that place can make out things that pass by people who stay at home" is how the 12th century Arabian philosopher Ibn al-Arabi put it, quoted by Cees Nooteboom in the opening essay of "Nomad's Hotel". Oman's analogue photographs are fossils in more ways than one: impressions are handed down to posterity in double exposures, reflecting his penchant for working in layers right from the start of a project, the effect being enhanced still further in the processing and editing phases.
For Valentin Oman, Denkmal/Spomenik/Monument is an umbrella term for several groups of works which do not only differ in their idiom but also in their interpretation of the notion. In the past, monuments all too often fulfilled a political, representative function; nowadays they are oft interpreted as a historical relic to be viewed with critical distance, in marked contrast to memorials or cultural heritage sites. Frequently constructed in Classical style, monuments still dominate the urban image of many a town or city centre today, fulfilling a representative function, staking claims to power and embodying concepts of national identity. But as history well knows, not even monuments last for ever these days, namely when they are toppled or destroyed, by erosion or human intervention, thus representing another conception of history, albeit one for the present and the future. Denkmal/Spomenik/Monument allows Valentin Oman to pose the question of existence and transience, equally documenting the finite temporality of those in whose honour a statue was erected. He records his monuments as fragments of the original freeze image, in the very instant of decay. Not until it starts to disintegrate does it gain merit for the artist, ready for re-coding on paper in abstract form. Content-wise, the contrast with the Ara Pacis series is obvious, located as it is on a different level of interpretation. Exclusively in black and white, this cycle of photographs was taken over a period of five years. In it he meditated on impressions of a charnel house dating from the First World War, amongst other things. The title refers to the Ara Pacis Mundi memorial in Medea Friaul, Italy. This monumental temple was constructed in 1951 on the flanks of the hill above the town by Milan architect Mario Baciocchi in memory of the victims of the Second World War.
In the Spomenik series, Valentin Oman developed his own special printing technique using iron dust and paint. In a combination of painting, structure, graphic style and haptic texture on paper, the artist forcefully elaborates on the theme in form and content. His habit of working with many layers and combining the medium with gestural script is intensified here by the structures of bold relief and the opportunities presented by the rusting iron dust. The printing technique which rounds off the work allows Oman's graphic virtuosity and profound knowledge of painting and materials, which has characterized his art right from the beginning, to be given complete expression. The images simulate a situation which could not exist like that in reality, overstepping the bounds in several respects in the process. The effect is immediate – direct and irritating. The viewers' conception of form and content vacillates between a hunch and comprehension. How can we begin to classify what we see? The works on paper elude our usual inclinations for interpretation by dint of their multiple layers and the relief-like structure of the rusting iron dust: they are linked to the medium in a precise and compact immediacy, as easily as sketches would be, thanks to the artist's graphic script, and yet still reach out resolutely into space. Once again, this cycle is held in suspense between the self-referentiality of painting/the graphic arts and figuration, between the desire to get a message across and the sheer delight of working with the medium. Memories are not accessible from an objective perspective and are usually concealed beneath many different layers: Oman's modus operandi also underpins the viewers' associations content-wise. Memories always reach out to the past, thereby running counter to human aspirations for the future, pushing their way to the fore in contemplation of the here and now, evoking a certain mindset pro rata. Even though this can be but fictitious: for what was perceived in the past no longer exists in the same form in the present. Objective procedures are doomed to fail, for although society has a collective consciousness, subjective recollection is always situated in the realm of a profoundly personal state of consciousness, which ultimately means that it is almost impossible to come to terms with the past without benefiting from the distance of time. Toppling monuments may be a necessary symbolic act designating radical change, but the very act demands sea changes in the way a society thinks. And this is where Valentin Oman comes in. The merits of his artistic idiom lie in the alliance between reduction and the multilayered nature of his materials and style, allowing him to commit his thesis to paper in unequivocal immediacy without getting lost in the details.
Mischtechnik auf Papier
68 x 25 cm, 2011