The light dark

Palimpsest and polysemy
in the work of Roland Schappert

Arne Zerbst, 2009
Translated by Jacqueline Todd

“Videmus nunc per speculum in enigmate / For now we see through a glass, darkly” [Biblia Sacra Vulgata, 1 Cor. 13:12]

A landscape: reflecting valleys, rippling hills and matt plains stretch out beneath a night sky. Curved scraps of canvas – jetblack and shiny – cover an unevenly painted rectangle of canvas. At first we cannot make out any details, because light plunges the black into darkness. A lamp on the opposite wall casts its beam directly at the picture we are looking at. Targeted light, staged space.

A paradox: the light does not reveal, it conceals. Reflection acting as a veil. In Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”, the painter has his gaze fixed on his model, who is located beyond the pictorial space in the spot where the viewer also stands. As only the back of the canvas being worked on in the painting can be seen, the model remains invisible. However, the mirror that hangs unheeded but in a central position on the back wall of the room clearly shows two figures, who can be historically identified as King Philip IV and his wife Mariana. The recipient’s place is thus usurped; he or she has been excluded from the circle that holds the painter, the model and the mirror.

The mirror in art history: an endless reflection. Velázquez would doubtless have been familiar with the famous convex mirror in Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait”, as the work was at that time in the possession of the Spanish court. Velázquez uses the mirror in his painting to show to the viewer that he or she merely occupies an empty centre in the pictorial space – both transparent and invisible. This issue is explored by Foucault in the introductory chapter of “The Order of Things”. In “Las Meninas”, therefore, it is possible to determine the disappearance of the spectator in the moment of looking.

Roland Schappert’s untitled black painting also reflects back to the spectator a sense of confusion that can only erupt suddenly in this way in the contemplation of art. “Turbatus sum / I am so greatly disconcerted,” Descartes admits at the beginning of his second “Meditation”, before rising to the level of certain knowledge. But we are not on the brink of gaining philosophical insight; we are being overwhelmed by the sensuous presence of art. We need time with this art, time to collect ourselves. It plays with us and invites us to join in. We have to change our viewpoint and shadow the picture with our head and body in order to be able to make anything out. Light and dark exchange roles. The shadow reveals. In Roland Schappert’s work, knowledge is a question of movement.

Dark letters gradually begin to stand out against a dark background. In this x 40 cm painting, made of alkyd resin, wire, oil paint varnish, scraps of canvas, oil paint, pigment, sand and spirit varnish on canvas, we can finally read: LONELY. The word appears both poetic and emblematic. What does it relate to? A sequence of letters taken from an unknown context? Again we are lonely and left alone with this art. It throws us back upon ourselves and for this very reason it makes us think. The potential space of colour is described very succinctly by Schelling: “The general nature of colour is: to be lighter than black, darker than light”. By shining a light onto the black, Roland Schappert brings together the extremes between which painting unfolds. In his work, the light is dark and the dark is light. His explorations of these heights and depths are undertaken not with the myth-laden and weighty profundity to which we Germans are so prone, but with the ironic tone, lightness of touch and freedom of someone who refuses to be pinned down and declares: “Repetition is boring!” The artist and his art remain elusive.

Schappert skilfully charges his materials with multiple levels of meaning. Shellac, for example, brings back memories of good old gramophone records, while the threateningly shiny sensuality of its appearance is equally reminiscent of Darth Vader’s outfit and the latex costume of a dominatrix. It is the dark side of Roland Schappert’s art that is now revealed. He has documented his close affinities to dark themes in the installation “Black”. Among other things, the pictorial objects, shellac lamps, video loops, sound installations and drawings revolve around the drugaddled, eccentric life stories of James Brown, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and Amy Winehouse.

Music, whether heard or associated, plays a central role in Roland Schappert’s oeuvre, which also crosses the border into the literary realm. The painterly aspect of the signs provides an inter face to notation, the symbolic representation of notes and the theme of oscillation and pitch in music. In Schappert’s work, the different arts, media and disciplines intersect and perform an earnest yet lightfooted round dance. His multifaceted arrangements play a tongue-in-cheek game with cultural history and common know ledge.

Schappert also plays with language. Another painting with a portrait format of 40 x 30 cm is slightly smaller but quite similar to the black LONELY piece, although here the similarly arranged letters are easier to distinguish. But again we have to do some decoding work before we can read the purple letters on the white canvas ground. Appearing beneath an eruptively applied patch of yellowish brown shellac, they seem to have been attacked and dissolved, dispersed and condensed. Multiple spatial layers are created as a result of the application of various solvents. Individual letters fear for their existence. Once again, Roland Schappert’s art involves us in a struggle with legibility.

A third painting [actively rebels against unambiguousness. In this 42 x 29.8 cm work, the clarity of the six letters applied with a rotating brush to white paper is merely superficial. While the untroubled purple pigments may have not been subjected to the attacks of resins or lacquers, the letter N is written in such a way that it could also be read as a V. LONELY becomes LOVELY. And behind this charming word an abyss of multiple meanings and freely floating referen ces opens up. We can no longer cling on to our cosily familiar habits in our small, interpreted world. With the playful force of his mutating motifs, Roland Schappert jolts us out of our routine, matter-of-course way of thinking and seeing. He saves polysemy.

Language separates history from prehistory, which – according to Schiller – is lost to the ensuing ages. In his inaugural lecture in Jena, entitled “The Nature and Value of Universal History”, he writes: “The source of all history is tradition and the organ of tradition is language. The entire prelinguistic epoch, consequential as it has been for the world, is lost to the history of the world.” Language is an essential element of our culture – and Roland Schappert blurs it. Or, to be more precise: he blurs writing and thus transforms a legible system of signs into an image full of suppositions, losses of meaning and attempts at deciphering. The letter becomes a hieroglyph.

This transformation is particularly impressive in a 90 x 62.5 cm work on paper that shows blurred writing in chalk on a red background of anti-rust paint. At most, only individual letters can be discerned – the rest is gesture and suggestion, image and structure. The fact that the application of varnish has caused these effacements subverts its original purpose, which is to preserve. Here, the protective coating becomes a destructive and corrosive element. The paper, too, is “working” – it forms waves and creates its own shadows. Again, if we take the time to appreciate Schappert’s sensual-intellectual game, we discover the layers of the working process. The destructions give the red surface a depth of space. In addition, the notion of temporality and processual dissolution recalls the scraping and rewriting of ancient parchment in the Middle Ages: the palimpsest.

Roland Schappert goes beyond the “degradation of language” diagnosed by Derrida. The written word is no longer only displaced by the voice as the fulfilled spoken word; it is also crossed out by the artist’s hand. This blurring of the vulnerable chalk writing in the artwork does not seek to return to the spoken word but rather to go right back behind language. Because only the pictorial sign remains, devoid of all meaning, art here throws us back into the prelinguistic epoch. Yet it is only through this radical removal that writing regains its soul. We are made to think about the familiar and the seemingly selfevident, and in this way we are given the opportunity to cast off ordinariness with the commonplace. This frees us to open ourselves up to the reception of art.

The individual artworks are held together and supported not least by Roland Schappert’s spatial compositions. He arranges light sources into light sculptures that produce constantly changing illumination and emphasize the art’s time-dependent aspect. At the same time, the light establishes connections within the space and combines the individual pieces into an ensemble by means of their mutual references. An old, broken disco ball that has lost some of its tiny mirrors rests in a metal frame on the floor and scatters light irregularly onto the walls of the exhibition space. Immediately above it, suspended from the ceiling on a motordriven wire beside a halogen spotlight, is a broken piece of mirror. Its bright light sweeps over the works, now and again emphasizing one piece or another. With each rotation the wire catches briefly on the spotlight and upsets the rhythm of the light composition for a few seconds. Disruptions, refer ences, points of focus – these are used by Roland Schappert to establish the light and time-dependency of his art spaces. The legibility of his individual writingbased works also varies a great deal. Letters disappear and reappear depending on the spectator’s viewpoint. Different-coloured light sources compete with the sunlight. Staged spontaneity. A game of giving and taking away, flexibility and mutability, tilting figures and breaks. Art thinks with its own means.

Reflect me the light, Künstlerbuch, Hardcover, 96 Seiten mit 113 Abb. und Texten von Stefanie Kreuzer, Annette Tietenberg, Thomas Wulffen und Arne Zerbst, deutsch/engl., Salon Verlag, Köln 2009. ISBN 978-3-89770-318-6