Happy Sisyphus

In the past, it caused amazement when machines were able to carry out work done by people. Today, people who can do the work of machines meet with astonishment. Hyperrealism – familiar from the work of American Richard Estes, one of its principal representatives – has reached such heights of perfection that viewers think they are looking at a photograph, and consider this alone a sign of outstanding quality. This style of painting is characterised by absolutely smooth surfaces and finely-gradated colours, giving the impression of mimicking photography. Andy Warhol once said: "I want to be a machine". When we look at Peter Dreher's paintings, we ask in amazement: How is this possible? How can a few grammes of paint on a canvas, pure matter, create the illusion of a glass, a silver goblet or a bouquet of flowers? – All so realistic that we feel we could reach out and grasp them. Here [in this exhibition], however, the association is less with imitating photography than with the still lifes of the 17th-century Dutch "golden age" or the works of the French realists. But there were differences, even amongst those skilled painters. What makes the lapis lazuli of a painter like Vermeer so unforgettable? What is the outstanding quality of a floral still life by Henri Fantin-Latour and the vibrant colours that endow it with living reality? There must be a link between these and a few others, and a painter like Peter Dreher. The special gift of perfect pitch is well known. There is at least one literary model to illustrate the perfect sense of smell: that of the perfumer and murderer Jean Baptiste Grenouille in Patrick Süsskind's world-famous novel Perfume. But I know of no-one in the arts and sciences that has thought of applying this gift to vision. Peter Dreher has the gift of "perfect vision". His ability to fragment colours, their blends and nuances, make him an astounding master of illusionism. In this domain Peter Dreher, a pupil of Karl Hubbuch and Erich Heckel, is a phenomenal talent. Conversations with him about his painting often contain combinations of verbs and nouns which are immediately comprehensible, but which would not normally be used. If a colour blend has been unsuccessful, he may remark that "this red doesn't resonate". Peter Dreher is a synaesthetic; he hears colours, and searches for their absolute coherency and harmony. Seeing is not pure mechanistic reproduction, but a highly complex cognitive process. What, then, constitutes the difference between perfect and normal vision? Putting it simply, one could call it the capacity for extremely sensitive fragmentation. Someone with perfect vision can analyse what he sees into its component parts and reconstitute these into the shade he has in mind without having to test, compare or correct it. What distinguishes him from those with "normal vision" is his blind assurance.
Much has already been written about the main element of Peter Dreher's work, the series Day by Day good Day. The title comes from the 6th example given in the koan collection Bi-Yän-Lu [Blue Cliff Record]. Many art historians and educators have read asceticism and world-withdrawal into the artist's work, interpreting his actions in the spirit of Zen Buddhism, although he has repeatedly stressed that he is not a Buddhist – in fact, not even a believer, in the religious sense.
The connection between Dreher and artists such as On Kawara or Roman Opalka is well known. This link, which explains the glass series as conceptual art, falls far short of the mark; it is merely a cliché and thus a simplification, in an attempt to grasp the incomprehensible. The sheer number of over 5,200 paintings of an empty water-glass, and the duration of the series – 2014 saw the 40th anniversary of its inception – is amazing and unsettling. Who would want to set himself such a challenge? The extent alone is a radical statement in the face of a society ruled by the need for constant change and desire for something new. Peter Dreher seems to us like a "happy Sisyphus", as the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus calls mankind – man, aware of his mortality and futility. Looking at someone who keeps doing the same thing over 5,000 times, we might well make a hasty diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the philosopher sees this choice of self-design as freedom. The rock he has to keep labouring to push up the mountain is his own affair, and thus his fate is not deprivation of freedom, nor a fateful punishment ordained by a higher authority. His choice, his decision, makes him fortunate, not condemned.
Peter Dreher's decision not to change his motif must initially seem to the viewer like a major renunciation. The painter himself explains: "I imposed this apparent restriction on myself in order to focus all my energy on what is really essential and important to me: painting." Thus for him, painting is not a means to an end – the "end" being to depict reality, or at least an interpretation of it, or to react to it in some way, in a kind of artist-world relationship. No – for him, painting is an end in itself. He makes himself the instrument of an activity that is as necessary and as natural to him as breathing. If the series Day by Day good Day constitutes a leading voice in the concert of his œuvre, we must be aware that music consists of the web woven by many instruments. Consequently, in this exhibition the attention will be directed also towards the other parts of the score. I would call one of these voices "fragments", and the large fragmentary picture will certainly be the centre of attention. On closer inspection, we recoil – the picture is "damaged"! This is no exaggeration, when we know the intimate relationship of the artist with his pictures, which he often calls "his children"; perhaps they might also be called "his creatures". The surface shows cracks, craquelure and abrasions, layers beneath show through, giving the effect of being unprotected, exposed to all weathers. The whole impression is that the painting has been lying outdoors for a long time. How could the artist allow such a thing to happen? The viewer has first to overcome a certain reluctance before succumbing to the fascination that allows appreciation of the alterations to this picture, seeing in it an external force that has affected it according to certain principles which always govern the source of beauty. Gradually becoming visible are line patterns and nuances of colour with an aesthetic quality; they overlie the artist's work, or dovetail with it, thus entering into a dialogue with what was deliberately created. Far more courage is necessary to relinquish control of something than to keep it – courage, and enormous confidence. Floating free beneath are the chrysanthemums; they become what is vital for their creator: painting and manifestations of beauty. Dreher has the courage to render homage where others provoke, wishing to attract attention in order to stand out from the cacophony of "anything goes". Clamour is not Dreher's kind of thing. He began to paint soon after he had overcome the trauma of living in a National Political Institute of Education; he said: I began to paint because it meant I was left in peace – just as sleepers are not disturbed.
The other fragments of the flowers, too, evince a certain radical approach. The subject is not "through-composed". Pencil sketches remain, not coloured in; traces of the working process are visible, not concealed – such as the small holes left by the templates fixed to the picture support. The postulate is: this is not a flower, not a glass bowl; it is a picture, and the picture counts for itself, and does not serve a representation. The viewer, too, is allotted an important role; by looking at things, he must see them to the end and thus think them through to the end. This makes them part of his own reality. Peter Dreher "thinks" his painting of fragments in the sense of Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, the basic ideas of which have long fascinated him. It is only through the conscious act that the stuff of our perception becomes real, conceived, dreamt or supposed. We endow with meaning the things we see and perceive. A central concept in Husserl's work is Abschattung [shading]. Objects are never presented to us in their entirety; we see only one or more of their sides. We never have their complete perspective – which would ultimately be equivalent to the total unperceptibility of the object. Thus the prerequisite of perception is perspective, which at the same time constitutes the latency of the thing. The artist realises this idea by creating his "incomplete forms", the fragments. Through the active role imposed on the viewer in a viewer-artwork-artist relation, Peter Dreher proves that there is neither objective seeing and perceiving, nor yet an (objective) object. The object always stands in a relation to the subject, and is brought into existence only through the subject.
One episode Peter Dreher told me about made me think about deliberately becoming blind in order to enable the rebirth of the sensation. For nine days, the artist imposed the following restriction on himself: he blindfolded himself and removed the blindfold only when he was painting the glass; then he replaced it and spent the remainder of the day in total darkness. This action illustrates his intention when he repeatedly sits down in front of the same model. He strives to see the object as though for the first time, as though he had never previously set eyes on it. Before each new picture, he deliberately "goes blind" or, in an act of controlled forgetting, deletes from his memory what he has painted. Thus painting becomes an act of self-questioning and self-affirmation. Restriction to a single motif enables him to see the differences in what always remains the same. Reading himself in the changes, his own mental and psychological state, his mood, his awareness, the artist recognises the fullness of his inner self. Thus each picture can be seen as a kind of self-portrait, created in an irretrievable moment: materialised time, memory become matter.

Translation: Gail Schamberger
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