Ornamentation and grinding machines
Thoughts on the art of Dieter Vieg

A significant aspect that differentiates “contemporary” painting from that of the Middle Ages, is the fact that it forgoes the use of gold base coat and “self-representation” of the material. The more strongly paintings serve the illusionary portrayal of rooms or spaces, the more consistently the intrinsic value of the material decreases. The colour becomes subordinate to the portrayal itself. At one time gold, which was applied to a wooden panel and embodied the glowing base of the picture, expressed the value of the material, the blue of the sky emerged, which initially could also be red, like in the alter-piece by Master Francke in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, in which gold stars still refer to the gold basecoat. However, the gold lustre increasingly vanished from the paintings, which until today are predominantly displayed in gold, sometimes ornate, frames.

The system of ornamentation was limited to the frames only while the paintings themselves were illusionary representations or occasionally, and even more so since the 19th century, showed traces of the expressive, gestural, characteristic style of the artist. The latter has gained popularity once more as we experience a renaissance of “art informel” and of gestural abstraction. The artist enjoys the supposed freedom from a pre-conceived concept or system of rules such as that consistently followed by Roman Opalka for decades in applying consecutive numbers in white on canvasses that are always of equal size.

Compared to Opalka’s stringent conceptualism, Dieter Vieg’s paintings demonstrate exuberant colour and expressivity. Yet Vieg adheres to a clearly discernable system of rules, even though the results of his systematic approach do not appear “conceptual”. This system is based on an even grid of dots applied to the canvas. He dabs them onto the image plane precisely, initially using a paintbrush but meanwhile in most cases a truncated syringe.
In his portrait series “Meine Pappenheimer” (Those I know so well) these dots were still small and formed a delicate, ornamental network covering the surface of the picture. In recent years they have increased in size, at least in the large-scale works on canvas. The work “Mischwald” (Mixed Forest) from 2005 shows a layout- or map-like view of a wood, which however can be read as an ornamental structure. Relief-like, individual dots push their way out of the picture, like large spherical structures affixed to the picture plane. The paintings based on impressions from a trip to California, “Sanfrancisco Bay” and “Sanfrancisco Bay 1” (2007), as well as “L. A.” (2008), show how Vieg consistently pursues this approach. The thick coloured dots have been applied in white or light colours, which optically emphasizes their sculptural, protrusive qualities. They merge to form large circular shapes or strips that suggest abstract landscape formations.

In the work “Mieser Meese” (Mean Meese) or “Wahlhilfe für Deutschland” (Voting Assistance for Germany), a relief-like white layer with larger dots or rather blister-like bumps covers a coloured layer with cryptic, graffiti-like symbols, the reading of which is influenced by the title of the painting: on the one hand in the form of a corny comment about a renowned artist peer who was born in Ahrensburg; in the second painting as a reference to a political message, which is however scarcely discernable.
The portrayals of the US flag, completely broken down into different shades of colour, can be read as a visible artistic “election aid”. A series that Vieg entitled “The Wind ... Change. Neue Farbe für Barack Obama” (“The Wind ... Change. A new coat of paint for Barack Obama”.
A return to the bright colours of the earlier paintings can be seen in a “portrait” of Obama, which shows the radiant smile of a victor, broken down into large coloured dots. However, are we only dealing here with the uncritical homage of a German artist, who like many others desired a change of power in the US? After a closer look, however, the viewer is irritated by the fact that the coloured dots are reminiscent of sweets, perhaps smarties. The ending of Wilhelm Busch’s “Max and Moritz” also comes to mind, in which the bodies of the two rascals lie on the floor, broken down into pellets, after the miller has put them in his grinder. Busch satirizes the violent fantasies found in many nineteenth century children’s books. When Vieg quasi shreds the image of Obama into coloured grains he triggers associations with racist clichés, which equate skin colour with chocolate, for example in a sweets context the Sarotti Moor who for a long time served as an advertising medium in the days before political correctness.
Does this subliminally conceal a vision of the way the US will continue to develop? Is the “image” already creeping into the apparent optimism of the painting produced in 2007/08, on which the agitation still influenced by racist clichés that Obama is increasingly subjected to, above all by the right wing of the Republican party, is based?

However Dieter Vieg is not an artist from whose work direct political messages can be derived. The exploration of the possibilities of the cliché-like enlargement of iconic elements that can also be found in the Californian “landscape paintings “ is at the end of the day just as cryptic as the layer-like ornamental superimposition that characterized the earlier paintings and above all the series “Pappenheimer” (Those I know so well). The “images”, which in this case are woven into the pictures as opposed to being direct portraits of teachers or role models, with the exception of Beuys and Sigmar Polke, are however not well-known enough for a broader audience to recognize them.

The ornamental nature of the paintings has also become less important, only shimmering through here and there. In the case of “L. A.”, individual scraps of gold leaf have been applied, emphasizing the sculptural-object character of the painting even more. However not only the gold but also the – here predominantly white – paint is a material affixed to the painted surface like applied extraneous material. As a result, there is perhaps a clearer continuity in Vieg’s work than one might suppose. A decisive common ground between the earlier, more ornamental and the later, more relief-like paintings in which the colour is more subdued, is that the artist in both cases creates a self-representation of the materials that differs from “mere” imitation by means of their colour or texture. The choice of the American flag could therefore be interpreted as being reminiscent of Jasper Johns, who with this iconic motif showed the inseparable nature of the portrayal and the body of the painting itself.

Dieter Vieg is one of the contemporary painters whose approach can no longer be described as painting in the narrower sense of the word. It is more about the application and affixation of paint and other materials, which can perhaps be compared to the use of elephant dung by the English artist with Nigerian roots, Chris Ofili, whose pictures, drawing on African ornamental tradition, have a certain similarity to Vieg’s works. However, an intentional consolidation of influences taken from different cultural spheres, as found in Ofili’s work or that of the German artist Michael Buthe, who died in 1994 and also worked with applied ornamental elements, is evidently not a direct concern of Vieg. Nevertheless he really turns the well-rehearsed European painting traditions upside down. His relief-like grid pattern functions, figuratively speaking, like a grinder set to grind more finely or more roughly, which breaks down traditional forms of image such as portraits or landscape into a series of smaller or larger grains and in doing so subjects them to an image perception in which the regularity of the ornamentation and the appearance of different qualities of material dominate the representational functions. One could also say: that which has been ousted to the frames in the contemporary western tradition is now becoming the design criteria for the picture itself.
The fact that the gold base coat and other material applications have been expelled from the painting, have also freed the work of art from the connection between the economic and material value. This was re-established by Damien Hirst, for example with his work “For the Love of Gods”. 8601 diamonds were integrated into skull, which supposedly originates from an eighteenth century European. One of the diamonds alone is worth 18 million euros. The work of art “alone” would never have been able to attain such a price. However, in this way he brought it on himself that the artistic added value can then only be perceived as a marginal factor. Vieg on the other hand succeeds in broaching the issue of the value of the material without a subsequent aesthetic loss. He does not use diamonds but produces paintings which, figuratively speaking, contain a great deal of that which one values in diamonds: They glow, they are small sculptures and incite us to touch them – at least with our eyes.

Ludwig Seyfarth