Tobias Pils produces paintings that are bracingly contemporary. They speak to the fullest range of issues animating the medium, including the irresolvable tensions between figuration and abstraction and ongoing dilemmas about where and how painting functions on individual and collective levels. But they also focus attention on the contemporary moment in even more immediate ways, since they arise from a heightened sense of how a painting emerges in real time, brushstroke by brushstroke, thought by thought, and feeling by feeling. Balancing and Coupling 1 (both 2020), the two paintings featured in this in-depth look at Pils’ work, exemplify his tendency to approach each aspect of his process as an opportunity for inquiry. For instance, they demonstrate how Pils, through confining himself to a grisaille palette, is able to evoke subtleties that get to the core of what it means to paint with color.
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Balancing—with its dark background and looming lunar presence—can perhaps be considered a nocturne or “night” painting; while Coupling 1—defined by its frank depiction of bodies engaged in acts of physical, spiritual, or ritual communion—might be considered a “daytime” one. Full of hybrid beings and allegorical landscapes, as well as passages of dissonant abstraction and subtle brushwork, Pils’ work evokes the paradoxes that characterize life, consciousness, and art as vital, unpredictable phenomena.
As art historian Richard Shiff notes in a 2019 essay on his work, Pils’ paintings “have organic links but no encompassing pictorial order of a conventional kind,” elaborating that the artist “create[s] orthogonals but no grid, planes but no perspective, space but no recession, tonality but no chiaroscuro.” He describes the work, in other words, through a series of negative propositions. This provides a clue about how the paintings can be read, both in terms of their materiality and their pictorial content. For instance, Pils achieves variations in texture and consistency by priming only the backs of his canvases and leaving the fronts unprimed, a strategy also employed by Francis Bacon. He then paints on the floor while the canvas is still unstretched, so that the laying of a given-sized canvas on the floor becomes the first “brushstroke” and the stretching of it is the last one. Between these two gestures, any number of textural, compositional, and pictorial events take place.
With this openness in mind—it can be read either as an invitation to infinite possibility or a fearless willingness to confront the void—Pils’ decision to introduce some degree of constraint makes practical sense. By using only variations of black, white, and grey pigments, he achieves two paradoxical aims: he closes off the vertiginous rootlessness of absolute freedom, and he opens up a more workable vocabulary with which to take on the unknown. As a result, the physicality of paint—and the many ways in which a single hue or shape or narrative passage relates to everything around it—including the canvas itself, become immediately clear.
Pils' choice to paint on raw canvas is salient, because it gives him a ground that is not as neutral as it might be if he had first applied primer to it. Canvas, then, like paint and the forms conjured from paint, is ‘alive’ as a compositional device. In Coupling 1, a close look at two medium-sized figures at the lower left who are (as the painting’s title suggests) coupling, reveals how this living quality plays out on all levels, from the elemental to the ineffable. The figures float in an egg-like oval; their rendering highlights the juxtapositions of wet and dry that animate all of Pils’ surfaces. In places, the black bleeds into the gray underneath it, resulting in the occasional appearance of spidery edges that give the feeling of water having dispersed the pigment. The white of the egg, on the other hand, has a thicker, broadly brushed, dry quality that hems in the figures and contrasts their fluidity with something much more inert. It is impossible to say for sure whether this inertness extends protection or imposes confinement.
Detail: Coupling 1, 2020, mixed media on canvas, 86 5/8 x 78 3/4 x 1 1/2 inches (220 x 200 x 4 cm)
Zooming out, the imposing solidity of the egg also complicates the painting’s relationships between positive and negative space. It is the most disruptive form in the picture; as it juts into the foreground, it seems to obscure a significant piece of the landscape in which it is found. This simultaneously additive and subtractive move, as well as the particular form it takes, finds a compelling parallel in Eifrau die man nicht schubladieren kann [Egg Lady Who Can’t Be Pigeonholed], a 1996 painting by Martin Kippenberger. As a central leitmotiv for Kippenberger, the egg served any number of metaphorical purposes as a kind of autobiographical stand-in: it is a symbol of wholeness that is at the same time exceedingly fragile and irreparable once broken.
Returning to Coupling 1, the egg also symbolizes dualities of inner and outer that help orient the viewing of the work as a whole. From an extreme macro perspective, the scene it depicts is a landscape populated with humanoid figures. But as Shiff suggests, the painting is in actuality a series of organically linked passages, each of which has its own interiority and exteriority. Even the glimpses of exposed canvas that appear at each of its edges must be regarded as part of Pils’ spatial syntax, since they show how the matter-of-fact world from which a viewer observes a painting is inextricably wedded to the mythic or non-objective world that appears inside it. Furthermore, any given painting is not an isolated event designed to be seen independent of others, but part of an ongoing continuum in which each painting gives rise to the next by seeding it with questions and contradictions.
Such boundlessness accounts for Pils’ ability to work at a wide range of scales and even in a wide range of contexts. As an accompanying video demonstrates, a recent, mural-sized fresco for a new campus building at École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay, designed by Renzo Piano, is a case in point: the fresco was prepared in the traditional manner, meaning that, like his paintings, it required him to work with pigments that quickly soak into their support. Seeing his forms move directly onto the wall, one comes away with the impression that Pils is, in fact, working on one unending composition, and that the distinctions between one painting (or fresco or work on paper) and another are merely momentary nods to the institutional conventions people have erected around art. So too when it comes to perceived separations between his stylistic modes; pictures that include figurative elements are only nominally different from wholly non-objective ones. Figuration here is perhaps best read as a means of resolving formal issues of shape and color that are ultimately abstract in nature.
A painting like untitled (white) (2016), for example, offers unexpected parallels to the works featured in this presentation. Just as Pils uses an opaque white to create an insistent, foregrounded iteration of negative space in Coupling 1, here he realizes a similar effect by anchoring vaguely columnar forms in the center and at the left edge of the composition. Spatial depth feels highly compressed, and yet some perspectival illusion of front and back remains, as if the pigments themselves were trying to determine how color, or light and dark, arrange themselves in the human eye. Meanwhile, when it comes to backgrounds, subtle modulations in temperature characterize both the sandy gray of the 2016 picture and the immersive, nocturnal black of Balancing, which is a very different kind of painting in every other way.
Balancing can be described as many things—a study in line, a lunar fantasy, a landscape full of characters whose comedic qualities are inseparable from their sinister ones—but ultimately, it is perhaps best approached as an archetypal journey, complete with moments of setting out, ecstatic abandon, delay, imprisonment, and wonder. Each of these stages has narrative correlations, but on a deeper level they are articulations of a purely painterly way of moving through a picture. The instinct to “picture” anything, to offer a reflection of an observed phenomenon by way of some kind of mitigating abstraction, is as foundational to human experience as language itself; indeed, the need to draw or paint forms as they are seen, and to convert the seen into some kind of inscription on a wall, or piece of parchment, or canvas is a kind of language that develops its own force and interior logic as it unfolds.
One could say the moon is the original artist: it reflects the light of the sun, changing its shape over the course of its orbit around Earth according to regular patterns. For this reason, it has attracted the attention of just about every creative person who has wondered about the relationship between consciousness and the material world. Though space travel enabled voyages to the moon beginning in the 20th century, the meaning of this rock in the sky remains as unknown as ever.
Balancing belongs to a tradition of artmaking that responds to its mystery—and its distinct visual polarities of light and dark—with skewed, even satirical, humor. This history also includes related images like Gustave Doré’s c. 1868 engraving A Voyage to the Moon and Georges Méliès’ 1902 short film A Trip to the Moon (the leftmost figure in the group of three at the bottom of the painting even seems to have taken a space capsule in the eye).
The mystical or technological paths that seekers might tread to reach the moon; the unspooled linearity of a piece of film, which at one time too was entirely black and white; the radically different kinds of linear movements possible for those who are imprisoned (whether physically or psychologically) and those who walk freely; the wandering line taken by a painter’s brush as it navigates the open expanse of the picture plane: Balancing calls to mind any and all of these kinds of line-making, as well as the full saturation that emerges when a line doubles back upon itself so many times that it transforms itself into solid color.
Detail: Balancing, 2020, mixed media on canvas, 90 1/2 x 78 3/4 x 1 1/2 inches (230 x 200 x 4 cm)
In each of the painting's discrete pictorial sections, networks of lines read as small, independent compositions that relate to each other in an intuitive play of call and response. Most are defined by their curvilinear, intuitively brushed patterns. The only straight lines in the picture make up a grid that, in turn, serves as a holding pen from which the two long-beaked creatures squawk into the void. Their plight is familiar to anyone subjected for too long to the regularity of an entrenched routine. As he moves from one canvas to the next, Pils paints against predictability, allowing the void to guide him—and his viewers—onward and beyond.
In 2020, a large-scale installation of paintings by Tobias Pils (b. 1971, Linz, Austria) was inaugurated at Kunstmuseum Bonn, Germany, and a major fresco was installed at the Renzo Piano-designed campus of École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay, Gif-sur-Yvette, France. He has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Josef Albers Museum, Bottrop, Germany (2017); Le Consortium, Dijon, France (with Michael Williams, 2017); Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas (2016); and Secession, Vienna (2013), among other institutions. Recent group shows include Picasso et la bande dessinée, Musée Picasso, Paris (2020); Jay DeFeo – The Ripple Effect, Aspen Art Museum, Colorado (2018); and Spiegelnde Fenster, 21er Haus, Vienna (2017). His work is part of the permanent collections of the Albertina Museum, Vienna; Kunstmuseum Bonn, Germany; and Le Consortium, Dijon, France, among other institutions. Pils lives and works in Vienna.
To learn more about Tobias Pils, please view these articles from The Brooklyn Rail, The New York Times, and Artforum, as well as this catalogue essay by art historian Richard Shiff, and this published correspondence between Shiff and Pils. David Kordansky Gallery will show a solo presentation of new works by Pils at Frieze New York, May 5 – 9, 2021.
Individual photography by Jorit Aust
Studio photography © Elfie Semotan
Portrait by Sebastian Mayr
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