Magnus Plessen’s Confronting ‘Skin of Volume’ at White Cube

Magnus Plessen, "Untitled (26)," 2016, oil and charcoal on canvas, 61 13/16 x 107 1/16 in. (157 x 272 cm)
(Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd)

“The Skin of Volume” at White Cube’s Mason’s Yard gallery in London until January 14, 2017 is a showcase of new works by German artist Magnus Plessen. The exhibition features works made in the last two years that continue the artist’s “1914” series, inspired by German pacifist Ernst Friedrich’s seminal anti-war book “War Against War” (1924) – a shocking picture-book featuring photographs of mutilated and wounded soldiers from the First World War.

“As a painter, I thought there’s nothing that I can add to this material, but I could never forget about the faces of the soldiers,” says Plessen. “What really struck me about them is that you think a person with a wound like that – with no nose, with no cheek, with no mouth – that a person like that could be alive, which is something that I thought would be impossible. So I closed the book and some years ago I started to do the first portrait with this in mind.”

“The Skin of Volume” addresses the darker themes of trauma and the loss of identity as well as the positive themes of pregnancy and birth. Executed in Plessen’s signature style and process of systematic development, which results in works that challenge the boundaries between abstraction and representation, the paintings are created using methods of revolution and rotation as well as the the combination of multiple perspectives.

To find out more about “The Skin of Volume,” BLOUIN ARTINFO got in touch with Plessen and asked him a few questions.

What is the meaning of the title of the exhibition "The Skin of Volume" and what does it reveal and suggest about the works it features?

There is a personal and more universal side to the title. My wife and I are expecting our fourth child. We are very close to each other and I feel privileged to be able to base this new body of work on a subject so close to my heart. On a more general note, I have been thinking about the possibility of blowing up a balloon in a painting which means to do the impossible: to expand a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional space. The "Skin of Volume" refers to the fragility of the scene. Think of the skin of a balloon or a soap bubble. A division surrounded by the same element it captures. This is echoed in the thinness of paint visualizing volume in my paintings. When you get close to the surface you will realize that the coat of color is so thin that you are looking right through it onto the blank canvas.

What is the origin and significance of the imagery in the works and motifs in the paintings?

Many years ago I came across Ernst Friedrich's book "War against War." It was originally published in 1924. One part of the book shows deeply disturbing portraits of WW1 soldiers with facial injuries inflicted on them by, until then, unknown use of force. 

When I first saw the photos I found it almost impossible to look at them. I couldn't believe that someone could be alive after being wounded this badly. There is nothing anatomical about the faces in the book. It's a complete mess, no mouth, no chin, no nose, and still I found eyes that looked at me. I had to close the book but I could never forget the eyes of soldiers which looked at me in pain and resilience.

In my paintings you will encounter faces which are in contrast to the photos, no longer dominated by physical pain. They seem to reach me from the depth of an unknown territory. Their approach experiences a counter-movement by everyday objects which appear to be projected onto the canvas from where I stand. I make out the image in a zone where those two directions balance each other out. It's a thin layer of visibility which can easily be pushed into the unknown or overdetermined. (A good example is "Untitled (coat)," 2016.)

Could you describe your style of painting?

It feels sculptural to me. By this I mean that I transfer methods, which one is more likely to find in the context of sculpting, to build my images, hold them in place and give them likelihood. Take the 'frottage' of the stretcher bar, a cast of a real object, which in the context of the painted image represents a fact rather than a symbol as it's visibility is based on touching reality. Another example is the functional identity of tape which I sometimes use to hold an object in place without having to define the spatial context.

When my wife was pregnant with our first child I took a measure of her belly with tape. After I had removed the tape from her belly I stuck it straight onto the canvas. The result is an awkward yet 'true' line. It had to be true as it was taken directly from life. I felt like a tailor taking measurements to fit the image to her body. 

How do the works continue your ongoing exploration of life and death?

Many soldiers talk about how they lost a sense of life and death. In the worst moments of a campaign they couldn't distinguish between live and dead comrades being trapped — under continuous fire — in the same place, sometimes for days, before the dead could be recovered. I have only crossed this line in my imagination. I found the faceless soldiers there and dragged them to visibility. I don't think that I will be able to hide them ever again.