Does a picture obscure reality? Does a picture alter our consciousness? How much reality can we bear? It is not unusual for a walk through a museum to end in exhaustion or for the endlessly repeated attempts to capture various realities, various worlds, on canvas to end in a daze or in denial. The changing styles, the constant demand for new ways of seeing your own vague reality are often followed by a cry of despair: Forget your art history all of you, celebrate the end of painting! Let imagination engender your dream images, or better yet, rely on the new media to produce them. Brush and canvas? Why even bother anymore?

All this is not an issue for children, or even for unbiased adults. Just watch the joy of children uninhibitedly painting up sheets of paper. They are so natural in the way they go about feeling, sensuously touching their immediate reality, be it artifacts or nature. Their attitude quickly puts these pronouncements about the end of traditional art into perspective. One question remains, though: Why do young artists today still paint on canvas and other surfaces? What are the motivations?

Gasper Jemec is one of these young artists and is as painstaking as a lover in avoiding repetition. He became aware of his own creativity very early on – his father is also a painter – and has always sought depth and uniqueness, repeatedly embarking anew on his life quest.

Gasper Jemec works on various pieces simultaneously: pictures, sculptures, installations. The color he employed with such virtuosity and matter-of-factness while living in New York and Los Angeles was soon followed by new works in which he very intentionally dispensed with color. In his “Viennese Block”, an apt name for the works he has been inspired to create in Vienna, he radically altered his world view, which like everything in art, and in life, is subject to evolution.

His decision to dispense with colors and replace them with an oeuvre of black, white and every shade of gray has to be viewed in its determinedness as a visible and explicable attempt to grapple with philosophical issues. Is it a dualism of the material and the immaterial? A struggle to sharpen the eye for pure painting? A struggle involving constantly changing illusions that give rise to new ways of seeing that no longer attempt to replicate Nature but rather to vary the subjective value of remembering it?

Does art not veil reality, as Oscar Wilde once posited in his dialogs on esthetics? Or does art not set free and make manifest only that which we ourselves expect, only that which lies within our creative potential? The age-old philosophical issues – Know thyself! – have lost none of their importance today. But what sets apart our generation, particularly the youngest generation of artists from earlier ones, is its uninhibited philosophical questioning, questioning not bound by any suppositions or systems. History and memory cannot be annihilated, they are immanently human. Yet the awareness of history, a crucial prerequisite for gaining an understanding of history, has suffered and undergone a lasting change. Historicism and the scientific selectivity associated with it, which allows mutually exclusive fundamental principles to co-exist, have both had their day, as has the yearning for a creative gesamtkunstwerk kindled by historicism. The imagination draws uninhibitedly from reality, following no rule expect the artist’s own intellect to guide it in its emotional creativity. This process is inevitably preceded by a quest. The art generations following in rapid succession on the Post Modern are free of formal inhibitions. Systems of thought and art are networked like so many building blocks, only to be deconstructed again soon thereafter.

But Gasper Jemec has never succumbed to the temptation of slipping into the arbitrariness of fashions. In building his image worlds, he has always subjected them to constant and critical questioning. In so doing, he has steered a course of creating images that also express his attitudes, that render his aspirations in an unambiguous and unmistakable hand. Not in the sense of knowledge that becomes immutable once obtained, but as a constantly evolving identity. Through the course of this quest, his pictures have gained a smoothness akin to printed photographs and glossy prints. This makes it difficult for a person viewing the work to abandon him or herself unreflectively in an illusion, be it ever so deep. The level of illusion is there, to be sure, the chain of associations unbridles every facet of the imagination. Yet its external, its physical appearance, acts like a mirror with a surface impervious to easy penetration and ultimately directs the viewer back to him or herself: Know thyself! Although a surrealistic image, a still from Jean Cocteau’s 1949 film Orphée is emblematic of this concrete psychological realization. The actor Jean Marais stands pressed up against a full-length mirror with no possibility of entering into the other world. The “modern” Orpheus is directed back to himself and his world. A prisoner forever, locked in an ever new present. Flight is impossible. This image shows us very clearly where we can find knowledge: in ourselves. Know thyself!

However, this knowledge requires a certain distance on the part of the viewer as well. Dispensing with colors and the natural spectrum of colors allows the structural aspects of nature, of things, of thoughts to come to the fore much more distinctly. When we view the pictures chronologically, the early Viennese works condense into an unbridled gesturing and anthropomorphic entity that seems to emerge from within corporeal worlds, but this trait soon changes and transforms itself. Colored pigments are added ever more sparingly, giving rise to a transparency that takes on a lightness and poetry, that moves ever further away from the usual gestures of applying paint with a broad brush.

The impression of gliding and flowing arising like gestures from his images takes us back to the beginnings of his exploration of black and white as a motif. For Gaspar Jemec this polar effect served as a metaphor for past and future. His intention here was to displace time and space. This ascetic absence enabled him to position his images singularly as being of the present and has been accompanied by an increasingly evident abandonment of pathos and grand gestures. As a result, his works become more lyrical and take on a contained timelessness.

Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known by his penname Novalis, differed from other Romanticists of his generation in that he was accustomed to exact and precise formulation from his background and profession in natural history. Turning to Nature in its grandest and most violent manifestations was of crucial importance to him for the development of mind and spirit. Like many artists before him, Gasper Jemec takes up past and future, the depth of mind and spirit and of natural phenomena, to state questions. The difference lies in the ever changing mode he finds for expressing his views and his constant reformulation of his creative positions. Nonetheless, I would like to repeat what Novalis said in respect of the interior worlds of conceived realities and the constant validity they retain over time. It is as topical as ever and, when read in a context with Gasper Jemec’s pictures, takes on a new meaning: “We dream of traveling through the universe, but is not the universe within us? We know not the depths of our mind and spirit. The mysterious path leads within. Eternity is in us or nowhere, along with its worlds, the past and the future.”

The now flowing color arising from the originally employed technique of wiping away layers of paint and color takes us once again to the main themes in the work of Gasper Jemec. Time and again, his pictorial strivings circle the opposing fields of Nature and the man-made world, which is ultimately our everyday world. From this reduction arises a work which selectively highlights the everyday as a major event. These are the fundamental elements of Nature. He does not make them into elementary events but into symbols for a life which discovers meaning within itself and develops, unspectacularly and without pretension, a poetic structure in which everything becomes artistically focused Nature.

Art draws on resources given to man existentially to help him to orient himself in Nature and to utilize its resources. It is from this elementary experience that he derives his preference for the symbolic elements of air, smoke and water. They all share a capability of altering their fluidity to the point of dissolution. Aristotle believed he had discovered a propensity among the classic four elements to change and intermingle. This assumption later led especially in alchemy to the transmutation theory. Ether as the stuff from which the heavens were made was the only substance thought to have an unchanging essence. Gasper Jemec builds on this image, conjuring up a remembered world colored in myth and oscillating, yet one that keeps eluding the viewer. Gasper Jemec keeps dissolving his image worlds in an allusive and irritating way, guiding us as he does so into a phase of seeing. This is not new or unique in the history of European art. Gasper Jemec is a good example of an ever recurring adventure in seeing and recognizing. He isolates a detail from a larger reality, an impression that has anchored itself in his memory. In this way, a picture shows dissipating smoke like a candle just extinguished. In 17th century still-life paintings this device was used to represent vanitas, as a symbol of life dissipating. In stones from ruins, in the veining of marble and agate, painters and viewers were able to discover fantastic landscapes and change them with minimal means, painting included. The eye sees what the imagination is able to bring out.

Alluding to the term “World Literature” as Goethe employed it, Léopold Sèdar Senghor, the great African writer and politician, spoke of the growing necessity and fusion of a world culture establishing itself in the consciousness of mankind. This idea spontaneously comes to mind when you realize the affinity between the ideas of Taoism and the age-old European nature myths in the pictures of Gasper Jemec. Tao means becoming submerged in oneself and ultimately becoming one with the immutable world principle underlying all transformation. The guiding maxim was “wu-wie” – “non action”, i.e. having an effect by merely being a person in harmony with the universe. It is no wonder that the latest installations of Gasper Jemec also combine fire and water with a collage of contemporary music to create a current music of the spheres. In so doing, Gasper Jemec pays homage neither to Ying-Yang nor to a dualism of mind and body extrapolated from the antithesis of body and soul found in Plato and the gnosis. Rather he represents an aspiration of human universality in which both spirit and form are safe and secure.

When reduced to themselves alone, monumentally enlarged and removed from their context, these works by Gasper Jemec become imbued with a new and unaccustomed meaning. They play with the power of concentrated applications of paint, the virtually luminous darkness often lending the pictures a transcendental power. As part of this development, he reduces his repertoire of gestures more and more. They change from white-gray to shades of greater luminosity and as a result, often take on a lyrical vitality never felt before. This reduction to a small number of elements and structural lines does not mark a turn to mono-color pictures, but rather leads us as viewers into a non-verbal dialog which allows us to take part in this creative process. Or, in the words of the celebrated Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa:

“To be great, be whole: Exaggerate nothing and deny nothing in yourself!"


Wolfgang J. Bandion

Vienna, 2002


Author bio

Professor Wolfgang J. Bandion, born 1950 in Vienna. Studies in history, art history and philosophy at the University of Vienna. Archive research in Rome. Instructor at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Curator of a number of exhibitions. Numerous publications on art and contemporary Austrian history. Works have included Erinnern (Remembering, Souvenir, Ricordare, Pomitj), a literary and artistic examination of the act of remembering as exemplified by the former Mauthausen Concentration Camp.