It is difficult to discern which of these two words might be the most beguiling. On the one hand, ‘abstract’ conjures up the mythological and also the historical dimension of painting – from the early 20th century to the present day –, which is so deeply rooted in our daily life that one is almost tempted to think of it as timeless. On the other hand, Mannerism invites us to think about different fashionings and ways of putting things, even about the garrulous nature of the borrowing.
Nick Oberthaler's paintings interact with their exhibition context as well as with the noble, savage discipline. They come in the form of aluminium mirrors, readymade road-sign motifs. These once-vertical flat surfaces function like human figures dotted around the exhibitions, sometimes giving free rein to slashes and discontinuous lines, directional arrows, and extracts from advertising campaigns, as well as eyes appropriated from Pop – those of Roy Lichtenstein looking through a peephole and seeming to tell us that the space where the exhibition is taking place – i.e. where we are now – is theoretically empty1. This strictly heterotopic painting now takes the form of landscapes or intra- and extramural refuges. To achieve this, the artist has turned the formats, which are slightly bigger than the average size of a man, through 90 degrees, to create horizontal planes. The sign thus becomes a view, the lines now mark out the reality of the space, the sky becomes heavy and the horizon appears. Nick Oberthaler has developed new imaginary landscapes, a melodic variety of species of spaces. The field becomes coloured, in honour of Barnett Newman. What we have now is neo-Mannerism derived from abstract expressionism. After all, are any of us still afraid of red, yellow and blue? 2 The colour vibrates, shudders ironically, because our lens is trying to focus on this coloured area, while the lines give clues to a potential update in the focal length, as well as a forthcoming (comfortable) cutting up of the copy. Hence, the painting not only pays heed to its antecedents, which include a succession of colour fields, shapes and other ‘sharp’ canvases, but it also indicates that these ready-to-cut-out filters could be interchangeable. Have you noticed that the colour rendering has been heightened here to refer to existing structures? Oberthaler has simplified the shapes of the gallery background, painting them in two colours. Red and Grey, the drawn and transferred areas refer to the private or unalterable spaces of the architecture of the venue, a pseudo-modernist composition that pragmatically, and playfully subverts the conditions inherent in the emergence of painting, of course, but also in its context. In this new version, the narrative, a posteriori abstraction reflects both the white aquarium and the visitor passing in front of it. This is not the first time that Oberthaler has subverted the context of the white-cube; he had already questioned the role of that second-rate art material, (daylight) neon tubes, by the cunning application of a filter reminiscent of a red-light district. And so, lighting came to punctuate his space much as text runs through the paintings today. This, too, affords breathing space for the gaze and, in the presence of controlled dripping, is an invitation for us to look at an analytical text by Robert Smithson.
Too much Mannerism kills Mannerism, you may be thinking. But that would be to ignore that, as an attitude, it comes across as more concerned with putting people off the scent, and being ironic about an overly serious approach to abstract (art). As our American friend put it, "What is cool today is in a way the rebirth of the Mannerist sensibility".
Arlène Berceliot Courtin, May 2017