Fragments of Remembrance―Drifting Particles of Reality
Thoughts on the Oeuvre of Tom Gefken

Carsten Ahrens


A pit bull, alone upon a white surface, looks fixedly at the viewer. A pistol is aimed by a boy directly at the observer. A falling figure swooshes into the abyss beside the blurred scenario of an everyday apartment-building district. Portraits appear upon the ornamental fields of convention. Significant moments of conditioned family life bring into sharply outlined, pointed focus the horror of  standardized daily life. These are figures which, detached from their surroundings, describe life in fragmentary instants as an interplay between hope and despair.

The artistic work of Tom Gefken describes a realm of emblematic figuration. Suspended upon the associative wings of memory, his work circles around the mysterious question as to how that which we call individuality comes to be. In this broad artistic panorama, memory plays an important, even decisive role; it was in a certain sense the initial impulse in Tom Gefken's artistic development and remains right until today the core around which the works constantly revolve in diverse navigational lines.

Let us take a look for a moment at the beginnings. For years Tom Gefken has been moving within the domain of private remembrance. In addition to the private and intimate storings of his own familial memory, the artist has made just as many finds in attics and cellars, in the cupboards, suitcases, boxes and glass cabinets of dismantled households during his excursions upon the fields of memory in his city as at the flea markets and in the antique shops where those private memories which have no inheritors end up. It was mainly photographs which Gefken assembled over the course of this investigation―the notorious snapshots of important family events and moments, but also objects, old frames and similar things covered with the patina of experienced history. His artistic vocabulary was increasingly assembled out of this material.

The art of modernism has repeatedly made discoveries upon the waste heaps of industrial society. The definitive developments of the sculpture of the twentieth century, for example, were due to the found object and the discovered fragment which, within an everyday world increasingly obligated to economic efficiency, had been relieved of their original functions. Thus the junkyard, the symbol for separated-out objects of no further value on the primary market, became the quarry of creative imagination, from which artists chiseled out the material for the art of their era.

For Tom Gefken, abandoned photographs as the relics of past life-stories became this sort of quarry. Primarily out of photographs from the nineteen-forties to -seventies, he created collaged pictorial works, assemblages which consisted of found fragments and were further treated by the artist. It was not by chance that standing at the center was the era of uniformed barbarism during the Nazi regime as well as the immediately subsequent period of rebuilding, which was characterized by a masked-out forgetting of that which had come before. Turning into the characteristic sign of these works was the black bar with which the eyes of the depicted person were most frequently covered, as an indication that here individual history was being transformed into a general symbol of the times. And in fact the pictures resemble each other in an eerie fashion―the individuals who appear here in what seems to be their most utterly private spheres create the impression of being patterns of a uniform and one-dimensionally organized family scenery.

In the interplay between painting and photography, the patterns of our reception―especially our handling of experiences of the past―become the central theme. Gefken draws across the blind spots of our memory, deals with the impossibility of our making ourselves a picture out of images; he then goes on, on the other side, to highlight the grid of unchanging forms, the uniform aspect of experience, the standardization of the individual. His works oscillate within the intermediate spaces of these approaches, raising questions and leaving possible answers open. They stage mysteries which challenge our curiosity. They sharpen the reflective capacity of our gaze, imbue with attentive form our view towards the past.

The painterly gesture was always inscribed within the artistic process of the genesis of the work. This is the case with the blackening of the eyes in the form of the notorious black bar, which deprives the individual of a recognizably individual aspect and consequently disrupts an identification, incites curiosity as to the identity of the individual, as it were. In a parallel manner the faces are likewise conducted into unrecognizability by means of colored stencils, through which conventional family scenes are transformed into ghostly encounters among unrecognizable beings. In the precise, emblematic intrusions of the painterly hand, Gefken is able to draw forth from images of private remembrance an aspect of harrowingly repetitive similarity, the generally valid and collective element hidden within the supposedly individual aspect.

For a few years now, the tool set of the painter Tom Gefken has become the increasingly dominant energy within his work. Painterly bravura inserts its definitive presence into the center of his work. Painting has now―alongside the assemblages―become a fully independent language within his oeuvre. And so in recent years, in addition to the collaging and installational works, there has arisen an extensive block of works deriving their impact from the language of painting.

In these pictures as well, we see the collaging vision of the artist at work. Gefken plays in his pictures with various stylistic forms of painting, and he does this with bravura. The shimmering color-space which, in the delicate play of the claire obscure, allows figuration to emerge only as an intimation, as a fragile image of evanescent remembrance, can change in the subsequent picture into a strict linear ground of vigorously applied colors. Shrilly and ostentatiously asserted elements of Pop Art contrast with bright color-spaces in which the magnetism of the painterly draws the gaze into the depths of the canvas. The dynamism of Gefken's graphic statements, in whose nervous lineation there oscillate phantasmagorical images of remembered moments, can present itself in the following picture as an ornamentally carved network in whose interweavings one's gaze becomes enmeshed. In short―this wealth of artistic vocabulary belongs to the equipment of Tom Gefken's painting which, in spite of its so highly diverse formal strategies, unfolds a striking, so to speak atmospheric handwriting.

Both developmental strands of the oeuvre―the collaging and the painterly―arise in a certain sense in parallel, penetrate each other and become intermingled by means of large object-boxes in which the found material and painterly diction achieve a mutual equilibrium.

Whatever techniques Tom Gefken brings into play, he successfully attains the densification of an aspect of reality in which the underlying conditions of human existence appear and become perceptible. At the center always stands the individual, his history and the potential of his future, the dream of another possibility-form. If the family scenes demonstrate the constricting rituals which seem to deflate the urge to freedom, the predominantly painterly pictures are marked by a figurative and gestural aggression, as if they desired to summon up the eruption out of the hamster cage of convention. What is impressive is the atmospheric density of these works which distill out of everyday motifs the experiential essence of the real, just as through a radical gesture they give visual expression to the hopeful panorama of an emerging freedom.

Tom Gefken's painting is interested in the present in a radical manner―and, with a view towards the mysterious paths of individuation, the presence of the past is just as determinative as is the here and now of life in our own time. When in shimmering, fog-like shades the long path between the shelves of a supermarket becomes a menacing, ghostly avenue of standardized consumption in the picture, when a shopping cart sketched in isolation on the pictorial surface mutates into a mysterious vehicle and becomes an eloquent symbol of our times, then it becomes clear how the artist has had success in so deeply imbuing his painting with a view onto reality that everyday life acquires the dimension of depth, and an existential space opens up, if not to say―erupts. The fact that a painted picture is capable of saying more about the reality of life than can the famous photograph of the Krupp works becomes clear here in images which, in constantly new variations, grasp hold of condensed moments of experienced and seen life.

Vilém Flusser, the exegete of the technically generated image, once spoke about the mystery of painting with an empathetic sensitivity which is surprising against this background. Flusser develops the comparison that painting is a sort of capturing net, a kind of veil which the painter casts into reality and in whose folds particles of reality become entrapped. There could scarcely be a better description of the operations which Gefken undertakes with his works. We see fragments of reality which, by means of his painting, are transported into that sphere where they not only preserve their lucid mystery but also begin to speak to us in a special way and to narrate in a poetical manner.

Gefken accordingly also writes with his art a special and different kind of history; in other words, he demonstrates the frightening sameness of human interrelations, the unbearable conventionality of life beyond or also beneath the grand, pioneering events in the constant course of things. Thus his work tends to erase―in view of a constantly self-discovering individuality―the idea of progress which continues to dominate our era. For past all progress, the solitary human is repeatedly confronted by the same age-old questions, just as the painter stands again and again before the emptiness of the white canvas―in front of the unchanging questions of human existence, the surging and subsiding of life and death, hope and despair, father and son, mother and daughter, love and loneliness. The fact that painting in a profound sense is not a medium of progress but is instead bound to the conditions of human existence―this is related by the oeuvre of Tom Gefken in the exuberant diversity of his forms and formations in a grand song which seems like a "river without banks."

The artist seems thereby to be aiming at exactly that utopian vanishing-point which Georg Simmel described as the "wonder of art," when he wrote: "Thus it belongs to the unfathomable sublimity of all art that it brings together, as if in self-evident unity, the series of values which in life are indifferent, foreign or inimically drawn apart ... and thereby offers to us an intimation and a pledge that the elements of life do not after all, in their deepest aspect, lie so hopelessly indifferent and unrelated alongside each other as life itself would have us believe."