The Memory of Pictures
Thoughts on the Oeuvre of Tom Gefken
Each of us has his own story. The labyrinthine paths which we travel upon during our lives, along with the many possibilities which we have rejected, inscribe themselves continuously into our biography. With time the experiences which still seem important to us, which have marked us deeply and not been forgotten, are preserved in stories―tales which we can recount to each other. It is not by chance that the title of Gabriel García Márquez' literary biography is Living to Tell the Tale. For the Columbian author, everything that we remember is independent of whether we actually experienced or only imagined it. We never bring most of our memories to paper, however. As a rule, they are freely linked to specific places, persons or objects. A renewed encounter with them after many years can have utterly unexpected consequences. In his multi-part novel Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust impressively displayed the range of processes which can be set in motion simply by the fleeting taste of a "madeleine." Postcards, pieces of clothing, photographs, and all kinds of documents have the capacity for recalling to consciousness moments which we believed to have been forgotten forever. But what happens to these fragments of remembrance when they are lost with the passing of years? Some are to a certain extent carelessly discarded, others vegetate in attics or make their way to flea markets. There from time to time, they fall into the hands of Tom Gefken.
For a first encounter with the oeuvre of Tom Gefken, it is rewarding to take a look at a collage from 2007 Glued to the small piece of paper are two black-and-white photographs from another era. The lower one shows a skyscraper in front of which may be seen automobiles that are historical from today's perspective. Above it is the portrait of a woman, somewhat inattentively attached with tape. The hairstyle and the floral-patterned blouse with starched collar support the conjecture that the picture was taken back in the nineteen-fifties. In themselves, the two photographs are little more than silent, contemporary witnesses of unknown origin. But through their combination, they become involved in a narration which automatically develops between them. What is noteworthy is the reduced utilization of artistic techniques. With a few strokes, the eyes of the woman have been blackened. This harsh form of depersonalization energetically provokes questions and conjectures. Who could the person be? Did she live in the house? Is she perhaps a culprit or even a casualty whose identity is supposed to be protected in public? Tom Gefken is interested in the complex mechanism through which we attribute significance to images. He is not concerned with a free play in which everything may be combined arbitrarily with everything else. He carefully probes the memory of the pictures, seeks out an inner affinity which is more than a simple alignment of formal-aesthetic analogies. This may be seen in an exemplary manner with the small collages. Here Gefken connects the fragments of individual memories into a new image which is capable of stimulating subjective sentiments and interpretations. This gives evidence of an artistic attitude which takes seriously the associative power and mental dynamics of the viewer and which ultimately allows these faculties to become an integral part of the work.
It is a similar situation with the series Sweet Home, Sweet Holidays.As the title already suggests, it is a matter of photographs of the supposedly "good old days." They include vacation pictures, a boy dressed up as a cowboy, photos of a Christmas celebration, but also snapshots of friends and relatives. The reconstruction of a bygone, everyday life is an important support for the family memory. With Gefken, however, the depicted persons disappear beneath shapes which are precisely cut out of cardboard. Only their silhouettes remain, recognizable like a fleeting shadow, upon which the physiognomy and the contours of the clothing are vaguely sketched. Photo-theoretical considerations with which we have been familiar since Roland Barthes at the latest here find an artistic correspondence. The French philosopher was convinced that the aspect of transience is always inscribed into a portrait, inasmuch as it freezes a short instant which remains inalterable even beyond death. According to this concept, the photographic depiction bears witness, not to the presence, but rather to the absence of an individual. Gefken brings this loss into view. With over-paintings and separations, he creates empty spots and free spaces, just as throughout his oeuvre. In this way the photographs are detached from their individual histories and imbued with generality. And in fact the "delightful memories" seem familiar to us. Family pictures are made in accordance with stereotypical, permanently repeating patterns. They possess such a high recognition value that we literally feel ourselves to be at home in them. The encounter with the stranger ultimately becomes a confrontation with our own history. This shows in an insistent manner how enduring is the mutual interplay between personal remembrance, contemporaneity and cultural impression. In their fundamental characteristics, these interconnections correspond to the idea of a "mémoire collective" (Maurice Halbwachs), which was extended during the nineteen-nineties by the cultural scholars Jan and Aleida Assmann into a theory of collective remembrance. According to Jan Assmann, the past is "not a matter of natural instinct but is created culturally." Thus even memories of the most personal sort arise out of the social interaction with others. They are always something which has been made, which must be (re-)constructed only with recourse to the present. Out of this knowledge, Gefken creates images of memory in which the complex processes of remembering and forgetting are always constituent parts. The dynamic field arising between individual and collective memory accordingly becomes a fundamental driving force in his art.
With his paintings as well, Tom Gefken also works from photographic patterns. Here his artistic approach to pictorial works achieves an uncustomary intensity. Whether with found objects, press photographs or private family pictures, he does not follow any particular preferences in his choice of motifs. Everything which touches him inside or fascinates him visually becomes a part of his painterly oeuvre. It can be a matter of the shelves in a supermarket, tattoos, the aerial view of rows of houses, or his son spraying water with a garden hose. The private and the public, banality as well as emotionally charged remembrance are juxtaposed here with equal status. Just as various as are the prototypical images, so diverse are the painterly strategies which Gefken utilizes with bravura. What is striking are the references to the aesthetic of Pop Art. At other places, the pictures are covered with a sort of "blurred drawing effect" such as we are familiar with in the case of Gerhard Richter. The large-format canvass Tattoo for example, shows a bench such as is used for executions in America. The gloomy situation arises before our eyes only hesitatingly and vaguely. The image which long ago became fixed in our collective memory seems here to wish to withdraw from our perception. And yet it is possible to sense directly the shocks and fears which are connected to this site. With only a few vigorous brushstrokes, Gefken has painted the silhouette of a woman over the picture. Only the tattoo on the arm is depicted with a richness of detail. That which is presented with great painterly precision in the background is thwarted here through the unfinished status. The picture Kid 1 is much more strikingly and directly "staged." Here a young boy takes aim right at us. Child's play? The dramatic culmination of a film scene? Or a devastating image from one of the many trouble spots in the world? Even if the two paintings seem quite different at a first glance, they are both based on an inner consistency which transforms them into diverse aspects of one extensive narration. Day after day, politics and pop culture exert an influence on our private life. In the case of Tattoo the events of the world seem to be inscribed right onto the skin. The supposed violation of style is elevated to a principle here. Each picture is a new act of daring which only develops out of an approach to the respective prototype. Hence it is not surprising that many paintings are created over an extended period of time. They are built up layer for layer. All the while, they are subject to a constant process of transformation in which the element of failure is taken into account.
In recent years, object boxes have been created more frequently. They impart a new dimension to the entire oeuvre. They function like visual storehouses in which paintings, objects, old wallpaper and photographs are collected. In a certain sense, they represent a crystallization point in which many aspects of the entire oeuvre are assembled into a sort of private archaeology. The attentive viewer is invited to place the precisely combined objects in relation to each other. Inasmuch as their arrangement has an open semantic structure, accessings through associative leaps are possible at any time. They thereby correspond on an artistic level to our mechanisms of memory, which do not proceed in a straight line, but instead in an uncontrolled and unconscious manner. Ninja (2008, Illus. 11), for example, shows the silhouette of Gefken's son. He is surrounded by three framed photographs. Here as well―as so often―the heads are cut out or―as in the case of the bridal couple―the eyes are crossed out. The life-sized head in the middle has been covered with orange paint and provided with a new pair of eyes. Whatever these signs mean for Gefken himself, he turns them into a part of his art into which aspects of his own biography flow again and again. In this way, artistic techniques give rise to a complex narrative with an open ending. We await with great interest the coming chapters.