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Dirk Kurbjuweit

I first met Tom Gefken in a villa on Elba in spring 2010. We were both artists in residence in that dreamlike place—he as a painter, me as a writer. The idea was to bring different kinds of artists together for two weeks: during the day we would work on our various projects and in the evenings we would talk about art and life over a lavish dinner. It was a fine idea. My flight was a few hours late, so by the time I arrived, the others were already on dessert—a singer from Romania, two artists from Switzerland and Tom from Bremen. Tom caught my attention because he greeted me cheerily as if we’d known each other for years. Then he poured me a glass of white wine.

In the days that followed, whenever I needed a break from my writing, I would go down to the water, where Tom had his studio in a kind of grotto. He was usually sitting outside by the sea, painting. We would chat for a while, about writing and painting, about football, about love—and then I would go back up to my room and write a bit more of my novel about a German female soldier in Afghanistan.

As chance would have it, the finals of the DFB cup were on one evening—Bayern Munich against Werder Bremen. I’ve been a Bayern fan practically since birth and the same goes for Tom and Werder. It promised to be an explosive evening. I can be insufferable when Bayern lose a big match and I didn’t know how things stood with Tom.

The day of the match I was nervous. I didn’t go down to the grotto and barely spoke at dinner. Then we all gathered around the telly—apart from me, everyone was for Bremen. The match ended 4-0 in our favour—Bayern Munich’s, that is. Tom was sorry, but he was the fairest loser you can imagine. He congratulated me and refilled our glasses, and then we talked about art again like all the other evenings. It was then that I knew I wanted to be Tom’s friend.

Ten years later, at Christmas 2020, I got a parcel from Tom. Inside was a small display case which has stood on my desk ever since. A white wooden frame and, behind the glass, a half-naked blonde. Further back, a few centimetres behind the woman, a stretcher is visible. There seems to be a blanket or pillow at the head end. It’s only when you look closer that you realise with alarm that it’s a ‘death gurney’. You can see the straps with which the condemned are lashed down. Lethal injections are administered on stretchers like this on death row.

It is one of Tom Gefken’s small great works, the blonde painted in a slight blur, the stretcher drawn in sparse pencil strokes. I look at it almost every day; it’s here at this desk that I write all my articles and books. Whenever I stop and think, my eyes come to rest on the blonde woman and the death gurney—most of the time I’m so absorbed that I don’t even take in what I see, but sometimes I let the work act on me.

Time and again I am fascinated by the strange tension it gives off. From a distance the stretcher looks like a narrow bed. It is in bed, on the whole, that life begins and ends, while in between, the bed is a place of sleep and love. But sleep, too, is a little death—as is orgasm.

The blonde woman is not trying to lure the viewer onto the death gurney; her arms are folded. And yet she brings an element of eros to the work. If you follow this thought through, the tension becomes unbearable. On the one hand, beauty and the lure of life; on the other, the darkest place in Western civilisation.

Tom’s images never encourage unequivocal interpretation. They are, fortunately, too complex for that, too subtle. Instead, they open up imaginative spaces inside the viewer, rooms with sloping walls and ceilings, shafts and pitfalls, doors that do not lead out onto further rooms, but inwards, to rooms within rooms.

Eventually I tear myself free and go on writing.

What impresses me most about Tom is his drive for renewal and development. He is not an artist who is able to—or wants to—arrive. We don’t see each other often, maybe once a year, and each time he surprises me with a new idea, a new approach, different materials. Recently he has begun to work with photographs which he defamiliarizes, paints over, modifies with drawings.

Detail of a ship. It is night; a lurid light shines on a guardrail, a white cabin wall, marine electronics, a lifebelt. Gefken took the photo from his studio in Bremen harbour. It is framed by a broad swathe of black. At first glance there is something cosy about it—a bright spot of hope in the black night. But if you look more closely, you see shadowy people silhouetted around the photo—apparently a family.

What are they doing there? Why are they wandering around at night? Through their presence the picture is no longer cosy; it is disturbing. Travel by ship represents two extremes of our age. At one end of the scale are the luxury cruise ships, places of total leisure and decadence, and at the other end are the ‘floating coffins’ to which migrants entrust their lives in the hope of a more bearable existence. The risk of death is one they are prepared to take; thousands of refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean.

I think of such people when I look at Tom’s picture. The family is emerging from the dark night of a life of misery and hopes to be carried to the coast of Europe on board the ship. Or perhaps they have already drowned, squeezed overboard on the crowded boat, so that we are actually looking at the ghosts of the dead. Depending on our mood, the picture we see can be hopeful or sad.

Tom Gefken’s art stems from a curiosity about our age. He reads a huge amount, and closely follows reports of the political situation in newspapers and magazines. I often see traces of current events in his work. In this way he is a political artist, but there is nothing ideological about his art. He doesn’t seek to impose a specific view of the world on us; nor does he assume the role of critic. He draws on the events of our times and tries to make us aware of the questions they raise. He wants us to look, but it is up to us what we see.

What I see when I look at Tom’s work is above all an exploration of the great mystery of civilisation: how is that something that has the potential to be so good is often so horrific? The bewilderment evoked by this conundrum—a bewilderment that I share—is intelligently and skilfully expressed in his pictures.

I have a large oil canvas by Tom hanging in my bedroom. Here, too, there is a huge discrepancy between first and second glance. It is a painting of a paradisiacal landscape on a ground of grey, blue and green: a lagoon, palm trees, buildings on stilts. At the top is the head of a woman like an image on a medallion. And at the bottom is a band of pink edged with a thick black line. How lovely, you think—and then you step a little closer and see the dogs: three fighting dogs baring their teeth. You have to look very closely to see them against the black.

What are the dogs there for? To destroy paradise or to defend it? I tell my little girl that Tom’s dogs are there to guard our sleep.

Carsten Ahrens

Fragments of RemembranceDrifting Particles of Reality
Thoughts on the Oeuvre of Tom Gefken

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 investigationthe 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 fashionthe 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 receptionespecially our handling of experiences of the pastbecome 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 nowalongside the assemblagesbecome 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 shortthis 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 oeuvrethe collaging and the painterlyarise 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 mannerand, 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 sayerupts. 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 erasein view of a constantly self-discovering individualitythe 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 canvasin 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 existencethis 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.“

Ingo Clauß

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 storiestales 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.
Found objects of this sort have a special significance for the Bremen artist. They provide him with both material and source of inspiration, and not infrequently an unimposing, yellowed photograph stands at the start of a new work. But Tom Gefken does not embark systematically upon the search for antique legacies. He is not an archivist or a collector who seeks out things according to specified criteria, systematizes them, and conducts them into a new order. His mode of access is personal, direct and associative. Thus it is not surprising that his oeuvre manifests highly diverse implementations. In addition to large-format paintings, he creates smaller pictorial sequences, material collages, and also object boxes in which he reacts directly to the individual found objects and to their histories. Subjective appropriation, critical investigation and artistic reshaping are the parameters of the field in which he has been operating for more than twenty years.

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 wellas so oftenthe heads are cut out oras in the case of the bridal couplethe 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.

Latency – The Visual Art of Tom Gefken

An Oblique Look


Tom Gefken’s art is designed to excite the viewer’s aesthetic attention. It is also, quite incidentally, a school of perception. We humans are, of course, perfectly capable of seeing without thinking, but when we open up a work of art, decipher it, ‘look inside it’, we think and see.


The partly hidden, the equivocal, the elusive, the potential, the complex, the many-layered—all these are leitmotifs of Tom Gefken’s aesthetic practice, which he brings to bear in many different ways. Think of the oil paintings Barn (2021), Baby (2021) or Head (2021), the paintings from the Cinema series (connections and series are further leitmotifs of his), or the particularly powerful, almost paradigmatic photographic picture Billboard (2021)—what is plainly expressed here is more subtly revealed in the paintings.

Strictly speaking, Billboard is not a new or original picture. It evokes a tradition, but has, at the same time, broken free from that tradition, foregrounding effect by using technology to enhance aesthetic expression, rather than embodying a message in the manner of an earlier work such as Raymond Hains’ Avec le grand concours de l’humanité et de la nation française (1956) or, to a lesser extent, Jacques Villeglé’s boulevard series (1959) or later works. Tom Gefken’s series of oil portraits, M1, M2, M3 and M4 (all from 2020), can also be placed in this context. They reflect a dominant form of seeing—that of the photographer—but radically modify it with a nonchalant layering technique—an unusual example of the dovetailing of photography and painting. Gefken is a photographer on the side. This needn’t be a disadvantage to an artist.

Marginalia 1
Jukeboxes and ticket machines, cigarette machines and chocolate vendors—the vending machine is taking over the world. The acme of the self-service principle, however, is the photo booth. In an almost fully automated Berlin, a jubilee photography exhibition opened—at the Military Academy, no less—on the fiftieth anniversary of Daguerre’s first public announcement of his discovery in the Palais Mazarin in Paris. In Potsdam, meanwhile—perhaps not unexpectedly—an art vending machine was recently sighted. Unlike other forms of apparatus such as the military apparatus (we prefer to ignore the question of the cultural apparatus), the camera or photographic apparatus is primarily intended for pleasure and timewasting—for superficial dilettantes and amateurs who dabble on the surface. And yet, as the Berlin company Johann Sachs & Co. has already announced, a camera is ‘not a toy’. While the dilettantes have taken this on board, the professionals are not so good at resisting temptation.


It is hard not to feel, when you look at Gefken’s photographic work, that most of it seems to eliminate problems. Gefken reworks photographs he finds; he recycles photos, largely from the 1950s and 1960s, rescues them from the rubbish bin, takes them out of context, rearranges them, defamiliarises them, combines them with painting. In this way he looks for original answers to the old question whether a photograph says what it shows or what the viewer sees. Only at first glance does he come close to creating kitsch, giving the past a home in the present. Art is always at risk of becoming kitsch. Philosopher Vilém Flusser defines kitsch as recycled waste. For others, waste production is the most important form of creation today. It isn’t unduly difficult to cram the world full of products, art included—not to mention all those objects claiming to be art. But greater skills are required to get rid of the stuff.

Museums, those ‘rubbish dumps of art’ (Bazon Brock), are bursting at the seams. More and more art is accumulating—we hardly know what to do with the stuff. Anyone who continues to load canvas with paint these days contributes with these immovables to the ever-swelling flood of pictures and should be able to provide good reasons for carrying on. Gefken not only has excellent reasons; he also skirts the issue somewhat by recycling his own work, painting over a picture not once, but often several times—and usually spontaneously.


On closer examination, it becomes clear that Tom Gefken’s art is not asking us to make ourselves at home in the slough. That saves it from an inventory number. Insofar as he draws his subject matter from the world in which we live—and on the whole he does—Gefken’s art is anchored in life. This is evident, for example, in the wall installation Caravan 2 (2003–4) and in So Far from Me (2018), a variation on a previous work. Here, human history is reflected on a small scale; a narrative element comes into play. We are made aware that almost anything and everything can be the object of reflection, of intense contemplative aesthetic engagement—but we are also made to see the distinction between a work of art and any random object that offers itself to our attention. In the display case Love (2016), Gefken focuses on the cycle of life and renewal.

In this context, Night II (2021) deserves special attention. In the foreground is a photograph taken by Gefken. Like almost all his pictures, paintings and photos, this photographic work is more than just an image; it is a reference to real life. It also brings more light into the darkness than a mere photo of ‘reality’ would be capable of. To take in a picture like this, you have to feel it with your eyes and form an impression a little at a time. Gefken is a master at not revealing everything from the beginning.

First, we succumb to the dazzle, blinded by the comfort and familiarity of things we know too well—so well that we fail to see what lies behind. The artist’s task is not primarily to evoke fantasies in the viewer, but to suggest new and uncomfortable ways of seeing, of producing things that are visible—especially, perhaps, things that are potentially visible. When this happens, the familiar things in our field of vision become more important—they give the seeing eye a firm ‘footing’ from which to make discoveries, to dig deeper, to penetrate the picture plane. Perhaps Tom Gefken sometimes discovers things in his own pictures that he put there himself.

Marginalia 2
This text, too, shares the fate of almost all omissions in a context like this.
Where is the hatchet job?


Our own lives are not the only lives accessible to us; many of the other lives around us are also, in a sense, familiar—we come from the same background, hear the same things on the radio, see the same things on television, read the same newspapers, etc. Those other lives open up to us the memories of our culture; we have more than just our own. We draw on collective memory. Given this, it is well worth our while to muster the patience and interest to look at a great many of Gefken’s pictures. Anyone who makes the effort will discover, of course, that they like some better than others—and eventually they will get a feel for what makes Gefken tick. An artist who doesn’t make art about himself, even tangentially, and who doesn’t speak about himself, even implicitly, generally has little and perhaps nothing to say.

It is legitimate to ask whether there is anything behind a picture that actually needs to be conveyed. The autobiographical background behind Gefken’s work is conveyed with a varying degree of explicitness; it is clearest in his wall installations, in display cases such as Scarry (2016), and appears with tremendous artistic force in his relatively large oil painting Boy (2011), for which his son sat as his model. (And which, incidentally, is a small journey of discovery for anyone who takes the time to examine it from different points of view and in contrasting lights.) The world is full of artwork too large for the ideas and fancies, thoughts and insights that it contains. The opposite can be said of Boy: although one of Gefken’s larger paintings, it is bursting with insight.


Unlike a designer couch, which bears a certain relation to—and has a certain effect on—the room in which it stands, even when it’s still in the furniture shop, a work of art bears no direct relation to practical life—or if it does, perhaps with a view to emancipation, its effect is limited and it loses its identity as art (an eggbox nailed to a museum wall stops being art as soon as it is taken down and used to store eggs again). Of course, works of art are subject to changing taste and fashion just like clothes and interior design. Like design objects, they are of this world. Unlike design objects, however, which tend to have a practical function, works of art have no direct bearing on anything in the world and do not primarily serve to furnish it. Instead, however representational they may be, they are a form of communication made manifest. As such they require no justification.

There are artists who tend to artistic conformity and pander to mass taste—and there are others who work two or three feeble ideas into a primitive thought which they present in as artistically complex and obscure a way as possible. Gefken’s pictures are presented with care and deliberation; they are genuine offers to the viewer. When the viewer’s gaze intersects with the perspective of the artist, a conversation begins, bringing with it an almost inevitable potential for new things. Gefken’s Light (2021) makes palpable the stimulating energy that unfolds in that dialogue. Mystery and uncertainty mingle with horror and pain. And yet interpretation is free.

Gefken’s interest in the written word, evident in Light, is present in much, if not most, of his work. It creates a tension between (visual) language and (textual) substance. Gefken does not, however, or not obviously, allow text and image to interact and reinforce one another as they do in an advertisement, or—in a different, very specific way—in the work of an artist like Malevich. In many of his pictures there is no more than meets the eye. No delving into non-existent depths or pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo can change that. In the past it was considered almost inevitable that art should be demanding and strenuous, exclusively for intellectuals. These days, difficulty is no longer a hallmark of quality. To be sure, many of Gefken’s works require us to look into their own depths, so that some of his pictures are a little hard to penetrate. In the end, though, they are always accessible, and indeed pleasurable. They are popular in the best sense of the word and communicative insofar as they open a dialogue with the viewer.


A work of art asks to be continued—that is as true of literature as it is of the visual arts. Vilém Flusser, whom I mentioned above, originally wanted to leave his great essay Does Writing Have a Future? (1987; Eng. tr. 2011) without a final full stop; he also recommended the digital version of his book (which, back then, was on a floppy disc), because it opened up possibilities for rewriting and continuation. Art wants to go on. It calls for sequels, follow-ups. Standing in front of Gefken’s Vaddy’s Scared of Flying (2021), a mixture of thoughts and experiences, plans and forgotten memories, dreams and traumas go through my head and I become aware of things I had long ago lost mental access to. This creates new problems.

Is that what it’s about?

Volker Rapsch
entrepreneur en démolition

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