Pictures Before Your Eyes. Pictures in Your Head.

By Susanne Buckesfeld


It is the one head to be held liable

that must surrender itself, by thinking up sentences.

That brings in its privacy. Its conditions.

Its experiences and memories.

That has its limits, just as the language

it thinks has its limits.

(Peter Härtling)


How do we view the world? And how do we look at a picture, how do we perceive it? What causes us to notice one picture and not another one? Questions of this nature are fundamental to the artistic work of Britta Lenk. Aesthetically researching the means we use to visualize anything at all is what the artist mainly deals with in her works. Does a picture come about in our head alone? Do we all actually see the very same picture when we look at it together with others? So does it exist, the one staid and stable reality that we all share in? May we agree on a common true perception? Or is it rather the case that each and every one of us bears our own inner truth, meaning that a mutual exchange, empathy, and ultimately also the possibility of understanding one another, are completely invalid?


Britta Lenk steers a middle course, as it were, through this set of problems that not only involves questions immanent to art. She is interested less in what constitutes the inalienable core, the constant essence of the perception of reality. Rather with her art, she concerns herself with the act of perception itself, by which reality is only then construed. Granted, in her opinion, the counterpart—be it an image, a living being or in inanimate object—is present in actual fact as an object of perception, but its meaning, and thus, ultimately its reality, are only produced by the act of perception. In this, Britta Lenk is decidedly representative of a constructivist approach. Each act of perception and cognition is, according to such logic, a mental, i.e. an intellectual construct. On the one hand, these constructs depend upon the physical, psychical, and cultural conditions of the body, in which perception and cognition occur. For doubtlessly, there is no perception beyond the possibilities and boundaries of our senses, our capacity for feelings and the preconditions of our brains—which is to say, our head that also incorporates its experiences and memories, as Peter Härtling states it. On the other hand, perception and recognition depend on language, the medium with which they are conveyed, as well as on historical, social, and cultural prerequisites under which they take place. These conditions, as persistently changing components of our perception that must constantly be fathomed, are the declared goal of Britta Lenk.


Seen like this, pictures by Britta Lenk proffer sensory incentives for a visual perception that makes precisely these elements of construction visible and available to experience. The artist has deliberately provided her pictures with an open structure so that the act of perception as such is brought home to the viewer and a valid interpretation is always held in suspension. In her works we do not find the one single, clearly defined meaning that has been determined once and for all, one that is conveyed to us directly and, so to speak, at a glance so that no further thought must be wasted on it. Instead, in the process of perceiving pictures by Britta Lenk, it is possible to experience the manner in which the intellectual construction comes about in order to compare what has been seen with previous visual experiences, tie it in with personal memories and ultimately to charge it with a kind of meaning that nevertheless never achieves a lasting validity. If we gaze at the same picture a second time after a while, and thus necessarily under somewhat different conditions of perception, we will see it in a different light, perhaps even in a completely new way. This fact is something most people are familiar with when they read a book—taking it in hand years later—allegedly finding a completely different meaning than when they read it the first time. This is also the case when watching films or theater performances more than one time. Here, Lenk visualizes an aspect that ultimately applies not only to all pictures, but also pertains to the reception of all aesthetic products. No matter how clearly and understandably formulated the content of a picture is—for example, in a realistic, bold and simple manner—its meaning changes, however minutely, with each new context of its reception, with each new viewer recipient, and thus, never becomes established once and for all. Hence, Britta Lenk places the viewer of her artworks in a special relationship. He or she is put on an equal footing with her art, being just as involved as the artist herself in terms of the work's interpretation and the attribution of meaning. Lenk offers, as it were, a mere template for a repeatedly new, always different, fathoming of the experience of her pictures—similar to how it is for a reader, who fills the gaps of a text with his or her own experiences and enriches what is read with his or her own individual meaning. Umberto Eco has classified such openly structured artworks as characteristic for the aesthetics of the Avant-garde, and likewise, this applies to Britta Lenk's work.


But in what way and with what means does the artist achieve the implementation of these theoretical contemplations in her pictures actually experienced with the senses? First of all, with her artworks Britta Lenk consciously defies any categorization in traditional genre systems such as painting and drawing, which might confine and codify her picture strategies. She does this with her exceptionally innovative use of materials that are not associated with painting, though these lead to results we can attribute to characteristics of painting: these are picture panels that allow a pictorial event to appear on a flat surface by applying strikingly glowing colors in fields, forms and lines—hence, those basic elements that constitute a painting. Instead of oil paint and canvas, Lenk however uses color foils, colored hot glue, oil sticks Plexiglas and light boxes. She applies, shifts, glues, blow-dries, crunches, cuts and interweaves the materials. Thus, her works—analogous to the intended pictorial effect—are an intuitive, experimental process, where one thing grows from another and space has been calculated to include creative solutions. The materials she has chosen and their specific use in the picture are even out of the ordinary for a contemporary art that is anyway known for using unusual materials. With this, Lenk subverts in her own way the classical panel painting still prevalent today, reinventing it anew with the materials she uses that are industrial and technically highly complex.


These aspects are particularly striking, for example, in Britta Lenk's light boxes. In a series of them, organically formed surfaces in the basic colors of red, yellow and blue are placed on a light-permeable picture ground so that they are cut by the edge of the picture but overlap one another on the picture surface. Since they have been created from transparent foil, the color segments that overlay one another form new hues of color composed from the colors of the respective individual pieces of foil. In this way, despite the surface nature of the picture arrangement, so to speak, a changing spatial impression is created—like on a picture puzzle, in which sometimes the one element, sometimes another one comes to the forefront. In doing this, Lenk employs the varied spatial effects of the colors as well as the ratio of sizes. Thus, due to its wave length, red appears closer than blue. Smaller forms, in turn, are perceived as if they were farther away, even if they are red. This alone already causes a constant to-and-fro of the gaze, which is unable to latch on to any central vanishing point, according to which the picture elements align. Instead, the picture seems to be engaged in potential movement; none of the parts is assigned a certain spatial level or a precisely determined place on the picture surface. In this, it is not possible to determine whether the individual color surfaces tend to diverge, or rather have only just converged, in the picture, perhaps struggling with one another for a place. Rather, it is left up to the eye of the beholder whether it recognizes bodies of color that tumble through the picture in a leisurely hustle and bustle, a happy and colorful whirling, or even an aggressive conflict of the colors. In her additive picture procedure, Britta Lenk is concerned with precisely this exciting relationship of forces that may not be clearly solved. Without a doubt, these are aesthetically exceptionally attractive picture objects that invite us to look and look again in a long-lasting contemplation, and thus lead us to ever new interpretations.


In a series of square works on paper, Britta Lenk pits the color fields of foil against the dynamics of undulating black lines. Here, clearly visible, two different picture levels meet, and together create a third level that is more than the sum of its individual parts. The association with flowers arises from the dominance of the rounded forms and lines, which are mostly oriented to a field of force in the center of the page, like the flower petals of a daisy. But this association is deliberately fraught with confusion in the picture, since either the lines or the color surfaces work against this scheme, and the flower forms that were first perceived pale again before the inner eye. Now the formally aesthetic qualities of the picture immediately advance to the foreground. Again, a complex spatial impression arises, caused by the effect of the lines and colors. Just as the lines sometimes seem to delineate surfaces, and other times appear to delineate voluminous bodies, the color fields change between flat and three-dimensional. Since there is no continuing spatial logic between the two picture levels, insurmountable breaks remain in our perception, which send our gaze again and again on an ever new discovery journey through Britta Lenk's picture world—guiding us over and over again to other, alternative, visual impressions.


In a series of light boxes, whose transparent picture ground is covered in the center with a ball of brown, yellow and red loops of color, in which the view inevitably becomes entangled, Britta Lenk plays with the suggestive power of the color line. Individual strands of color jut out from this conglomeration so that the viewer is tempted to trace its progression through the knot-like condensations. This undertaking is doomed from the start, however—too densely do the individual strands entwine with one another, forming an impenetrable formation of their own.


The artist proceeds in similar fashion in a series of works on black grounds, upon which she has applied with oil sticks elements consisting of bright green, yellow, and orange colored lines that may not be precisely defined. Due to the colors and the form of these seemingly floral elements, inevitably an association with plant parts is conjured up, although this is subverted by the artificiality of the bright green as well as the way of presentation. The pages on black grounds are connected with acrylic glass by means of the Diasec technique used in contemporary photography, which results in an impressive color depth. In addition, the picture is reinforced with backs made of aluminum supports. Presented with such sophisticated techniques, these picture objects once again prove Britta Lenk's imaginative use of materials and the high aesthetic demands she places on all of her works.


The lineaments applied to paper with hot glue in a further series of Britta Lenk's works seem at first to be fairly informal to the beholder. But here as well, the artist primarily uses an unusual material originally not intended for art, exploiting its pictorial potential. Also these works she has created with her remarkable sense for the possibilities that slumber in completely remote-seeming materials. As a matter of fact, here it is not about a line in the classical sense of drawing, where its progression, its beginning and end, its possible interruptions and the changing degrees of the pressure to the pencil may be retraced and comprehended—in short: where the trace of the drawing hand materializes upon the white picture ground. Rather, Lenk applies the material with a special, elaborate tool, a gun for hot, colored glue, to the paper, subsequently flattening it so that the individual signature, the artist's handwriting as it were, is not to be recognized. Instead of the artistic gesture, she is concerned with the specific linearity that grows from the material itself. Thus, works by Britta Lenk differ fundamentally from the gestural artworks by Informel artists that are sometimes charged with psychical dynamics; in turn they constitute an aesthetic product that fittingly takes up the technical possibilities of our time.


The wealth of materials that Britta Lenk uses for her picture solutions seems inexhaustible. From the by-products of her aesthetic actions, new works may come about, such as the foil pictures, which are located somewhere between object and picture. Thus, her artistic actions correspond to a persistent search, which she skillfully realizes in the structure of the actual picture so that the picture contemplation as well becomes an ongoing game full of invention. In a fertile dialogue between image and viewer, fleeting perceptions do not find a lasting foothold, but become stimulations to ever new constructs of the intellect. In doing so, Britta Lenk's pictorial language is just as open as it is universally valid. But which of the possibilities inherent in the act of picture contemplation are respectively activated is as unique as the privacy of the head in which this takes place.


(Übersetzt aus dem Deutschen von Elisabeth Volk)