Fallback Friday: Rendering the Disappearance of Images

By Collin Sundt

March 26, 2021

Johannes Kahrs. Untitled (ostia) (2011); oil on canvas, 86 x 118 inches. Courtesy Luhring Augustine, New York.

This week, Degree Critical reaches deep into its archive to highlight Rendering the Disappearance of Images, a piece written in the fall of 2011 by writer Collin Sundt. In his review of the work of the German painter Johannes Kahrs, which was at the time on view at Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York, Sundt meditated on our increasing dependence on technological devices and the resulting disassociation from the material world around us that they cause. Kahrs’s oil paintings, depictions of nondescript cell phone images, bore “the carelessness of mobile uploads and profile shots.” A decade on from the original publication of this piece, Sundt’s words strike deeply. If anything, our reliance on screen has become more conspicuous. “As our past and present become increasingly hyperlinked and self-referential,” Sundt writes, “does the ever-greater unreality of film and the fleeting corruption of digital imaging allow us to see anything at all?”

—Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief

Directionless hyperlinks, compressed frame-grabs, illegible tweets; pictures we cannot remember taking of places we may not have been.  In his paintings, German-born Johannes Kahrs illustrates the ease with which our images come and go. Employing the imagery of mass media, Kahrs confronts resemblance; from magazines to twitpics, the world’s images reappearing on canvas. In an exhibition of recent works at Luhring Augustine, this agglomerative wheel continued to spin wildly, yielding paintings that, like their sources, are both visually fleeting and emotionally empty.

Undeterred by casual detachment, the disparate imagery of the individual works is intriguing. Scenes are rendered in both saturated color and monochromatic black and white, the choice perhaps echoing the arbitrary palettes of the original sources. Untitled (man standing), 2011, portrays the ubiquitous, unintentional snapshot of the photographer’s feet, the variegated flooring becoming lost the source’s limited resolution. The sensuous folds of draped fabric share the wall with both dying plant and a naked male torso, stroked by two sets of hands.  The largest painting, Untitled (ostia), 2011, an anonymous beach rendered in large washes of gray-stands out-its scale and reference to the Roman harbor city unexplained.

Kahrs’s oil paintings have left behind their physicality. Surfaceless, the brushstrokes faintly visible under the gloss allow the artist’s hand to show through; each painting has been brought to an exacting level of completion, with the look and nearly airbrushed finish of an age no longer our own. This highly polished, invisible craft is complicated by the contentless imagery. Bearing the carelessness of mobile uploads and profile shots, the appropriated variety on display speaks to the limitless breadth of empty documentation we create and post every day.  Kahrs’s paintings do not dwell on their mediated abstraction; unlike the work of Luc Tuymans or Gerhard Richter, Kahr’s obfuscation of original detail appears to not speak to anything other than the general lack of attention paid to our own images.

Johannes Kahrs. Untitled (man sitting) (2011); oil on canvas; 38 1/4 x 45 3/8 inches.

What is being shown in these indistinct images? Better to ask is what it might mean to give such disposable images the permanence offered through painting. These are paintings of incompleteness, the original context and significance wrung out of rendered content. What remains is staccato indifference, each scene brought to a representative standstill in the anonymous scenes they document. Beautiful and barren, these paintings reclaim that which is lost in the communicative jitter of reposting. As interesting as this gesture is, it is ill-defined here, and the work appears as little more than compelling proliferation. In the presentation of null content, Kahrs is asking valuable questions. How is contemporary history made? Is it in the moment or in the instant documentation of online media? As our past and present become increasingly hyperlinked and self-referential, does the ever-greater unreality of film and the fleeting corruption of digital imaging allow us to see anything at all? Such questions are being asked, but their answers are nowhere in sight.

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