Ulrich Clewing

The first thing to notice

a is there is nothing to notice. The sky is blue, the drive up to the house wide, the front garden well cared for. Whatever one might understand by this: a large lawn at the front, a small flowerbed at the back, the entrance at the side. Just the usual, perhaps even a little less than that, but everything neatly swept. Otherwise nothing unusual. The house looks like a thousand other houses in a thousand other places with names easily forgotten, except if you live there.

Nothing special, really, apart from the fact that both garage doors are always closed. Just as closed as the venetian blinds of the three windows above the garage doors. And then this peculiar lack of symmetry. Something appears strangely out of balance, but only when you keep looking will you realise what it is.

Ingmar Alge has always been fascinated by this house in Höchst, near St. Margarethen in Vorarlberg. Although the address is of no importance this house could be anywhere. It is simultaneously exchangeable and unique which makes it so attractive. Time and again Ingmar Alge drove past this house and took photographs in every season and at any time of the day – morning, afternoon or evening. To begin with he felt rather awkward about it. He had the impression of being an intruder – a feeling which never quite left him, even later after he had taken so many photographs of the house, - always form his car.

In one of his pictures which he usually painted following his visits, he conveyed some of these feelings. One can recognise a reflection of the sunlight on the pane of glass through which Alge took his photographs. This reflection moved like a fine bright shining veil in front of the motif. A detail that appeared only once on this particular painting. However, in a figurative sense, the veil is significant to Ingmar Alge’s art as it is characteristic of all hi paintings. There is something about those pictures something unspeakable, undefinable, a combined mixture of great distance and great intimacy. Maybe just a sensation ort he recollection of a sensation.

Only once in all the time when Alge drove to house „Höchst Nr. 1“ did he meet someone there. One of the garage doors was open and there was an old man sitting on a chair in the garage drinking beer from a bottle. The second garage door and the windows were closed, as always before. Despite this encounter, which in itself was not even really one, a certain strangeness remained, and as paradoxical it is, it seemed familiar to Alge.

The impression of strange intimacy or intimate strangeness emanates from a number of Ingmar Alges’s pictures. His favourite motifs, the houses he is painting, belong to that part of our everyday perception which we normally suppress all too quickly and eagerly. The common architecture in the suburbs and the city-like villages in Vorarlberg and elsewhere is so monotonous that we rarely take notice of it. On the other hand, because it is unavoidable, it is a common experience which is definitely registered in the memory of every individual. This contradiction between banality and deep meaning creates a tension which imparts almost imperceptably a kind of meta-level to the work of Alge.

The French author Georges Perec once wrote a whole book on this contradiction of attention and presence. It is a book about everyday-life with all ist phenomena and peculiarities, filled with more or less unimportant observations. But above all it is a book about the power of memory and about what this power might do. Namely not only draw an unspectacular picture of a certain period in time, but also to establish a connection where otherwise little connection seems to exist. In „Je me souviens de“ (published in 1979 in German with the title „Ich erinnere mich“) Perec describes in many hundreds of statements, none of them longer than one sentence, everything we can remotely imagine: from the design of a toothpaste tube in his bathroom to short shots from movies ha had seen; form noises in the street reaching his appartment to the text of advertising slogans of products which have long disappeared from the market. The decisive feature was that Perec arranged impressions like a puzzle that he shared with many of us, yet without anyone of us being aware of this.

This is how it is with Ingmar Alge’s paintings. Firstly they point the observer to something that he is aware of, but that he is paying little attention to. And secondly, in the very same moment when he is finally doing so, an inevitable change occurs in the meaning itself. If you like, here art takes the function of a catalyst of relevance: suddenly one’s interest is focused on things which were totally irrelevant before. And one asks oneself, what the meaning of the houses and mobile homes which Alge is painting as well, really is.

In order to understand how theses paintings are created, one has to establish first what they are not. It is, for example, hot Alge’s intention to establish a sort of formal encyclopedia, a typology of banal living, as the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher attempted to in their series of half-timbered houses. Even if some motifs in Alge’s work are repetitive, he is not much into series. It is always the unique, outstanding single painting that he is interested in.
Alge’s pictures are also not part of an intricate, quasi-literary form of a picture-story: They do not show any scenes of an event, might it be fact, vague or imaginary and boring appearance of a house in order to draw a conclusion form it about its inhabitants. It is certain that Alge does not want to unmask a presumed bourgeois conformism with is narrow-mindedness or to hold it up to ridicule. On the contrary: He treats the motifs of his pictures with a lot of respect.

In some respect these pictures call to mind the experiments of the early beginnings of conceptual art. In its intellectual approach the most similar work is probably „Homes for America“ presented to the public in 1967 by the artist and architect Dan Graham who later became a permanent participant of the Documenta. Graham’s „Homes“ consist of a series of photographs taken by the artist in one of the typical East Coast suburbs. They always show more or less the same fronts – at first sight a single longlasting lament about the boredom and the esthetical underdevelopment in the suburbs of North America.

But when reading the texts and tables Graham put next to them, one quickly finds out that the message is more complex than this. In „Homes for America“ Graham analysed in an almost scientific way what sort of houses industry is producing and how dependent on the industrial norm the buyer of a „home“ really is, how little scope for creativity this standardization leaves to the individual. In Graham’s work it is quite the contrary to what one might be expecting: the criticism is directed at the actual facts but not at the people, who are furbishing their own four walls as best as they can.

Looking at Ingmar Alge’s artistic development, a comparison with conceptual art is in fact perfectly plausible. Alge, who began his studies at the early age of seventeen at the Academy of Arts in Vienna has only been into painting for a relatively short time. Before then he initiated social and socio-political projects, which concerned themselves more often with sociology than the traditional idea of art. In order to understand this, one has to analyse the realism of these pictures.

To do this it is helpful to keep in mind how they were made. If you look at them superficially they are realistic. One might even call them photorealistic: as mentioned before they have been painted according to a photography, which Ingmar Alge took himself. However, these photos are only the beginning and first step. Then Alge is transferring them onto his computer, manipulating them to varying degrees: some of them he leaves as they are, others are completely restructured an combined, resulting in a situation that can be seen, and which seems natural, but which does in fact not exist and has never existed like this in reality.
Alge might be using photos which were taken some years ago and have been used for his paintings.

An example its he painting „Le Conquet No 2“ from 2001. The small, simple house with the saddle roof and the two open dormer windows appears again on the painting „F 1“ that was done two years later, however this time in a slightly different version:
At the narrow end appears a garage door where in the first painting was only the entrance. In addition the same house appears again in the second painting, but rotated by 180 degrees, so that only the gable end is visible. This free use of forms in a continuously realistic overall impression is a typical characteristic of the art, which has been digitally modified during its production. Alge’s paintings are not true to nature reproductions of a view that exists in reality, but they represent constellations and situations, which are completely artificial.

These computer modified fotodata are working sketches for Alge – those pictures that he transfers from the medium of the most possible pretence of authenticity, photography into the medium of the greatest possible artistic and individual freedom. If you take a close look, you will notice that Alge’s paintings are highly culinary and delicate in their artistic approach despite the austere subject. The artist is frequently changing the blueprints, adding things of painting over them. On top of this the treatment of the surface, which consists of countless layers of the most different, precisely lasered colours, often creates the illusion of a dimensional depth, which cannot be explained by the law of perspective. So on reality is created net to another, and is referring only to the painting itself: the surfaces are turning into coloured spaces, resulting altogether of course in a recognizable, i.e. realistic motif. They create however a second level of reality, when you look at them individually, which one should give special attention to. This second level of reality is not real in the sense that one could easily describe its nature in on single statement at once. It rather conveys the moods and atmospheres and might therefore have different effects on the individual observer.

The term realism can only be used with some limitation for Ingmar Alge’s paintings. This is even more true as the compositions in Alge’s paintings as well have been created in anything else but a coincidental way. If one takes a look at the sections of the painting, the size and the relation of forms and colours between them, one will notice quickly, how exquisitely artificial, how well thought through, in the positive sense of the meaning, how calculated and constructed these paintings are.

However, they are not like this for their own sake. When talking with Ingmar Alge about his houses, it is possible that he is speaking of their „anatomy“. The expression, which is usually used for living bodies, is exactly right in this case. Quite often Alge is choosing a point of view from which the houses look more voluminous, more physical than they can be in fact.
Sometimes the walls appear almost battered, as if a power forcing its way form the interior to the outside is stretching them. Sometimes the facades appear for short moments almost like faces with the most different physiognomies.

Those are characteristics which all apply to the paintings of Ingmar Alge, also fort he caravan paintings. They go back to the personal experiences of the artist as well. On a holiday in Brittany Alge saw form the distance an agglomerate of caravans on the beach, forming a loose combine like big strange animals of a herd. No people can be seen here as well, yet they are always present. Similar to the paintings of the houses one asks oneself what is happening right now? What lives are lived, what dreams are dreamt, what expectations aroused, hopes raised or disappointments suffered. And while asking such questions on is suddenly entering a dialogue with oneself – thrown back to oneself – and suddenly the answers hold everything that’s possible. Alge’ paintings are the beginning, the initiation of a journey, leading to oneself, to one’s own memories, to one’s own ideas and imagination. They are like the mirror of the soul, if you look inside, you see what lies behind you. But above all you see yourself.

© Ulrich Clewing, born 1962, lives in Berlin
Translation: Helga Doppler

In:  Ingmar Alge, Malerei 2001 02 03,
Neue Galerie Dachau, Dachau 2004