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Like the rolling snowball in comic strips which, constantly accelerating and enlarging, takes in everything on its way downhill, each series by the Cologne-based painter Thomas Arnolds (b. 1975 in Geilenkirchen) also always questions the whole – starting from a kind of motif that stands at the top of the slope before it falls into and through the painter’s previous work, so to speak, by being processed within it. Run Protokoll is the title of an exhibition explicitly devoted to Arnolds’ paintings executed since 2018 featuring the motif of the column base, which in the case of this series is the occasion. Perhaps occasion is a more appropriate term than motif anyway, because for Arnolds the respective motif is always merely a surrogate for a fundamental motivation with regard to painting. In each work in this exhibition, the column base appears in this or that manner, direct or indirect, discreetly concealed or awkwardly brutal, but in any case in a way that is highly personal, since each work has an extremely individual character.

 

The column base is the constant in the elegant chaos of this painterly practice, which from its beginning around 2007 performs a double exercise: to query Arnolds’ individual development as an artist with the history of – not only modern – painting; to repeatedly thematize the modes of representation, protocols, and parameters of the painterly medium and, in doing so – analogous to the aforementioned developmental logic of the work – to occasionally incorporate new occasions around which the ecosystem of his work revolves. In addition to the fundamental questions of abstraction versus representationalism, figure versus ground, the basic colors red, yellow, and blue are repeatedly thematized, and time and again we encounter modernist ism clichés – images vaguely reminiscent of Constructivism, Impressionism, Expressionism. Just as often, the application of paint itself becomes a theme, for each of Arnolds’ paintings resembles a tactile object rather than a picture, which immediately makes me think of the fact that, in English, there are two terms for that which, in German, is called Farbe: one for colour as a tone, and one for paint as a material.

 

Often, the ways of applying paint and the brushwork change within a picture; the surfaces of the canvases, similar to the work of the American artist Robert Ryman, can hardly be captured photographically, since they defy the all-levelling and reductive apparatus of the camera. They are handmade, and the fact that they are constructed demands an immediacy of observation. It is not too difficult to attribute the delicate object character of Arnolds’ work to his training, for it was only after he completed his apprenticeship as a stonemason in the monastic Diocese for Church Restoration in Aachen that Arnolds turned to studying painting under Walter Dahn in Braunschweig. Access to the picture is conceived first and foremost via its value as a thing, which finds a fundamental correspondence in the case of the motif of the column base: As a surrogate, the column base points to the disciplines of architecture and sculpture – to the basis of every image construction – as well as to antiquity, the aesthetic programme of which still functions as a framework for what is (and what is not) read as art, despite the fact that the Western canon increasingly presents itself as constructed and relative.

 

The column base is in good company with Arnolds: Pictorial motifs from past series, examples of which are also on view in this exhibition, are the kitchen (the interior where it all began) and the bonsai (the landscape, domesticated nature). All these motifs lead into the painting and immediately lead out of it again, because as precisely as they are chosen, they are derived from the banality of the most everyday things. The way Arnolds’ ‘system’, as he himself often calls it, mirrors motifs and motivations across series is in a way reminiscent of that of artists such as Raoul De Keyser. His work, too, is based on economies of kaleidoscopically intersecting gestures, styles, and signs. Working several generations later, Thomas Arnolds addresses the mountain massif of painterly self-reflexivity of this generation by using its solutions as a method in a friendly and respectful way. From here, thus far in a complete reduction to colour and format, he again declares their solutions as problems, in a time after working through photography. 

 

Coming from a periphery in the centre of Europe, as the karstic, industrially riddled landscape of the Cologne Lowland could be described, Arnolds was always confronted with the base rather than the capital, to use the logic of the column for the last time – conceiving culture from here is like working at the grassroots level: The comic is just as important as the Bible, which has less to do with postmodernism and more with pragmatism. In the twenty years of his artistic work, Arnolds has not flirted with group ideologies and the occasionally cynical rhetoric that grows out of these, as was and is the case with other painters of his generation. Rather, his work floats on a discreet, whispering irony that undermines every form of artistic pretension and machismo, and from this self-exclusion formulates an autonomy, as well as a seriousness, an independence that reveals itself anew with every avalanche, with every snowball. © Martin Germann


About the artist: Thomas Arnolds, born 1975 in Geilenkirchen, Germany, joined a training as a stonemason and sculptor before working as  a church restorer and sculptor. From  2001 to 2006, he studied at  the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Braunschweig. He works and lives in Cologne. Thomas Arnolds has participated in noumerous groupe and solo exhibitions. In 2019, Thomas Arnolds had an overview show at the “Leopold-Hoesch-Museum” in Düren, Germany. Three works of his museum show are now on view at SCHÖNEWALD. Numerous works are included in private and public collections such as Kunstmuseum Bonn, Bonn, Leopold-Hoesch-Museum, Düren and Bojmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam (selection).