On ViewPeter Freeman, Inc.
April 20–May 27, 2023
We journey through this exhibition with Ernst Caramelle. The works unfold his biography, daily experience, and curiosity about both art and life. From the very beginning of his career, before the beginning in fact, certain necessary core questions—what are art works actually, and what is it to be an artist—had already coalesced. What, too, are the connections between artworks and everything else? Are they part of everything else? Caramelle could not take any of this for granted, as a given.
Caramelle grew up in rural Austria without much exposure to art. When he left, it was to train as a glass painter. Caramelle had discovered that he liked to draw, but he did not yet know what it was to be an artist. By both accident and by purpose he was finding his vocation—what can I do as an artist? Many years later in 2017, in one of his farewell addresses as Rector of the State Academy of Fine Arts Karlsruhe entitled, “Vor dem Anfang” (Before the Beginning), he described his own early biographical trajectory, focusing on these questions: What is art? What is an artist? What is the future, what is the past? What can you do? All of this is characteristic of Caramelle’s recursive reflection on the visual and philosophic, the temporal interweaving of experience. His travels—he has lived in Vienna, New York, Boston, Frankfurt, and many other places besides—are evident from the relatively small scale of the works: they are the product of a peripatetic life. He travels a lot—works are small—he works in his head—all is connected to his life. The works are very “efficient.” He moves around, and wants “minimal effort, minimal material, and maximum effect.” When he moved to a studio on Varick Street in 1979 he added to a wall two dots and a line which irresistibly indicate a presence, a face, giving strange agency to matter—personifying a room. In this exhibition, Untitled (2023), made up of nails, putty, and watercolor on paper, is just such a face.
There are over sixty works here from several decades—on paper and board, together with publications and a video. Every aspect of making is of interest to Caramelle. This includes reproductions, publishing projects, duplications, even the design of posters: there are always possibilities in revisiting images and ideas in different forms at different times. They are all what he calls “conditions.” Space is a condition, or a catalogue is a condition. A room is integral, another “condition” to address, use, play with. Once someone is interested in art it can mean that the world is seen differently, changed, Caramelle believes. Drawings can be undermining and they can provoke thought. Some drawings reproduced in catalogues are modified, causing a questioning of memory—it is always important to re-view, to look again. And, everything here is its actual size, even when a reproduction.
Dialectical relations are everywhere—reality and illusion, symmetry and asymmetry. As Caramelle says, “Two sides, outside, inside, positive, negative, spectator, artist.” Untitled (III) (2022), a work in watercolor, graphite, and glitter on paper, is the third of a series where gentle geometries interlock, the space is mobile, shapes interchange subtly like passages through an interior, a sequence of walls, or partitioned rooms. The addition of glitter, from the everyday, non-art material world, is significant. Untitled (2019–22), is made by allowing sunlight to change the color of paper using an angular template to form a figure. Paper exposed to sun captures a process of change; it is a sort of time capsule and is like the materialization of an idea, a visual metaphor for Caramelle’s overall conceptual approach. This is a central basis, repeated over and over again: the visualization of ideas. This process also continues in the viewer’s head. The viewer is not passive, or completely outside the art work.
The ephemeral is also present in Caramelle’s digital video piece, Untitled (no date), a 27-second clip of a tiny wind-blown sapling seen on a walk, ”a little greeting from the earth.” It is clear that for Caramelle art comes from the everyday. He speaks of thinking being long and execution being fast. Among the multitude of drawings here, there is a drawing on a post-it note, with other drawings, also on found materials, placed in a vitrine. This work, Untitled (1982), exemplifies the transitory, otherwise discarded material relished and valued by Caramelle. The temporality of things is also presented through objects that can move, on wheels and on string. A cabinet has small wheels, while pieces of paper on a length of string can be moved to reveal or hide works on a wall. As the artist has said, he himself, on his bicycle, is on wheels.
A series of “Fresco” pieces, which were begun at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, explore the relationship between painting and art in general. Untitled (2019) is characteristic, executed in gesso and watercolor on a wood panel. It features the stepped and complex spaces of Renaissance painting—Domenico Veneziano’s Annunciation (1442–1480) has been cited as a point of comparison. Like Caramelle’s monumental mural paintings, which are not in the exhibition, these works disappear, as Caramelle paints over them after exhibitions. They are thus just as temporal as works made with more obviously transient materials.
Fragility, precision, improvisation, and humor permeate the exhibition, as Caramelle’s ideas and formal inventiveness engage and invite us to share in his particular cosmology of the world around us. Everywhere in the show is both lightness and humor, beauty and seriousness, brevity and extension.