Dr. Peter Lodermeyer


by Dr. Peter Lodermeyer
art historian, Bonn

The descriptive terms of traditional painting classifications do not adequately describe the character of Bettina von Witzleben's non-representational paintings. This is essentially due to the importance of the materials themselves in her work. As the Karlsruhe-based artist explains, colour only becomes interesting to her when she can experience it not only visually but also as something physical and tactile. To amplify these qualities, she tends to use bright colours sparingly and focuses her palette primarily on white, black, grey and a variety of earth tones. But above all, she uses sand to breathe life into the surfaces of her paintings. This she fixes using a semi-transparent paste that produces a gently contoured relief. Mostly, she uses fine, almost dusty, black lava sand from the Canary Islands although she also uses lighter quartz sand on occasion. In works of smaller format, she has been known to use beeswax as well. Even the formulations of the paints that von Witzleben uses in her work underline the key importance of material properties to the impact of the paintings. For example, in "Solo" she allows white ink to flow in channels over the surface to create complex networks, overlapping lines and fascinating crackled textures – structures that retain a memory of the liquid nature of the medium during the working process. Where she uses spray paint, a closer look reveals individual droplets of the spray mist. It is as though a fine gauze of acrylic paint has floated onto the canvas.
Bettina von Witzleben's paintings always confirm her strong identification with the natural world yet without ever portraying it in a literal form. Her relationship with nature is expressed entirely through the properties of the materials she selects and the ways in which these interact during the painting process. The results are never entirely predictable and are impossible to calculate. The title of the exhibition "Treibsand" is apt. It refers to sand as a material but also hints at the both dynamic and abysmal character of the pictures. Quicksand is a mixture of sand and water that, under certain conditions, behaves like a thick fluid. In the three portrait format works "Treibsand I-III", irregular formations of white ink flow down from the top of the canvas into the various fields of the painting, meeting sometimes compact, sometimes loosely aggregated sand structures to create an eroded appearance.
Further apparently nonsensical titles such as Lanin, Solo, Galan, Porak, Trocon and Pular provide another reference to natural phenomena. Contrary to first impressions, these are not imaginary names or poetic allusions. In fact, they are the names of volcanoes in Argentina, one of the most volcanically active countries on Earth. As well as offering a subtle autobiographical subtext – Bettina von Witzleben was born in Córdoba, the second largest city in Argentina – the titles hint at the "volcanic" appearance of the pictures themselves. In this case, "volcanic" refers to the formal structures and not, for example, to the obvious association with the material "lava sand". A good example is "Lanin" – a portrait format painting created in 2014. Here you can see how the black colours are ejected up from the dark lower zone into the bright, glowing red atmosphere. This eruption contrasts with the white-grey colour flowing down the picture through the grooves and runlets. These opposing vertical movements are criss-crossed horizontally by a bizarrely branching, white form that also breaks through and partially dissolves the landscape-like appearance of the background. Once again: this is not an abstract representation of a natural phenomenon but a depiction of the natural forces and dynamics of the materials and the ways in which they shape the world of the painting they inhabit. A similarly dynamic unfolding of power and energy can also be observed in "Pular". A white line extends from the top edge down through the full length of the painting, traversing a variety of zones and forms, until it reaches the bottom edge. A bolt of lightning that has struck the ground, spreading energy that dissipates underground in various directions.
The sand-suffused, amorphous formations running horizontally across the full width of many of von Witzleben's paintings almost give the impression of a landscape. It is as though a flowing viscous mass has solidified to spontaneously form a variety of shapes, holes and surprisingly fragile linear structures. The six 100 x 100 cm paintings in the series "Grauwerte", which can be combined in many ways are an outstanding example of this style. Against a backdrop of subtly nuanced grey colour fields, a number of dark bands with an almost organic plasticity and granulated structures of differing densities extend across the painting like cooled lava creating forms of alien beauty.

Many of the paintings contain simple linear structures that offer a clear draughtsmanlike contrast to the more amorphous, flowing forms of the paint. These are often circles or loops, sometimes parallel lines, which signal that the materials are not acting independently but are guided by the hand of the artist. These forms do not always feature as dominantly in the image as is the case in "Schwarze Collage II", where two rows of ordered, contoured black and black-white circles seamlessly join and merge. Or even in "Galan" or "Porak", which both feature a clearly defined black ring. In connection with the volcano name – this could nonetheless be a reminder of the opening of an abstracted caldera. These drawn insertions are often deployed so subtly that they escape the viewer's notice at first glance. The addition of three white loops is exceptionally important for the effect of the painting, e.g. in "Lipez". These loops sit in the top left on a floating amorphous shape packed with black lava sand. Without these understated touches, the painting would be entirely other. They produce a relationship with the colours that is difficult to express in words; an intentional, voluntary settlement; a commentary; a supplement; additional information. Another example of this can be found in "Aus Asche und Licht II". The title is clearly suggestive of the subject matter: once again the painting is complex and dynamic, eruptions of colour and flowing substances that erode away the sand particles and carry them downstream in their current. The most noticeable motif is the looping red line that stands out starkly from the grey shades of the background and apparently hangs suspended in the image. It is thus important that the extremity of the branch running down to the right is connected to the flowing grey form running axially through the painting by the addition of 5 parallel lines. This addition creates a greater integrity of form on the canvas. In other words, the material properties and dynamics of the painting process are only part of the story. The subtly draughted insertions make an equally vital contribution to the thrilling impact of the paintings of Bettina von Witzleben.