The Tool of Light
As a medium, photography makes use of the most varied tools and processes to record light onto a storage material and to produce more or less permanent images from this storehouse. The formerly all-dominant, chemically based classical photography is becoming increasingly superseded, especially in the professional sector, by hybrid forms that integrate other technical processes.
For her “Copygraphys” Andrea Esswein employs a tool that each of us makes use of in everyday life to produce inexpensive, reliable reproductions of printed documents, namely the photocopier. Its glistening beam of light scans the original on the glass plate for its dark areas and transfers these by means of a positive-negative process onto the rotating cylinder hidden inside. The drum is electrostatically charged on those areas that bear the negative image, thus attracting the toner. This charcoal-black dust is then pressed onto the blank sheet of paper when, during the final stage of the photocopy process, it is lead over the drum. With a quiet hum, the finished copy is then turned out into the user.
Artists had already discovered the photocopier as early as the `70s of the last century. What started out, though, at the time, as an ostensibly anarchical means of producing art has now fully established itself within the art community. The so-called “Copy Art”, transformed this (in everyday usage purely mechanical) aid into a utensil that genuinely serves artistic production. Correspondingly, it is no longer merely the utility value of the photocopier that stands in the foreground, whereby the optical quality of the copy is to be made as congruent as possible with that of the original document. In “Copy Art”, on the contrary, it is much more a question of the artistic interpretation of hte respecitive original. We are thus dealing here with the production of autonomous works of art that make use of the original merely as a source of inspiration.
Andrea Esswein`s “Copygraphs” are also copier-originals, since she does not employ the photocopier in its capacity as a duplicating machine. In the hands of the artist, the machine becomes a medium, with the help of which she produces unique works of art: each of her pictures exists only once. It is especially here that we see the difference, despite their creative, affinity, between the copygraph and the photograph, which also “draws with light” in order to capture the objects to be illustrated on a piece of paper, whereby photography is a photochemical process.
The essential difference between the “Copygraphy” and all other photographic techniques is, furthermore, the invariable focal length of the lens system, which only focuses those parts of the original that lie directly on the glass plate. On the basis of this unusual quality, Andrea Esswein does not copy the original objects in an arbitrary, coincidental position, but rather places these in relation to the beam of light. In order to alter contrasts or to depict the edges more clearly, the objects must be (re-)arranged correspondingly.
After the copy process is complete, which presupposes a precisely controlled sequence of photocopies, the individual sheets of paper are then combined into collages. To do so, Andrea Esswein cuts and intersects the available sheets of paper orthogonally in order to then piece them together onto the objects that act as supports. Seams and overlaps remain visible: they are the witnesses of the fragmentation and subsequent composition and break down the unity of the motif. With stylistic conviction, the individual sheets of paper blend together to from one single, autonomous work and, with their own unique pictorial language, overcome not only the realism, but also the technical aspects of the photocopy process.
Nevertheless, the works are not only surprising because of their clear composition. Through its format alone, the massive, four-part “Bale of Straw” surpasses everything one might expect from a copygraph and allows the viewer to percuse over its surface. The eye lingers on individual strands of straw, may wander from segment to segment, without ever loosing track of the work as a whole. This optical movement is reminiscent of the process by which the work was created; similar to the beam of light of the photocopier, the viewer has to scan the image in order to register it both in its details and its totality.
The aesthetic range of the works is astonishing as a result of the virtuosity with which Andrea Esswein makes the most of the surface of the photocopier`s glass plate. Some works are reminiscent of Old Master prints, such as the “Lilly”, the tender structure of which slowly emerges out of the deep black of the background, thus lending it such filigree beauty. The same is true of the copygraph of a “Head of Lettuce”, the wilted grace of which seems to have nothing to do with the everyday grocery. The early, wonderfully fragile work “Trout” is equally obliged to this aesthetic, making it profoundly irritating. At first glance reminiscent of the graphic arts or photographs from the age of fine prints, the work makes one think that the calm and tranquil form of representation might somehow stand in contradiction to the profanity of the five trout depicted. The same is true, by the way, of the copygraph of “Fruits and Vegetables”, in which the groceries depicted are all too obviously staged.
With these works, Andrea Esswein makes reference to a pictorial genre that focuses on the ostensibly profane: the sill life. In her allusion to the illustrative practice of the “nature morte”, she “copies” its gesture so to speak. One can read, for example, the cat depicted in profile as a symbol for transitoriness. The works give the impression that they are somehow beyond access, that they are irrefutable. They lay at rest, hidden behind a (in some instance finely aerated) layer of synthetic resin, as though in Snow White`s coffin.
The light honey-colored lacquer, with which Andrea Esswein finishes off her works after they have been collaged, is not only intended to protect the delicate copy-paper from mechanical wear and tear. Irrevocably bound together with the material of the support, it simultaneously alters the pictorial character of the object. As a result of the varnishing, the images gain a sense of depth and one gets the impression that a patina darkened over the year has somehow refined them. This, in turn, lends the copygraphs the bearing of classical works of art.
The confrontation with famous works from the history of art is, thus, no coincidence. In her self-portrait with the fruit from 1999, a half-length portrait, the artist makes reference, not only the title, to Caravaggion: she poses herself, more than 400 years later, in the fashion of his painting “Boy with Fruit Bowl”, whereby she translates his command of light and dark into her own medium of the copygraph.
After a period of concentrating on objects, plant and animals, Andrea Esswein turned her attention once to the human form, a motif thad had already played a significant role in her early work. Following a series of full-length portraits, which the artist made of herself, she then made photocopies of the dancers of the Mannheim Ballet Ensemble for a series entitled “CopyDance”. Similarly, the twelve portraits of her friends, created for the project “Sign of Friendship”, can also seen as a self-contained ensemble of works. Although each of the sitters are depicted in the same size and format. the individual differences between the various physiognomies are brought to the surface with subtle detail and refer to the ways in which each individual preferred to be portrayed (they were asked to place themselves in their own chosen pose during the photocopy process).
This openness was also applied to the second part of the project. Analogous to the signs of the zodiac, Andrea Esswein asked her friends to name both their positive and their negative character traits, which were then printed along with a detail of the portrait on packets of sugar cubes. These objects make playful reference to the packets of sugar commonly found in cafes, on which the twelve signs of the zodiac are printed along with their respective attributes. Andrea Esswein refers to these supposedly universally applicable characterisations and treats them ironically, based on the knowledge that an adequate classification of through the use of adjective attributes is simply not possible.
For the sugar project, Andrea Esswein commissioned the production of more than one ton of sugar cubes, which amounts to over 200000 individual cubes of sugar. With this, she created a room-filling installation that made - by all means in both senses of the word - “refined” signs of friendship: underneath each of the twelve portraits of her friends, she piled up the respective sugar cube packets to create a kind of mountain of sugar, in which the individual cube of sugar is eclipsed by the masses of all the others. The supposed uniqueness of personality, as manifested in the description of individual character traits, vanishes in the face of the sheer masses.
Each of the twelve motif are presented in a pink shimmering box, which - under the title “Exquisite Sugar Work” - is purposely reminiscent of the designs frequently used for boxes of pralinés. The multiple refers both to the piles of sugar cubes in the installation as well as to the pictures from the series of portraits, permanently uniting the group and, finally, bringing together aspects of the entire project in the smallest possible space.
Andrea Esswein took a step towards double portraiture in her series entitled “Couples”, which the artist staged a dialogical situation of and with the relationships between two individuals. The facial expressions, gestures and postures of the sitters overlap playfully and, despite the process-orientated course of the pictures´ development, are transformed into what appears to be snapshots. The most recent series of colored portraits of couples carries on this staging of affects. The varying clothing of a particular couple lets us interpret these picture in terms of temporal sequences, which, with the exception of the final pictures, beg to be read separately in terms of chronology. the coloring is used here more as a compositional element than as decorative one; the texture of the clothes, the flow of the hair and the tone of the skin each allow for an intensive, sensual afterexperience. The warmth of the colors contrasts with the cool, analytical representation of the battle of the sexes, which tells in staccato highlights the endless tale of courtship, fulfilment and disillusionment.
This narrative moment opens up a new chapter in the oeuvre of Andrea Esswein and allows us to forget about the gleaming light of the photocopier. The overcoming of the technology, finally, liberates the artist`s works and directs our attention to the life within them, to their beauty and wealth of facts.
Thomas Schirmböck, Translation: Gérard A. Goodrow