I AM BECAUSE I AMOctober 17, 2015
The I has a thousand faces. It cowers in fear like a child or is abashed like a voyeur who has been caught. Our physiognomy is a slate on which innumerable variations on the themes of joy, vanity, or awe may be inscribed. This versatility led the French poet Arthur Rimbaud to note that “I is another,” an observation that arguably signaled the start of modernity, presaging its disruptions, fragmentations, crises. The Hamburg-based artist Klaus Elle, however, seems to have discovered in Rimbaud’s insight the origin of a process of creative individuation. For more than three decades, Elle, who was born in Leipzig in 1954, has used photography in an analytical exploration of the self, scrutinizing the photographic objectivation of his identity in hundreds of self-portraits, which he reworks with paint or toner, douses with acid, collages with fabrics, or sets on fire.
The resulting works are deconstructions of his ego—pictures that give the lie to photography’s promise of identity. The shape, countenance, and wrinkles of a face, it insistently averred, would reveal the human being’s individual character. Klaus Elle, it seems, is unconvinced. As he sees it, the camera is no more than an “implement that surveys the outward appearance.” Beneath that appearance, identity is forever in flux. “I is many,” Elle’s pictures attest. I is formal or archetypal, at home in everyday life or a spectral apparition. Overpainting or lacerating the surface of the picture, the artist dons forever new disguises, sporting a classic dunce cap or hiding behind cubist forms, flaunting a sleek poker face or the playful expression of a clown. Quotations from art history—his sources range from Georges Braque to Maria Lassnig, from expressionism to pop art—enrich his visual vocabulary.
An exhibition scheduled to open at the DEAR Photography Art Room on November 5 presents selected self-portraits from the studio of a great alchemist of art. “I draw to rectify my presumable misapprehensions, obsessively and tenderly, sometimes with restless circling energy, sometimes seething with anger. On other occasions I am seized by desperate creative passion and pour chemicals over the silver-coated surface of my field of vision,” Klaus Elle says about his work in a wide range of formats, styles, and media. The photographic self-explorations, which the artist variously describes as “cathartic” or as “escapes from biography,” are complemented by numerous portraits of others. These works—most of them are fairly recent—highlight Elle’s growing interest in how those around him express themselves: as the philosopher of religion Martin Buber argued, it is only in the dialogue with a You that the I comes into being. Portrait and self-portrait, mirror and self-reflection are the materials out of which this exhibition fashions a richly complex exploration of the self’s identities.
Klaus Elle: Ich bin weil ich bin. DEAR Photography Art Room. November 5, 2015–January 6, 2016