THE TRANCE OF HISTORY: KLAUS KILLISCH, TRANCE (2013) and Early Works
(Robert Fitterman, New York City, 2018)
Some artists move through different styles without a visible trace of their earlier works, while other artist spend their careers working primarily within one mode. Klaus Killisch's art presents another possibility: in each of his artworks, he seems to carry with him his previous styles and concerns. This layering technique is most profound in his recent works, like Trance (2013), where the layers of history and styles span several decades. As such, it is especially useful to see Killisch's work alongside his earliest paintings from the 1980s.
This layering of history technique makes a lot of sense for Killisch. He has lived through and participated in enormous historical changes, and each of them has not only left an impression on his artwork, but each has had an accumulative effect as his many styles often appear in one single work. Killisch started his career in East Berlin and was engaged with the revolutionary activities leading up to 1989. This early work echoed the neo-expression style that was prevalent in an oppressed East Berlin and Leipzig. But after the wall went down, Killisch embraced his interest in pop culture: advertising, fashion, photography, vinyl LPs, plastic flowers, etc. started to appear in Killisch's art. But even as Killisch's themes started to evolve, the residual concerns and techniques from his earlier work continued to be present in the new work as well. He carries these recent decades of history--both personal and social--through each of his artworks.
The content of Killisch's early work often include solitary figures in an urban landscape; this theme, more recently, has become increasingly complicated with single figures repurposed from advertising, film stills, or other iconic images that also point to the solitary figure as a trauma of identity, but now a more mediated and complex version. Not only do we see this update in his themes, but in the techniques as well. Killisch samples many materials and strategies including collage and photography. These shifts in an artist's career are common; what's unique to Killisch's vision is how the earlier themes and styles explicitly appear and re-appear in his later works.
Trance (2013) is a brilliant example of this historical layering. The piece is centered around the solitary male figure that is common in Killisch's work, but the figure's head is replaced with a swirl of hair that appears to be collaged from advertising images (hair, as an important historical pop icon, appears in several of Killisch's works). The crossed-arms of the central figure over his genitalia is a gesture that Killisch has used earlier, and the guitars that he is holding also appear as collaged photographs. The vulnerable male figure is consistent with his earlier works, but now the figure is complicated by the appropriated use of found images--the identity is problematized and mediated by these images of popular music and culture. And yet, the more painterly gesture of Killisch's neo-expressionistic style can be seen in the broad strokes of acrylic paint around the hair collage. It's a moment that best exemplifies Killisch's brazen use of layering from several historical periods in one artwork.
In the case of Killisch, exhibiting his new work alongside his early art is not simply an exercise in tracking the developing of an artist: for Killisch we are witnessing an act of self-appropriation, self-collage. In so many of his pieces, there is thought-provoking evidence of pulling down or borrowing elements from one painting to the next, over a span of three decades. As such, the best way to appreciate this work is to see several pieces from different artistic periods, different historical moments... they are all present, all at once.