The Object and its Image: A Metaphysical Pursuit (Deutsche Version)


Paintings perhaps show most clearly a fundamental feature of all art. They appear  —if actually new and original— with a Janus face: profundity and folly at a single glance. Such a touch of insanity is necessarily inherent to a body of work that consists of an endless series of painted pyramids of objects. What is the point of this constant repetition of the same subject, this geometric alignment of objects on the canvas? The works themselves do not tell us whether they are created out of a private lunacy, or out of an obsession that must be taken seriously —or whether they merely hide a strategically chosen trademark. Rather they are, indeed, designed to pose questions which otherwise nobody asks.

Apparently the images want to bring a certain order to things. The composition encompasses not only the depicted objects, but also reflects in part the geometric partitioning of the background into divergent colour fields. Also striking is that the objects depicted are strongly magnified, such as when a canary takes on the size of a bird of prey. Accordingly, in every image single objects can be found whose real-world dimensions are well-known, and therefore calibrate perception of the whole picture. Finally, all the paintings glow in one and the same matt and saturated colour-palette. Does this curious coincidence of subject, composition, magnification and colouring make any possible sense? Or asked differently: What sense of possibilities do these paintings aim at? Is there an idea which would call exactly for these pictorial qualities, unifying these diverse aspects of painting technique and pictorial composition?

Before coming to talk about these questions, we firstly ask ourselves: What happens to the single objects —what happens to the vases, baskets, glasses, boards, cages, bottles, boxes, and so forth— when they are arranged as real objects into such pyramids of things? When is a tried-out arrangement so perfect that the substitution, displacement and rotation of these found objects comes to an end, and a suitable picture-template comes into being? Where does the painter get the certainty about this arrangement that makes him resolutely grasp for his palette and brush?

Certainly, the things have to somehow harmoniously combine with each other. But how does one measure this coherence? The objects win —in a very particular constellation that must be discovered— a voice of themselves. A glass vase excites attention through its diaphanousness, but only in contrast to an opaque ceramic vase close by. A woven basket perceptibly reveals its function when contrasted with the wire mesh of a birdcage: It serves the purpose of carrying —and not holding captive, as with a cage. The white ceramic surface of a vase reflects the light more starkly than the white cardboard of a box. In such a network of contrasts, everyday objects find a language that they do not possess during normal use. They show their essential attributes and thereby reveal to the observer what they are as things unto themselves. The object reflects light in a unique way, and by doing so reveals exactly how it is different to us in our world: in its sensual materiality and its proven usefulness to us for a particular purpose.  

But the painted image does not reflect reality how it is, instead it exposes and highlights this particular special aspect of reality, an idea also served by the magnification technique, the background composition, and the colouration of the pictures —all those technical aspects which constitute this idiosyncratic art.

The magnification of the objects magnifies their dignity. The contrast of object and background intensifiesthe sensual presence of their otherwise unremarkable surfaces. And the matt colour-tone, which lies equally on all colour fields, causes the objects to come to rest, as if eternal peace lies upon them. Blacked out against every possible source of artificial light which might penetrate through from the living world, the objects in the image begin to shimmer in their own light. But what does this light announce and bring into the foreground?

Schallenberg's images pursue a very old philosophical question, the question of being. And like ancient philosophy, these images also seem to react to an experience of loss, to the loss of the magical world, in which things came alive and talked to people, as used to be believed. In the current age of virtual, simulatable worlds, things finally lose their sensible presence once and for all. They turn into abstract symbols in the engineered habitats to which humans limit their existence today. In that respect, Schallenberg's art belongs to a cultural and critical tradition that is found throughout the whole intellectual history of old Europe. This contribution would, however, be inadequate when measured according to the demands of contemporary art; these paintings would excessively repeat, in a uniform series of images, the mantra of the forgetting of being. 

But Schallenberg's work goes beyond this old quest for meaning, which tries to uncover the timeless being of things. Objects are not only represented in their essence, but also win back the fundamental qualities —first of all in the context of an elaborated pyramid— that have been lost in the ubiquitous attention-seeking society of today. Unmistakable is that the objects are arranged by a human hand and that the resulting order, which is sought for anew in every image, is man-made and not given by nature. 

Here, the art of painting undertakes a change of perspective. The objects that are brought to speak in Schallenberg's geometrical arrangement prove in their own way that cultural constructivism does not necessarily deprive the world of magic. Rather, we are as free in bringing magic into the world as we are in expelling any vestige of magic from it. Thus, these painted object pictures are no longer simply aiming to go beyond the appearance of things in order to confront their actual nature. Instead, the essence of the world, that which is able to become essential for us, can still potentially be experienced as a possible construct.

Thus Schallenberg's work stands, on the one hand, in the tradition of metaphysical painting, but on the other hand he simultaneously reframes that tradition in the medium of his painting. His images distance his work from the artists of that movement, who at the beginning of the 20th century confronted the beholder with an ontological world-view. In contrast, for Schallenberg it is more about researching the intrinsic values of our existence. Initially he senses these, as in an experiment, in an exploratory set-up with real objects, in order to subsequently capture them in the image and bring them to light for us. Thereby he participates in a quite different movement in art and philosophy, which is beginning to arise as a reaction to the possibly unrestricted deconstruction of all normative differences in the postmodern era. One can call this movement —in contrast to the metaphysical tradition— a constructive metaphysics.  


Dr. Harry Lehmann, philosopher

Berlin, 2005

Translation (2013, approved by the author):

Stefan Repplinger,

Professor Alan Richardson-Klavehn