Bazon Brock/Xenia Hausner
Cow Eyes and Drawers – a short skit with Bazon Brock and Xenia Hausner
a sunny day in the alps. on the terrace of a wooden chalet. the scent of hay, jangling of cowbells, tractors, mowing machines
BB: I think the question is how women bring things to life, animate, or create character and movement differently than men. In your case, Xenia, it’s noticeable that everything is done almost exclusively via the eyes. Eyes are the key markers of your pictures. And since eyes are the mirror of the soul. The old motif of someone looking out of the picture signals that viewers must be aware of the fact that they are being looked at from the picture. It’s in the nature of things that nothing brings things to life in a picture as much as eyes – shall we say, in the work of Rembrandt, eyes are the most life-kindling things on earth. It’s amazing how recurrent the mirror motif is in your work, occasionally just one mirror, but mostly in pairs. The rest of what we get to see is perhaps only a framework for the look itself. The eyes in your picture always draw our attention back to them, whereupon everything vanishes inside. And then again, this swoop back is decidedly female, since in the case of life-bearing women everything comes from inside the body. Your eyes are all organs of access for receiving the person looking at you. You’re always painting conception pictures. The body only plays the role of steering everything towards the entrance, in a matter of speaking.
XH: Actually they’re relationship pictures. Conception works with women, but what does a man receive? Rembrandt, for example.
BB: Rembrandt’s paintings act as a mirror of objective salvation. The people portrayed in his pictures know that they are agents
of Christian salvation. Throughout his paintings, he often references the Old Testament.
XH: In the self-portraits he’s fully present himself.
BB: Even as a self-portraiting artist, he’s only an agent of Christian salvation. His whole oeuvre is no more than an expression of this confidence in fulfillment. Today we’d call it the condition of incomplete future. What stands out in your pictures is the fact that everything has to take into account the iconography of the eyes. The picture is the mirror that makes mediation between you and the person opposite possible. A representative of the Leipzig School relies on working through a painting and achieving a wonderful iconographical balance. But obviously you don’t trust the pictures themselves to handle the function of accessing the world; in fact, you trust only human souls. That’s very important. It’s a very strong position, in which you forgo showing all the rest, the whole background. In that respect, you’re like Rembrandt.
XH: However, I am rather fond of the background. How the color fields and colors hang together. Perhaps I should paint just the paraphernalia so that it’s more noticeable.
BB: I wouldn’t be so sure of that, since apparently you already do everything correctly out of sheer instinct. And you’re an exception in that respect. If you observe people for their mimesis, i.e. you want to know where someone is looking when he’s looking at someone, the first natural place to look is the eyes. Attractive eye contact is obviously the basis of all types of attraction. With you,this captivation is clearly the continuation of the anthropological basis of seeing. You expect the pictures to look at you. There’s a famous Michelangelo anecdote about that: He’s chiseling away at his “David”’s knee. Finally he takes the chisel and hits him at the base of the tendon, yelling: ‘Why don’t you say something, you dog?’ In your case there’s no question. It’s ‘Why don’t you look, you cow?’ Hera, the boss’s wife, who is the mother of all marriages, love affairs and oaths of loyalty, this Hera has an attribute, an epitheton ornans, ‘the cow-eyed’. All your pictures are cow-eyed. I can’t think of anyone except you who’s painted such cow eyes. A discovery has been made about cow eyes: the highest authority of attraction-based relationships is inscrutability. If you look a cow in the eye, the dark background of the eye makes it impossible to reach the soul via the eye, but the whole soul is already there in the eye. In other words, it’s not a matter of going in; everything is already there for you to see. That’s the expression for this kind of animation. And that’s how it is with your cow-eye paintings. There is nothing more hidden inside than what’s shown on the surface. But that is already the whole speculative representation, or representation oriented to the speculum effect, of the most profound psychological characteristics. What is striking is that the dominant axis in the picture is always the eye area. And what actually disconcerts people is they can never decide: should I see this or that?
XH: They’re supposed to see both. This and that. For me, it’s always a totality. The shoulders, the eyes, the curved pink shape, the orange field, the blue surface.
BB: Only, the moment you introduce the physiognomy, everything is in fact concentrated on the eyes. It really is the ‘cow-eye effect’.
XH: I can’t stand Hera. She is a woman for whom power is more important than her own femininity. My figures are capable of spiritual self-penetration.
BB: Yes, but that’s the way it is. All of your women, whether they look severe, lost in thought or challenging, or are staring at fate with mild pangs of suffering, have something of Hera’s divinity about them. Sometimes they convey perhaps something like a willingness to speak. But basically there is no willingness, because it all disappears in the eyes. People can scarcely see the rest because of the suggestiveness you achieve through the eyes. It’s a decidedly good thing for the picture if something gets inserted between you and them, a book or a photo, to liberate you from the pressure of the fixation on the eyes.
XH: I notice it really physically when I’m working. Most of the energy is tacitly absorbed by the eyes. Creeping into the eyes of someone else is a real strain. And then the eyes get on everyone’s nerves!
BB: That’s true, yes. (Laughs, pauses.) You’ve actually got the key to the portrait there. You’d have to switch strategies now. For the picture to be more than a look, you have to get out of the portrait mode.
XH: I’m not in it anyway. The perspective is too confining. I paint people in imaginary contexts, invented novels. They are interpersonal status reports of today.
BB: If you hold this look up to viewers in every picture, you don’t leave much to them, because everything you show in the pictures themselves is summed up in the eyes. But you need to stimulate viewers. They should have to imagine something, begin to fantasize and dream.
XH: Are you saying viewers don’t find stuff for their imagination because the look out of the picture stops them?
BB: That’s the core problem of your pictures. You’re immediately pigeonholed in the portrait genre. It’s primarily a matter of physiological conditioning. According to anthropological perception, another person’s look is the most attractive thing. And even if you showed naked genitals alongside, that wouldn’t be noticed to the same extent.
XH: I’ll try that out!
BB: There’s no way around it, because the suggestive look can’t be toned down. And because you can’t get away from it, the eye doesn’t wander around the picture.
XH: You mean people don’t see my red, yellow, and blue at all?
BB: That’s a matter of your style of painting; that’s just what I’m trying to make clear to you.
XH: I think it’s up to viewers.
BB: No, it’s not up to viewers if you create pictures in this fashion.
XH: I think I’m just a more talented viewer who can absorb the different construction sites of a picture with pleasure, simultaneously. People obviously only have drawers for classifying. They always know in advance what they’re supposed to see.
BB: Just take a look at a picture like that. Where else do you want to look?
XH: But that’s a detail!
BB: Rubbish. Where do you end up? At the eyes again. Even though it’s very delicate painting full of brilliant visual ideas, what does this invigorating style amount to? You should just take the eyes out!
XH: (laughs) I’ll stick something on top of them.
BB: Of course, here we have something different (points to “Nine Eleven”). That’s iconographically much more interesting because the look is directed at something in the picture instead of at the viewers. Though again, wherever you look, you see the individual zones of the pictures as separate pictures. What a collection of things
we have here!
XH: Nobody sees them, based on what you are saying.
BB: They can’t. My God, but the woman is resistant! To go on with my teaching program, I tell you, your urge to express yourself compositionally doesn’t get into the picture. You start with the people and not from the painting. That’s a serious difference.
XH: On the contrary, I start with the visual idea – the layout, the colors, the whole thing. The human being is part of it. I find the people for the painting like casting a play. Black spheres, yellow field, blue corner, it all interacts, and the human being is in the middle of it. And then that’s the picture that tells a story about life and painting.
BB: You don’t leave the viewer any opportunity to see your painting. You always just force them to see people, but not pictures. You can’t just say subjectively, I don’t see it like that. Painting and visual skills have a narrative of their own. Painting isn’t anthropological, but a human look is. What we learn from nature to make our look more attractive to the world has nothing to do with painting. Painting didn’t exist when our physiology evolved, i.e. the brain and co-evolution. For example, while the motor control of eye and hand were developing, art didn’t exist. In that context, the seeing that painting does is something infinitely late. When you’re looking at paintings, you always have to expect that the anthropological look, i.e. the look that comes naturally from all people, will dominate and stop people from seeing at all what they’re supposed to see: the painting. They only see portraits.
XH: In that case, Rembrandt is a portrait painter.
BB: Yes, of course. Rembrandt is the quintessential portrait painter because he painted the natural way people look other people in the eye when they want to look into their souls and discover their mental biography and trustworthiness. Although he did it better than anyone, he’s wholly insignificant as a painter. Rembrandt was a boring, formulaic painter who always hid the critical bits in the dark. That brown stew is horrible. It looks like a flood, or as if someone had poured coffee over all the pictures. As a painter, Rubens is a genius compared to Rembrandt.
XH: Rembrandt especially grabs me. And I couldn’t care less what label gets pinned on him. For all I care he’s not a painter, but he’s a huge artist for sure. Then the whole thing is just a question of nomenclature.
BB: No, that’s not true. You have to admit that the history of the life of pictures is a whole different story than the history of looking out at the world and at other people’s faces. Those are two completely different histories. The history of looking at pictures as painting, by the way, began only 600 years ago. You can say that it begins in 1315 with Giotto’s frescos, and then Lorenzetti in Siena. It begins slowly. But looking out into the world, at the face of others, whether to size up, probe, seek comfort or from helpful passion, has existed ever since there have been people. The history of looking out into the world is different in principle from the history of looking at paintings. The essence of looking out into the world is the mirror, which is already evident in mythology. Someone looks in a puddle and discovers himself. The mirror stage is fundamental to the experience of early childhood: when does a child recognize itself as a body in the world? With your looks, you’re still at the natural history level of the mirror stage. You paint the natural history of looks more suggestively than anyone today. Really.
XH: The natural history of looks or the face doesn’t interest me in the least. For me, what matters is translating nature into a new, distinctive visual truth.
BB: In this one, it’s much better, of course (points to “Barca¬rolle”). Why? Because it’s an action scene. A goodbye, someone being seen off at the station. The train is leaving, so there’s a whole interesting iconographical program involved. Here, for example, it’s offset with a sensual look from outside. This is over the top, and so not just suggestive any more.
XH: I don’t see that one as any different from the other pictures.
BB: Because of the completely different orientation of the figures alone, it is fundamentally different. One of the main qualities of painting is that it doesn’t act as if it were animate. All you see is dead matter that viewers react to.
XH: If it’s painted, it’s animate matter.
BB: Not so. It’s only the viewer who is animate. The picture itself is nothing but dirt on canvas. The animation comes quite logically from the viewer, who reacts to it. Only a living system can produce a reaction like that, and a painting is not a living system. Have you ever seen pictures copulating?
BB: … and producing another one?
XH: I’d be all for that, then I wouldn’t have to work so hard.
BB: Just paint a small picture. You invite it to a séance where copulation’s going on. Painting A is put to bed with Painting B. People then have to wait at this opening séance until something new comes out of it.
XH: I think pictures are independent, animate, living entities. They have an identity of their own, and in the end they have nothing to do with the one-time sitter anymore.
BB: They only have a separate existence in the sense that they evoke distinct reactions in viewers. Of course they have life, life in the sense of la vie de forme. All shapes have a life, like that large halma hat. That’s a shape that’s perhaps two or three thousand years old. The difference between your portrait and painting is the difference between monochrome pants and pants with an interesting pattern. That’s why everyone wears printed fabrics as pants and clothes and blouses: because they’re used to having to notice differences. A figure that’s all one color is useful as camouflage or as a kind of hide-and-seek. People want distinction. Nonetheless, you’d say that’s not a painting but design.
XH: Yes, but if I give the design a talking-to in a picture, it becomes painting.
BB: But then you have to do it as a painting. But if you only do it as a portrait, because Mrs. X is wearing those pants …
XH: I don’t. As well as the pants, Mrs. X gets a train and a tiger and giraffe, and then, in the end I can paint or portrait anything I like, or what the heck, at any rate pick up a brush and get down to it. Incidentally, I put on pants with a Matisse pattern today as a precaution!
BB: Matisse only turned out paintings, but he’s a very bad portrait painter who tried his hand at portraits a few times. But portraits by Matisse are the worst things he ever did. Picasso never ever got involved in portraits. He portrayed his women so that they were there as elements in the picture, but never figured as part of a portrait. We might recognize Jacqueline Roque from the chignon bun, but Picasso was never interested in portraits because he was only interested in the painting. But if you asked Matisse to paint the housekeeper he had a go at, the result was neither a good portrait nor a good picture. In your case, you do at least generate good portraits. You’re definitely ahead of Matisse there.
XH: Portraits, but not pictures!
BB: Oh Ma!!! I don’t have any more, but you might say …
XH: What a pigheaded idiot.
an abbreviated version of a conversation in summer 2007