Johanna Kandl explores the physical dimension of artworks in exhibition at the Lower Belvedere

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Johanna Kandl explores the physical dimension of artworks in exhibition at the Lower Belvedere
Exhibition view Johanna Kandl. Material. What We Paint with and Why. Photo: Johannes Stoll © Belvedere, Vienna.

VIENNA.- Minerals from Cyprus, gum arabic from Sudan, cochineals from Lanzarote: a picture’s material in tandem with its subject matter has its own story to tell; vivid accounts of people, their lives, and their surroundings. In her exhibition at the Orangery of the Lower Belvedere, the Austrian artist Johanna Kandl explores the physical dimension of artworks.

Kandl juxtaposes her own works with paintings from the Belvedere collection, a few loans, and with the raw materials used in painting. In her large-scale multimedia installation, these materials serve the role of narrator, telling the story of the substance of paints and colorants.

Stella Rollig, Belvedere CEO, says: “Johanna Kandl is a painter whose body of work references the world around her. Now, she pursues the material side of her media – its meaning and origins – and thereby also points to blind spots in classical art history, which in the past has often ignored the material underpinnings. Never before have the works of the Belvedere collection been viewed from this angle.”

Together with her husband, Helmut Kandl, the artist explores the stories behind the pictures. Her starting points are both organic and non-organic, yet the artist couple is not interested in the science of materials per se. Instead, they seek answers to socio-economic questions that are linked to the physical foundations of paintings.

Johanna Kandl, artist of the exhibition, remarks: “A picture is not just a subject. There is more to it than that. In my work, I am guided by the haptic quality of things, by a substance that is visible and touchable. I see this as a key parable of the world and how we treat it.”

“Oil on canvas” – behind this common fine art term hides more than just paint on a support. Oil paints and canvases consist of materials based on plants, binding agents, solvents, thinners, and pigments, each of which, in turn, has a long history that raises many ecological, economic, social, and religious questions.

Curator Miroslav Haľák, overseeing the exhibit on behalf of the Belvedere, says: “Johanna Kandl is a ‘narrator of layers’ – layer by layer she approaches the different material and immaterial levels of painting to look beneath the surface of the background and use of resins, oils, or pigments."

The color blue, for instance, allows us to trace the development of our civilization: Azurite is a by-product of copper mining, indigo blue is extracted from plants that played a significant role in colonization policy, and ultramarine was extracted from lapis lazuli in a region of Afghanistan that today is virtually inaccessible. In the present as in the past, it is people and their living conditions that stand behind the production process and extraction of painting materials; an existence often in drastic contrast to the splendor of art. The all-present climate crisis is also sharpening our awareness of materials: with the advent of the 21st century, there has been a shift in how we deal with raw materials, applying to all areas of society – including music, fashion, and visual arts. As the flood of images in social media grows, so does our interest in what is analog. Scholars call these changes in our cultural relationship to physical matter the “material turn.” Johanna and Helmut Kandl make this the guiding principle of their work.

The exhibition is based on the artist couple's many fact-finding journeys, which they document through pictures, videos, photos, and objects. These are embedded within the context of extensive research on the respective materials.

The exhibition has been divided into two phases. In spring 2019, a section of the Chamber Garden was dedicated for growing plants to produce painting materials and colorants. The exhibition in the Orangery starting September 12th will draw upon and contextualize these plants as well as other, inorganic materials. The two exhibition spaces are linked by views from inside the Orangery to the Chamber Garden outdoors.

The exhibition's architectural design evokes the ambiance of an artist's studio. Specially formatted hanging surfaces expose the material aspects of the pictures: Much like looking at the reverse side of a canvas, the wall partitions allow viewers to see an otherwise hidden side of the pictures. Handwritten texts accompany the exhibits. The exhibition is structured according to materials, ranging from linen, resins, oils, glues, and brushes to vegetable and mineral pigments. Numerous loans include a mummy from the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna and minerals from the Naturhistorisches Museum Vienna.

Johanna Kandl has strong ties to the physical aspects of fine art through her training as a conservator. And her family background of paint producers and dealers has made her particularly receptive to this theme. At the center of her artistic work lies a preoccupation with economic conditions and their impact on daily life. Since the 1980s a significant focus for her observations has been on countries in economic transformation, such as the Balkan nations. She has been working with Helmut Kandl on participatory and research projects since 1997. Johanna Kandl has previously dealt with the subject of materiality in exhibitions at the Essl Museum Klosterneuburg and the Kunsthalle Nexus in Saalfelden. She lives and works in Vienna and Berlin.

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