Olaf Richter, Hamburg 2004
I first learned of Alexander Wolf’s work at the end of the 1990s. I had known Alexander for many years, and was sur-prised to learn that he had discovered photography for himself. He invited me to view his work. I was touched, and initially also somewhat embarrassed. For some time I had been preoccupied with the unpublished photographs of Herbert List, whose classical use of B/W photography had trained and sharpened my eye. The thought of having to grapple with the first images of an autodidact – and friend to boot – was unsettling.
Things turned out very differently. Alexander and I sat at a table and went through his pictures. They took me by surprise, and I quickly realized that most of my standards of evaluation were out of place here. A notable characteristic of Alexander’s work is the absence of the classic criteria of photographic mastery: definition, detail, precisely measured lighting, and the depth achieved through their application. He reduces complex images to fundamental patches of colour, and in doing so produces pictures that are sometimes reminiscent of impressionist paintings, blurred watercolours, or completely abstract compositions.
The history of photography is also a history of the relationship between photography and painting. From the very beginning, photographers have felt that they worked not only in a documentary medium, but also in an artistic one. Painting and photography use similar means of composition. Portraiture, still life, or land- and seascapes have been photographic genres since the earliest days of photography. The golden section, a well-balanced interplay of light and shade, and graphically arresting perspectives are as much elements of photographic as of painterly aesthetics. These elements of a formal aesthetic idiom intensify the mimetic effect of photography, thereby, in a paradoxical countermove, underscoring the opposition of photography and ideals of neutral reproduction and documentary mimesis.
Alexander Wolf’s painterly photography also employs all the tricks of this formal idiom of painting, yet the focus of his work could not be further removed from mimesis: the greatest possible distance that still allows for a flicker of recognition. What the viewer recognizes is not essential. The important point is that image gives the viewer sufficient incentive to start a reading process in the hope of discovery. The question of whether the viewer or the image is the focus of this reading game is a mute point. The titles of the works make it clear that this is not a photographic Rorschach test. Yet, like the ink splodges, Wolf’s images have a curious tendency to oscillate between dimensions: between studied surface and fleeting depth.
The intensified surface of photography
A lot has been written about the camera as a technical extension of the human organ of sight. The digital revolution has taken this extension considerably further. Alexander Wolf uses digitally expanded sight to scan his environment, to frisk it, as it were. His images are not the result of extensive postproduction intervention. Wolf is interested in the immediacy and directness associated with the act of seeing and recognizing. The image is electronically simplified and reduced. Wolf takes complex, initial reality and extracts from it simplified, yet intensified images. His photographs are fields of colour that allow viewers to experience a way of seeing reminiscent of the visual perception of animals or machines.
Wolf experiments with stripping out depth and detail, and in exchange gains surfaces that focus all attention on themselves. In contrast to the surface of painted pictures, that of photographs does not show any obvious colour application, structure or movement. To highlight this difference, Wolf uses Plexiglas sheets coated with silicon adhesive to render the surfaces of his pictures literally as smooth as glass. It is as though these reflecting surfaces were a metaphor for the act of reading that oscillates permanently between viewer and image. Not some puzzling concept concealed in the depths of the picture, but the surface is where pleasure of voyeurism and reading are ignited.
The pleasure in this pursuit is perhaps best conveyed by the anonymous eroticism of Wolf’s nudes and scantily clad people, and the series of “International Beauties”. It is the pleasure of a seductive surface with the absence of details. Recognition of details would only hinder such enjoyment. Wolf’s “Personalities” are images of people without being portraits, nudes without any pretence of intimacy. An emotional logic and not a conceptual one is best to experience their beauty. The point is not some hidden essence of the people portrayed, but the fortunate discovery of an aesthetically, exceedingly satisfying form; bodies and shapes that are precisely what they re-present: Empty signifiers - ready to be charged with each viewer’s meaning. Wolf’s images are sufficiently imprecise to be a surface onto which viewers can project their fantasies. But, as topographic maps depicting of sensual objects of our realities, they are also sufficiently precise to heighten our enjoyment.