Marc Straus Gallery is currently presenting the paintings of Ulf Puder, a German artist whose landscape paintings are deeply evocative and strangely alluring. I was not familiar with the artist or his work, and I’ll admit, it took a beat to enter his Universe. But once in I began to see deeper into the complex issues he deals with in his paintings.
Puder paints landscapes that seem both contemporary and timeless. His images are of an imagined past and a dystopian future. Of the eleven paintings in the exhibition, six are of iced landscapes, that is, either icebergs or winter structures, buried under what appears to be mountains of snow. Big, big skies loom over the diminutive dwellings and icebergs. A palette of multiple somber shades of blue and soft greens infuses the works with glacial coolness. There is no sun, as if the sun might be gone forever. The buried buildings are either abandoned or there may be people trapped inside the smothered landscape. In either case the scenes are eerily empty of life. The icebergs in these paintings are both architectural and sculptural; they could be giant ice palaces. They make for perfect partners with the landscape paintings that face them from the opposite wall.
Opposite, there are five paintings of structures in various states of collapse. Dancing between abstraction and realism these paintings portray a strange and ominous world of shifting geometries – the planes of the vaguely mid-century modern houses are slipping and sliding off of one another. Partially dismantled into piles of colorful debris, they appear ready to tumble into the dark bodies of water on whose shores they sit. Nestled under dark skies these tableaux feel like a pause between catastrophic storms. There is a sense of calm to the work, but it is not entirely peaceful.
The palette of these paintings is oddly off. The colors are at once lush and slightly acid in tone. They reminded me immediately of the palette used often by Neo Rauch. I was not surprised when the Gallery Director told me that Rauch and Puder had been students in Leipzig, then in East Germany, at the same time. Though there is zero similarity in subject or execution, the artists share a strong color sensibility.
Puder sets up a very dynamic relationship between these two sets of paintings that one can interpret in several ways. There is an obvious nod to climate change and the havoc wreaked upon the Earth by man. Everything in Puder’s Universe is under a state of siege, smothered, melted, dismantled, scattered. The world is literally falling apart. The quietude of each body of work feels at once ominous and seductive.
Yet in every one of the landscape paintings with houses there is a hit of light. It might be artificial– the fluorescents that light the porch of Willy Lott’s House– or a ray of brilliant sunshine along the horizon of Mondscheinlandschaft. Is this Puder’s way of showing us that there is hope, a ray of optimism? Or is it simply a powerful and skilled painter delighting in his ability to show us how color can glow, how the radiance of light can alter the geometries of his paintings. Maybe it’s both.
All photos courtesy of Melissa Stern. Courtesy of the Artist and MARC STRAUS
Ulf Puder- Thru March 5, 2023. Marc Straus Gallery. 299 Grand St, NYC, NY
Melissa Stern lives in NYC and The Hudson Valley. She studied Anthropology and Art History at Wesleyan Univ. Her mixed material sculpture and drawings are in a number of corporate and museum collections including The International Center For Collage, News Corp. Inc. JP Morgan Chase, The Arkansas Art Center, The Racine Art Museum, The Museum of Art and Design and The Wiseman Museum in Minneapolis. Her multi-media project The Talking Cure has been touring the United States since 2012, showing at The Akron Museum of Art, Redux Contemporary Art Center (Charleston), The Weisman Museum, Real Art Ways (Hartford) and The Kranzberg Art Center (St. Louis), and at The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton.MA. She has written about art and culture for The New York Press and CityArts for eight years and is a contributing writer to Hyperallergic and artcritical. Melissa has joined Art Spiel as co-editor and contributing writer.