DOWN TO EARTH

»Down to Earth« is the title chosen by Jan Scharrelmann as a clue to our understanding of his most recent series of works. It is one that conjures up a great many different mental images and puts us on tracks that lead us in a great many different directions. Down to earth: sober, practical, pragmatic, factual, realistic … indeed a highly irritating description of those spectacular pieces that are currently on exhibition in the Studio Gallery of the Saarlandmuseum. At first glance – a glance that makes us immediately aware of the highly conceptual and technical quality of their making – we would rather imagine that »Down to Earth« referred to the course now set by a space traveller after an excursion into hitherto unknown galaxies.

Nonetheless, the reference to »Earth« does in fact touch on a multitude of aspects that have informed Scharrelmann's oeuvre from the very beginning. The Earth – and with it the horizon – is a consciously applied system of reference for all motional and spatial experience. Many of his works sound out the potency of this dominant of visual perception and also reflect in it the milestones of sculpture's more recent history. The 1970s saw an intensive calling in question of the elementary elements of sculpture, such as mass, weight and equilibrium, an approach that Jan Scharrelmann eye-twinklingly ironizes in his works, not least through his choice of supposedly non-artistic materials and their unusual synthesis. »Down to Earth« interprets the axiom of »gravity as a building principle« in a highly original and contemporary way. Balance does indeed seem to be one of the central themes of Scharrelmann's work, too, but it has its basis not in the traditionally much sworn-upon weight of the material used (steel) but rather in the structural function performed by epoxy resin, a heavy, viscous and highly cohesive material, the use of which Jan Scharrelmann has been exploring for a great many years. However, both the act and the product of pouring or assembling react unavoidably – and most vividly – to the earth's gravitational pull, a circumstance that is even more impressive when the work, once it has hardened, is later transported into a different spatial context. Moreover, Scharrelmann's works in this series may quite literally be »down to earth« inasmuch as the floor itself serves directly as the support and background for a painterly act. Another essentially »down to earth« – the sense of »pragmatic« – material in Jan Scharrelmann's repertoire is styrofoam, an expanded polystyrene material that is used – in the non-artistic context – for thermal insulation or as a cushioning material for packaging. Available in standard sheets or blocks, it is produced from solid polystyrene granules that are melted and expanded through the application of heat; it »grows«, as it were, from air-filled beads that cling together to form foam. Jan Scharrelmann is well aware of the technical complexity of the processes used for the production of his commonplace materials; indeed, the energies inherent in these processes are tracked down, conserved and even magnified in the work itself. »Down to Earth« is not only the title of the whole series but also that of one of the individual exhibits in the present exhibition. Traces of the »artist's hand« here contrast both with the anonymous, egalitarian mass of styrofoam and with the perfection and geometricality of the form, the axial structure of which likewise responds »behaviourally« to the force of gravity.

During his early days as an art student, when at the age of 21 he still saw himself primarily as a painter, Jan Scharrelmann was already fascinated by industrial techniques and materials. And so it was that by 1998 he had unerringly found his way to an ambivalent combination of materials that has remained the conceptual hallmark of his sculpture to this day: while in the beginning styrofoam served him primarily as a physical support for his paintings, pigmented epoxy resin, which is distinguished by its potential both as a painting medium and as a sculptural medium, seemed ideal for his artistic objectives.

Jan Scharrelmann's early works, done while still at the art academy, called in question the traditional understanding of the relationship between painting, wall and floor. He experimented with unorthodox placings and arrangements, establishing inventive rapports between the work and the spatial context of its presentation. Typical examples, for example, were works whose materiality and facture relied on the artificial glow of ultraviolet light in a darkened and hence derealized room, thus operating with the illusion of a totally intangible picture space. Works of site-specific sculpture – as wall or floor reliefs – were soon to take the form of pools or splashes of resin. By 1999, Scharrelmann was presenting intensively coloured high-gloss wooden panels in conjunction with woodworked sculptural objects, the forms of which seemed to have been derived from the pittura metafisica (!) imagery of a Giorgio de Chirico. Here the artist seemed to be concerned with merging different notions and appearances of »space« and making them synchronously experienceable, so to speak: on the one hand, the space created by the concrete three-dimensionality of the room and, on the other, its mirrored image in the ensemble of background panels; and then, simultaneously, the visualization of space in the visual field of the colourfully glowing picture space, the reflection of which in turn shines back on the sculptural object.

Even Scharrelmann's early monumental sculptures betray the compositional eye of the experienced painter. From 2001 onwards, Scharrelmann was assembling large, irregularly shaped segments cut from sheets of styrofoam to make ever larger sculptures. Assembled in situ, in the exhibition room, these bulky polystyrene formations were coated inside and out with a homogeneous, highly glossy and often luminously coloured layer of resin. The purpose here was not, say, merely to add colour to form, but rather to perform a further and altogether essential step in the actual making of the sculpture, for it was not until the resin trickled in between the joints and hardened that the individual segments of styrofoam remained fixed and stable in their overall twisty and precarious configuration. The structural lunacy of these sail-like sculptures culminates in the necessity to prop them from behind with broom handles or wooden battens. The highly reflective, brilliantly coloured coat (or lining?) of resin heightens the tension between the ambiguous three-dimensionality expressed by the assemblage of styrofoam sheets and the architectural environment in which the sculpture spreads itself out while at the same time mirroring its features.

The works of the period that followed were based on a new method of construction: equishaped sheets of styrofoam were laid parallel and bonded by means of coatings of resin applied in situ to both sides to form huge, modular, wall-like structures, from which trapezoidal elements were then cut and assembled into two-legged, ceiling-high sculptures. With their asymmetrical structures and their steep, disorientating angles of incline, these works respond even more precisely to the specific characteristics of the exhibition room in which they stand, channelling the viewer's gaze and guiding his or her movements along specific axes of direction. At the same time, the individual elements of the sculptures convey even more consistently and vividly than their predecessors the effect of spatiality. Here Scharrelmann abandons colour and instead stirs into the black epoxy resin palely shimmering graphite pigments. During the exothermal reaction between the resin and the hardener these graphite pigments combine to form streaks that dynamically rhythmize the highly glossy surfaces of the sculpture.

In terms of content, Scharrelmann's sculptures took on a new dimension in 2003. While the structural principle remained the same, the supporting material changed temporarily. Here Scharrelmann began to experiment with double-walled structures formed from hemp/wool fibre insulating mats, which he now quite literally »plastered« with synthetic resin. Only through the hardened coating of resin could the limp, furry structures of the mats acquire the necessary rigidity and stability. Here, too, the fronts of sculptures, sagging under the force of gravity, seemed to call in question the presumably calculated equilibrium of their »static« construction. Even more impressively than in Scharrelmann's preceding phase, the viewer now experienced a dichotomy of attraction and rejection, appeal and repulsion, narrowing and widening, which evolved between the huge double wings and the dynamic vectors of their joined and exposed edges. In addition, Scharrelmann underpinned this inherent structural tension by pigmenting the applied coatings of epoxy resin. Reminiscent of the fluctuating colours of some alchemical process, aluminium, graphite and/or paint pigments trace the flow paths of the resin and lend the once woolly, felty texture a shimmering, voluminous, almost holographic quality. One cannot help thinking of fantastic geological structures, of the surfaces of unexplored planets in distant galaxies. The organic structures and energies of archaic, natural matter seem to be captured and preserved under the glassy layer of resin.

These situationally complex installations were followed in 2004 by slender, stela-like, seemingly more intimate pieces. These pieces were now much smaller, lighter, more mobile and no longer related specifically to the exhibition room. Retaining the visual appeal of the high-gloss synthetic resin skin, with its brilliant, shimmering colouration, they now frequently took the form of wall or pedestal pieces. The waywardness of their titles, which were derived from the world of music, awakened associations that had little or no bearing on the actual content of the sculptures.

The large format returned in 2005, this time either in the form of »pictures« or wall pieces in styrofoam or as tower-like, free-standing, multiplanar structures. The sculptural dimension of epoxy resin now seemed to have been heightened still further through the use of new techniques and inventions of form, the unevenly pigmented mass of epoxy resin first being built up in several differently coloured relief-like layers and then, and only then, joined together by means of thin fibreglass woven mats to form a two-legged sculptural construct. Applied thus, the resin material spreads beyond the edges of the rectangular fibreglass mats in expressive streaks and fringes, clearly blurring the lines, so to speak, in this dynamic interaction between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional, between the picture plane and the picture space. Some of these large-format pieces are lifted clear of the floor and swing freely from the ceiling. Significantly, Scharrelmann also works earth pigment into the substance of these objects, as a symbolically sacred element, and gives them such titles as »Inna Heights«.    

This reversed process of first applying the epoxy resin and then the fibreglass mats prompted the artist to rethink the relationship between body, plane and space. A group of works was thus produced in 2007 against the background of Scharrelmann's present preoccupation with the Eleusinian Mysteries. These were the initiation rites held in ancient Athens every year to celebrate the return of Persephone from the Underworld to the world of the living, her return symbolizing the rebirth of all life on earth. The protagonists of Scharrelmann's group of large-format wall pieces and freestanding sculptures are Eros, Hypnos and Thanatos, the gods of love, sleep and death respectively. Using a technique that one might describe as »negative painting«, Scharrelmann poured epoxy resin onto a flat or concave negative mould to form dynamically and gesturally abstract coloured figures that were then joined together with black-pigmented resin before finally being stabilized from the back with glass fabric. Thus, with the ambiguous luminance of digital video signals, the hellenic gods loom like phantoms out of the gloom of the deep black, light-absorbing background. Their spectacular colour effects are ascribable not least to the interference pigments added by Scharrelmann to the resin: the absorption, refraction and reflection of the light results in an iridescent interplay of colours that heightens the diamond gleam of the shiny resin surfaces. The changes in colour that accompany every change of perspective not only thematize the viewer's perceptual activity but also combine and relate the effects of optophysical phenomena with the presence of mythical figures.

The forces inherent in these figures are also brought into play in »Cyclops I«, a monumental stela that represents the latest evolution in Scharrelmann's use of styrofoam. Solid, virtually monolithic blocks of foam are carved in true sculptural fashion with the aid of a hot-wire cutter and then coated on one side with epoxy resin. Never before have such different materials as viscous, coloured resin and coarse-pored, crumbly styrofoam confronted one another more unequivocally and aggressively: crystalline hardness contrasts with vulnerable softness, intensity of colour with indifferent white, casually flickering light reflections with the neutrality of stereometric forms.

It was from this last-mentioned work that Scharrelmann developed »Unity I«, his hitherto largest sculpture, for the exhibition at the Saarlandmuseum. Six uniformly sculpted stelae, the bottom parts of which operate as a kind of pedestal area, combine to form a colossal front that at once evokes the granite temples of extinct civilizations and confronts the viewer with an overwhelmingly vital display of illusory spatial effects. One is reminded of a primeval mass that quite literally envelops the rational, succinct construct of the composite arrangement of foam blocks: lamp black, graphite and coloured interference pigments interact to awaken associations with billowing smoke, stormy waves, stellar clouds or volcanic eruptions from imponderable depths. In fact, »Unity I« testifies, on an extremely impressive scale, to Scharrelmann's ability to capture, heighten and even monumentalize, both in terms of content and in terms of material and form, the inherent dynamism of compositional processes. Nonetheless, the variegated skin of synthetic resin, for all its varying intensities of brilliance, for all its protuberances and indentations, at no time denies the presence the pock-marked structure of the styrofoam that lies beneath it. And indeed, the viewer has to take only a few steps in order to come back »down to earth«, for the soberingly concrete effect of the exposed voluminous mass of expanded polystyrene at the back is equally powerful.  

Kathrin Elvers-Švamberk, 2008