White Cube presents an exhibition by Magnus Plessen. Featuring paintings made in the last two years, the exhibition is a continuation of his ‘1914’ series of work. These paintings were inspired by German pacifist Ernst Friedrich’s seminal anti-war book War Against War (1924). The first published work to show the devastating impact of automatic weapons on the human body, War Against War presents photographs of mutilated and wounded soldiers from World War I. In Plessen’s works, limbs, heads and objects appear radically dislocated from their context.
Plessen pushes beyond the traditional parameters of representation, employing multiple perspectives to suggest the free circulation of objects not dictated by compositional rules or gravity. During the painting process, canvases are sometimes rotated 90 degrees, serving to disrupt the artist’s relationship with the image, and allowing access to what he has described as ‘a layer beyond that of coherent figuration or narration without having to cut out representations altogether’.
Using oil and charcoal on canvas, the two dimensionality of the paintings is accentuated by condensing perspectives and obfuscating spatial relationships, as if the composition has been flattened under the pressure of weight. Figures and objects float against the dominant background of dark wood floor boards, presented vertically, as if the floor has tipped-up and our notion of ground has been dislodged. Overlapping forms and squared-off body parts and objects appear isolated, losing a sense of solidity and contradicting their own physicality.
In these recent paintings Plessen explores and develops the themes of life and death with greater urgency and complexity, and the introduction of a pregnant female nude, referencing the pregnancy of his own wife with their fourth child, anchors the paintings in a life cycle. The theme of pregnancy and the subject of the pregnant nude also speak of form and physicality, what Plessen describes as ‘the skin of volume’ which is also the title of the exhibition. The idea of the belly as a swelling balloon can be seen as an analogy to physical volume within the composition where tension is created by the exaggerated and compressed space of the picture plane. Like a skin stretched taut, the paint is almost transparent in parts revealing the blank canvas beneath.
A number of the works reference classic art historical themes and motifs such as memento mori, the notion of vanitas or the myth of Narcissus. In Untitled (23)(2016), a pregnant nude is depicted in a classic odalisque pose: from above, a string of plaited DNA emerging from her belly, and in Untitled (24)(2016), the female figure appears to move fluidly in and out of representation, seeming to grow and then dissolve within one composition. Originally a landscape format, by orientating the work in different ways Plessen introduces new dynamics and a new kind of abstraction which destabilises the relationships of object and subject, painting and viewer