Tobias Schalken (E)


Being an artist is a free profession; the world of art is a free world. If this is stated often enough, you could almost believe it. Nevertheless, this same world of art comprises many unwritten rules, historically defined or dictated by the times, which restrict or could restrict the artist’s freedom in all kinds of ways.

It took a while before he came out with it. For years he did what was expected of him by day, and at night he did what he wanted and needed to do. The world of art was simply not ready for Philip Guston to present his figurative work in 1968. How could someone seen and respected as one of the leading figures in Abstract Expressionism invade “forbidden” territory? There was a huge outcry. Critics attacked him. They ignored his motives for the change. Guston could no longer see a painting as “autonomous, pure and for itself”. This ties it down. “It is the adjustment of ‘impurities’ which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.” Above all, he said, at a time when America is waging bloody war against Vietnam, how can you go to your studio and coolly “adjust a red to a blue” (1)?
As his work continues to develop towards the cartoon and comic strip – glimpses of Robert Crumb and George Herriman here – many consider him to be irretrievably lost.

In 1990 the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on the exhibition ‘High & Low. Modern Art. Popular Culture’. The aim was not to bring high and low art closer together, to lessen the distance between popular culture and modern art. They wanted to praise the latter for its ability “to sublimate or transform experience, raising it (=popular culture, RMP) from ordinary to extraordinary, from commonplace to unique, from low to high; with the special genius of the artist being that he or she has the gifts to perform this function” (2). The comic strips, graffiti, advertisements and cartoons were shown in order to act as an explanatory background for the ‘real’ art.

It was said and written about him up until his death a few years ago. The Flemish writer Hugo Claus wrote novels, wrote poetry, wrote plays, made art, directed his own plays and made a couple of films. He did it because he enjoyed it, to challenge himself and to drag himself every now and again out of the isolation that is the writer’s lot. Many critics were convinced that if he had not been such a glutton, if he had concentrated on his novels, he might have won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Tobias Schalken (Oss, 1972) could have allowed these unwritten rules to impede him and stuck to painting or sculpture. After all this is what he’s trained to do. But he doesn’t. He paints, he draws, he makes sculptures and videos, he illustrates stories and articles in newspapers and magazines and makes comic strips (the ‘Island’ series for example together with Stefan van Dinther). He does this because he enjoys it and because he has the talent for it. In an interview with Natasha Boudié (2003) he says: “I like drawing. A lot. I like drawing stories. I like building stuff. Sculpting, building stories. And I like decorating the barn door. I like building Nora a tree house. I like making grilled salmon with goat’s cheese, honey, coriander, and roasted pine nuts. I like sitting next to Jonas after a long ride and watching him graze and telling him stories while he gives me the occasional glance, you know: ’Don’t you have better things to do?’ No Jonas, I don’t.” (3) Schalken simply sees no need to differentiate between his activities. He considers debate on the difference between ‘high’ and ‘low’ to be pointless; in his view the argument is groundless. The alleged differences are imposed from outside.

One explanation for Tobias Schalken’s free and uninhibited attitude is certainly the unconventional way he has come to his art. His parents met each other at art college, and the talk at home was of art. According to Boudié he was originally intended to become a ballet dancer, going to London to follow his dream until he realised it wasn’t. In the end he went to St. Joost art academy in Breda where he had to pay his way for many years doing things that were not artistic. From welder in the harbour to decorator in a Mexican nightclub to garden gnome designer. Thus gaining many useful skills along with some fascinating experiences; extremely useful for someone who wants to tell stories.

Whichever medium he is using, Schalken always tells a story. This is seen most obviously in his comic strips where he can literally set his story in time by distributing it over x number of pictures. However his paintings are also stories. In ‘The Longing’ (2008) wooden steps emerge from water to a log cabin itself hanging out over the water. Behind the cabin is a barren, desolate wood. The atmosphere is blue. All these suggestive elements, not least the title, have been manipulated by the maker to provide the viewer with a story that he can complete however he wishes. The sculpture ‘Moby Dick’ (1998) is likewise a narrative. The way the vessel (or is it a vehicle?) rises out of the floor, the phallic shape, repeated in the gearstick, the possibility of literally being submerged in it, the title taken from Melville’s novel are all ingredients for an exciting, mysterious “boy’s own adventure”. Even his illustrations are a story in themselves. They may well have a relationship with the article or short story alongside which they are printed, but they are never subordinate to it. At first sight ‘True Romance’ (2004) seems to be an everyday portrayal of a couple kissing to match the copy. However, leaving the majority of the woman blank creates its own story, with its own dynamism. The kitsch style also adds an extra hidden meaning.

There is a touch of the absurd in all Tobias Schalken’s work. It distances itself from reality and moves between fantasy and surreality, between what people are and what they want to be, between how they are and how others see them. They know their Kafka; they know what Magritte was all about. The drawing ‘The Comfort Zone’ (2006) needs no words to express its woefulness. The absence of any human figure speaks volumes. In the sculpture ‘My House is not my Home’ (2005) a naked girl lies on a big bed. The green blanket she is lying on invokes the impression she is sunbathing on grass, her posture implies that she is trying to hide in shame, the bed she is lying on indicates refuge, the proportions appear natural, but they are not. Taken together, these interpretations, combined with the dimensions of the whole thing create an impressive but absurd work. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry. The dead tree in ‘Ultima Thule’ (1999) which, with a small boy sitting on a branch, is steadily working its way through the wall, pushes reality over the edge.
The absurd content is also intensified through Tobias Schalken’s tendency to push the boundaries of certain genres. For example, his comic strips lack the familiar logical narrative. To get to the bottom of them, you have to re-read them a number of times. The perspective is often inconsistent (the main characters for example step outside of the frame of the strip). Words and pictures each go their own way, they contradict each other, etc. His sculptures also break the same rules. ‘Observation Booth’ (1996) could be a piece of scenery from a Star Trek type film. Likewise, in ‘Moby Dick’ the association with a science fiction film comes before that of a regular, autonomous sculpture. In his pictures the style of painting is sometimes in part expressionist and in part realistic.

To generalise, you could say that visual art is open to further elucidation, that it conjures up more questions than answers and that the viewer is expected to read between the lines. Schalken applies these same principles to the genres that, to generalise yet again, should be unambiguous. However, the fascination of the Island series, for example, lies in the fact that the stories are not immediately clear, that the relationship between the various comic strips in these publications is much closer than you realise on a first reading and that the place where and the time in which they take place are often shrouded in mist, they are suggestive and ambiguous.

Many artists indulge themselves in the stylistic and formal aspects of their work, as an end in itself. How the paint is applied, how the colours relate to each other, is the work sufficiently transparent or tactile, etc. Tobias Schalken gives precedence to the content. The style must be subservient to this. The function of the style of painting in ‘I’ll be your Mirror’ (2007) is purely to embody in a dry, clear way, a content that is full of meaning. The drawing style in ‘King of Kings’ (2006) is elementary, since this is all the message requires. The sculpting of ‘Tableman’ (1997/8) is realistic since its absurdity is told by the compulsive way the man observes the viewer and his preposterous position under the table.
This way of working implies that an oeuvre can and must comprise different styles. One drawing is in detail, another only in outline. One sculpture has to be in household timber, another in industrial metal. On one occasion a video projection works better, another time the streaks of a paintbrush.

Tobias Schalken finds his subjects close to home. They are both recognisable and universal. However, while they elude the average viewer, he notices them. He can pick out the black humour, the poignant, the ludicrous. The absurd tone is an inducement to draw attention to the underlying seriousness. As Kafka satirised bureaucracy by taking it to an absurd level, thus Schalken points to problems and obsessions by blowing them up to extremes.
Many of the figures in his work are solitary. They are outsiders, they feel they are alone or they are involuntarily confronted with the ‘big, bad world’ around them. The girl resting her head on her desk in the sculpture ‘His unexpected return’ (2002) is poignant but above all lonely. People are repulsed by her hairiness. In the drawing ‘The perfect ending of a beautiful friendship’ (2006) someone is desolately looking down on a friendship that has literally fallen apart.
There is menace, or approaching menace in many works. ‘The Big Calm’ (2008) portrays the scene of a recent disaster, the immediate consequences suggest further catastrophe to follow. The horse on the bed in the sculpture ‘Untitled’ (2006) embodies the threat in colossal form, all the more because it is not behaving like the white horse in a fairy tale. The pale, ghostly shadow in the video installation ‘Peary’ (1999) makes a viewer stepping into the work feel uncertain and ill at ease. There is a macabre and chilling crystallization of the sense of big brother watching you in the futuristic ‘Observation Booth’.
One of the regularly recurring obsessions in Schalken’s work is sex. In the illustration ‘21 positions’ (2003) dance positions seamlessly morph into sexual positions and wrestling holds. ‘The long road home’ (2006) is open to all sorts of sexual connotations and associations. The phallic symbol mentioned before in ‘Moby Dick’ leaves no room for doubt.

It is tempting to look for influences. The number of fields in which Tobias Schalken is active, however, makes this both difficult and dangerous. He clearly draws on literature: Kafka, Céline, Grunberg, Kosinski, Irving, among others, have each in their own way provided him with sustenance. In his drawings and cartoons I can see both the style and the grotesque and macabre content of the drawing installations of the Mexican Daniel Guzmán. Some of his work calls to mind the work of the German Martin Honert and the Georgian Andro Wekua. His paintings sometimes remind me of those of the American John Currin.
On the other hand his leaning towards the narrative perhaps has more to do with mediaeval and late-mediaeval predecessors. These were after all pre-eminently storytellers who, to serve their faith, wanted and needed to convey their message clearly.
My inability to exactly define his work in this aspect is without a doubt its power.

Tobias Schalken has an oeuvre that combines versatility with coherence. He decides what it is he wants to do. He could not care less that in allowing himself this freedom he falls foul of accepted beliefs. It is precisely this incorrigible attitude that makes his work so worth seeing, reading and experiencing.

Brooklyn/Amsterdam 2009.

1. Quotes come from the chapter ‘From the Abstract to the Figurative: Philip Guston’s Story Path’ in ‘Philip Guston Paintings: 1947-1979’, compiled by Martin Hentschel, 1999.
2. Quotes come from the article ‘High & Low: Graham Bader on soft-core’ in ArtForum from October 2004.
3. This interview has been invented; it does not make the content any less true..

Translation: Jane Hall