Ulrich Okujeni

Oct 28th - Nov 24th, 2023
Opening / Oct 27th, 7PM

Walking a tightrope with contour

Ulrich Okujeni is not a painter who follows a rigid concept. He combines his pictorial with spontaneous ideas that arise as a reaction to intermediate states of the works. It is a constant interplay of proactive and reactive elements that make up his everyday creative life. Thus the exhibition title can be understood as a subtle reference to the strength- and idea-sapping work process during the painting process. Painting becomes the taming of material, which must be brought into the right form and color to become art. GET IN SHAPE GET COLOR, however, could also be understood as a call of a general nature, a humorous commentary by the artist on the omnipresent striving for efficiency and individualization.

Three basic painterly elements are central to Okujeni‘s approach: lines, planes, and colors. The lines form the basis. They form arcs and circular movements, testify to dynamics and inner tension. Corners arise mostly from intersections of two lines. By „following a line without abrupt changes of direction“ the artist tries to „allow a flow in seeing“. The surfaces are formed by the line progressions, they are virtually the resulting product. The spectrum of paint application ranges from very thinly applied areas where the canvas shimmers through to impasto, powerful passages. Okujeni‘s approach contains reminiscences of the New York School and the associated beginnings of abstract expressionism in the early 1940s. The black contour lines, formative of his current work, were used extensively at the time, including by Arshile Gorky, Wilhelm de Kooning, and somewhat later Helen Frankenthaler. In the fine balancing of abstract and representational elements, a connection to Gorky and de Kooning can also be discerned, who - each in their own way - also faced the painterly struggle for the fine balance.

With its dimensions of 200 x 340 cm, the work Pangea Ultima dominates the main room of the exhibition. Partially, figures seem to flash up, but for the most part they quickly disappear again in the tangles of the play of lines. Here Okujeni resorts to a tried and tested interplay: while some areas contain narrative echoes, in this case triggering associations with science fiction worlds, for example, other passages are explicitly non-representational, a firework of forms and colors without a narrative level. Pure painting.
The title of the work refers to the former primeval continent of Pangea, a coherent land mass that encompassed all the present continents. Metaphorically, this is a state of the earth that returns the circumscription of humanity as a world community from its abstract level to a primeval basis: in the beginning, everything was one. The concept of a pangea ultima picks up the idea of the continent of unity and stands for the thesis that this state will return in the distant future. Consequently, the current form, the separation of the continental surfaces is only a temporary state - albeit of an expected duration of 450 million years.

The works of the drawing ensemble GET IN SHAPE GET COLOR, which bears the same title as the exhibition, all follow a similar formal structure that testifies to a changed attitude towards narrative pictorial elements. A division into three spatial planes can be discerned, giving the impression of a layered perspective: In the foreground, figures peel out of the juxtaposition of non-representational surfaces. The motifs remain implied, eluding clear attribution. A veil of the non-figurative envelops them. The middle ground of the picture is characterized by a color gradient of turquoise tones, which evokes associations with a body of water. The background is formed by dark green areas that merge into a color gradient of soft red tones. The combination of shapes and colors evokes memories of a shore landscape surrounded by sky. In contrast to the elements in the foreground, the water, landscape and sky are more clearly identifiable; despite their comparatively reduced mode of realization, they are far more representational than the dense concentration of color and form in the foreground of the picture. In this way, a reversal of perception occurs: while the foreground of the picture attracts attention, it nevertheless remains enigmatic and unapproachable. It bubbles with shapes and colors and at the same time eludes unambiguous legibility. Instead, it is the two-dimensional background that allows concrete images to emerge and offers support and orientation in contemplation.

Painting as a struggle for the right mixture of forms and colors, density and expanse, abstraction and figuration: Okujeni is walking a fine line here, because for him, finding a pictorial structure of order always involves breaking out of it posthaste. Thus it is also the interplay of unbridled and tamed, random and planned elements that make this painting so exciting. Or to put it in the words of Willem de Kooning, „You have to keep on the very edge of something, all the time, or the picture dies.“

Text: Julian Denzler