Axel Geis

Brünette Frauen aus dem Kleinbürgertum
15.10.2020 – 27.11.2020



A few weeks before the exhibition opening, Axel Geis decided to visit Venice for a few days. He wanted to see with his own eyes “what others before me have done much better,” in other words, painters such as Titian, Tintoretto, and Tiepolo.

Geis’s paintings depict human figures. However, it is not the motifs themselves that he is interested in, but rather the act of painting itself. If there were a rich art-historical tradition of, say, painting apples, dogs, or paper clips, Geis might well be doing that today. Instead, it has ended up being humans. He paints them in an attempt to shed light on himself and to answer the question of why he likes something.

Geis’s pictures are always based on other pictures: photographs, mainstream or auteur films from anywhere between the 1960s and the 1990s by Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergmann or – in the case of at least one picture in his exhibition at Grzegorzki Shows – Claude Chabrol’s 1994 film “Hell” featuring the beguiling Emmanuelle Béart. The motifs he finds serve Geis merely as source material; he borrows the cast, removes them from their surroundings and gives them new faces, hairstyles and clothes. Geis describes his working process as follows: he paints the foreground and is happy with it for a moment, then he paints the background and is also happy with it for a moment, then he devotes himself to the foreground again and so on. He often goes to bed in the evening feeling happy as can be, only to be totally depressed the next morning by what he considers the inferior quality of his previous work. When in doubt, the moment he declares a painting to be finished is simply the moment when it needs to be brought to the exhibition space. Ideally, it would have already reached a stage in which it is presentable. The ideal (and rare) scenario is when a painting “just simply works,” i.e. when it almost casually comes into being. And the more casual this process, the the happier we must imagine Axel Geis.

However, most of the time painting seems to be something of an imposition to him, an activity he avoids for as long as possible. Perhaps this is because he has the assurance that – for all we know – no exhibition has ever opened without finished works, just as no newspaper has ever appeared with white boxes instead of text. Somehow it always works out in the end. There is, after all, a certain degree of wicked pleasure in knowing that at some point a task will no longer tolerate any delay – and in delaying the moment of beginning just a tiny bit longer.

Meanwhile, back home in Berlin, Gregor Hildebrandt was getting nervous. Aware of his friend’s penchant for procrastination, he had explained to Axel that it would be great if the pictures were at least dry this time before they were hung on the wall. But at that time, not even Geis himself knew which works exactly these would be.

Axel Geis and Gregor Hildebrandt have known each other since meeting in Mainz many years ago as part of a student group exhibition. Gregor saw a small work by Axel, the only oil painting in the entire exhibition, hung a little unflatteringly – and yet he knew that he had just seen something quite extraordinary. The painting gave off the impression that it had landed in the exhibition by mistake from some attic or other. This may have been due to the entranced quality of Geis’s work. The melancholy looks of the figures, which only meet the viewer’s gaze in exceptional cases, provided they don’t turn their backs on the viewer immediately. The depicted figures – who are only ever identified as “figures,” “man” or “woman” by the titles of their works, if at all – stand around as if lost, with heavy eyelids and noses red from crying or drinking in contoured, shaded spaces without depth. Nothing seems to hold them, their bodies, some as translucent as ghosts, cast no shadows. Their clothes, often dressing gowns, robes, or uniforms, appear to be from another time.

Gregor Hildebrandt has been an admirer of Axel’s paintings since that first encounter; three of them hang in his studio: one of Gregor’s late mother and one of his daughter, who had just come of age at the time. Also on display is a portrait of Robert Walser, showing the writer in half profile, his right arm unfinished.

25 years have passed in the meantime – 25 years in which the two lived in a shared Berlin apartment (which later became temporarily uninhabitable due to a fire) and shared a studio, amongst other things. And since Gregor seems to have an obsession with birthdays (see “The Birthday Show”, the previous show in these very same rooms), the opening coincides with Axel Geis’s fiftieth.

Incidentally, the title, “Brunettes of the petty bourgeoisie,” is borrowed from Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” The first-person narrator Marcel uses it to describe the “substitute pleasures” with which he tries to distract himself from the longing for his lover Albertine, who died in a riding accident.

But really, all this – the title, the templates and the references – doesn’t really matter. The pictures have presumably been finished, they might even be dry. And once again, there is no doubt they will be extraordinary.