Luxe, Calm, Volupté and Something Else: Michael Kutschbach



Michael Kutschbach makes good-looking work. Super-glossy, glib, seemingly effortless, it’s aesthetically pleasing and apparently perfectly superficial. And that’s OK. Beauty’s back after all – not central, perhaps, but a force nonetheless – it’s something that’s once again valuable in itself. But it’s different too – not just old aesthetic prejudices carted out, but a new sense of pleasure responsive to the contemporary world. The gloss enamel finish, the smooth perfect forms, these are what give us pleasure. Michael Kutschbach’s work is beautiful in this contemporary way. In his paintings, gestures are reduced to surface and that’s a photo-finish surface that gives nothing away, except pleasure. 


Which is not to say there is nothing going on. Kutschbach’s forms are like teeming protozoa. His concerns are traditionally aesthetic – but he uses contemporary processes and forms to articulate these concerns in a vital way. Flat, abstract, they’re often suffused with colour, their forms mobile and labile, blurred or amorphous, shifting as if caught in movement, moving beyond the frame. This principle of flux is something we respond well to – it’s not threatening, but life-affirming. You look at these growing, expanding forms, and you feel that growth, warmth, expansion. No limits, a world without boundaries – where everything is warm, soft, empathically modelled to one’s own forms. It’s a good feeling, and contemporary too – we live in a world of flux – a mobile fast shifting world of surfaces. 


Kutschbach’s practice is process-based to an extent – exploring materials, exhausting themes, formal experimentation – but it goes beyond a faith in paint, or the act of painting itself. It goes beyond a look or style too of course, but that’s what is most immediately striking about Kutschbach’s oeuvre. Even his experimentation it seems is methodical, controlled, nurtured, exploited. But there’s something else in Kutschbach’s work. Process, work – thought even – there’s an invisibility to these things, but despite being self-effacing, like his brushstrokes and other more idiosyncratic methods of mark-making, they’re there, underpinning the work, making the pleasure possible, and showing up as a persistent undercurrent. 


Kutschbach’s first solo exhibition [Adelaide Central Gallery, 1998] featured large immersive abstracts painted from out of focus polaroids. Big beautiful blurs, these works were basically colourfields, but reconfigured in an acceptable way through photography, they came out looking cool and contemporary. It was impossible to tell exactly what the photographs [and thus the paintings] represented, but the sources were invariably banal [some at least, Kutschbach has said, were shots of shelf displays in a supermarket]. The paintings derived their impact purely from their physicality, their seductive size and their tactile painterly surface. The series was not without a certain referential anxiety though. Unlike, say, Richter’s use of photographic imagery, the source photographs Kutschbach used were taken specifically for the purpose of making paintings, thus, one imagines, contrived and selected for their ‘painterly’ appearance. So, it would seem, the paintings looked like paintings [that is to say ‘painterly’] because the photographs did. Boy! 


This self-referentiality has been a constant throughout Kutschbach’s practice. He based the work in a second solo show at Adelaide Central Gallery [2000] on a multicoloured biomorphic form, a motif that has featured in various guises in much of his work since. Vaguely bean-shaped, with colours blended together rather like rainbow plasticine, the design originated from a ‘painting’ made by squishing paint with the palm of his hand. Using the motif repeatedly in this show, Kutschbach toyed with the purely decorative, in particular with large white canvasses which sported the blobs in an ‘all over’ design like wallpaper or giftwrap. In the same show, Kutschbach carried the theme over into a group of small sculptural blobs finished in either high-gloss white or chrome. Grouped together on the floor, the look was part sci-fi [think mercurial morphing scenes], and partly like a mouthful of malformed teeth.  Certainly their polished appearance belied the low-tech manner in which they were made [the forms themselves were in fact simply plaster moulded inside balloons]. 


Increasingly, Kutschbach’s paintings have taken on the appearance of industrially manufactured products as well, with his utilisation of enamels and auto-paints, aluminium supports, airbrushing and digital prints. His photographically-derived paintings retain that atmospheric blur, but are now smaller, super-glossy, seamless, brushstroke free. In his exhibition at Greenaway Art Gallery last year, several of these were paired with wall mounted MDF panels sprayed a monochromatic high- gloss acrylic-lacquer, and plugged with neatly fitted kidney-shaped panels of a slightly different shade, or sporting biomorphic concavities. The paintings [all 50x50cms] were contrived to be displayed in a frieze around the gallery, and so utilised the constraints of the gallery walls, wrapping themselves around corners and support posts like perfectly made to measure fittings. Not so well behaved was a huge yellow ‘table’ exhibited with the paintings; based on the form of one of the inserts in the MDF wall works, a ubiquitous blob, bent to fit around a corner, the piece was ridiculously enlarged and propped in the centre of the room. This recycling of the form is further evidence to Kutschbach’s process-based working method, but also revealing is his decision to provide a stylistic and aesthetic counterpoint to the otherwise rather well-mannered paintings. 


Other Kutschbach’s paintings are luscious blurry colourfields punctuated with delineated silhouettes – simplified cartoonish bubbles – that resemble speech balloons, or racing tracks, or something else you can’t quite define. The silhouettes here are painted over or scratched into the immaculate surface of the panels, or the paint is meticulously wiped away with a finger, although this is so neatly done that actually recognising the hand of the artist on the otherwise slick surface is difficult. At times the cartoon is not perfectly bound either, extending beyond the borders of the painted panel, slipping off the edges to be painted on the wall. It never gets out of control though. It’s more like a tracing of a projection, a layering, or a sanitised exploration of space, than any messy sort of boundary crossing.


The closest Kutschbach’s work comes to referencing anything even slightly abject is another large yellow flat blob-shaped sculpture made to be displayed like a spillage on the ground, a little like a surrealist melt [particularly in its showing at Riddoch Gallery where it seemed to ooze out from under a false wall]. The piece was perfectly hermetic, and its colouring a clean and artificial yellow rather than one of possible corporeal origin. 


Kutschbach has reconfigured the paintings as installations in other instances as well. In Roundhouse [220 Hindley Street 2000; and recreated for a sort of mini- retrospective show at Riddoch Gallery, Mt Gambier 2001] he paintedthe walls on the upper floor of the gallery a high-gloss purple and dotted them with multicoloured hand-painted stickers based on his palm-print painting. The work was, I think, more playful than totally immersive or affecting. Viewed from a distance, or with eyes blurred, the effect was something like gobs of chewing gum stuck to the walls, reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s lickable wallpaper maybe. 


In the Contemporary Art Centre of SA’s Project Space during the Adelaide Festival earlier this year, Kutschbach presented his computer-generated graphic images as vinyl cut-outs stuck directly to the walls and floor [some straddling both]. Each outline was a simple single colour cartoon, similar to the anthropomorphic silhouettes layered over his paintings. His least painterly work to date, this was also in a way his most suggestive. These weird empty speech bubbles, or stylised Rorschach inkblots, filled the gallery space, whilst also remaining empty, ready for projection. The shapes themselves were perfectly judged, so close to resembling something familiar that they enticed you to keep searching for an elusive solution or meaning, without actually giving anything up. Less sensuous than the paintings, of course, but there was a different sort of pleasure to be had here. Because whatever else it is, Kutschbach’s work is undeniably, and unashamedly, pleasurable. And whether it has to be worked for or not, pleasure after all is good in itself. Indeed if Jeremy Bentham is right, [and who’s to say he’s not in this increasingly utilitarian society of ours] pleasure is the only good. 


Currently Kutschbach has in his studio a group of panels, subtly, minimally modelled, the edges contoured like pieces of laminex benchtop. These will form the basis for a new painting [or installation], fitting together into a single contoured modular unit, glossy, and largely monochromatic. The work, as I imagine it, reminds me of that quote from Matisse: that he intended his paintings to be like an armchair in which one could relax after a hard day’s work. Kutschbach’s painting and sculpture is a little like this too. But against Matisse’s well-stuffed armchair, Kutschbach’s work brings to mind a cool, minimal modular lounge.


Bilske Maria, Luxe, Calme, Volupte and Something Else: Michael Kutschbach Broadsheet, vol 31 no2, p.14 - 15, 2002