The paintings of Dresden-based Christoph Roßner have the power of a waking dream. As opposed to our regular, logically- and visually-tangled dreams, the visions we have right before we fall asleep – or even in the middle of the day – tend to focus on single objects: things recognizable but out of reach, comforting but not quite tangible. Slow and atmospheric, they demand time and attention – almost like a good wine in need of lots of time and oxygen to breathe. Like any good vintner, Roßner lets his work sit for long periods, sampling it until he feels its done. And like the best vintners, he only releases a limited number of works at a time, which – thankfully – we’re able to see this month at the Romer Young Gallery, in a large part due to support from San Francisco’s Goethe Institute and the Southern Exposure Alternative Exposure Grant.
Full of everyday objects – like people, a flag, a chunk of wood, a small prism or stone – the paintings seem familiar, but obscured. Sometimes this obfuscation results from composition and scale: the painting Small Wooden Piece (2010), for example, zooms in so tightly that it shows virtually nothing but end grain. At other times, it’s due to technique: faces, like that belonging to Man With Hat (2009), are blurred or smeared and then given the barest of human attributes (eyes, nose, mouth). All background information has disappeared, replaced by thick sheets of color.
Roßner mainly paints in oil, placing layers on top of layers. In Stone (2009), for example, a creamy yellow, prism-like object seems to glow in the center of a thick, gray background. The different sides of the prism have been thickly coated with paint, as has the background itself – so much so that what could be seen as empty space appears to have real mass.
More than adding density, however, Roßner’s overpainting suits his subject matter in a different way: each layer elides the one before, disguising details and preventing us from accessing specific narratives for any of the objects. Looking again at the work on display, the pieces seem hauntingly personal. The subject matter for works like Ghost (2008) and Flag (2010) – a doll or toy with a smeared face and a sheet of cloth or paper attached to a piece of wood – are decipherable and yet ultimately confusing. We see their form, and through the weight of Roßner’s brush, the fact that they are significant, and yet we fail to see what the significance is.