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Andreas Jauss: As Things Are

at North Park University, Carlson Tower, through September 27

The seen world is alive with emotion. A dark alley threat-ens; a sunny field liberates; a monolithic building oppresses; a sensitively designed structure gives pleasure. Moreover we all have our own idiosyncratic responses to colors and shapes. But Andreas Jauss in his 102 paintings at North Park University's Carlson Tower gallery--one of the best one-person exhibits I've seen this year--largely leaves feelings out of it. Though his paintings depict a variety of scenes and employ a variety of compositions, they're mostly gray, all are 30 by 40 centimeters, and he paints from photographs in a brushy blur that distances the viewer from his subjects.

It's not easy, or common, to withdraw emotion from what we see. Bad paintings are often drenched in sentiment, telegraphing a mood and nothing else. But the theme of Jauss's images seems to be undercutting their potential for feeling, partly by withholding information. The works have numeric titles reflecting their chronology: first the year, then the number within the year they were made. 98-03 shows a fire in a ruined landscape (actually the result of riots in South Africa), but amid the various shades of gray the roughly painted flames don't particularly stand out. 01-30 shows the white marble facade of Water Tower Place against the John Hancock building, and even though one structure is white and the other black and their designs aren't at all alike, Jauss makes the window patterns look similar. Effacing their differences, he reduces the impact each has.

Other Jauss images do create momentary moods, but in the context of the whole show--hung in triple rows in the small space--they cancel one another out. For every claustrophobic narrow passageway there's an aerial view of a city; for every modest home or sparse interior there's an imposing mansion. Jauss seems to suggest that one shouldn't wallow in ordinary sentiments because none has any lasting meaning. And frequently he chooses compositions--everything here is copied from a photograph, only some of which he took himself--so ordinary they deny meaning. 98-78 shows a truncated view of only the upper portion of a white house--so while a housefront can evoke human qualities, even resemble a face, this fragment reveals little.

Jauss is quoted in the catalog on his interest in the ordinary: "There are big stones and little stones and both are important, the same as we have days when there is something important happening and days that virtually nothing happens at all....But every day is a part of our life, and, as it is measured with each day having the same length, my paintings are all the same size, like the day always has 24 hours." Focusing on architecture--whether building exteriors, interiors, or cityscapes--Jauss occasionally includes distanced human figures, usually seen alone or in an anonymous crowd. If Jauss's paintings represent the ordinary events of a day, it's a day spent by a resolute loner who loves spaces devoid of people. At times a human presence is cryptically evoked, as in 01-19, which shows a bare room with a bare mattress. Paintings of beds with sheets or of a book open on a table (01-07) are more evocative of the human but suggest only the most ordinary of comforts.

Jauss, who was born in 1960 in southern Germany and lives there today, cites a variety of influences on his work, including filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and painters Richard Estes, Gerhard Richter, and Lucian Freud--"but," he wrote me, "I don't really agree with their content." Working as a credit analyst in the insurance industry after college but "unsatisfied with my life," he started to paint, eventually leaving his job to attend the State Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe. "My beginnings were influenced by abstract expressionism," he wrote. "It was actually at my studies at the academy when I started with this work, the series of black and white paintings....I didn't want the pictures to be impressionistic or expressionistic. I wanted them very clear and objective with a documentary character."

Like Richter's paintings, Jauss's are in part about a failure of understanding. But the best of them have a cryptic, even frightening quality that reintroduces the psychological dimension that he, like Richter, abjures. Still, the feelings are not so much moods but rather resemble a child's bewilderment when confronted with strange new realities. The huge, blurred maze of bathers standing in the water in 97-09 reveals so little that the whole becomes a faceless enigma. Most are old, many with sagging breasts, and it's hard to tell men from women--and even harder to imagine why they're all facing in the same direction and what they're waiting for. What comes through is an almost sinister sense of foreboding. In 02-17 rows of modernist chairs and a palatial interior--huge picture windows look out on a plain with mountains in the background--suggest a corporate lobby or museum in the American west. (What's actually shown is a waiting room at the Malaga airport in Spain.) Here the difficulty of identifying the scene, as well as a somewhat confusing arrangement of chairs, creates unease.

One building Jauss painted twice could stand for the whole show: though it hints at the loaded subject of abandonment, we're not given enough information to really understand what we see. 01-09 shows the facade of a four-story building with landscaped grounds. But the building is a windowless shell you can look straight through to mountains behind. Though it seems relatively well kept, discolorations on the facade and the absence of construction equipment suggest that it's been abandoned. (I've seen buildings like this during real estate collapses, such as in Manhattan in the 1970s, and perhaps this is another case of financing run out.) The painting's power derives from its odd mix: this dreamlike dwelling neither finished nor completely abandoned floats between presence and absence, life and death, undercutting any single feeling the viewer might try to attach to it. Painting doubt, Jauss reminds us of the mystery of everyday things.

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