FOX JENSEN PADDINGTON
CNR HAMPDEN STREET & CECIL LANE
PADDINGTON NSW 2021
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“I realized that the “thing” and the “concept” were substituted for feeling and understood the falsity of the world of will and idea” ? Kazimir Malevich
On first sight the paintings of Günter Umberg seem to assert a deep physiological refusal. Their apparent closure seems to address absence rather than presence whilst resolutely avoiding all attempts to encourage recognition or at least its careless confusion with knowledge. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In a long and distinguished career Umberg’s paintings have predominantly been black, a kind of statistical blackness that vision doesn’t easily account for. And though colours outside his obsidian obsession have appeared – most recently red and grey and in earlier years, green and blue – I’ve always felt that these colours, as individuated as they are, somehow belong to black.
It is perhaps for this reason that we need to recruit less eager but more judicious senses than vision alone if we are to begin to apprehend Umberg’s work. Vision is so enthusiastic, gullible even, wilfully denying what’s in front of it and inventing what isn’t. This may be less vision’s own fault of course, for as stewards of sight we remain innocents, derailed easily by the insinuations of line and the coercion of movement. So sight remains an ‘easy mark’, but it’s worth remembering that most often it is the driver not the car that veers from the road.
This fallibility feels to me to be central to Umberg’s work. Instead of asking the viewer what it is that we can see, or prompting what it is that we can imagine, his paintings ask what is it that you can feel – or more fundamentally, what is it to perceive. For Umberg’s black paintings aren’t simply an abatement of light, a disclaimer of conventional pictorial form and composition, they are an amalgam of each time we have turned out the light and been startled, immobilised by an unexpected darkness. Eventually our eyes recalibrate and other senses join in the task of navigation – but for a brief moment we are suspended, lost even frightened, perhaps comforted and relieved. But momentarily we are rendered immaterial in a material world, denied the easy co-ordinates that vision offers and the confirmation of existence that movement in space implies.
This perilous yet seductive state is greatly attenuated in an Umberg painting. If you are to really regard his work you can feel a mingling of relief and melancholy, a sensory deprivation that invites an immersive awareness of self and through that of other. Rather than deprivation they induce a heightening of sensitivity. As Kirk Varnedoe suggests “In art we do not make things any simpler by making simpler things. Reduction does not yield certainty, but something like its opposite, which is ambiguity and multi-valence.”  In this sense I have come to appreciate that rather than being pictures of nothing, Umberg’s works are pictures of everything.
In the 2009 exhibition E=MC2 I placed Umberg’s works beside the weightless sculptures of American Fred Sandback in what I regard one of the most memorable juxtapositions we have had the opportunity to make. The compression and density of Umberg’s paintings felt like the absolute counterpoint to Sandback’s whispering delineation of atmosphere. If Sandback wished to describe an otherwise invisible volume, thereby materialising the immaterial, then Umberg sought to de-materialise his painting and by existential implication the painter – ad memoriam experentia.
Included in the exhibition is an exquisite Japanese Buddha figure from the Edo period. The simplified nature of his robes forms the larger body of the object – gentle curvilinear lines describe tranquillity and calm and give him a proto-modernist clarity. However and perhaps inevitably it is the sensitive crafting of the buddha’s head and the repose of his face, the eyes particularly, that communicates the equanimity and composure of his elevated state.
Shown without hands and with eyes closed the figure is superficially less equipped to navigate physical space – conventional senses annulled in favour of the hyper-phenomenal. What we sense is a calm and open abandonment to a quieter, darker nexus space – one that is simultaneously measurable and indeterminate. This nexus space reveals something of Tanizaki’s dictum “If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty.”
Allowing oneself to be open to accepting vision as multi-sensory proposition is at the heart of Günter Umberg’s painting. To achieve this without recourse to technologies nor to the histrionics of much contemporary work allows his painting to serves as a timely and welcome respite from the chaotic theatre of this moment.
This is the fifth solo exhibition we have made with Günter Umberg, whose works have made a vital contribution to many of the projects that have defined the spirit of Fox Jensen. These include Six Degrees of Separation, Points of Orientation, Detox, The Authority of Death, Portrait without a Face, The Architecture of Colour, and E=MC2. It is a particular thrill for me to be able to install these precious works, excited by that possibility, mindful of the responsibility and saddened by the fact that amidst these odd times he and Elizabeth Vary cannot be here to enjoy this process and springtime in Sydney.
From mid-October the galleries next chapter will combine a private view/ office at Suite 1/8 Soudan Lane, Paddington and a major project space at 68-70 Burrows Road, Alexandria.
– Andrew Jensen, September 2020
 Kirk Varnedoe: Pictures of nothing, Abstract art since Pollock. Princeton University Press 2006