Subject: Thomas Rentmeister on his work
Author: Peter Nijenhuis
Date: 10th of January 2015
Visual artist Thomas Rentmeister (1964, Reken, North Rhine-Westphalia) studied at the art academy of Düsseldorf under Günther Uecker and Alfonso Hüppi. Rentmeister's work was exhibited in Germany, France, The Netherlands and Australia. He lives and Works in Berlin and is a professor at the Kunsthochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig.
Since the nineties you work with products and materials anyone can find in an average European supermarket or hardware store. Your approach seems akin to that of minimalist artists in the sixties of the last century. You refrain from a personal touch, self-expression and traditional sculptural composition. Like the minimalists you seem to prefer industrial products and their arrangement in a simple way, stacked or one thing after another. Sometimes however, your way of working seems to be a deliberate breach with the principles of Minimalism. Some of your works are objects, such as bread rolls and furniture cushions, cast into bronze, which seems to go against the minimalist rejection of illusion. Your work has unmistakably its own character, but it seems that it was not from the beginning simply what it is now. You graduate when you are thirty. It's the year 1993 and the next six years you make a series of polyester blobs. In 1999 you show for the first time a work in wich you applied Nutella chocolate spread. Two or three years later, somewhere in 2001 or 2002, you do something with an astounding and ravishing outcome: you smear the outside of refrigerators with Penaten baby cream. In 2005 you exhibit stacks and heaps of white consumer products such as sugar, paper, and polystyrene crumbs. Nowadays you also combine chocolate spread with iron wire mesh. Was the direction your work took throughout all these years the outcome of a pre-established question or a more or less delineated interest, or did you come where you are now by trying a lot of things and consequently rejecting certain things as well?
In the nineties I almost exclusively worked on a series of high gloss polished polyester sculptures, that some call 'blobs'. A small work, destined to be hung at the wall, in 1999 helped me to overcome this single minded focus on just one material. It was a thermoformed rack I found somewhere, to which I applied a layer of Nutella paste with the help of a breakfast knife. The resulting form had the characteristics that are well known from spreading a sandwich. Apart from some works dating from the mid eighties, like the Coffee cup line, this was the first work for which I used food products as a sculptural material. After ten years of polyester the Nutella rack was something of a fresh start because it stimulated me to enlarge my repertoire with materials such as Penaten baby cream, sugar and coffee powder and because these new materials I started to use, demanded a more radical approach. For some of my installations I limited processing to strewing which led to merely large quantities of material arranged in the form of heaps. Since then I developed my work in a playful way. My approach was not analytic, but intuitive and I tried my hand on all kinds of things. I think my work is nonetheless characterized by a personal hand, the choice of materials and objects that are part of it, and the way I arrange them. Looking back on my work, although heterogeneous by nature, you can point out a recurrent theme, or even several recurrent themes.
Your blobs from the nineties have flowing, round forms and smooth, shining surfaces. One could associate these features with modernist design from the sixties and seventies of the last century. Did this ever matter to you or were there other reasons for making these blobs?
Surfaces made with great technical perfection, are above all known from the world of design. The play a role in art - the work of John McCracken is an example - but to a lesser degree. In my blobs they play a role in combination with a variety of bimorph forms on the one hand, and, even more obtrusive, a spectrum of colours covering more or less the brown palette of excrements. This palette ranges from vanilla, a grubby, fleshy pink and hues of middle brown, generally perceived as repulsive, up to the deep brown of dark chocolate. I purposely chose this combination of form and colour in order to enrich the in itself technoid aura of the shiny surface with an organic component. By their absurdly perfect, yet to biological processes referring appearance, I tried to make alienating objects that disturb to such a degree that associations with design are obscured. For me the use of garish colours such as lilac or turquoise never came into question. A potential buyer once asked me if I could reproduce the shape of a pale brown sculpture in navy blue. I refused, because to me – and this might be a subjective point of view – a form was always connected to a specific colour.
Why do you use chocolate spread and Penaten baby cream? Is it their relative unmanageable nature, the fact that unlike clay they are not really appropriate sculptural materials, or do you use these materials for their empathic potential? With the last I mean that chocolate spread and Penaten baby cream are able to arouse our senses and to call to mind virtual scenario's for action. Seeing chocolate spread for most people is enough to involuntarily and virtually taste its sweetness and feel its stickiness. In the back of their minds they will also automatically take care not to besmirch their clothes by accident. Likewise, seeing Penaten baby cream, for most people it's not difficult to imagine and virtually feel how comforting and cooling the effect of this cream must be on a pair of red and searing baby buttocks. Seeing Penaten baby cream and Nutella most people have no trouble imagining scenarios of risk as well. You can imagine for instance, that you are more likely to slip away on a surface of watery Penaten baby cream, than on a surface of relatively viscous and sticky Nutella chocolate paste.
Al you mention, plays its part in the work's impact, although I'm not sure which material poses the biggest danger of losing one's footing. Their unmanageable, and in the case of food products, evanescent character is a source of inspiration. The fact that they slide from you grasp, with new forms and structures as a result, very much excites me. The empathic potential you mention, distinguishes my work from that of the classical minimalist from the sixties, exactly because it evokes 'virtual scenario's' and thus rises above the purely self-referential aspects of the work; the more it does so the better, even up to the edge of kitsch. In my work not only stories are told though. What matters as much is the tangible interaction between the work of art and the observer and his or her behaviour. My polyester sculptures are intended to be looked at. Their appearance however is tempting, which sometimes brings the spectator to be a groper. In the best case this results in fingerprints on the surface that disrupt the aesthetics. In less favourable cases, the result is damage to the surface that, depending on its size and depth, can be hard to repair. Of course things are different when we're dealing with the Nutella and Penaten works. In the case of an unintended contact, the smudging of clothes can be seen as an act of aggression of the work of art towards the spectator.
Does something like that apply to your stacks and heaps of sugar, paper, textiles and polystyrene? These works call into memory the unpleasant feeling of crumbs on my skin when, as a child, I ate bread sprinkled with sugar in my bed and inevitably spilled. Is it of any relevance to you that seeing these materials one involuntary imagines that sugar, paper and polystyrene combine into an uninviting surface you just do not want to sink into, that they form what must be an intractable sculptural mass and that cleaning up after the exhibition will cost time, effort and exasperation.
Crumbs in your bed are something like grid in the machine. From time to time I feel the irresistible urge to throw sand in the gears, to wreck or smudge things. Perhaps relics of a childish stubbornness have a part in this and perhaps I should have this analysed psychologically. But no, better not, it would probably suck dry my source of inspiration. After all it's fantastic that an artist is paid to strew crumbles and cause mayhem. The heaps and crumbles raise questions like 'where to go with this mess when the exhibition is over?', or, 'who will clean up afterwards?' The thought that handling the consequences of such an 'art contamination' is part of the overall concept and in an ideal case is professionally organised, will not cross everyone's mind. The costs of disposal must be taken into account from the beginning, like the costs of transport in the case of 'normal' works of art.
You have also created the contrary of these stacks and heaps. I mean your very orderly stacks of tissue paper. Was it your intention to make a calming gesture with these works and to call forward sentiments of graceful ease, hygiene and clarity?
Making art for me always stood apart from the intention to fully canalize its impact. The way a work of art functions regarding its effects is simply the result of its condition. In the case of the rectangular cuboids made of paper handkerchiefs the visible exterior points at the hidden structure within. The same applies to the refrigerators spackled with Penaten baby cream. After all, a fridge has an interesting plastic inside with unmistakable sculptural qualities. Of course you don't see this when the door is locked, but on a subconscious level it's before the mind's eye when looking at the exterior. The aromatic scent of the Penaten baby cream, that seals of the smells in the interior, also plays a part in this multilayered perception.
The structure of the paper tissue cuboids is of no lesser complexity. Already a single tissue, through its patented folding, brings with it a degree of complexity. On top of that comes the printed cellophane of a single wrapping, of which several are held together in a multipack by a second colourful printed cellophane. By stacking them, individual packages are distorted depending on how high or low they are located in the stack, then the weight – after all a few tons of paper - presses together the lower layers with more force than those higher up. Perhaps it's trite, but I very much like to think about the inner structure of these works. I'm fascinated by the idea that the regular order is undermined by thousands of similar, yet slightly different deformations, with as many irregular interstices. A kind of micro chaos thus unfolds along the coordinates of a construct, which also extends itself along the time axis, because in each handkerchief slumbers the possibility of deformation and destruction through use.
In a misguided moment one could compare your work with that of Jessica Stockholder, Magali Reus, Miles Thurlow or Georg Herold. What distinguishes you however, is colour. You do not adjust paint or colour. The colour in your work is the colour of the prefabricated products and materials you use. Is that a deliberate choice for sculpture as an art and to set your work apart from painting?
Indeed, since the mid eighties, so rather shortly after I started to occupy myself with making art, I stopped applying colour to a support in a painterly way. Perhaps it was, at that time, already a strategic decision that allowed a dialog with the world of objects. Yet colour as a theme – at least as an immanent feature of objects and materials – runs through all my work. The colours of the polyester works I mentioned before, dating from the nineties, were mixed with the polyester resin before hardening. The installations of stacks of fridges, partly covered with a transparent, glaze-like layer of Penaten baby cream, with their wide spectrum of white hues are also related to colour as a theme, and the same applies to the spatial arrangements and heaps of mixed materials and objects.
One could read a grain of nostalgia into your work. Minimalism and consumer products are the fruits of what the French call Les Trente Glorieuses: the height of modern society in the first thirty years after World War II. An unknown and uninterrupted economic growth awoke great expectations. Modern technology would make it possible to free mankind from poverty, injustice and the toil of labour. These expectations are in many ways disappointed. Yet in art, literature and music to this day references are made to the era that brought them forward. Some years ago German singer and writer Peter Licht touched the hearts of Germans with das Lied vom Ende des Kapitalismus (The song about the end of Capitalism). References like these could be of the same order as calling to mind a love that passed or a happy, but long gone period in childhood or adolescence. It's harrowing, but sometimes we cannot leave it, so it must be something we need and is part of us. In such a way one could think. But has the fact, that Minimalism and the supermarket were historically relate to the hopeful years of modern society, ever been of relevance to your work?
In the two last of these glorious decades I grew up and received a substantial part of my socialization. Surly the modern ideology of prosperity marked me as well, although my attitude towards that was, and still is, very critical. My memories of West-Germany in the sixties and seventies are definitely a source of artistic inspiration. Nutella, Penaten Baby cream and Prinzenrolle were booming articles. I still remember the extensive advertising campaigns. Their bliss promising nonsense already then provoked my aggression and probably this explains my unusual relation to these products.
One could also interpret your work differently, in a way that stresses its topicality and focuses on the future. One could argue after all that Minimalism, in its stress on the physical experience of the object and its surrounding space, is one of the first movements in art that reacted to the change in Western thinking. After ages putting mind above body and matter, in the twentieth century the tables were turned. New ideas, such as the embodied mind theory, put forward that language and thinking are possible because we have a body, that by way of movement and sense experience is able to relate to other bodies and objects. Because we have bodies we can feel and imagine what is force, movement and acceleration, phenomena we have ultimately been able to state in scientific terms. In short, the body is no longer a second rate appendix of the mind. The body is the beginning of all else. Consequently the twenty first century will be the century of the body and the object that emancipated with it. In art for this reason the focus should no longer be of allegedly immaterial ideas that are hidden behind the artwork or embodied by it. In the centre should be the work of art as a body or object that has the potential to arouse our senses and thereby our thoughts, associations and imaginable scenarios for action. In this way one could think, but have ideas like these played a role in relation to your work?
Surely the Minimalism of the sixties served as an example, because in my work enthusiasm for a sensuous oriented understanding of art always was an important drive. Nonetheless I doubt if the twenty-first century will be the era of the body. Taking into account digital technology and its all spheres of life invading presence, I much more fear a withering of corporeality.