Detail: Moon Landing Biker, 2018, Oil on canvas, 230 x 600 cm / 91 x 236 in (2 parts)
Whenever variously colored, brightly glowing lights shine out from amidst dark surroundings, one is likely to recall at once the neon lighting integral to big cities at night. This may well likewise occur to some beholding the works that Römer+Römer have painted on the basis of their visit to the Burning Man Festival. What so dazzlingly glares from their paintings that one would often be temporarily blinded were they real and not merely painted sources of light are the ofttimes original and technically complex illuminations that the festival offers in great number, and with which the participants equip, among other things, their fancifully designed art cars. It is in this manner that four large headlights attached to a caravan-like conveyance in the painting Art Car Skeleton are pointed directly at the beholder like gigantic suns. Illuminated displays or beams of light appear time and again in the paintings. Electric Sky shows a large display screen built of LED (light-emitting diode) lights that looms over the festival participants like an artificial, starry night sky. In the round Electric Cloud painting, the cloud form of a vertically arranged, luminous display is optically intersected by the silhouette of a lonely dancer.
Either single figures or, at times, larger groups—always at ease and never thronged together in any crowds—follow the course of activities, standing or dancing around the often technically elaborate installations. The pictorial space is akin to a small stage with few actors, as with Black Rock Bandits Raccoon, in which a number of protagonists move shadow-like before the backdrop of light. The light beams either follow or create geometric constructions, delineating them like drawings in space. The light from the sky appears rather like that of stage lighting.
In LED Bus, the bands of light, which allow the contour of an art car—apparently based on a double-decker transport bus—to emerge from the darkness, form a dynamic contrast to the round format of the painting. Employing varying painting formats, Römer+Römer either guide the gaze toward single details or allow the eye to wander across entire panoramas. This is, for example, true of G, the extremely wide format of which follows the length of the depicted LED screen, erected like a fence or wall. No human actors are present here. It is a nearly abstract picture, with which Römer+Römer would almost appear to be alluding to their nonrepresentational beginnings, when they were bringing structures and patterns to the canvas by directly applying dots or dabs of pure color. This principle, to which they have more or less remained true to this day, recalls, regarding their representational works, the dissolution of the subject matter into the single strokes, dabs or points that were characteristic of the Impressionists and Pointillists. The abstract paintings, however, had already brought forth younger art-historical allusions, whether to Victor Vasarely and Op Art or to the structures composed of single points to be seen upon the paintings and silk-screens, typically upon black grounds, of Almir Mavignier.
The recourse to dots of color in the nineteenth century inspired by color-theories from the realm of natural sciences, such as how the work, for example, of Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat was informed by the theories of chemist Eugène Chevreul, occurred before the lifeworld-backdrop of the beginnings of electrification. The widest array of lighting technologies had become integral parts of everyday life by the 1960s at the latest, when artists such as the group ZERO, for instance, began integrating self-regulated light sources into their reliefs and objects. During the same period, Op Art began reflecting the optical effects of new lighting techniques in painting and graphic design.
Long recognised for its reliable provision of bright and, most importantly, colored light that could penetrate the darkness of the night sky with light-as-day efficacy, the neon tube found use as a material within the fine arts as early as the 1960s, whether employed directly as a tube for its light within a space as with Dan Flavin, or as tubes formed to depict figures or produce words as with Bruce Nauman. In many areas of the everyday, albeit mostly with electronic appliances at first, the neon light has increasingly been replaced by LEDs, the light sources that Römer+Römer have repeatedly portrayed in their paintings. Invented at the start of the 1960s, these cold, non-incandescent light diodes, optimally suited for digital controllability, could not initially be produced in the full range of colors. It was not until the 1990s, when green LEDs became available, that they began to find more comprehensive use. Alongside their employment in digitally controlled systems, LED screens consisting of numerous single diodes have become almost emblematic of the digital era in that their grid structures would appear to illustrate the digital resolution of images in the form of single pixels (and the ability to save them in this form) with great immediacy. This analogy of pixels to light diodes, in a sense, constitutes the contemporary, technical-scientific basis for the painting technique of Römer+Römer, much like Chevreul’s color theory had for Seurat. “Translated,” as it were, into painting, however, what takes the place of the analogy of the pixel to the single LED here is that of the painted point to the LED light that it pictorially represents. With their “translations” of digitally controlled light installations into painting, Römer+Römer also rekindle, to an extent, and further develop the paragone debate which, in the history of modern painting, has taken the place of the classical competition between painting and sculpture—namely that regarding attempts to portray the intensity of either natural or artificial light with painterly means. In a children’s book about Vincent Van Gogh I possessed in my youth, one of the imagined personal experiences of the painter was that of being confronted with the notion that his painted sun did not shine any real light. The gigantic swirls to be seen on Van Gogh’s Starry Night from 1889, however, would have had at least the same level of luminosity in reality as the headlights of the Art Car Skeleton. Van Gogh’s phantasy sky diverged from the real state of the time’s lighting technology, itself represented in the Impressionist manner by Camille Pissarro in his depiction of the Boulevard Montmartre at night from 1897.
When comparing the representational methodology of Römer+Römer to that employed depicting urban scenes around 1900, the couple would appear more closely related to artists who tended to conjoin elements of Impressionism with the rather narrative line of Realism. One such artist who would come to mind here is Hans Baluschek, who, in 1914, painted a Berliner Rummelplatz [Berlin Fairground] at night. The nuanced yellow lighting of the merry-go-round and the other fair stands seen at the picture’s edge are contrasted with the nocturnal darkness and the mostly dark clothing of the standing figures in the foreground.
Particularly comparable here would be the Römers’ painting Rabid Transit. The bright yellow light of divers pillars of fire flame forth for a brief moment from a surreally outfitted art car. Accompanied here and there by the bicycles they use to traverse the extensive festival grounds, the figures standing in the foreground and following the goings-on are all steeped in a mild, stage-like lighting, which rather subtly models the plasticity of the bodies more than it dissolves the outer contours. Momentary occurrences such as this one belong to the standard repertoire of the Burning Man Festival, which is not always without perils. Indeed, serious injuries are at times suffered over the course of fighting bouts, for instance, held in an Arena modelled on the dome from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)—only one of many cinematic citations, often appropriated from films of the science-fiction genre. It is altogether akin to an archaic ritual when the spectators, having climbed atop a geodesic dome, begin to cheer on the combatants as they rush at each other armed with cudgels or rods. Römer+Römer have captured this from varying perspectives in their paintings The Climbing Spectators and Fight at the Thunderdome. These are among the numerous smaller or midsized formats which, like telephoto lenses, focus the gaze upon single instances, whereas many larger formatted paintings present an entire scenery in panoramic breadth.
Viewed together, the various formats and perspectives employed by Römer+Römer have also produced a kind of narrative panorama of the Burning Man Festival. Alongside this, there is the aim, finally recalling Impressionism, to capture immediate perceptual impressions and the fine nuances of the plays of light as directly as possible. Each of their paintings is created in a long process involving numerous working steps for translating the images onto canvas. Firstly, a number of photographic impressions emerge. From amongst the snapshots, those images that would lend themselves to translation into painting are then selected and edited in a first working step on the computer, before finally being transferred into enlarged paintings of various formats. In contrast to the working methods of the Impressionists, the single painted points or dabs of what is not pure color from the tube but rather carefully premixed shades and hues are painted in adjacency to one another, with great care taken to avoid any mixing of the paint upon application. Divergent from earlier works and series, there are a number of larger areas or surfaces in the Burning Man paintings where the color has been applied by spray gun or with a roller. The sort of effects specific to photography such as randomly selected details or unfocused areas, which often emerged in, for example, the work of Gerhard Richter’s conscious painting up of photos, play little to no role therein. Instead, the effects that tend to appear in the painterly realizations of Römer+ Römer are things like pixelization of the image, just as it occurs in the digital broadcasting of moving pictures or when computing speeds crash during processes of simulation. These effects are recalled, for example, in the representations of the rays of light circling their sources and is comprehensively observable in the many lights depicted in the panoramic diptych Moon Landing Biker. In a number of other, smaller paintings such as Meditation on an Art Car, the entire scene would seem to be waiting in suspense for the pixelated contours to fall back into place at any instant.
To focus the gaze all too intently upon media-related effects such as these, however, would be to overlook the intention of the artists altogether. Relative to the size of the painted points, the impression of fluid resolution created is finally a means of expression by which to convey the immediacy of participation in an event for which there are no mere visitors or viewers but rather up to 70,000 people joining together annually in order, while viewing themselves as active agents, to shape the festival collectively. It is conspicuous that large crowds or throngs of people are not to be seen in these paintings but always rather single protagonists or small groups. Despite their avoidance of portraying the figures as individuals with, say, recognizable facial features, it is never an impersonal atmosphere that is conveyed. Römer+Römer direct the gaze time and again toward single situations, in which an almost intimate mood is engendered. The fact that the represented figures remain, on the one hand, anonymous, in both personal and social terms, and are yet never made anonymous through being lost amongst any crowd, can also be viewed as revealing of an aim toward lending exemplary aesthetic expression to a democratic order. Indeed, the notion that Römer+Römer are finally concerned with depicting a positive conception of collectiveness in their art is apparent in their consistently collaborative painterly approach itself.
That they would employ, for the portrayal of such a festival, with all of its technically elaborate stagings and the futuristic verve of the Silicon Valley scene, the classic medium of painting establishes almost automatically, as it were, a wealth of allusions and references to the history of art, to which the Burning Man Festival itself, with its original installations and art cars, might well one day belong.
Born in Hamburg, Ludwig Seyfarth studied art history, literature and philosophy. He has worked as an author since 1987 and has been a visiting professor at the HBK Braunschweig (2000/2001), the HfbK Hamburg (2002–2004) and the Kunstakademie Münster (2010–2012). In 2007, he was awarded the ADKV-Art Cologne award for art criticism. He has conceptualized and curated a number of exhibitions and has been a curator at Kai 10 | Arthena Foundation in Düsseldorf since 2010.
Translation: Nathan Moore