Optical Delusions

In Tim Eitel’s monumental canvases, walls might be space, interiors could be exteriors, and the figures could be either real or imagined.

The architecture of o.T. (Instinkt), 2005, both conceals and reveals; similar structural devices define Boat, 2004, which opens onto a vast unknown.


Tim Eitel’s Boat(2004) depicts a man and a woman, their backs to the viewer, paddling a canoe through a flooded interior, bounded by two dark walls and opening out onto a mottled white expanse. The couple seems to be heading over the edge and into an area of pale, cloudy light that could be an opening beyond the horizon. The casualness of the figures’ attitudes and attire is disconcertingly at odds with the surreal character of their environment.

Eitel, 35, had been trying for some time to admit the outside world into his hermetic interiors, and he feels that he has finally found a way to deal with architecture and landscape simultaneously. “It’s a weird kind of ambiguity I’m looking for,” he says. “It has this sense of space and depth, but it’s also in a way abstract, like this big void.”

There is a certain existential quality about Eitel’s monumental canvases with their austere, indeterminate settings and contemporary-looking figures who go about their business seemingly unaware of the looming void or, for that matter, of the viewer. Captured in offhand poses like talking on a cell phone, walking with hands in pockets, or taking a photograph, these figures have the knack of looking just like people you know—your boss, your art dealer, your best friend. In fact, Eitel, who studied for five years at the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts, often hears that people are convinced they know his subjects.

“They’re pretty sure that this is their friend Paul,” for instance, says Eitel, laughing. “It’s not,” he continues, “but in a way it is because I think there are certain kinds of poses that are cultural phenomena. Every time has its own vocabulary of gestures, and I’m trying to make essential pictures that get at the general feeling of this time. It’s as though I’m a filter and the world streams through me—media pictures, television, what’s going on in the streets.”

Eitel is lean, with close-cropped hair, and has a soft-spoken affability. He loves big cities and carries his camera with him everywhere, taking pictures of everything from a homeless person’s bundled-up possessions in a shopping cart on a Los Angeles street to bored schoolchildren at a museum in Spain. “You have to make snapshots, because when you ask someone to pose, it’s completely different from when he thinks nobody is looking at him,” says Eitel, who lifts his subjects from his photographs and then draws figures in charcoal on canvas, modulating them with acrylic.

The next step is inventing an environment, which sometimes ends up obliterating his original figure. “The whole process is a series of associations,” says Eitel. “You start at one point, and then something else comes up, and in the end it’s possible that nothing of what you see now is still in the painting.” Black Sand (2004), for instance, started with a massive cloud as the subject. After the artist added a coastline, which he then decided didn’t work, he made a beach with two children digging in the sand. But he still wasn’t satisfied. Ultimately, Eitel abstracted and flattened out the entire scene by painting the sand black, which renders the children’s activity more ambiguous, and in the process obliterated the cloud with a huge expanse of a bright blue that weighs down even more heavily on the children’s backs than did the ominous cloud.

In his temporary Brooklyn studio, Eitel is nearly done with two huge multifigure canvases for his show at PaceWildenstein, opening the 17th of this month, which will also include about ten small paintings priced at $18,000 and a half-dozen large paintings at up to $160,000. One is derived from photos Eitel took in Miami Beach during Art Basel. Five men in various postures and outfits—including a Hollywood mogul type talking on his cell and wearing a T-shirt and sandals, and a well-groomed New York–dealer sort in a suit—stand near a taupe-colored ledge that might be a curb or a stage. Some appear to be looking into the dark brownish-gray background, which could be a wall or open space, indoors or outdoors.

In another painting, schoolchildren in uniforms squirm and slouch on a round banquette in a museumlike place. Some have backpacks; others hold menacing objects in their hands. They could be batons or even guns; Eitel says he doesn’t know. The sides are gray, but running vertically up the middle of the painting is a bright white stripe reminiscent of a Barnett Newman zip that breaks up the space and hints at an abyss of which the children are blissfully unaware.

Eitel, who says he is pleased with the effect he has created, is still fine-tuning the arms on some of the figures. “The problem with working from photographs is they don’t give enough information or volume,” says Eitel, who set up a mirror in the studio so he could draw from his own arm. Eitel nevertheless acknowledges the influence of photographers like Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand, who take a painterly approach in their photographs.

Born in 1971 in the town of Leonberg, near Stuttgart, Eitel spent his youth going to museums and drawing. His father, now retired, worked in public relations for the publishing industry and his mother, Andrea Eitel, is a painter who shows in Stuttgart. She began painting at around the same time he did, when he was 15.

“The reason I began to paint was because of the big Francis Bacon retrospective in Stuttgart in 1986,” Eitel recalls. “I was always fascinated with paintings that were really realistic and had this feeling that they could be a photograph. I think every child is fascinated by that. But,” the artist continues, “this was the first time I realized the emotional impact a painting can have—not only because of the subject but also the technique—that the brushwork really has almost a physical impact.”

Eitel studied philosophy and German literature at the University of Stuttgart, graduating in 1994, and continued to paint on his own. When he decided to pursue his art more seriously, he applied several times to the Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design in Halle, Germany. “Usually I was rejected just from them looking at the work I submitted,” quips Eitel, whose work has always been figurative. He was finally accepted and studied there until 1996, when he entered the rigorous five-year program at the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts, founded in 1764 and long esteemed for its strong figurative-painting tradition.

After graduating in 2001, Eitel and about ten other recent graduates decided to show their work as a group in Berlin. They set up a cooperative gallery called Liga, meaning “league.” At the beginning, Eitel says, openings were attended only by friends and family members. But things began to gain momentum the next year. Liga started getting foot traffic from dealers, curators, and collectors, including Michael Ovitz and the Rubell family.

Donald Rubell recalls arriving in Berlin in 2003 with his wife, Mera, and asking Gerd Harry Lybke, the director of the gallery EIGEN + ART, what they should see. Lybke directed them to Liga, where the Rubells were impressed with works by Eitel, as well as by Martin Kobe, Christoph Ruckhí¤berle, David Schnell, and Matthias Weischer. At 5 the next morning, they drove off to Leipzig to visit the studios of the other artists, and then returned to Berlin to see Eitel in his studio. They bought everything he had there.

The art the Rubells purchased on this trip—all large paintings with recognizable subjects—form the core of “Life After Death: New Leipzig Paintings from the Rubell Family Collection,” which opened at the Art Basel fair in Miami Beach in 2004, and is on a six-venue American tour through next year (in February it comes to the Frye Art Museum in Seattle). The exhibition also includes works by earlier academy graduates Tilo Baumgartel and Neo Rauch. Rauch had a strong influence on these younger artists, who are dealing with the remnants of the Social Realist painting that was state-mandated at the school before Germany’s reunification in 1989. “Their concerns were very disparate and there was no confusing who was who,” Rubell observes. “But they shared a technical virtuosity that was far beyond what’s typical of American artists of that age and stage of development. It’s very distinct from a typical Cal Arts–type thing where everyone talks theory. But it isn’t just technique. This group of artists really developed their own ideas.”

Another visitor to Eitel’s studio in 2003 was Robin Clark, associate curator of contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum. “At that point he was using a very high-keyed palette and making paintings of figures in interiors with a lot of references to modern artists,” says Clark, citing the example of a depiction of an interior with a Mondrian-like painting superimposed and a figure integrated into the picture. “It was self-referential and about spectatorship—a lot of paintings of people looking at paintings.”

Clark found the work interesting but was especially intrigued on her next visit to Berlin to find that Eitel’s palette had undergone a significant transformation. Tropical pinks and aquas had yielded to grays—plum gray, black gray, gray white. “The psychological tenor of the work had always been cool, even with the high-key palette,” she says. “The figures tended to be isolated from one another, and in the new work, it seemed he had taken that element of isolation and really focused on it. I found something very magnetic in the austerity and boiled-down quality.”

Last winter Clark organized Eitel’s first solo museum show in the United States for the Saint Louis Art Museum’s “Currents” series. Included was a suite of tiny canvases that served as intimate counterpoints to the larger ones. In Helicopter (2005), Clark observes, “What seems to be the shadow of the helicopter, cast on pavement or on what could either be an oil slick or water, is wavy and indistinct and looks almost like a squid or something mutating.” She adds, “There’s a lot of interesting ambiguity in the image, and your physical relationship to it is that you feel sort of immersed.” Eitel spent the past year in Los Angeles and is now in New York, where his show at PaceWildenstein will run through January 20 of next year.

While Eitel’s paintings may project a sense of isolation—with figures not interacting with one another or the viewer—the artist is quick to point out that it’s not a cold feeling of detachment he wants to convey but just the opposite. By having his figures face away from the viewers, he lures them in. “I think it’s easier for the viewer to identify with the figure in the painting if it’s not looking back,” says Eitel. “It’s less of a portrait.” As his figures face the unknown, we’re right there behind them.

Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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