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Strandgut is the name of the second solo exhibition of Karlsruhe-based German artist Helmut Dorner (b. 1952) at De Brock, situated on the seafront of Knokke, a beach town in Belgium. This also partly explains the name of the show, a German word which means as much as wreckage, sea drift, or beach find, and is also used in expressions such as Strandgut sammeln or - rauben, ‘to comb the beach’, Strandgut und Treibgut, ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’, and Du siehst heute wirklich traurig aus, so wie Strandgut, ‘You look really sad today, a little absent’. “The name can also be read as a metaphor for the importance of coincidence in his work, “ says Patrick De Brock, who runs the gallery with his son Bertram, “On the one hand the works are very well thought-out compositions, and on the other hand they are not”. The exhibition exclusively presents new work: a series of seven paintings in acrylic on wood, which Dorner already started in 2020, and finalized this year, layer after layer, and slowly - in a studio where the peintre pur sang in him and the Northern Lights only allow him to paint a few hours a day.

In the absence of Dorner himself, who stayed at home because of the pandemic, the abstract paintings were distributed by father and son De Brock over the en suite of three small rooms that make up the gallery. The most lighthearted ones were hung in the front, where a wall-to-wall window offers a generous view of the beach and the sea, and the heaviest panel at the back, in the space that also serves as an office. The visitor thus walks from works that were most probably mainly painted in the spring to more wintery works – for like no other Dorner allows the circumstances, and therefore also the seasons and even the weather to enter and influence his work, giving each of his paintings the status of a medium, barometer and seismograph. This has resulted in an extremely varied oeuvre over the decades, open to many influences, and commenting on them.

A number of constants can also be discerned though. The most important one is of course the abstract nature of the works, in which the interplay of light, areas of color and indeterminate shapes invariably conveys a mood, hardly offering spectators a link to their everyday world, although the titles of the works clearly refer to such a reality - as in this exhibition Fluggepäck (‘Baggage for the flight’), Spinnennest (‘Spider’s nest’), Rotes Aquarium (‘Red Aquarium’), and Surfbretter (‘Surfboards’). The fact that the artist radically avoids any further comment and explanation (Dorner must be the least interviewed artist with world renown, ever since he made a steep rise in the 1980s, and participated in Jan Hoet’s Documenta in ’92) only enhances the viewers’ confusion. It is not without reason that Dorner, who has been teaching painting since 1989 at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste of Karlsruhe, is a student of Gerhard Richter. Anyone who wants to participate in his story, ins Blaue hinein, into the blue, has to give up many certainties. “He or she ends up in Warhol’s world, “ says Patrick De Brock, “A world in which one faces the question: is there anything left, apart from the light, color, and some amorphous matter?”

A second constant in the oeuvre of Dorner, who originally made a name for himself with paintings and sculptures, is how it still combines these two disciplines - be it in quite a subtle and subdued way. The acrylic paintings in Strandgut for example, were not applied to canvas, but on wooden panels, handcrafted constructions that are made by the artist himself and rise from the wall. Neatly cut to size, they have the shape of palettes. “This partly has to do with Dorner's attitude as a painter,” says Patrick De Brock, “He prefers wood to canvas, because he aims for an immediate result. And he also comes from a conceptual generation, that strongly questioned the possibility of pure painting. The paintings Dorner made in his early years were dark, gray and overly pasty. They were also often presented as part of a concept. Hence his habit of confronting them with other work, for example in a diptych or triptych. Only gradually, and with aging, he has largely given up that inner struggle, and has resigned himself to the fact that he has always been a painter before everything, someone who wants to indulge in light and color. When he first exhibited in our gallery in 2011, for example, that show was a real firework”.

Patrick De Brock agrees that Strandgut can hardly be called a firework: “You will not find a linear narrative or steady evolution in his work either. Despite the fact that he has given the painter more and more free rein in himself, and notwithstanding his outer calm, he continues to bounce restlessly from one leg to the other as an artist, as if he were working on a waltz”. In the paintings in the second and third rooms, where der Geist der Schwere suggests that they were mainly painted in the Corona winter, the colors are trapped in heavily set black circles, creating big zeros. They look a bit sad, so wie Strandgut. In the paintings in the front room however, which we like to assume date from early spring, those mourning borders have disappeared. Partly because of this the colors also look much fresher. Which makes us hope that the barometer and seismograph at the Dorner household survived the pandemic and are announcing happy days again.

— Written by Max Borka for HART Magazine, April 2021