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Painting a Mirror for Humanity

Ruprecht von Kaufmann wants viewers to feel a little trapped in his large canvases because they raise questions about ourselves

June 16, 2002|LEAH OLLMAN | Leah Ollman is a regular contributor to Calendar.

Ruprecht von Kaufmann's paintings are unnerving. They thrust viewers into face-to-face confrontations with the vulnerable, naked and trapped, the compromised and the morally ambiguous. Daunting as well is Von Kaufmann's technical facility. He paints physical and psychological aspects of the human figure with uncanny persuasiveness.

At 28, Von Kaufmann has already had a handful of well-received solo exhibitions in San Diego, Chicago and Los Angeles. Several group shows of representational painting--most recently, "Representing L.A.," at the Laguna Art Museum--have also featured his work, which abounds with religious, literary, philosophical, historical and art historical references. Grady Harp, curating a show of figurative art for the Art Institute of Southern California in 1999, wrote of the way Von Kaufmann draws "from the pessimism of 20th century philosophy, literature and psychology" while allowing for the possibility of redemption. Of the 14 artists in that show, Harp wrote in the exhibition catalog, "it is the youngest among them, Ruprecht von Kaufmann, who shakes his fist at the universe most fiercely."

Although figurative art is generally considered a genre distinct from abstraction and conceptual art, Von Kaufmann rejects the division.

"For me, it's quite natural to work with figures, but there are certain things that are easier to achieve through abstraction," he said, sitting in the Koplin Gallery, where his latest show was about to be installed. "I don't really believe in the categorization of styles. It's absurd, because they blend together. They're not mutually exclusive. A conceptual artist can use figures in his work, and figurative paintings, to a certain degree, are abstract. When you look really close at a painting, you have all these textures and they kind of fall apart into something different, and you can just enjoy the quality of the paint."

Categorizing people can be just as problematic, says Von Kaufmann, a tall, slightly reserved young man with a spunky, tousled haircut. He's referring to three huge paintings in the show. They depict a dense pack of nude figures, in one case waist-high in water, who are seemingly pressed against a pane of glass. Men, women, and children in a variety of shapes and colors cram together like subway passengers at rush hour. But they aren't headed anywhere, they're stuck, fully exposed, in a sort of display case. Most are passively resigned to their fate, although a few are agitated enough to seek reprieve above the heads of the others. Along the back of one man's neck, a tattoo reads, "All animals are equal, some are more equal than others."

The titles of the paintings--"S-80-116-12," for instance--refer, somewhat jokingly, Von Kaufmann says, to the size of the canvas and the number of figures each contains. He calls the series "the human zoo."

"We always like to categorize groups," the German-born artist says, with just a trace of an accent. "It helps us to say they're not us, we'd better just care for ourselves. But we need to think of how our actions are going to impact this other group of people. That's why I like this image of people stuck together, because every move that one person does is going to impact another person. Many people still think of this planet as being really big, but I think it's getting smaller and smaller. Everything we do is eventually going to come around to haunt us."

The figures in the paintings stand nearly life-size, and the glass they appear to press against reveals itself in part through faint reflections of clothed spectators on our side of the display.

"I wanted to use figurative painting in a different way, not as though you're looking into another space, like television, which is not very real," he said. "The canvas is like a mirror, and this way, hopefully the humanity of the figures is more real."

Surrounded by these paintings, the viewer might feel trapped, which is just what Von Kaufmann wants. Yet he doesn't see the works as disturbing.

"Other people see them that way," he says. "I want to make them beautiful. They're not comfortable, but you want people to stop and engage themselves a bit. I'm very attracted to that combination of beautiful and appalling."

He finds that friction in the meditative yet bleak canvases of Mark Rothko and the aggressive but elegiac works of Anselm Kiefer. It's also one of the striking characteristics of the work of F. Scott Hess, Von Kaufmann's mentor at Art Center College of Design. Hess, in his most recent body of work, paints scenes jarring in their marriage of the vivid and the mysterious.

Before transferring to the Pasadena campus in the mid-'90s, Von Kaufmann studied briefly at the school's former European annex in Switzerland. After graduating, he stayed in L.A. for a few years, working part-time as a design consultant for Fox television, doing "dreadful things that paid well." Disenchanted with Southern California, in December 2000, he moved to New York.

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