oliver dorfer

The Puppeteer

frame021- 'pop it', art magazine,2007, article: Lothar Schmidt

Oliver Dorfer (b. 1963) extracts from the everyday world its international images and signs – photos, comics, stick-on pictures and logos – and stores them digitally. He creates new forms and figures out of them in the Photoshop and uses these as source material for his paintings. Starting out from Otto Neurath’s pictograms developed in the 1920s, Lothar Schmidt attempts an approach to the work of the man from Upper Austria.

“WHAT MATTERS IS TO FORM THINK-TOOLS FOR EVERYDAY,” postulated Otto Neurath in the early twentieth century. The restless economist from Vienna had a goal: knowledge of social circumstances and contexts should be accessible to as wide a class of the public as possible. But how to achieve this? How do you appeal to someone who has little desire after work to plague himself with books in abstract language? He might have problems even with the act of reading itself. And in those days, despite newspaper articles working with columns, bars and symbols in various sizes in order to express things like amounts and ratios, the interested reader didn’t find the suitable vehicle to access information rapidly.

Perhaps without the development of Otto Neurath’s “talking signs” there would now be no picture stories with standardised human figures to show us what to do in an emergency in an aircraft, nor, perhaps, would the computer ever have become such a mass-media phenomenon.

Today, nearly 100 years later, we can no longer complain about the lack of rapidly consumable information. Television, Internet and print media supply the inhabitants of the western world with varyingly valuable knowledge, and practically in real time. The processing of political, economic and social contexts is done essentially by means of formats combining image, writing and speech.

NEURATH SHOULD ACTUALLY BE QUITE PROUD, for his prognosis about the future of information communication has materialised to a great degree: “Anyone who wants to make a fast and permanent impression uses pictures,” said Neurath in 1933. He and his team had already developed a system of pictograms in the 1920s called isotypes (International System of Typographic Picture Education), schematic signs and figures expressing statistical, social and other contexts in an easily comprehensible and graphic way.
His premise that this should be accessible to the masses also seems to have been fulfilled – although with the fine distinction that information and enlightenment were for him part of a positive view of society. Neurath wasn’t interested in making money with information. His goal can be summarised in the social-utopian formula: happiness for all.

TODAY THE NAME OF OTTO NEURATH IS LITTLE KNOWN, which is more than astounding, for who knows if the pictogram would be as omnipresent as it is now without his “talking signs”. Perhaps there would be no picture stories with standardised human figures to show us what to do in an emergency in an aircraft, nor, perhaps, would the computer ever have become such a mass-media phenomenon, since there would be no graphic interface with simple icons that people can handle relatively quickly.
With or without Neurath, the world around us is a cosmos of coded signs. We can’t be certain that writing and language still function here as the main media of communication. But it is certain that the power of the pictogram has proliferated in the twentieth century. Vilém Flusser already tolled the knell of the 3000-year-old culture of writing years ago: “Just as the alphabet once prevailed against the pictogram, so now the digital code is revving up to overtake the letters of the alphabet.”

The artist Oliver Dorfer likes to use the term of “visual argument” when talking about his works. The term is originally Otto Neurath’s and is intended to describe, analogous to the alphabetic idiom, how expressive and sophisticated pictograms can be. Visual arguments are forms and motifs constantly recurring to him. “I have often used very simplified, densely signifying forms such as the torso in an icon-like and pictogram-like manner. Rather in the way a theatre director likes working with a particular actor.”
The visual argument is distinguished by yet another individual characteristic: since its effect is not yielded by verbal grammar but is visual or connotative, there is great difficulty translating it into linguistic terms. The visual argument, as the term suggests, is construed as an utterance resourced from a system that is analogous to language, but different. This recognises visual basic patterns – like the dictionary in language – which can be linked into more complex utterances by means of specific forms of variation and presentation.

For the work of the artist from Linz, the non-translatability of the visual image into linguistic symbols is not only a side-effect of his art – in the sense that it is difficult to describe his paintings and satisfactorily translate them. The transfer blockage is much more a kind of necessary condition for a work method that goes fishing in the murky pond of the semi-subconscious in order to pull out pictures, images, forms, logos, figures, characters, icons or other ready or half-ready products of the world of signs.

SINCE 2000 AND 2001, DORFER’S PAINTING has changed noticeably. Similar to the very beginning of his work as an artist, which can be marked by the first exhibition participations in 1989, his latest works are informed by graphic art: lines that fuse to become figures or figurative bodies, which evoke the contours of objects, or more or less recognisable things.

It is as if the artist had changed his image suppliers, as if their vehicles no longer came from the dark cultic spaces of “individual mythologies” from which artists like Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer have drawn.

The source of figurations has changed. Whereas previously we frequently saw torsi, empty forms for bodies or extensions of these, now the most recent works employ trouvé pictorial material.
It is as if the artist had changed his image suppliers, as if their vehicles no longer came from the dark cultic spaces of “individual mythologies”, from which artists like Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Tápies and many others have drawn. The new raw material comes from the world of bright daylight, flickered somewhere across a screen, or was printed matter – stick-on picture, comic or logo. It stems from an international everyday culture of signs, an unsystematic but globally comprehensible language of pictograms.

THE NEW MATERIAL INVOLVES NOT ONLY TORSI, but also figures with hands, arms, legs and a head, and yet we don’t simply want to throw the expression “torso” overboard. For things still manifest themselves as incomplete, fragmentary, and with gaps. What is usually missing on the mainly plaster-like brightness of the picture grounds is in the end the data – digital data. Dorfer, who collects and stores all kinds of pictures and images on his journeys, uses the found pieces, scans them in or scribbles additions before he entrusts them to the Photoshop. Here they become layers, strata lying one on top of the other, whose exactness and sharp contours can be controlled, for instance by reducing the tone values to black and white.

Martin Hochleitner calls the process “optical fading”. This first of all produces flat pictograms betraying something of their origins, sometimes more, sometimes less. The mingling of signs, the figural, objective, icon- or logo-like reductions sometimes yield narrative alignments. Individual pictorial elements are readable through their arrangement in the pictorial space as a sequence of signs or series of events. At least we have the impression of being able to follow a rudimentary narrative. Examples of this are “the silktouch” (2006), “pole 01” (2006) or “eiga 02” (2006).

The fusion of various pictorial components into temporary units follows a partly grotesque logic, as in “eiga 02”, which again recalls the idea of the visual argument and its image-based plausibility. How else can we explain our effortless acceptance of a schematic coffee cup and other kitchen utensil as a facial feature? Dorfer seeks a precise inexactitude in his pictograms, which allow ambivalence or even significance per se without being interested in it. The yellow circle in the top left quarter of the picture can recall as a pictogram a
sun, a mandala or the symbol for radioactivity. These interpretations do not force themselves on us, nor are they necessary, since this circle is also component of the picture in terms of an abstract and decorative totality. Suspenseful in this context is the pair of figures like cut-out silhouettes; each could be standing in a punt, punting through a northern sea. The inclined upper bodies, conjuring up a somewhat searching, questioning quality, also give the pair the appearance of personified ambivalence, as a kind of icon, its character reflecting the totality of the picture.

IN THE CURRENT SERIES, which hazards a robust, poster-like colouration, there exists another strategy of pictorial conception besides the narrative sequence and juxtaposition of images. We can find it in the works “ me or mo (yellow remix)”, “petit toyo (**)”, “smilla” and “coco” and others, all produced in 2006. “Me or mo”, for instance, is structured from a point, from a centre, which is marked by a red circular plane. What we can see within this seems at first glance unambiguously to be a face, which was reduced to white and black tone values. The interior details of the face – maybe recalling a comic figure like Captain Haddock from Tintin – yet again awakens associations of other images. Can’t we see Snoopy’s profile in the chin and nose? Isn’t there something else about the hair, a coded motif, which only becomes perceptible when we give up the idea of a face? “Me or mo” is like a picture puzzle, an ethological impulse, which the viewer can use to test his associative powers. Individual pictorial elements can no longer be separated from one another here. They are fused together, melt into each other, as if we could interpret the totality into its depths, as a kind of super-sign, which works from the outer forms towards the inner, or vice versa.

IS THIS NEO-POP PAINTING? “Maybe what I do has less to do with painting than let’s say with set design or production design.” Dorfer is a comic and film freak, the Photoshop program is his camera. He lets the stream of images flow through him and the computer and stacks the pictorial space in the imaginary depths of the program. He likes results best that are on the one hand entirely light and relaxed in impression and on the other generate a feeling of sinking into a cinema seat and catching up with a film that has been running for ten minutes.
With zeitgeist-oriented figures like “petit toyo(**)*, Dorfer the sociologist is pathbreaking into new terrain. The naïve-childish figures are not only a logical reinterpretation of the torso theme. They are a suitable resource for new visual arguments. The appropriation of the fetishist doll figure as placeholder for artistic subversiveness isn’t anything that Dorfer might have invented. So-called “art toys” are all the rage at the moment. However, they have a special relevance or consequence for his art. Since they are themselves placeholders for feelings, styles, characters etc. and are thus sculptural or symbolic super-signs, they are particularly suitable for Dorfer’s semiotic strategies – leading zones of significance so far into the twilight, or cross-fading them, that a new associative potential arises at their borders, which have now dissolved. As early as 1931, Otto Neurath stated in his very own, clear language that the picture is particularly applicable for these strategies: “Words separate, pictures connect.”