There is a visual mystery to the sparse landscapes painted by Armin Mühsam. The works are austere, yet achingly beautiful, capturing the light and shadows of what might be America or a place entirely fictive.
Some paintings feature landscapes with odd industrial objects, structural forms, mechanical or concrete foundations, tanks or overpasses without visible human presence. Others focus on architectural miniatures, a facsimile of a likeness of a built environment. There is a timelessness to the work and an anthropological exploration of signs and symbols, but Mühsam is also deftly reacting and interacting with Western art history.
His philosophy and approach are shamanistic in the way Joseph Beuys was considered a shaman, and his technique is similar to the dream writing of Giorgio de Chirico. It’s a bit as if Mühsam has yoked the ideas of these two artists (among others) together creating his own philosophy of art making that is metaphysical while visually expressing a contemporary annihilation of sorts.
“My work focuses on the relationship between the natural and the human-built. It is inspired by history, art, architecture and anthropology, as well as my own experience of and relationship to, the environment in all its aspects – geographical, cultural and spatial,” Mühsam says.
His landscapes explore places and structures that echo the haunted houses, squares, gardens and railway stations painted by de Chirico. But where de Chirico used the landscape as a backdrop for mysterious symbols and objects, Mühsam finds those symbols and objects in the land with the shadows and perspective just slightly off. Mühsam’s paintings of landscape models are the strongest representation of the metaphysical. They have a strange and unfamiliar context. Why a model of the destruction created by mining or the representation of a partially built structure?
Additionally, the exquisite skill in which Mühsam paints is in direct opposition to the subject matter of his work. While not apocalyptic, the perspective is one of destruction. Mühsam is a visual extirpator. And while his sterile paintings are rooted in the traditions of Western landscape painting they have nothing to do with that tradition, which viewed nature as the supreme creation of God and glorified the wonderful land Americans were privileged to inhabit thanks to that God.
“My paintings are the logical conclusion of Hudson River School paintings,” Mühsam says, describing George Inness’ The Lackawanna Valley from 1856 as “an empty meadow, filled with tree stubs in the middle ground, the railroad and a train passing through. I see in that painting the prophetic beginnings of what I basically am at the tail end of…I’m not comparing myself to Inness, but I think my paintings can be classified as the end point of what is already preconfigured in that painting—A valley just at the beginning of the impact of industrialization.”
For Mühsam, the Western capitalistic way of living forged during the time of Inness has led to an absolute equalization and streamlining of the environment.
The recurring elements we see in his paintings: underpasses, bridges, utilitarian buildings, shipping containers, tracks on the ground and power lines are a vocabulary, a symbiotic language for logistical efficiency and utilitarianism. This language has complete disregard for place and the individuality of location, and the artist employs it to illustrate the contemporary spirituality that has superseded that of Inness and his fellow landscape painters—a metaphysical and transcendental belief in the idea of progress through the pursuit of material goods.
In other words, he is subverting the 19th Century notion of the noble landscape as an expression of God’s omnipotence and benevolence and turns it into a sort of “technological sublime” in which the empty and meaningless works of man have replaced those of Creation. Given the economic collapse of 2008 and the financial instability of European markets, belief in economics as our savior requires a supreme and, in Mühsam’s view, an also absurd leap of faith.
Another belief expressed in his work is that we humans can continue to manipulate the land and subdue the landscape for our needs. This became evident to Mühsam, who was born in Romania, grew up in Germany and studied art in Montana. When he returned to Germany after earning his MFA, he was struck by how overpopulated, thoroughly cultivated and spatially constricted he found Germany to be.
“After Montana, Germany seemed a horror vision come true – all land is utilized to serve man’s purposes. There simply was hardly any place left where our fellow species could live undisturbed; the few who had survived 2000 years of Western civilization were still around by sheer luck and our indulgence,” he says.
This is where Joseph Beuys comes into play. Beuys was an early member of the Fluxus movement exploring the fluidity between literature, music and visual art, but it was his political activism (he was one of the founding members of the Green Party in 1979) and his emphasis on overcoming the materialism of Western culture and replacing it with a more holistic view of the world—a gesamtkunstwerk shaping society and politics that most influences Mühsam, dovetailing with his studies of Native American tribal cultures, many of whom also take an interconnected view of society. During his first lecture tour to America, Beuys told audiences that humanity was in an evolving state and that as “spiritual” beings we ought to draw on both our emotions and our thinking as they represent the total energy and creativity for every individual.
Beuys’ said: “I don’t use shamanism to refer to death, but vice versa – through shamanism, I refer to the fatal character of the times we live in. But at the same time I also point out that the fatal character of the present can be overcome in the future.”
“Beuys was not called a “shaman” for nothing.” Mühsam says. “To me that is the greatest compliment one can pay the child of a Western civilization. Beuys impressed me with the conviction of his ideas, in the face of overwhelming odds and vicious attacks, especially from fellow artists. He wasn’t the only artist of the Twentieth Century who identified the crisis of Western civilization, but nobody else offered a way out of this crisis with such eloquence, seriousness, steadfastness and yes, beauty.”
Mühsam continues to point to the obvious destruction of our landscape, our society and our world by our hyper-individual focus and our blind faith in free-for-all enterprise. For Mühsam technology draws into the landscape just as the artist draws on a sheet of paper.
Not only are contemporary Western humans disconnected from nature we are disconnected from our own essence. His imagery is like a mirror held up for the viewer in hopes that we will begin to see what we have created and to determine whether we have reached the tipping point for a cataclysm or can yet find redemption.
For Mühsam the answer might be that it is too late. What we see in his paintings is all that will be left from our Western profit-oriented economic experiment.
Denver, CO, 2012
This essay was published in the catalog for Clear Cut Spaces at Galerie Ambacher Contemporary, Munich