In a Forest of Signs.

Pictorial Language in Katrin Ströbel’s Drawings

What distinguishes poetic language from normal language? It draws the reader’s attention to its own mechanisms, reveals how it becomes sign-like, generates meaning, proves its potential for taking readers by the hand and leading them down the garden path with its devices or for leading them on to paths which they would not take without it. Poetic language does not duplicate, it does not simply say how things stand but is instead an expression of what would not be imagined if it did not exist. However, poetic play only succeeds by playing on the différence between it and the usual use of signs.
It is uncertain whether such thoughts can be applied to work done with images, with iconic signs, visual art work. It is difficult simply to draw clearcut distinctions between the colloquial use of images and the artistic or poetic. However, it is via this attempt at demarcation that artistic work can evolve.

The usual, quotidian image would be the one that manifestly reproduces in such a way that we overlook the sophisticated operations entailed in projecting a spatial construct, a temporal process, on to a surface. A poetic image would differ from such banal reproducibility. However, the boundaries between them are narrow because, is a word still a word when it denotes nothing, an image still an image when it reproduces nothing?
In her work Katrin Ströbel hardly ever leaves the mimetic, the reproducing plane [[[sic]]] and she certainly does not eschew the potential of illusionist spatial suggestion. Nevertheless, she has detached herself from the usual systems of co-ordinates. Boxlike space in perspective, opened from a frame as the setting for the action, plays as minor a role as colour does – the means from time immemorial for producing pleasure through the gloss of material substance as well as generating the illusion of being lifelike (hence the significance of ‘colore’ among Renaissance Venetians in contrast to the prevalence of ‘disegno’ among the Florentines). Even simple shading has been eschewed in favour of simple, almost invariably unmodulated line, which designates surfaces as contour.

If nothing else, its lack of colour links drawing with the realm of (script) signs. However, the signs drawn by Katrin Ströbel are always illusionist images or at least they function as signs for spatiality, which, when the drawings are perceived (read), condenses into illusion. The play of line distinguishes one demarcated surface, in earlier works accentuated by tonal gradation, from other surfaces differentiated from the picture plane, tilted to the element in space, each of which also emerges as a sign for an object, for example, the leaf of a potted plant. Its unity, on the other hand, is called into question by the continuing draughtsmanly process. The object is only the starting-point for the drawing, which becomes detached in that the linear sign for the object is intertwined with others to form a thicket of lines, each of which has its own unmistakably distinctive structure.

This procedure, with amplification following on reduction, makes it possible to model the process of forming signs and perceiving them. Katrin Ströbel has presented the process of finding signs in daily papers on a serial basis as an exercise. However, the iconic sign, no matter how it has been discovered, is only a preliminary to the ensuing process of draughtsmanly interweaving, which merely conveys the reproducible aspect, the reference to the object, as a memory. What is, after all, at stake is sounding out the specific structure of a linear sign for an object in order to make it come alive. As when a sequence of words or the rhyming strophe of a poem is rhythmically repeated at such length that the meaning evaporates (or when, verses, proverbs, are sung in a foreign language in this way, as in Katrin Ströbel’s video piece ‘Les traversées’), the process of forming signs in a paradigm becomes detached without entirely voiding itself semantically. And suddenly spaces are created which are not spatially imaginable in normal reality – ‘systemic faults’ – the figure tips in one place, pattern and ground interweave without becoming confused. Thus what is drawn abandons its reference to normal space and asserts its own spaces.

Katrin Ströbel’s drawings, however, entirely lack a three-dimensional surrounding space controlled by co-ordinates, which would make her signs drop to the trite world of mundane fact [[[sic]]]. Not only are her carpet patterns permitted to cling to the white gallery ceilings and walls, hovering above the white ground just as a single word, an isolated line of a poem, which can only be accommodated in the strophe, swims on a sparsely inscribed white sheet of paper. And in turn the really extant space (the surfaces) and the illusion of drawing are played off [[[sic]]] against each other. Such figurations evidently emerge as stages of a process. A rule is assumed, which is then continued and observed [[[sic Kollokation]]] as consistently as possible. The further a work progresses, difficulties can surface; there are difficult spots, broken lines, flaws occasionally (rarely) show up, which are not ‘systemic faults’ but rather indicate an unresolved problem in this particular place. Corrections to drawings on walls are hardly possible. A mistake must, therefore, be enveloped, be overriden. This is a drawing process which becomes an oscillating play of perception when one observes these works, seeing spaces as spatial interrelationships between signs.

That sounds like a formal game, an ascetic exercise in drawing. However, Katrin Ströbel does not lose sight of the referent: signs refer to the places where they were found. Drawings consist in signs that have not been invented but are encountered, found, by Katrin Ströbel in specific places. They grow out of ‘signes trouvés’ she has chanced upon. She seeks and collects them as the Surrealists used to collect objects, ‘objets trouvés’, as ‘objets à réaction poétique’, auratic gifts bestowed by an enigmatic reified world to which the soul, for unexplained reasons, seems to react impulsively. And naturally the collecting of objects, like the drawing of signs, also, and indeed especially, springs from a mood that is certainly not unintelligible but evidently pronounced, meaning something in particular and articulating iconic signs in an attempt to understand or prepare the way for understanding. If a scientist collects samples in order to study them in a laboratory to find a law in them, to confirm a hypothesis, the artistic strategy of collecting objects or signs from objects or drawings of signs consists in not resolving the defamiliarization emanating from these things but rather to exploit it as a source of disturbance and attracting attention to what has not yet been seen or known.
The upshot is that Katrin Ströbel’s works invariably come into being from the experience of a specific place and when they are repositioned, often link themselves indissolubly with a new place – the place they are exibited. Each place is granted its specific space; each exhibition demonstrates literally that one sees certain things in each of these particular places, that certain perspectives thrust themselves on one but also that each place develops symbols, sign structures, of its own. Thus new signs can be harvested from the perception of places and their visual language can be read even without these signs being understood.

Alienating places (the atmosphere of a Protestant church in a hospital courtyard) or foreign places (Marseilles) are, by their very nature, particularly interesting, also for formal reasons, for draughtsmanly exploration. What can be seen there cannot be experienced by strangers as mundane – because it is foreign. This opens up the way to poetic experience since things that are taken for granted, routine interpretations, cannot assert themselves. Nevertheless, Katrin Ströbel’s preoccupation with the religious environment of a Protestant community centre and the drawings and video works from Marseilles are buoyed up by the intimation that a foreigh sign, mere writing, the very sound of a language, can convey more substance than is generally assumed. The structure itself speaks or can be made to speak in its own language if it can be perceived in its configuration, which cannot be taken for granted. Signs that have not been understood impart stimuli for new experiences and new signs which one’s own way of speaking produces of its own accord when one appropriates what is foreign.

What seems to be concerned is momentarily losing sight of the wood for trees (and leaves), the oscillation of perception between defamiliarization and familiarity. What would be an impediment to the function of a mundane picture – disturbance of the image which diverts attention from reference to the figuration itself – is the mark of the poetic image.

Professor Dr. Hubert Locher, director of Fotoarchiv Marburg and Professor for art history at the University of Marburg

Text published in: Life should be stereo, 2005