Thomas Behling

I am bad, but I would be worse if I didn´t know that I am bad.

A visit at Thomas Behling´s studio, 2008

As being created in the good old times seem some of the motifs created by Thomas Behling during the last years which he one after the other takes out of a big cardboard box while we converse.
Behind dusty, sometimes blind panes of glass edged by old frames I see motifs from the old times when – as it is often being said – everything used to be much better.
But a closer look at these image objects arouses some doubts as the idyll shows subtle fractures. Thomas Behling plays with the homey atmosphere and the high recognition value of old and famous paintings, though he changes them in an irritating manner.
As a matter of fact many of the materials used by the artist come from the flea market and looking at them one gets
the feeling as having found a storage of paintings which might have been decorating a living room a long time ago.
By his artistic intervention Thomas Behling reanimates yellowed photos, old prints or devotional image copies, making use of them as basic artistic substance. The aura of these aged images can not be denied and contrasts with the artist´s whimsical smile. Born 1979 in Hanover he got his Master in Arts in 2006 at Arts Academy in Bremen.

One of the works here referred to bears the title “Christus anklopfend / Christ knocking“. The image  -showing Christ surprisingly appearing at the entrance door- used to be extremely popular and a common print in the last 19th century.
Although Thomas Behling´s work is an authentic old print acquired on the flea market  and the Christ shown appears -as common on old prints- under the moonshine at the entrance door in a white garment geared with a crook but by Thomas Behling´s artistic intervention the image altered into a weird setting.
With sandpaper the torso of Christ was cautiously rubbed off, creating thereby  something like a blind space on the photo. Only the head, the knocking hand and the feet were left in their original way.
This blind space triggers the effect that Christ seems to be spun in a cocoon bestowing so the scene with an irritating mood. The surprising factor is not any more THAT Christ appears at the entrance door but HOW.

Anecdotes of the flea market or little stories of the day-by-day in the
artist´s studio enrich our conversation and wander between Thomas Behling´s reflexions on the character of his work and details about the notables of art history he refers to.
But even without the artist´s explanations the ironic fracture of his work transmits. “Erscheinungswölkchen / Small Epiphany cloud“ created in 2008 for example refers unmistakably to the landscapes of the romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. The spruce trees which get into the image center before a discreet sunset in the background remind of various paintings of the man from Dresden whose paintings of landscapes are being interpreted as an expression of devoutness to nature and in which  the painter´s religious sentiments towards and within nature are becoming perceivable.
While in Friedrich´s work the landscape is shown as a place of special experience we become eyewitnesses in Thomas Behling´s image of a small cloud being here a celestial apparition.
In a peculiar closeness as well to comparable motifs in the history of painting as to nowadays cartoons but also in correspondency to the cloud-like cocoon of the knocking Christ Thomas Behling manages to put the ambivalence of augustness and ridiculousness in-between the frame.

In other works Thomas Behling refers to an artistical process used for example by Marcel Duchamp: the painting on given images and thereby altering the original character by intervention. In 1919 Marcel Duchamps had manipulated a chromatic print with a Mona Lisa motif by completing the smiling face with a moustache and a goatee and thus transforming the face of famous Gioconda in a male one (L.H.O.O.Q.).
Max Ernst too redefined around the same time different motifs when he created the Image “The Master's bedroom” using parts from the page of a warehouse catalogue.

Thomas Behling´s “In Paradise”, 2005, was created on the basis of a print cromatically changing and showing a heron standing under entwining foliage on a river bank in the midst of an idyllic landscape. By adding a crouching human silhouette the motif is turned into an unexpected encounter between man and animal. What as an imagination of paradise should portray a natural and voluntary encounter of both becomes here the encounter of to species unknown to each other.

Looking at his images Thomas Behling smiles. He tells me that he is interested in the borderline between the holy and the ridicule. By no way he had wanted to mock religion, spirituality or the relationship between human and nature. On the contrary Thomas Behling´s work is the attempt to focus the issue of human existence in different areas without speaking in terms which seem to him worn nor lapsing into pathos. How well he manages in doing so shows the work “Der kleine Junge hat Angst vorm Schwarzen Mann / Little Boy is afraid of the Dark Man”, 2007, a work which he has to switch on still, as he mysteriously announces.
The original image which might be called kitschy had its motif changed. The image originally had shown a little frightened looking boy who on the way home at the side of his sister has to cross a hardly trustworthy wooden bridge in order to get under shelter before the storm comes. Behind the two an angel unseen by them spreads his arms protectfully.
Thomas Behling changed the object not only by painting a “Dark Man” in a threatening pose but also by installing a gear on the backside of the image producing “thunder & lightening”.
“Who is scared by the Dark Man?” this question of a children´s riddle finds here where King Kong and devotion are mixed up a peculiar answer.

The work of the artist Thomas Behling varies between nostalgica, kitsch and – as in the last example- bad taste as well as the well-known images of the past.
Even while revealing sometimes – as in “Schwellenmann”, 2008 – a potential literally to be called academic, it´s the reduced artistic means, the special appeal of those various small formats and the witty intelligence able to convince the spectator.

Detlef Stein

in: „Wenn Du noch Mut hast, so danke Gott und sei zufrieden.“, 2008

translated by Eckart