The Ashmolean in Oxford occasionally holds free small exhibitions, which are always worth a visit. On my recent visit (The Forest Fire) I caught up with A R Penck. The exhibition ‘I Think in Pictures’ is the first UK show of this distinctive, energetic artist for nearly thirty years.
A R Penck is, of course, the alias name, one of many, for Ralf Winkler (1939 – 2017). An East German dissident artist, he formed a group in Dresden, which was denied access to the established art world. In moving to West Germany in 1980 he began to be shown around the west, especially in London and New York.
His style crosses the divide between figurative and abstraction but was composed of symbols and abbreviations. The primitive images were based on stick people, often with many arms and legs and additional appendages. The purpose of the stick people was to convey messages, often reactionary and provocative.
The main work in the exhibition is Edinburgh (Northern Darkness III) which he painted a few days before an exhibition in that City in 1987. It was the third location for his Northern Darkness exhibition following shows in Dublin and Derry, while he was resident in UK.
Northern Darkness III can be read several ways and the artist is not helpful in taking us through this monumental work. Clearly there is reference to the late break up of the Soviet Union with an overt image of Mikhail Gorbachev, but there are claims to links with the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. The liberal areas of green lead this thinking. There are so many symbols and ambiguously ideas in the painting that it seems more likely the constant conflict between humankind and the space occupied by humans is its real theme, hinted at by Penck in his thoughts.
The use of stick people and symbols in art, I find difficult. Is it painting? Is it just writing? Is it simply an explosion of radical thinking? Whatever it is, the artworld believes in it and this small excellently curated exhibition in Oxford is definitely worth a visit.