The digital woodcut as a mirror of our cultural image practice
It is not all that often that an artist succeeds in creating an entirely unique and unmistakable aesthetic through his technique alone. The "Digital Woodcuts" by Stefan Osnowski exhibit this kind of unseen suggestion.
Stefan Osnowski is an artist who constructs his pictures elaborately. To do this, he exclusively uses the centuries-old technique of woodblock printing. This in itself is rather unusual for a contemporary artist. What is absolutely unique, however, is that Osnowski uses one of the oldest reproduction processes, commonly known for its coarse - precisely woodcut-like - representations, to create an extremely filigree, digitally appealing, ultra-modern aesthetic.
Woodcut with digital grid
Digital images, as we see them almost constantly today on television, computer and mobile phone screens, are made up of countless individual pixels. On modern devices, the image pixels are now so numerous and small that we no longer perceive them as individual dots, but we are all familiar with the raster optics that show up on old screens and in awkwardly enlarged digital images. A very similar grid structure also characterises Osnowski's prints, for just as in the construction of digital images, he also transfers the motif into a strict grid of light and dark. The extremely fine gradations and shadings in his pictures, which are typical of woodcuts, result solely from the density of the screen dots and only form in the eye of the beholder. In Osnowski's work, the printing block itself knows no shades, it only distinguishes light and dark, positive - negative, zero and one, and thus becomes the digital code of the motif.
However, while the translation of the motif into a digital grid is carried out by the computer according to a fixed algorithm in fractions of a second, the manual reproduction in the woodcut is a lengthy process, characterised by random influences and incapable of being precisely controlled at any time. How does the wood split? How does the knife cut into the grain? Where do the inevitable little mistakes creep in? A physical process throughout, which Osnowski even maintains during the printing process, for he dispenses with the printing machine usually used for woodblock printing and also makes the prints manually, first pressing the paper onto the wooden stick by hand and then repeatedly sweeping the back of the paper with various glass lenses in countless circular movements until it has absorbed the ink - the most strenuous process in the entire process of creating the picture, which takes several hours for larger works and gives each print an individual character.
Freedom of nature and »non-places« of efficiency
Osnowski works both representationally and abstractly, up to the informal. Two themes recur among his motifs: landscapes with an almost romantic feel and cold, anonymous street views - places of longing and "non-places", as Osnowski himself calls them. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in a small town in the former GDR, Osnowski perceived the narrow alleys of the town as a mirror of provincial narrow-mindedness in a country surrounded by walls, even at a young age. So the rivers, lakes and forests of the surrounding countryside quickly became an escape point where he and his friends could build their own island dream kingdoms between water and reeds in a landscape characterised by old, flooded peat pits - and when even these islands became too small, they "borrowed" the fisherman's boat without being asked and travelled up the rivers. Almost always taking pen and paper to record the impressions. »I often took a small sketchbook with me to draw and paint with watercolours. I dreamed of the sea, the mountains and the distance.«
This connection to nature continues to this day and finds expression in Osnowski's work. This is most clearly visible in representational depictions of nature, of towering mountain massifs or wave crests towering over the horizon in a roaring sea, which recommend themselves for a place in the Hamburger Kunsthalle right next to Caspar David Friedrich.
But the view of nature is not always unclouded. The series "Icarian Landscape" shows a terrain that is dissolving, structures that are disintegrating, a place that is disappearing and is barely recognisable as a landscape. At the same time, the figurative representation recedes, dissolves, passes over into the abstract, as if the decay had to be documented, but out of the artist's defiance or grace, this happens in a tolerable way behind the veil of abstraction.
But places do not only disappear, they also emerge anew, not infrequently created by man and in these cases all too often as less homely places, arbitrarily interchangeable, not intended for lingering, but built under the dictates of efficiency according to functional aspects, serving industry or traffic, places of passage, unwelcome for inhabitation. For Osnowski, these are "non-places", unsteady and soulless, which he captures in the woodcut, frozen in a snapshot like a single frame from an endless film.
Subversion of the digital image aesthetic
The digital grid is always placed over the motif like a filter and picks up on today's prevailing image aesthetics. For while digital images have been evolving for decades to appear as real as possible, they have almost tragically shaped their very own aesthetic that dominates our viewing habits today. In a way, Osnowski is now turning the tables and reclaiming the interpretive space by subjecting traditional production and printing processes to the digital code. A contest with very unequal weapons. As you read this sentence, over 5,000 photos are being uploaded on Instagram alone, more than 1,000 every second, about 100 million per day. Osnowski works on one motif for many weeks and months.
Woodcut is certainly not one of the most popular techniques among contemporary artists today, and so Osnowski, who lives in Budapest, probably has a largely unique position. He also found his way to today's virtuoso technique only in a roundabout way. In the early 1990s, he first began studying classical archaeology in Kiel, but quickly switched to German studies and theatre pedagogy in Greifswald before finally moving there to the Caspar David Friedrich Institute of Art from 1994 to 2000. He focused on painting and installation and had his first solo exhibitions in Greifswald and Berlin early on, the promising response to which could have encouraged him to continue on his chosen path. However, this was countered by starting a family and moving to Budapest, which temporarily uprooted him artistically. He sought new forms of expression and finally found woodcut. By now, his works can be seen in numerous solo and group exhibitions and can be found in various private collections worldwide. This is not surprising, for Osnowski has transformed the traditional woodcut into a modern visual language, as if this archaic technique were the ideal, almost indispensable medium for negotiating the issues at stake in our cultural visual practice.
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