On a dreary afternoon in the fall, I visited Lennart Grau in his studio in Berlin. After a drive through streets lined by uniform prefab housing,I reached Berlin-Hohenschönhausen at the outskirts of the city. Just past the memorial on the grounds of former East German’s main detention facility run by the feared Ministry of State Security, I arrived at my destination. Back then it was a strictly sealed-off security zone, but now it serves as studio space for artists. Later I learned that it had once been the headquarters of the civilian surveillance apparatus, aka the Stasi. It is from within this urban context and in front of this societal-historic backdrop that the opulent and colorful painting of Lennart Grau, who was born in 1981 in Krefeld, is created. There could be no starker substantive and formal-stylistic contrast than that of the chasm gaping between such an attempt to cope with the political past and this aesthetic on the verge of decadence. But the scenery of social realistic contrast, which was merely accidental for the artist, plays a role for visitors to the studio and far beyond: It stresses, too, the aspect of exaggeration in Grau’s painting, which does not really want to fit in with the current art scene with its oftentimes characteristic minimal aesthetic and penchant for abstraction. This negation that Lennart Grau executes in his art makes it clear that he is neither infuenced by the urban context nor the fashionable trends in art. And in fact he doesn’t even feel the need to take an attitude of resistance, nor distinguish himself competitively, nor to do it differently; his distance to the currently prevailing visual language nurtures an escapism, which perhaps seeks a point of departure and a reason to drift off into another, much more beautiful and imposing world as a surrogate for an existence trapped in the wretchedness and arrested in the constraints of the day-to-day. The essence of his painting is that it seductively abducts the viewer. Lennart Grau’s paintings, which come in small, various middle and even large formats, have a certain anachronistic character because he likes to turn to the past in looking for his subjects and models. Inspired by the aesthetics of the Rococo, Biedermeier and Baroque, he scours the Internet, auction catalogues and art publications for choice still lifes, landscapes, ruler and hero portraits that offer a visual pithiness which can hardly be found in the iconographic repertoire of contemporary art. With skilled craft, in acrylic and oil on canvas, he creates exuberant fantasy worlds. The way Grau works with historical images, their appropriation and their idiosyncratic overcoding represents a successful balance between impression and expressiveness. Before the tonally shimmering gold, green, turquoise and purple backgrounds, which are sometimes reminiscent of brocade wallpaper, sometimes lit-up horizons and mimic the illusion of theater curtains parting, figures from various societal and professional milieus appear. The artist, who studied at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK), gives his protagonists their character through garments and typical poses, and presents them, as he himself puts it, “2 cm über dem Zenit” (2 cm above the zenith) – which is also the title of the exhibition. They have already surpassed the highpoint of their worldly power. Their vain transience emphasizes Grau, who has long been interested in political iconography, through the exaggeration of their vestiary accoutrements and richly decorated interiors. In the truest sense of the word, they escape the two-dimensional canvas, since the pasty color masses curve up into relief-like structures and extend into the real space of the viewer. They disengage from the representation of the objects to articulate the autonomous quality of mixed paint, the marbled structures, the undulating curves, fowing like lava on the surface.

The figures whose faces remain void of identity and without special characteristics – mostly just eye sockets are visible – as well as the sensual landscapes, the rich fower bouquets and the sumptuous still lifes deliver one thing above all, namely, the impulse of a sprawling artistic urge towards decorative ornamental stylization. The resulting unconditional affirmation of the beautiful often leads to an aesthetic overdose, which was once damned in the history of culture as kitsch and then praised in turn in Pop Art. As a stylistic means and an affective reservoir, kitsch with its artistic pathos and a proclivity for interminable sentimentality has long been at home in contemporary high culture. Occasionally kitsch has been accused of being completely devoid of irony, and uncritically affirmative. But this argument overlooks that in the exaggeration and the excessiveness there is also an ironic principle – perhaps as a contemporary reading of Jean Baudrillard’s strategy of affirmation. Despite the historic connection, Lennart Grau’s art has little to do with the 1980s, with postmodernism and its references of adding together times and epochs. Rather his art construes an imago of the present as alternative world, knowing full well that the truth is the invention of a liar (Heinz von Förster). Because too much is just enough. Mannerism at its best!