Fri 10 Nov 2023 to Sat 9 Dec 2023
Tue-Fri 1pm-6pm & by appointment
Artist: Monika Kus-Picco
Talk: Monika Kus-Picco in conversation with Heidrun Rosenberg. Tuesday 14 November, 7pm
When looking at a painting by Gustav Courbet, who of us would not note that it was painted with a palette knife; or in a similar work by Gerhard Richter, that it owes its structure to the squeegee; that Emil Nolde worked with a broad brush, Salvador Dalí with the finest. In each case, the painting instrument determines the appearance and effect to such a degree that one cannot ignore it if one wants to interpret a work of art correctly.
Whether sawed into wood with a circular saw or hammered with a fine chisel, polished with a file; no material – not stone, not wood – is indifferent to the way it is worked; not to mention that an unfinished wooden sculpture has an entirely different texture, a different temperature, than white marble or highly polished bronze.
And in the history of painting, we quite naturally distinguish between the famous drip-painting of Jackson Pollock and the soak-stain painting of Helen Frankenthaler.
In art history, we rightly consider the thirteenth-century invention of oil painting and the exploration of its possibilities through the finest glazes in Early Netherlandish painting to be groundbreaking. These gave the paintings a previously unprecedented depth and the objects a never-before-seen richness of detail. Moreover, oil painting or tempera make as significant a difference to the form as to the content of a painting as that between watercolor and squeezing paint out of a tube – which, for the first time, gave Vincent van Gogh the opportunity of an entirely new form of impasto-expressive color-line painting.
Pigments – and what they are made of – are not just prerequisites for a work: they are often based on a fundamental decision in favor of a particular desired aesthetic effect. The decisions to apply paint with a palette knife, brush, or squeegee, to splatter the pigment onto the unprimed canvas, or to just pour it, are all deeply artistic, aesthetic decisions: they are as relevant to the form as they are to the content.
Therefore, thinking about Monika Kus-Picco’s art also requires more than just an analysis of the abstract figure, the coloristic appearance, the powdery surface, and the utterly new color palette that we encounter in her work.
To call Monika Kus-Picco a pharmaceutical painter – like Jan van Eyck, one of the most famous exponents of oil painting – forces us to think about the particular material from which the artist creates her colors.
She crushes tablets, cuts up capsules to get at their liquid contents: all of them pharmaceuticals. She smashes, crumbles, and grinds pills, mixes them with liquid medicines: these medicinal products are manufactured by an industry, prescribed by doctors, taken by patients to heal, fight disease, eliminate pain, or relieve depression.
Working with these medicinal products designates the painter’s studio as a laboratory; she becomes an experimental researcher, investigating, documenting, and continuously developing chemical reactions between the various medications, their changes caused by the necessary addition of binders. Yet, for all her research and experimentation, chance, the unpredictable aesthetic side effect of the medication-based pigments, retains a significant place. More than with other artists, the question of preserving the uncanny pigments poses a challenge.
But more important than all these technical questions, more decisive than the new color-chemical experiments, is the starting material itself: the medication.
Until now, there has been an abyss separating pharmacy as the science of medicine from aesthetics as the science of beauty, of sensual perception. The pharmakon may be poison: its purpose, however, is a healing effect. It is different with paints, which are, for example, mixed with arsenic and also poisonous, which likely resulted in fatal health consequences for Van Gogh when he squeezed the paint directly from the tube into his mouth; but the purpose of the paint is its coloristic appearance, its solidity or fluidity. At most, one might ascribe to such art a healing effect for the mind, as Diderot did when he spoke of compensating for the loss of nature through landscape painting: Diderot did not attribute healing effects to the colors themselves.
Medications are something special that we might not be aware of in their existential force when we take a headache tablet, need a sleeping pill, or want to keep ourselves artificially awake.
In Faust, Goethe tells us that blood is a very special kind of juice: an element of life to which, not coincidentally, ritual homage is even paid in blood sacrifice. In blood lives something that has a higher meaning – with blood, the priest renews the eternal covenant between God and man again and again during mass. With blood, Mephisto wants to sign the pact with Faust to ensure its strength, its validity.
Medications – whatever they are taken for or against – take the path of blood. Medications change us: for better or for worse, intentionally or unintentionally through unwelcome side effects.
Those who paint with medicines, who mix their colors from tablets, drugs, and drops, participate in this existential process. The wealth of associations that open around each of Kus-Picco’s paintings is a sediment of unconscious knowledge of pharmaceuticals' healing and destructive effects.
Of all of Monika Kus-Picco’s teachers, Hermann Nitsch was arguably the most spiritually significant. Nitsch’s Orgies Mystery Theater – the reconstruction of myth through art – lives from the existential experience and conviction of the effectiveness of art, which were alien to the artist’s other teachers, Adolf Frohner, the great realist, as well as Herbert Brandl, the great painter. Likewise, the formal aesthetic meaning of abstract expressionism, of stain painting, of the all-over structure that knows no center and no edge, was probably conveyed to Kus-Picco more by the Viennese Actionists than by reading art history.
Certainly, all these artistic influences would not have fallen on fertile ground if the artist had not been intensively involved with pharmaceuticals from an early age. Serious, terrible illnesses in the family – fatal colon cancer, relatives addicted to sleeping pills, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease – strengthened the artist’s belief in the efficacy of medicines – and at the same time shook this belief! Death is omnipresent in Kus-Picco’s life – as is life with drug addiction. Medications surround the artist’s life, thoughts and feelings, memory and experience. In 2018, they became the material and spiritual foundation of Monika Kus-Picco’s art.
Like Damien Hirst, merely enumerating tablets, gluing them on, seems superficial because it reduces the content, the medication's active ingredient simply to its external appearance. Pulverized and given new life by the chemical reaction dormant in the pharmakon, teased with medicinal solvents, transformed with binders, and forced into usable pigment – this is what makes medicines, with all their blessings for humankind as well as the curse they can bring to the individual who experiences horrific side effects, such a special painting pigment. And this is what the artist makes visible and tangible in her profound paintings. Beauty and death, salvation and disaster lie close together in these breathtaking works. This is due to more than the unusual color palette, which the world has not yet seen.
With this new material, which usually takes the path via the very special juice of the blood to reach the desired place of action, Monika Kus-Picco frees herself from everything that the academies in Vienna and Düsseldorf, what Frohner, Nitsch, and Brandl, what the work of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, or Sam Francis could teach her. She has arrived at herself.
Artists paint landscapes because people long for nature. They paint vedute because people wish to remember special places or find pleasure in the gloomily-beautiful horror of the dystopian city. Artists paint the world because we humans are in the world. But what about all the dietary supplements? What about the ibuprofen that floods the American market in huge 400-tablet packs to combat agony of all kinds? A boon that the WHO counts among the indispensable medicines and yet one that can lead to sudden cardiac arrest. Is medicine as a cure only a question of quantity, as the ancients were well aware?
Monika Kus-Picco is well aware of the healing power of her colors. It pains her that her grandfather died of tuberculosis because no antibiotic could help him. This is what she must paint: the painting made from the antibiotic that would have saved her grandfather’s life. Edvard Munch painted his dead grandfather: a genre painting of somber power. Kus-Picco’s portrait of her grandfather digs no less deeply into the psyche and emotion of the viewer of the work, even though it is entirely non-representational.
For the artist, the medications are pigments charged with history – with death, illness, or healing, addiction and longing. The electrolyte used against diarrhea not only results in a beautiful new pink, it also symbolizes Morocco, where so many hygienically spoiled Europeans find themselves in need of this electrolyte. No, the pink of this electrolyte represents Morocco for the painter. Just as a certain yellow and red became the experience of Tunisia for Paul Klee in 1914: “The color and I are one,” Klee exclaims under the hot North African sun. This is the stuff from which Kus-Picco feeds her experience with colors from pharmaceutical products. This is what we see as viewers; this is what we feel in front of the paintings. These pharmaceutical pigments are not symbols. They are existence made visible.
These colors, which the artist mixes from hundreds of kilograms of expired medicines, are not available in any paint store. And this is what is essential: that no distributor of painting supplies can deliver content-neutral pigments for this existential understanding of art as an elixir of life and an eerily beautiful angel of death. Life itself provides the material.
However, it is certainly not only the knowledge of the real as well as mythical power of the pills and drops that makes Kus-Picco’s visual world so compelling. The pictures exist even without this knowledge. But knowledge deepens the experience of art. Those unfamiliar with the myth of the Last Supper will see only thirteen men gorging themselves in Leonardo’s Milan fresco. Just as iconography is a crucial rational key to understanding art, sensitivity to form and color gives the viewer an aesthetic experience that encompasses more than simply retelling content.
Kus-Picco’s pictures are created on the ground. If they were not brought into the vertical, not hung on the wall, they would not be paintings. They would be unusual objects. The “painting” on the floor is technically necessary. The powder from the dissected tablets must be liquefied with sanitizing solutions: Kus-Picco knows all the chemical reactions that this or that tablet’s powders trigger when combined with solvents. She is as much a painter as pharmacologist as mythologist.
On the horizon of the associations surrounding the unique material from which this art is made, the concept of reuse – recycling – also emerges. All the medicines that the artist initially found difficult to procure are now sent to her with confidence in large packages: Expired! Discarded! Useless! Destined for destruction! The decreed end in a medicine's life cycle is given a second chance, a second life, by Monika Kus-Picco.
The more you look at the paintings by this uncommon artist with both the seeing and the mind’s eye, the more you realize the existential energy that this unique color material brings to the form of the paintings. Friends have commissioned portraits of themselves – painted from the medications they take. It is not a similarity to the portrait that becomes a proof of individual personality, but the pharmaceutical substances that strengthen, change, weaken, heal, or addict this physical personality. No portrait has ever been more profoundly designed as a post-photographic image of our time.
Kus-Picco must meticulously note all chemical reactions if she does not want to leave the coloristic result of a painting to blind chance: the cranberry essence of the dietary supplement, the white of the white pill, the dark brown of the powerful oxidizing agent potassium permanganate. Kus-Picco knows which medications commonly induce psychotic states – and paints with these remedies as if to picture the gruesome delirium. She pours iodine onto the canvas and cuts open the bright red Nurofen capsules to let the gel drip onto the surface. She paints from powdered pills and she paints ointment pictures. She lets medications for the relief of Alzheimer’s, put on paper, vanish in the sun – like the person who, absorbed by the disease, slowly disappears. Each painting has its own unique background, based on the knowledge – and even more on the experience and real-life encounter – of the respective medications used in treating people. Kus-Picco’s pictures are – also – a voice against the pharmaceutical industry, against the carelessness and thoughtlessness with which medicines are prescribed and taken.
These paintings are intoxicated with beauty. But as Rilke knew, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so, because it serenely disdains to destroy us.”
Text by Klaus Albrecht Schröder