Tilmann Zahn


Tilmann Zahn seeks out locales avoided by others: The shabby and inhospitable dark sides of the glittering world of consumer society. His path takes him to freight depots, industrial parks, loading stations; to places where wares are manufactured and distributed, in bulk and in containers encrusted with the grime of travel and the sweat of physical work.

In the dust-grey grass which sprouts in pavement cracks, he now and again finds container seals, thin metal bands with a customs stamp. These curiously bent lead seals lie at the end of the road in the desert of city outskirts. One can imagine that the grotesquely deformed metal strips once had a standard form, but can‘t grasp it, put a name to it. This groping state particularly stimulates Zahn. Forms reminiscent of tools with no recognizable function repeatedly appear in his work. Found tools are worked into some of his large-format assemblages, preferably those with clear signs of wear whose use remains mysterious.

This enigmatic equipment appears in his so-called oil papers in abstract form. Grainy, unprimed paper is submersed in diluted oil paint, then treated with graphite or worked manually. Zahn began experimenting with this process in 1989. He created several series in the past years, with variations in technique. Sketched shapes emerge as shadowy planes in the dyed paper. In a later phase, delicate forms are ripped from the paper. Only their perimeters are present in his latest works. The schematic lines and frayed contours of the tears emphazise the impression of age and wear created by the somber earthen tones, seemingly dulled by rust, dust and sheer time, of Zahn‘s color baths.

Color develops its own dynamic in the oil paint solution. Tilmann Zahn manipulates this dynamic in ways that favor linear structures or marbled effects, still giving leeway to the color‘s autonomous life. As a child visiting art exhibitions with his parents, he felt as if he were being „absorbed by surfaces of color“. Zahn, who was born in 1966 and grew up in Dusseldorf, has always been preoccupied with flat textures and color effects. An artistic multi-talent, he studied music, but the urge to express himself visually never left him. Apart from his work as a musician in the Basel Symphony Orchestra, he experiments with paint and primers, always seeking an adequate expression „for something somber, lost“. Zahn has developed a subtly expressive visual language in his oil papers, which consist, above all, of color.

On his wanderings, which are also a sort of search for the self, Zahn finds not only metal seals, but also archaic images which well up in him, reminiscent of fences, of letters, of symbols whose significance is hidden, belonging as much to a distant past as to an as yet undefined future. It is as if his pictures were finished before he enters the studio, he says. There Tom Waits is one of his favourite musicians, and that is no coincidence: He is in the company of gamblers,drinkers and losers who live the blues in the shadows of the American dream, when he transforms what has been thrown away and rediscovered into color symbols.

Zahn‘s tool-like forms are symbols of lost, inaccessible knowledge. This touches on a social reality: The individual participates only fragmentarily in the knowledge of his time; new knowledge is constantly won, old knowledge lost. In Tilmann Zahn‘s work, the tool whose function has been lost is like a key without a door. The lock to which the key belongs can at best be imagined and with it, innumerable possible spaces of thought and imagination. It is as if Tilmann Zahn‘s paintings opened up an extremely sensitive space with a pair of rusty pliers.

Alice Henkes, 2007

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