Portrait gallery – University of Rostock

To mark the 600th anniversary of the University of Rostock, the existing historical gallery of professors was to be supplemented with a current exhibition of portraits of female professors. The project was commissioned by the art-savvy Elizabeth Prommer, director of the Institute for Media Research, who supported an upcycling solution. This is not a matter of course in this particularly prestigious historicist setting. The exceptionally beautiful main building of the university, donated by Pope Martin V in 1419, is an excellent example of the neo-Renaissance. For the new building of 1867-70, Friedrich Lisch, at the time conservator of historical art monuments, historian, archivist, librarian and publicist, had developed the picture programme. It is an intimidatingly representative setting for the gallery.
A portrait is often difficult enough, especially of living models who have their own view of their person to be portrayed. At 57, it becomes even more complicated, and I also had less time than the earlier artists. To increase acceptance, the female professors were asked for digital images. But what came together was very diverse. Many portraits were taken by professional photographers, classically looking at the viewer, but sometimes in black and white. Full-body portraits at events and snapshots with celebrities were also submitted. Each individual picture was attractive in itself, but they didn’t even fit together in groups of five. It took me a while to think of a common denominator for all 57.
After extensive research, the Internet platform Kunst.Stoffe Berlin, a non-profit association that rescues suitable materials from disposal and offers them to creative people, helped me find the roundest possible picture carriers. 30 flat transport boxes for 35mm film reels were available, made of plastic in various shades of green, pink and black. The surfaces were so scratched and covered with countless stubborn production stickers that they were sorted out by a film company. Most of the inscriptions referred to a film about the Fantastic Four, whose film cans now became 60 Fantastic Round Undergrounds. The reflected image from the origin of the image carriers was interesting for the concept.

The source material takes on a different meaning in the clash with the aura of the exhibition space. Covering the sculpture with metal leaf was discussed and rejected as an option. After all, it was also supposed to be a counter-design to the extra-wide gold frames with oval picture sections. The antique portrayals of professors in black regalia against a dark background with only a few red spots and pale skin colours have a very reduced colour spectrum. The plastic cans were now given a uniform appearance by a wide variety of paint residues, making them appear more colourful, lighter and more feminine. When paint cans, called “jugs” in street art jargon, stop spraying, however, they still contain paint residues. That’s why they don’t belong in the yellow recycling bin. Don’t tell the kids, but if you tap a big screw in the bottom of the rim, you can still spray that paint and let it drip out completely. You don’t even want to do that in the studio because it’s a miserable mess. I had to stack the cans well overlapping and distribute the leftover paint as evenly as possible. The problem of the differently coloured film cans and their very damaged surfaces was solved pragmatically with these paint remnants. Dripping and the picturesque colour transitions make the individual works unique.
The photos submitted by the professors were digitally processed. A complementary model was developed for the dark canvas oil paintings of the men: with uniformly light backgrounds and at least four colour tones per picture. I recoloured black and white images. Matching the altered images was not entirely straightforward, but digital is easier to change. In all 57 portraits, shading, highlights and colour contrasts were brought closer together to create a harmonious overall image. This was further enhanced in the analogue production process by printing on textured textile. After printing, the individual portraits were assigned to colour-matched picture supports, cut and glued, and highlights were applied with iridescent acrylic paint. Painted and labelled by hand, the individual portraits are now in the gallery matching yet unique.