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Big Apple showcases Swiss visual artist

Oliver Krähenbühl with some of his charcoal drawings (swissinfo) swissinfo

Paintings and drawings by Swiss artist Oliver Krähenbühl have been attracting New Yorkers to his exhibition in Chelsea, the city’s hottest art scene.

This content was published on February 3, 2005 - 15:12

The 41-year-old’s work, which is on display until March 5 at the Axel Raben gallery, features oil paintings called Under Construction as well as large-format charcoal drawings from his American Suite series.

His works show linear structures, which overlap and interconnect with multi-layered complexity.

Weaving shadow and light and curves and sharp edges, they are starkly reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, vibrating with the tension and contradictions of the big city.

Lego and studio space

Some of these drawings were completed during a five-month stay in New York in 2002, where Krähenbühl lived in a small apartment with his partner and their four children.

Faced with a lack of money and time and space to work, but bursting with ideas, he bought affordable charcoal and paper.

“I worked during the day when the kids were at school and the Lego was put away,” the artist told swissinfo.

Three years on, Krähenbühl’s latest show could signal his arrival on New York’s hyper-competitive art scene, which would bring greater recognition in the United States.

His art is represented in public and private collections in Switzerland, and besides New York, he also spent time in Berlin and Paris during the 1990s as an artist in residence.

In 2001, the Lutz & Thalmann gallery in Zurich presented Oliver Krähenbühl: Palimpsest Pictures, an exhibition that attracted great interest and was reviewed in the prestigious journal, Art in America.

“Krähenbühl is a master of beautiful hesitancy, and his flickering effect is amplified by the increased number of layers and methods,” said the January 2002 review.

A few familiar things

Krähenbühl’s work caught the eye of gallery owner Axel Raben when he saw Swiss author Christoph Keller’s novel, A Few Familiar Things, which features 12 of the artist’s drawings.

“I think he [Krähenbühl] did with the city what I did with words and sentences,” said Keller. “I can see my sentences in his drawings.”

“His work is vibrating with energy. I see subways, people, things moving above ground and below ground.”

Krähenbühl, who supplements his income with a part-time job as a software support specialist and by giving master workshops in his studio, didn’t always know he would become an artist.

“When I was 14, in the holiday camp,” he remembered, “I was drawing comics and a teacher told me I should be in art school. But I didn’t know what an art school was.”

Krähenbühl had followed his father’s footsteps into an electronics apprenticeship because at 14, he was forced to choose between learning a trade or pursuing his education.

According to the artist, this decision was difficult “because you don’t know what you want at 14".

By the age of 20, he was enrolled at the School for Experimental Design in Zurich. Since then, he has had more than 22 solo and 16 group shows.

Place of paradoxes

When asked if New York is still the place for international artistic recognition, Krähenbühl says he thinks the economic wealth of the city and its art collectors are important for visual artists’ careers.

He added he would like to live in New York full-time but, like many artists, admits that he probably could not afford it.

Keller, who spends part of the year in the American metropolis, agrees with Krähenbühl that New York is hugely inspirational. The author says he would never have thought of going out to explore St Gallen, the Swiss city where he grew up.

But now that his primary residence is in the heart of Greenwich Village in New York, adventure beckons just beyond the doorman’s desk.

“It’s the endlessness of the surprises,” he told swissinfo. “I need that as a writer.”

Keller says that New York, as a place of such extremes, should not exist, but that it invites exploration.

“Once I leave the apartment, I just have to decide left or right,” he added. “I let the city take over and let it suck me in. I go out for rolls in my wheelchair with my notebook.”

Though New York may not be the location, or even an inspiration, for their next project – a video installation – Krähenbühl and Keller say they are planning to collaborate again this coming summer.

Wherever it takes place, with a title like The Human Brush and the combined talents of this artist duo, it is bound to be surprising.

swissinfo, Carla Drysdale in New York

Key facts

Oliver Krähenbühl was born in Switzerland in 1963.
He studied at the School for Experimental Design in Zurich and now gives master classes for three weeks a year at his studio in Switzerland.
A Few Familiar Things is available at The Axel Raben Gallery or through the publisher at remise-verlag@gmx.ch

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