At the 1982 Oldenburg Cultural Summer Festival, West German artist Volker Kuhnert covered the faces on billboard advertisements at a public bus stop with copper and then peeled bits away so that only the smiles came through, liberated from their commercial faces.
The work remains a wonderful example of Kuhnert's conviction that there's more than meets the eye; one has only to look beneath the surface.
Kuhnert "looks" by using what he calls Perforation, a complex technique he invented whereby an object is altered by perforation, then photographed. The photograph is again perforated and photographed. This process is repeated four and five times, until the original object attains an Umdeutung -- or transformation.
Kuhnert's use of perforation can be seen in an intriguing 47-piece show at the West German Embassy through Aug. 1. The exhibition, which has been shown in France and the Netherlands as well as in Germany, is part of the embassy's effort to introduce emerging German artists to the American public.
"We want to use the embassy not only for political, economic and consular business, but to represent German culture as well," explains Hans-Dieter Heumann, the embassy's second secretary in the cultural department. The next exhibition, opening Sept. 25, features paintings and graphics from Gu nter Thiersch.
Though the 43-year-old Kuhnert relies heavily on scrap metal and perforation, the key to his work lies in his photography.
"It's a highly original process," says Viola Drath, Washington political and cultural correspondent for the German newspaper Handelsblatt. "Kuhnert has found a new way of integrating form and content. Perforation signifies a new mode of pattern art, while at the same time expressing a symbolic content -- one that reflects the disintegration and crumbling of modern culture."
Drath feels Kuhnert's art echoes the work of Lucio Fontana, who slashed his canvases to explore hidden structures.
What is not hidden in this exhibit is the concentration on that which is decaying and in ruins. "It's a very German and European theme," according to Drath.
Kuhnert himself believes contemporary society values only the new and useful, saying, "I want to show that even the old things can possess a new beauty once they're freed from their function."
This is especially evident in "Korrosia V" (Corrosion), where a rusty spring becomes a form free of its use.
Kuhnert's art blurs what is real and what is simply real in a photograph. This compels one to view the art up close to determine the distinction.
In the "Fu ndstucke" (Found Objects) series, a piece of metal juts out of a marsh in one stark black and white photograph. The metal, dull above the water's surface, becomes bright and shiny when the perforation allows a look at an actual slice of compressed scrap metal beneath the surface.
In "Deutsche Perforation" -- a two-panel scene of a metal curtain hanging over old street scenes in both Leipzig and Munich -- Kuhnert seems to unify generations. The contemporary crowd of German youth exposed beneath the work looks as if it belongs in the original picture. The work also unites the two Germanies. "The people in the West and East essentially think the same," says Kuhnert. "There's little difference."
Despite all the grayness and decay represented in his art, Kuhnert maintains his work is optimistic. He points to "Genesis," a series of five oil paintings he says show how hope lies on the other side of destruction.
In "Genesis" as in most of Kuhnert's art, there seems to be an expectancy, an impatience for answers to contemporary German issues. Nuclear energy, disarmament, pollution and the East-West split come to mind.
"It's my opinion that we can solve our problems only by looking into the future." he says. "The past has not provided the answers. We must fight through the grayness and go below the surface to find them."