Karlsruhe, Jan Zöller’s native city, boasts over 300 drinking wells and fountains. A former seat of royal power, the city is characterised by Baroque architecture and even has its own water well museum and is home to the European Well and Fountain Society. The Hygeia Fountain, built in 1905, is located a short distance from the city centre; over the years its bronze basin has been tarnished by weather and smog. It is in general need of renovation and cuts a sad figure against the backdrop of the old Vierordtbad. While he was studying, Jan Zöller lived on a street near the Hygeia Fountain and would pass it on a daily basis – he could even see it from his balcony. Fountains were the subject of many of Zöller’s paintings following his graduation from the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe, and the fountain forms a central motive in his first solo exhibition, “Possibly there’s a possibility that everything is possible”, at Meyer Riegger and Robert Grunenberg Berlin.
An abstract representation of the fountain appears throughout Zöller’s images, videos and sculptural works – the archetypal form of a tiered fountain, which played a major social, economic and cultural role in the history of communal life in the city. In his paintings, the fountain is also a place that brings together central themes: residential architecture, abstract human figures, birds, fire. Using these elements as a starting point he creates settings, scenes containing different protagonists in which he outlines the relationships and interdependencies between people and systems – interdependencies of emotions and social togetherness but also of economic cycles.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Roman Fountain” comes to mind, a short poem in which the cycle of water in a fountain – flowing from one basin to the next to then return to the top to cascade down again from above – comes to symbolise the relationship between giving and taking.
The paintings featured in the exhibition, as well Zöller’s performative and sculptural work, all revolve around cycles: there is a circulation of water, tears, urine, blood and wine; tobacco smoke courses, human and birdlike figures clamber over each other, loving, fighting against and using the other. Day and night, moon and sun, fire and water, movement and stasis alternate; creating dependencies, destroying and recreating one another.
In the triptych “Magical Fountain”, stick people – genderless figures consisting of legs, feet and arms – throw coins into an opulent fountain, ponder life by night and wait for the coins’ promises of happiness, only to take them out of the fountain again at the break of day.
Another image, “Sculpture running away from the Opening”, shows long-legged fountain figures running panic-stricken from the left- to the right-hand side of the painting, while doing so sloshing red wine from the glasses of the opening. Zöller playfully allows the sculptures to break free from their role – is the exhibition opening or even the art world itself so terrible to cause one to run away from it? He unflinchingly reiterates and variegates individual motives in his work, happily inverting them and reducing accepted ideas of their meaning and classification to absurdity. In his stage-like landscapes, half-moons obtrude into the wedge-shaped spotlights of glowing celestial bodies, mask-like birds’ heads collectively draw on a cigarette that ramifies like the branches of a tree, its smoke rising eerily into a spectral S-shape in the sky. Zöller combines emblematic graphics with luminous colours and sharply contoured figures, weaving expressive, atmospheric forms and markings into his worlds. The layers of the image accumulate, surfaces, shapes and figures are superimposed, images appear within images, which in turn reference each other. By doing so, Jan Zöller develops an intelligent painterly practice without illustrating rhetorical figures; instead, they appear through his interest in the ambivalent associations between everything in the world and are thus an indispensable part of his visual dramaturgy.
The places and settings in Zöller’s images have their origins in the quotidian. The birds on the fountain spending time together, the stick people rushing around, the lonely cabin in the woods, they are all moments concerned with freedom, intimacy and contemplation. At the same time, they are situations in which one experiences distraction, systems that mark dependencies or that no longer work. It is a fate similar to that of the Hygeia Fountain in Karlsruhe: with the figure of Hygeia, the god of health, and the many mermaids and saplings that adorn its basin, it is supposed to represent vitality and youth; but if, as most people do nowadays, you pass by the fountain on your bike, you either turn your head away or simply take no notice of the basin into which water hasn’t flown for years and around which a group of homeless people often gather.
Jan Zöller plays with the flaws in the system and turns them into the themes, protagonists and showplaces of his paintings. The cycles are dysfunctional, the figures broken or even injured, houses and entire towns are ablaze, the fountains become human and spew out urine instead of water. Painting as a form of expression also contains a certain openness with Zöller – there is an emptiness between his dense repertoire of motives and figures. When painting is deemed unable to express something symbolically in the exhibition, Jan Zöller complements it using performance, video and sculpture.
Leaving the canvas behind, he still employs familiar motives but presents them in other mediums within the exhibition space: legs, crows, the wooden house. In the form of video, sculpture and performance, they make up a new infrastructure in the realm of reality that acts as a symbol for the next damaged basin which, true the cycle of the fountain, will allow components to flow back into the world of painting.
“In an era of cultural production tailored for success, Jan Zöller’s collaged image architectures tell of malfunction, failure, loneliness, comedy and the attempt to achieve genuine social connection. Zöller’s paintings are full of allusions to the failure of modernist utopias and German postwar painting, to the collapse of hyper-capitalism. But just as the anarchist birds occupy the fountains and bathrooms of his paintings and appropriate them for their own communities, Zöller’s painterly practice creates the fabric of new utopias from the material of malfunctioning systems (to which the current art industry surely belongs).”
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf, 2019