Fungus Rock presents an intense challenge to the traditional relations that exist between subject, medium and support. The printed fabric support that Polke utilizes instead of the traditional canvas plays a dual role, as both the physical support and as an active component of the work itself. Fungus Rock is comprised of a layering of painted, printed and patterned elements. Pastel polyester fabric, a mesh of irregular black dots stenciled on the surface, and splashes of brightly colored pigment create a collage effect, not only uniting disparate images, but textures and materials as well. In addition to visual disparities, the pictorial elements themselves appear to be drawn from different periods. The rock has a prehistoric appearance, in contrast to the dots and the patterned fabric, firm and constant reminders of popular culture and mass production. Against the cool watery blue and purple patterns of the fabric is a large red stain. The red, which carries with it connotations of violence, is splashed slightly outside the black scroll frame that encloses the interior image of the mountainous rock and tiny human forms. The black dots mimic the technical process of printing and reproduction, also referenced in the decorative pattern of the polyester fabric, whereas the drips and splatters seem to reference accidents, emotion and the manual process of painting.
Polke began his "dot" paintings in 1963. The dots have become almost a signature style. His "dot" paintings were based on found images, stereotypes gathered from either advertisements or vernacular photographs. Polke then reproduced such images, imposing a dot grid manually across the surface, which served to blur the forms and obscure the image. Vision is further complicated in the works of the 1980s by the superimposition of the motif over a textile pattern and the brightly colored splashes of resin and lacquer between the two layers. The viewer feels compelled to switch back and forth between the various components, the print of the support and the motifs that appear to be stenciled on top of it, creating an almost hallucinatory vision.
The element of appropriation draws attention to, and plays with the concept of originality and authorship. Polke is consciously disallowing his work to be subsumed within a Modernist aesthetic by mediating his own hand--which was of primary concern within Modernism- -through the use of a stencil. The technique of stenciling also alludes to the mass imaging of the printing process with which the printed polyester fabric has been made. By using the patterned fabric for the surface, Polke makes it difficult to view his works without considering everyday, domestic experience.
Polke first used printed textiles in the 1960s, when textile patterns of all sorts provided his pictorial inspiration. Robert Rauschenberg had used patterned fabric as a support for his works from the 1950s, such as Yoicks. In the early 1970s, Polke began to make paintings in which figural motifs were superimposed on one another over printed fabrics. Although it never constituted a signature style, it does anticipate works to follow such as Fungus Rock and other works of the 1980s. In these paintings, there is no visual hierarchy, the image is deconstructed and combined with other images from popular culture, art history, history, politics, science and literature, to name only a few of Polke's many sources. The mixing of different mediums reflects more than a Post-Modern aesthetic. As Robert Storr notes, "there is a saturnine quality to Polke's gamemanship, and it permeates everything he touches. Polke is playing hard but is also playing for keeps. His refusal to swear allegiance to any aesthetic creed goes deeper than a simple desire on his part to raid his cultural heritage at will. It is rooted in a quite reasonable fear that dogmatic principles of any kind lead to sterility or, as this century has shown, far worse. Better the sulphurous atmosphere of decadence than a surrender to order. Accordingly, Polke has made disorder his medium. No artist of the day seems more comfortable in chaos, nor has anyone shown its attractions more cleverly or more masterfully." (R. Storr, On the Edge, Contemporary Art from the Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Collection, exh. cat., New York, 1997, p. 106.)
Fig. 1 Polke in a mushroom field, photograph by Augustina von Nagel, Cologne
Fig. 2 Caspar David Friedrich, Kreidefelsen auf Rügen, 1818, Stiftung Oskar Reinhardt