Those who take the time to engage more closely with Markus Schaller’s art quickly chance upon three underlying leitmotifs or formal principles which have permeated his work since its incipient stages. I would like to describe these three spheres of significance (as they could also be termed) over the course of the following analysis.
Firstly, Markus Schaller’s artistic work is governed by a relationship with handiwork as unusual as it is outmoded, and, more than this, by a conditionality emanating from the same handiwork. Markus Schaller has surrendered himself unequivocally to his craft, committing himself to it with utter wholeheartedness. It consists in exposure to his long-time material of choice, metal, and results from its workmanship, namely forging.
Essentially, the practice of forging, which has its roots in the ancient legend of the smithy of Hephaistos (Vulcanus), has not changed for millennia, regardless of the fact that the man-made resources used to tame the iron heated in the fire have been refined continuously over the years. Something new was created from power and sheer mass. Human energy was used to reshape, straighten or cleave a given material using the well-placed force of a tool, like the hammer or chisel. In principle, this process could not be substituted for any other.
Secondly, Schaller’s predilection for simple constructive shapes - in some measure the consequence of his decision to work with metal and forging – must be mentioned. These shapes arise virtually inevitably from the nature of the material and the way in which it is worked. This applies both to the shapes which Markus Schaller unmistakably assigns to the realms of the figurative and which appear as a human figure, a house, or as the head of a hammer (a simple shape represents the body or cavity which has been created for it), and those which he combines to form purely geometric structures (e.g. those he terms “cubes”), which consist predominantly of independent, homogeneous individual components.
Thirdly, Schaller’s work contains an added element: his love of text, the use of words, which are stamped into the material letter by letter (frequently covertly, secreted in unexpected spots, using embossed letters or stamps made from tempered steel). This has the effect that his works are invariably loaded with additional significance. Yet, above all, Markus Schaller uses these linguistic clues to attempt to make us aware of the legibility of the world. The words inscribed on many of his works unite to form brief poems (or abbreviations of the same) when read and connected, while, taken individually, they are reminiscent of those hieroglyphs found on ancient clay tablets or prehistoric stones. The statement entrusted to Schaller’s works is designed to enable the observer to enter into a unique discourse with the pieces once he has located the various characters, just as the artist before him conducted an intimate dialogue with his works, which went far beyond the process of their development. Is it not the case that the work of art is a wilful, headstrong opponent with the right to lay claim to its own entitlements?
Thus these three aspects or facets influence Markus Schaller’s work in a significant manner, and will be elucidated further in the paragraphs which follow.
Regarding point one: when Markus Schaller started studying at the Berlin University of the Arts (Berliner Hochschule der Künste) in 1988, having arrived in Berlin in 1985, he was swiftly accepted into Rebecca Horn’s class, and consciously pursued a different route to his contemporaries. At the time, the new media – videos, computers etc., were all the rage. However, Schaller was interested in iron, or rather in iron transformed into steel in all its various alloys. This interest was perhaps rooted in a penchant for the archaic and primitive, or in an urge to distinguish himself from the others and stand out from the crowd. Or perhaps it derived from his desire to work with a material which offered him resistance, sensing that he needed this form of confrontation. One thing was clear to him from the start: his art could only emerge after a struggle. Conflict was the only way for him to develop his strength. He was not someone to whom things came easily. His achievements took time, they had to grow gradually. His art professor, Rebecca Horn, herself an acclaimed artist, let him be, as she did the others; she always allowed the students to go their own way, fostering their talents, and never attempted to dissuade them from their respective decisions.
Forging is an ancient handicraft which has been practised since time immemorial. It unites two elements which we perceive as primordial, fire and iron, which is heated in the former until it first turns red and then incandescent, becoming, with this, malleable; it can be bent and formed, thinned out and solidified, elongated or reinforced.
The traditional art of forging culminated once more in the 20th century in the creations of major figures like Julio Gonzalez, the early David Smith, Rudolf Hoflehner and Eduardo Chillida. In contrast, this craft virtually disappeared in the generation following Hoflehner and Chillida, as modern art concerned itself increasingly with intellectual conception as opposed to creative endeavours. Alternatively, projects became so monstrously colossal, as in the case of Richard Serra (and other Americans) and in Germany Alf Lechner, among others, that only the cumulative strength of enormous machines was able to subdue the steel sheets or sheer steel mass. Of course, this artistic scene contained some exceptions, such as Stephan Balkenhol (who carves his figures, including their base, from logs of wood), Franz Bernhard (who combines metal and wood to form figuratively conceivable sculptures) or Rudolf Wachter (who concentrates all his attentions on wood as material), who occupied the position of outsiders. Rudolf Wachter once said: ”When I work, I have to be alone. If there’s a man standing next to me, I can no longer think.” Thus he never tolerated an assistant or helper in his workshop, feeling that he would only be irritated by someone continually looking over his shoulder. Markus Schaller is similar in this respect. He, too, has to be alone with his material, in order to be able to concentrate on the working process, to feel how far the material is willing to comply with his creative ideas.
After 1990, after the reunification of a Germany divided for more than four decades, many former GDR establishments which had processed steel in one form or another were “phased out”. At the time, it became possible to obtain various specialist tools, machinery and parts (and also large quantities of iron as a raw material), extremely cheaply from these bankrupts’ assets. Machine hangars were abandoned and used as workshops. And, suddenly, the individual, who had isolated himself in an endangered manual profession until that time, was presented with ideal working conditions, and was able to develop in a way he would hardly have dared to imagine. In other words: the outsider Markus Schaller was precipitated abruptly into his element, like the proverbial fish into water.
Regarding point two: the decision to use a specific material, iron, and the way in which it is to be worked, namely via the craft of forging, also provides an indication of the resultant form. Markus Schaller knows how the material reacts to his intrusions, and also knows how far he can manipulate it, and where the limits are. The material to which he devotes his attention speaks to him and draws out the possibilities stored deep within him.
The material itself confines the artist to great simplicity. The simple, constructive shapes characteristic of Markus Schaller’s work thus emanate in equal measure from both his personal affinities and the conditions imposed by the material, which is ready to hand in a specific, pre-formed shape and which can only be altered by an individual within fixed limits.
Markus Schaller prefers to use so-called hexagon steel in bars of various strengths and lengths (he rarely uses square bar steel), usually stainless steel created from a combination of chrome and nickel. These pieces of steel form the source of his work. They can be moulded to form human figures, just as they are capable of coalescing in a complicated manner, only to allow themselves to be teased into geometric structures (such as cubes) in a manner which is at once simple and confusing, irritating and convincing.
The high quality of Schaller’s work and its intensely artistic nature lies in the fact that these figures or constructions, fashioned from simplistic, stereotypical elements, are infused with their own distinctive character through their contact with the artist, becoming immediately identifiable as works by Markus Schaller. This applies both to the human figure, invariably fashioned from a single piece of metal, whether placed within a circle, (as in “At the end I find myself back at the beginning“), a steel ring which never quite closes to form the suggested unity, which is held together via its step, e.g. via the replicated legs, simulating movement, or whether this figure is independent, standing, sitting, kneeling or lying quite autonomously, as is the case with the constructive shapes, assembled from many homogeneous individual components, of which those Markus Schaller has christened “Managed Cube” or “Chattanooga Cube” (crafted from non-stainless steel) are the most impressive. There are several versions of these works, which have also been reproduced (in various sizes) using Murano glass.
I do not hesitate to salute the artist for this brilliant design, which arises, apparently self-evidently, from equally sized square-cut bars, organised on the three-dimensional basis of a game of chess with 8 x 8 fields. Another impressive work is Schaller’s parallel configuration of 40 hammer heads, positioned upright and whose gaping opening (for the missing wooden shank) seduces the observer to search for an insight into this world of the forging hammer. The apparently negligible mental and physical effort with which Schaller succeeds in executing that decisive transformation, creating a work of great character from standardised material, is one of the most convincing things about his work. He applies great artistic economy in the process of this creation, and these precisely dosed endeavours provoke new, striking effects time and again.
The figuratively legible works, featuring houses (with gabled roofs) fashioned from rectangular or strictly quadratic steel panels, or human figures, function in the same way. Their formation, namely from a single bar of hexagon steel, seems the easiest thing in the world. The bar is split up to the thigh and hip, producing two legs, while the arms are first cleaved, and then bent 180° downwards so that they fall naturally from the shoulders. The narrow head shape, which so perfectly and organically complements the emerging human figure, materialises at the top.
Regarding point three: Markus Schaller views his works as being “brought to speak” through the emergence of the text’s momentum, becoming the concurrent dialogue partners of both artist and the subsequent observer. By this I mean that they are, in any case, capable of creating a discourse thanks to the simple yet wilful way in which they operate, as well as their specific form and shape. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that text plays a conspicuous role in Markus Schaller’s thought processes and his creations. He has started writing poetry and reciting his own compositions, and it is no coincidence that his work has been declared an ideal unity of sculpture and poetry.
For Markus Schaller, the text which he incorporates into or tattoos on his sculptures, the addition of a language reduced to signs and hieroglyphs, has exceeded fascination and entered the realms of obsession. Material demands intellect, iron demands discourse. Thus Markus Schaller believes that the inclusion of text within his works goes beyond the brief messages which the words frequently inscribed in or embossed on his houses convey, and stands for the essential legibility of things. Markus Schaller’s many-detailed world, like that of Joseph Beuys before him, is full of meaning. It is our task to sense this as well, instead of overlooking it, as is, all too often, the case.
Finally, allow me to make a few observations regarding Markus Schaller’s pictures. We should not call them paintings, as their creative process forbids this appellation. They certainly occupy their own position, existing quite independently of the three-dimensional work in artistic terms, regardless of their connection with the latter thanks to the choice of material. Iron dust, or so-called tinder, is produced during the sculpting process or forging, and also while the letters are being embossed in the heated metal bar or glowing steel sheet. This matter is the raw material Schaller uses to create his pictures, in addition to the coarser iron shavings. Last but by no means least, Markus Schaller also uses graphite and carbon to create his works of art, subdivided as they are into large areas, whose abstract nature is strict in its consistency. Tinder, iron shavings, graphite and carbon produce the pictures’ dark base, through which yellow lines of pure sulphur trace a blazing path. Markus Schaller’s canvases lead us into a visual world whose silence is its loudest feature. These are reticent surroundings indeed. They only begin to speak, to communicate something to us, via the associations imposed on them by the observer.