Issue 01

Thursday, July 25, 2024

Volume 200,000


On Tim Plamper

Thibaut de Ruyter


Dire Straits
At the end of the 1980s, when I was in the sixth form, there was this bloke in my class who swore by Dire Straits and their lead guitarist Mark Knopfler. While I was struggling away with my three mates to play Joy Division songs on my cheap copy of a Gibson SG, he had a field day mocking my feeble efforts to reproduce solos played on a single chord by this group that had yet to attain its status as a contemporary myth. It’s true that with Mark Knopfler you really do get your money’s worth of chords and fretwork. Come to think of it, that would make a good advertising slogan for Fender: “The guitar you can play with all ten fingers.” It’s like fireworks in broad daylight: you get a real eyeful but you’re not really dazzled. The planetary success of the album Brothers in Arms, the smash hit Money for Nothing, which coincided with the creation of MTV and the kitsch video clips to go with it, the CD format (that horrible, “perfect” slice of plastic) – culture is often the result of several concomitant phenomena. All this happened in around 1985. Joy Division had stopped existing in 1980, with the suicide of their charismatic and tortured singer, Ian Curtis. But 1985 was the year New Order, the group that rose from their ashes, put out the very fine album Low Life. But more of them later.


Take an artist. Not any artist, but a young German with an undeniable talent for drawing, born in 1982 and studying in Stuttgart. Like many others of his generation, Tim Plamper discovered Joy Division only with the release of Anton Corbijn’s film Control in 2007. But that is not the point here. What I am sure about is the impression made on me by his drawings when I saw them a few years ago in the Egbert Baqué gallery: here, I thought, is a young man who really knows how to draw! Tim Plamper is possessed of real savoir-faire and all or part of his current work consists in knowing how to avail himself and yet avoid being the plaything of his technical fluency. The first works of his that I saw go back to 2006. Drawings on paper, red on white. Everything is consummately done: the anatomy of the bodies is right, the perspectives are exact, the proportions more than accurate and the compositions subtle and quirky. Here, two young women smile as they unwrap what could well be a gift. This other girl is taking off her sunglasses to look us in the eyes, and this little boy standing in a giant mushroom is playing with his beach toys in a patch of sand. These works are incontestably charming and immediate, and the artist, in his use of circular formats, has no qualms about measuring up to Neo Rauch. But Tim Plamper is more than just impeccably skilled; he is also a very intelligent young man, and was quick to realize that he needs to forge ahead in order to assert himself. That he must develop his own style. And so, quite recently, he has worked out exactly what he needs to do: destroy! Smash to pieces, shatter, batter, distress, destroy his skill in order to create another one. If Plamper’s first drawings are highly seductive, more than capable of pleasing the art market, then his current production demands real effort from anyone who takes an interest.


The faces of pretty young women have are now partially absent, or are left unfinished. Plamper allows an element of imperfection, but this is perfectly under control. The eyes are now only white holes or two sprayed-on blotches of colour. The mouths are wide open, ready for acts that, we soon gather, are of a sexual nature. This is no doubt one of the first things that an intelligent artist learns: there is no point in representing everything, in drawing every detail and tracing every line. By leaving something unfinished in his new drawings, Plamper has realised that you don’t need to reel off a 15-minute guitar solo with all the fretwork and all the chords, all the notes. The main thing is to leave something unsaid, to move fast, not to be boring. In music as in drawing, in literature as in architecture, “minimum effort for maximum effect” is the first sign that the skilled technician is able to transcend his technique in order to touch on the essential: creating a feeling.


The last three years have seen Tim Plamper go from colour (well, red and blue on white) to black and white with only a discreet touch of colour. In so doing he has also changed material, using black lacquer that is much thicker than the finely sharpened red pencil. This too is a way of reducing his possibilities, forcing the artist to show greater virtuosity. Reducing rather than needlessly multiplying. This change of tools is fairly well known as techniques go: the point is to use a more difficult, more awkward and unexpected medium in order to enter into conflict with one’s own habits, in order to avoid doing things automatically, doing, what comes easiest. Leaving drawing to venture into unknown territories, Plamper has also started making collages with photocopies. For someone skilled at drawing, this is another way of refusing line and forgoing his main talent. There is thus something perfect in the imperfection and brutality of his collages, and they should be seen as the continuation of what he draws. A good musicians will always know what to do, even on a bad guitar, even if you take away his effects pedals. All he’ll need is a little time to adapt. And good artists are capable of changing their means of expression (or material) without this necessarily meaning a radical change in their production.


Then there is the artist’s fascination with hair (the hair that he proudly displays in his works and in life – for which he no doubt has to deal with the reproaches of his parents). Here it is surely the challenge, the difficulty of rendering its gloss and bulk without stupidly drawing the hairs one by one, the modelling, the volumes, the curves – in fact, the very difficulties of drawing – that interests Tim Plamper.


It’s no secret: in the visual arts as in pop music, in cinema as in literature, it is vital to choose sides carefully!


The question that obsesses me here is this: do we have the right to judge a work of art primarily by its technical qualities? In other words, to find Mark Knopfler’s guitar solos beautiful because, technically, he is a better musician than Peter Hook and Bernard Summer? To be moved by the technical perfection of a drawing even if the theme or subject hardly touches us at all? (I remember being fascinated by a tiny Christ on the Cross traced with a single line by Caspar David Friedrich although I am certainly no Catholic.) Perhaps that is why New Order called the record they put out in 1989 Technique!

Plastic tat

The trouble with Mark Knopfler is that everything is clean where it should be dirty. It’s all immaculately done and produced. Not even your mother could complain about his saturated guitar, it’s so easy on the ears. His music is as plastic and tacky as a the jewel case of a CD, which, in six months from now, will be all scratched from being left around the place.


The creation of the punk movement is an assertion of the teenage right to be rough and ready and loud. Enough of those exhausting piano lessons spent learning to play pieces to please the adults after Sunday lunch. Gone, the tedious exercise of rehearsal and practice. Long live spontaneity, the right to imperfection and provocation. Except that one of the biggest myths surrounding the history of punk is that it was some rush job done one afternoon by blokes who couldn’t play their instruments and spent all their time drinking. In fact, they had all been in other groups already and had other adventures, and often a manager, producer or sound engineer was on hand to make up for the musicians’ technical weaknesses. Plamper, today, typifies that state of mind. He has real skill and hides it, smashes it, destroys it, the better to invent. But he has no need of a backroom Mr. Fix-It.

Low Life

For me, Low Life is New Order’s best album. Well, actually I’m lying, because I’m the kind of person who changes their mind and tomorrow I might insist that it’s Technique. (Even if, quite sincerely, I really hated Technique when it came out.) At the same time, I do have integrity, and I would never tell you that New Order is not one of the best groups in the history of music of the 1980s. At least there’s that.

End of History

Nearly twenty years after leaving school, it seems to me that nothing much has changed. I still play my guitar solos on one chord and my classmate no doubt still listens to Dire Straits with his eyes closed so he can savour it when Mark Knopfler milks his guitar for notes. Okay, New Order haven’t come out with anything good since the early Noughties. That’s too bad for the fans. But Broadcast, A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Au Revoir Simone and Gregor Samsa have replenished the ranks of those groups that, even if they don’t have the technique and dexterity of a Mark Knopfler or a Jimi Hendrix, still have something to say and invent. And maybe that’s the secret of all this: Hendrix burned his instrument to make it wail and moan in ways that no one had ever heard before. Never mind virtuosity.