In 1987 Campino, lead singer and songwriter of the German punk rock band Die Toten Hosen, promised: “As long as Johnny Thunders is alive, I’m gonna be a punk.” But after the drug-induced demise of his idol on 23 April 1991, Campino had to change the lyrics of the song “Das Wort zum Sonntag”: “Hey Johnny, can you see us? We won’t forget you. We’re gonna tell everybody about you, so your name will live forever.”
But actually, we don’t need to know all this. “J.T.”, a large-format painting by Judith Eisler suggests Johnny Thunders without really showing him. Judith Eisler found this picture on YouTube. It captures the rock star in a typically defiant yet aloof posture, with his electric guitar as an everlasting symbol of his attitude to life. It’s a moment from a music video translated into light and colours.
“I work with images from various films but I usually avoid specifically recognisable images as this makes the meaning of the work too laboured and determined,” Judith Eisler once said, describing her work. Paintings like “J.T.” or “Paul and Liz”, “Marianne”, “Tina”, “Columbia” and “Blondie” are treasures unearthed from the electronic memory of pop culture. “Photography is truth. And cinema is truth twenty-four times a second”. This quote by Jean-Luc Godard is a reference to the frame-rate of a reel of film running through the projector. Judith Eisler, a passionate cineaste, discovers these truths in the film stills on her TV screen and transforms them into abstract riddles that neither pose questions nor give answers, and are just as realistic as they are mysterious.
“I need to work with known images and I want them to become something raw, naked you might say. It’s like taking the filter away and taking the image out of its narrative. Therefore, the way I paint is in relation to images. For me painting is a medium to communicate an idea.”
At first glance, “Paul and Liz” seems to simply show a still from Richard Brooks’ Hollywood version of Tennessee Williams’ drama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. And “Blondie” seems to simply be a portrait of the singer Debbie Harry. But couldn’t it just as well be any anonymous woman with a dark secret? With yearning in her eyes and a scarred soul? And the other two, the man and the woman – who are they and what are they doing? It is left to the viewers to answer these questions.
And these images are intended to become more abstract the closer the viewer gets to them. It is only from a certain distance that one can recognise their origins. Up close, mystery prevails.
Judith Eisler works like a film director, laying a trail for the viewers and leaving them to follow it on their own. Her movies take place inside the mind – both in her own and in the viewer’s. The result is a mixture of different visual worlds all based on the same image. So “J.T.” really is Johnny Thunders, yet at the same time it is someone or something completely different. There is seeing after the first glance. This is true in real life. And even more so in Judith Eisler’s works.
Text: Peter Krobath