In 1980s West Germany, when public-access channels first began streaming into living rooms, Matthias Groebel started building a painting machine to compete with the captivating powers of a pixelated image. His story feels like something out of science fiction. With the help of his self-made machine, Groebel reroutes the faces in his paintings—each with their own depraved, clinical, and sexual undertones—straight from the TV screen to the canvas. At the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen in Düsseldorf, Groebel’s exhibition A Change in Weather (Broadcast Material 1989–2001) featured his motley cast of portraits. Rooted in the gritty world of cyberpunk, Groebel’s paintings explore both the pixilated, blue-tinged aesthetics and the flood of random and “poor” images that accompanied new media’s rise.
Groebel began making art as an autodidact in the early 1980s. A pharmacist by day, he ferreted through electronic scrapyards in his free time and created his painting machine by modifying a children’s Fischertechnik construction set with airbrush pens, windscreen wipers, and bike chains. The machine moves a robotic airbrush smoothly and systematically, row by row, over a canvas, spraying dots of color onto its surface, resulting in portraits that look as if Georges Seurat were working in a depraved cyberpunk technoscape. The faces in Groebel’s Düsseldorf show included a woman with frizzy blond hair sucking the dirt from under her pinky nail; a smirking man, rendered in sepia-blue tones, a vein protruding from his forehead; and a man wearing a blue, collared shirt and a pig mask. It’s as if a director off-screen is telling these figures never to look at the camera: no one meets our eye.
Toward the end of the eighties, Groebel, who was born in Aachen, appeared in Cologne on the tails of an influx of German artists and gallerists. In 1983 alone, artist Gerhard Richter moved to Cologne, dealer Max Hetzler relocated his gallery there from Stuttgart, and Monika Sprüth opened her first gallery in the city. As the decade progressed, more artists and gallerists arrived, contributing to the unprecedented growth of the local contemporary-art market. When Groebel arrived, his painting machine in hand, he found himself in an art capital that was, at the time, second only to New York City. Groebel, more connected to the computer subculture, was at odds with the gestural abstract painters who were dominating Cologne, but that doesn’t mean his figurative paintings should be considered in isolation from the scene. According to a New York Times review of his 2002 solo show at the UCU gallery in New York, Groebel’s work “has a bleak, airless quality that calls to mind Gerhard Richter.” Groebel also had an important predecessor in K. O. Götz, a painter and professor of art at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, who, despite being known for his explosive gestural forms, was also one of the first to experiment with painting electronic images. In a series of grid works from the early 1960s, such as Density 10: 3: 2: 1 (1961), Götz divided his canvas into thousands of small fields in order to imitate the pixels of a TV screen. While Götz’s initial experiments in media art were rooted in furthering the formal possibilities of abstraction, Groebel, working twenty years later, was operating in a very different media environment. Even if his methods overlapped with his peers and predecessors, his motivations also diverged.
Until the 1980s, the average German TV viewer could choose between a maximum of three state-owned channels. But by the end of the decade, West Germans had access to dozens of channels that played all day and all night, seven days a week. With this expansion, a host of low-budget soap operas and game shows were made to fill up the hours of viewing time. Groebel spent his evenings rummaging through obscure TV channels and odd programs. A new tool that could convert analogue wave signals to pixels became a central component in this painting machine. It allowed him to gather faces from television images and feed them into his painting contraption. The curation of A Change in Weather attempted to mimic the lure, entrapment, and repetition of a television box, by inviting viewers to move in front of and behind floating walls installed in the gallery. It felt as if we, too, were hysterically changing channels and filling our retinas with rapidly moving images.
In the exhibition catalogue, cocurator Andreas Selg compares Groebel’s work to “literature, especially sci-fi and cyberpunk stories of invention and reconfiguration.” I would argue that Groebel’s machine finds an especially apt counterpart in science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s 1969 short story “The Preserving Machine.” Its protagonist, Doc Labyrinth, worries about the fate of culture in the case of an apocalypse, so he builds a machine that turns classical compositions into animals. He releases the slender Mozart bird, the silly Schubert sheep, and the round Bach bugs into nature, only to discover that, with time, their bodies metamorphosize to grow claws and stingers. Likewise, Groebel gathers bits of media culture into a machine only to later find them deformed. His 1993 portrait L0593 shows a woman against a light-blue background dolefully gazing into the distance. It is an image we have seen before. It recalls a familiar cinematic trope: Camera A zooms in. A beautiful woman watches her lover depart. She realizes maybe she does love him; she understands it is already too late. But we don’t recognize this woman in Groebel’s painting. She is an actress, but not a celebrity. Her hair is flat, her fringe badly cut, and she has eye bags made worse by an unflattering light that casts large shadows on her face. She is the degenerate, soap-opera version of the big-screen love story.
Groebel is attracted to the simultaneous interplay of voyeurism and fantasy that takes place on the TV screen. The words PRIVATE PLACE are inserted into the painting L0793, which depicts a man lying down. Captured from below, his foreshortened face consists mostly of chin, nostrils, and brow bone. Is it a sex scene? Is he even alive? It is hard to tell from his wide-open eyes that are frozen in place as they look to the ceiling. The sexual undertones of many of Groebel’s paintings enhance a feeling of an inappropriate, or even perverse, voyeurism. These forbidden glimpses are broken by the often nonsensical text that Groebel includes in many of his paintings. Phrases like Tour Guide and Spied for China offer small snippets of a story line. Although these faces belong to “real” people, by cropping and grouping them together the artist conjures a new world existing on the fringes of our own.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Groebel—who has been painting for over thirty years in relative obscurity—had his first institutional show in 2023, after a string of recent gallery solo shows in Zurich, Cologne, and Berlin. With the rise of apps like TikTok, algorithms have developed an unmatched ability to pull us down the rabbit hole and into a stream of anonymous faces that we swipe through in endless, one-second cycles. Where do all of these faces go after the algorithm has abandoned them? What does this massive data junkyard on the periphery of the internet look like? Matthias Groebel’s portraits of people from the outskirts of mainstream television foreshadowed a complex media landscape of strange digital niches that have utopian potential but dystopian ramifications, where outcasts and strays find themselves and each other.