Meret Arnold
Max Leiß – Formlabor

Formlabor - the title of the series shines like a sign at the entrance to a Darkroom. The photographic work that has emerged from it have the character of experiments. They are showing circles, segments of circles, rectangles, and more complex shapes. These elements are varied in different arrangements and sizes. In compositions of light and shadow, the usual points of reference such as material, volume and technique are missing. All attempts to "identify the object" lead to contradictions and riddles. The background becomes the foreground, the solid surface dissolves to become space and perspectives solidify into circular or rectangular discs. Partly the edges of the shapes appear as if they have been scorched or etched and partly they appear dim or as if a fine film is covering them. Soft or brittle, the qualities cannot be determined with certainty. If they were drawings or paintings, one would not necessarily try to reconstruct their creation exactly. Whereas with photographs, one wants to identify the objects or places that have left their imprint on the paper.

What did Max Leiß photograph? The origin of the images cannot easily be traced back. They are preceded by a complex process of transformation and composition. Images are fragmented, enlarged and reassembled. It is "mixed media" in the truest sense. A mixture of assemblage, collage, photogram, analogue photography and digital image processing. Precisely, Leiß began to expose superimposed drawing templates directly on light-sensitive paper. He scanned the photograms and selected sections that he enlarged and edited digitally. With laser prints from these images, he created new compositions which were then transferred to analog film with a camera and exposed to baryta paper in the darkroom.

The Formlabor series marks a new category in Max Leiß's work. The handling of the photographic medium differs from its previous mode. His earlier photographs show objects or situations from our everyday environment that he captured due to their sculptural qualities which he did not manipulate any further. In contrast, the photograms are used as material. He treats them in a way that is related to his sculptural process. Found objects, in this case drawing templates, gave the impetus for the series of works. Just as Leiß detaches particular elements from an “original whole” in his sculptures, fragments and recombines them, or changes the scale, he also uses this “set of sculptural actions” in Formlabor. Here the original object is gone as soon as it is transferred on paper. The process shifts to the image level. With a click of the mouse he turns the positive into a negative, zooms until you get the impression of a microscopic view and reassembles the different fragments in collages.

Max Leiß is fascinated that “things that are or were functional, produce an extraordinary variety of forms”. The drawing templates on which Formlabor is based were once used by architects, landscape architects and related professions to draw their plans. This process became obsolete with the advent of computer software. Leiß takes up this vocabulary of forms and tests it playfully by experimenting with different scales, sections and combinations. The series is thus strongly based on the visual language of his Ausgabe# edition, which he has been publishing since 2011. These include collages of prints, photographs, copies and text extracts that serve as a personal archive and reveal his artistic approach. In Formlabor, the artist works with an experimental set-up that always remains the same, consisting of the drawing templates, the photogram and the image processing software. Each work in the series represents an attempt to create a new image under the same conditions and thus to explore the pictorial and sculptural potential of his findings.

Max Leiß uses an analogue camera and develops the prints himself in the darkroom. Analogue and digital are two equivalent processes in his work. But the smartphone and the proliferation of digital imagery have strengthened his attempts to search for a different handling of images. Manifesting in a handling that is physical, analogue, handmade and object-like. Formlabor expresses this interest clearly: The photogram technique means to place objects between light source and paper. The final compositions are arranged with paper prints. This sculptural approach to the image is reflected in Leiß’s efforts to "transform images into objects and objects into images". Many of his sculptures have highly pictorial qualities. On the one hand, this is due to the way they are presented installed partly in relief on the wall. On the other hand, how he consistently deals with the use of line. Site-specific works such as the forty-meter-long Funktionszeichen made of fireclay, exhibited at the Kunsthaus Baselland, or his racks made of wood or steel can be seen as drawings in space. If the pictorial in sculpture is searched for in these examples, it is exactly the opposite in Formlabor. Here he experiments with materiality and spatiality of the image. He mounts the prints on aluminum boxes to give them a body. He places several templates on top of each other so that the shapes get depth and volume. And he emphasizes the materiality of the objects by using the photogram technique. Reproducing the objects more abstractly, the focus seems to shift to form and material contributing to the “object character" of the works.

The reciprocal relationship between object and image is emphasized in Max Leiß’ exhibitions and publications. He relates his sculptures and photographs, which are in themselves independent, to one another in precise constellations. In doing so, they mutually prepare the mind for their reception. The viewers are invited to experience the relations, to trace them and to immerse in the artist's creative process. In his earlier photographs, one discovers the “sculptural gaze” with which Leiß strolls through streets and landscapes. His photographs point out forms or assemblages from everyday life that we mostly ignore in our environs. Against this background, his sculptures can be read as fragments originating from such a benign everyday context. Since 2018, the Formlabor works have been included in his exhibition oeuvre. In the Czech town of Zlín, Leiß presented several large-format prints of the series together with sculptures for the first time. In this exhibition, the question of the origin of the forms lost relevance. One was still tempted to fathom their pictorial and sculptural evidence like an archaeologist, but one could also purely indulge in the experience of these somewhat enigmatic forms.