Matthias Esch

Ornamental Order vs. Free Brushstrokes

Works Bio ornamental painting
Matthias Esch photographing himself in his studio, mirrored in the windows

These ornamental paintings draw their strength from the contrast between expressive, free brushstrokes and strict order. The one forms the base of each work, the other lies over it as a tight geometric structure. In a symbolic sense, this contrast stands for the tension between the individual’s will for expression and desire for freedom and the controlling systems of society, from the family to language to the state.

In relation to the individual, the juxtaposition can also be understood as the difference between the seething, compulsive unconscious, the id or dreams on the one hand and the conscious, controlling ego on the other. The one is characterized by the color red the other by the “spiritual” silver lustre of mother-of-pearl mixed into the color. It is not least this shine that is the decisive factor of this art beyond all theory: it is vital, brilliant painting.


Matthias Esch came to art via detours. Growing up in the rural Eifel region, he first completed an apprenticeship as a wine cooper and came to the metropolis of Berlin through the desire to work in a tattoo studio. At the Weißensee School of Art – with side trips to Kassel and Antwerp – and in a postgraduate program at the Glasgow School of Arts, the devotee of punk music developed his own, intellectually shaped art.

Studio View Glasgow 2018
A view of the artist’s studio in Glasgow in 2018 with his “signifier” works

He began with figurative painting, whose motifs he drew from newspapers, magazines and the Internet. Through the American writer William Burroughs and his concept of the “word virus” he got to semiotics, the theory of language and sign as developed by Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Peirce. He was fascinated by the relationship between pictorial signs and the terms standing for them, their similarities and contradictions, and how words, or titles, influence our perception of images.

sign systems

This ultimately led to an interest in systems in a general sense, both personal and political and social. He searched for timeless pictorial symbolic forms, as they can be found in ancient cultures and myths or in contemporary sign systems: for example the star, the mandala, the paintings of native American art, or contemporary diagrams. He is concerned with the question of how “meaning”, the message of signs, is generated. The artist described his abstract sign systems as “abstract power, signifying” and as “subjective signifying abstraction”.

In a further step, he finally reduced these signs – some of which were charged with great significance – to simple geometric patterns. Among the inspiration now are old tile structures as he found them in Roman churches, the medieval mosaic works of the Cosmati family in Rome or ancient Greek door ornaments.

ornamental painting

The most distinctive of these new patterns is a vertical and horizontal zigzag, which the artist appreciates – particularly in its simplicity – for its visual expressiveness. He liked the fact that he rediscovered this ornament in different contexts of everyday life, for example in fashion or in the tv series “Twin Peaks”. A picture of transition is the large-format work Symbol Structure (Empty Bones) from 2017, in which circles set in the greatest order as fixed patterns emerge from the “chaotic”, expressively painted ground.

To pick up on the artist’s inclination towards music: together with the white spots pointing into infinity, the pictorial form is reminiscent of the “Motif of Becoming” from Richard Wagner’s “Rheingold” or the song “Urlicht” from Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. Incidentally, Matthias Esch is a fan of the band Swans with their combination of rhythmic regularity and greatest intensity: “that sound has everything, there is power, violence, love and devotion. In his occasional videos he himself becomes a producer of music, “very noisy, almost violent – noise music is fantastic.”

Matthias Esch small works
A group of small works showing the diversity of ornamental pattern and colour

The early interest in semantics – the system of signs – is still visible, for example in a work like Symbol (My Parents) from 2020: it shows two large circles that completely dominate the expressively painted, darker ground and are themselves – albeit to a lesser extent – “chaotic”. In Lacan’s theory, mother and father are “will” and “law”, that symbolic order of rule that subjugates and structures the individual.

the gap

An important aspect for the artist is “an immanent gap between the image and the word, between us and our surrounding”. He also sees this gap in a broader sense, for example in the mirror stage of the child (Jacques Lacan), a theme the artist wrote about in his final thesis. It describes the moment when the child perceives itself as an independent being in the mirror, but the mirror image remains a counterpart, another. In a similar way, there is the difference between the Id and the Ego, or the connection between two lovers who, despite all their closeness, can never merge with each other.

Matthias Esch counts among his artistic inspirations: Caravaggio, Paul Klee, Agnes Martin, Bruce Nauman and Cy Twombly, as well as the writers Karl Ove Knausgard and Charles Bukowski, who comes from his native Andernach. Finally, not to forget the philosopher and language theorist Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is a mixture of sign systems, magnificent painting and existentialist life experience.


The works are always created on an oil-primed linen fabric from Belgium, which the artist appreciates for its presence: the paint lies well on the surface, he says, it glows and has power. The artist describes his working method as follows:

„The first layer is made out of shades of red and purple, most of them were mixed with different mother of pearl pigments. Therefore the colours are not pure, but somewhere on the red spectrum. Although I do not believe that you can express emotions in a direct way through painted gestures, for me the first layer has a chaotic element, it is something ‚wild’ underneath. Like dreams, the unconscious, emotions, something which is always there but difficult to grasp.“

Matthias Esch, "System Structure (Red/Green)",
A detail of “System Structure (Red/Green)”, 2020, seen against the light: the mother-of-pearl lustre shines

„Then on top I draw a grid with pastels, but because of the oil colour and the texture of the linen, you almost had to scratch it in. This second layer is an attempt to bring order to the chaos, applying a structure that could be the basis for a system, although still transparent… Finally the last layer is defining it, made out of mother of pearl pigments mixed with white. From the distance it looks quite sorted, but if you go closer you can see all the tiny brushstrokes and that it is not really white, nor pure.“

structures, symbols

Esch sees individual paintings less in their singularity than as one work within a larger group, which is structured by several subgroups: “surrounding structure,” “system structure,” “empty symbols,” “signifiers,” and “symbol structures.” “This way,” the artist explains, “I hope to avoid a more linear sequence, one after the other, but instead create combinations and open but powerful interaction.” These terms are found in the paintings’ titles, which are supplemented by additions such as “Describe the Pain, Grey”, “Still Blue, Barely Hanging On”, “Hole In My Heart” or “I Can’t Hold a Thought, I Am Depressed, I Am Going to Kill Myself”.

As theoretical as this art may seem at first glance – and in the eloquent description by the artist – it is also distinctly personal. „It is important that my work has two sides, a personal one (where, after looking at all my work, you gain insight in me as well) and the conceptual basis. While I am interested in theoretical aspects like semantics, I am also very keen to the idea that by looking at my art you can look inside me as well. There is always a personal aspect to the work; through gesture, colour and the choice and development of the motive in general I inscribe my emotional subject into the art.“


In the end, it is the romantic-existential aspect of this art, a feeling of longing, that speaks directly to us viewers. “There is so much discrepancy in our lives,” says Matthias Esch, „we try and try, we are empathetic, we think, analyse, understand, but there will always be distance, some sort of disconnect… What satisfies me is to express my notion of despair in the concept of surrounding systems; to turn that expression into solid paintings.“
The artist in his Berlin studio explaining his work

So he appreciates the American painter Ross Bleckner “for his bravery not to back away from romanticism, sometimes on the edge of being kitschy.” In the exhibition Like the Ocean Does in the Berlin shop-window gallery Sox, he placed a wall-filling photograph next to a small picture with zigzag ornaments: it showed the view from a window with an open curtain onto the endless sea – the archetypal romantic image. Esch relates this installation to the song Fire In the Ocean by The Organ, a female Canadian post-punk band. It says:

Who will love me oh like the ocean does
We are so much like each other
We don’t see the need for each other

All he wants in life, says Matthias Esch, is “focus, clarity, silence“. The result is a celebration of painting.


Please view the artist’s work in our exhibition New Additions: Matthias Esch, Benjamin Rubloff as well as his interviews and reports in artevie publishing, Horst und Edeltraut magazine, Young Space Art, Art Verge, Banditto Art and Auc Art.

If you like Matthias Esch’s work you might also be interested in these artist in our gallery: Clemens BehrDAGForster Herchenbach, Christine Krämer, Christopher Sage, Björn StreeckBernhard C. Striebel and Jinny Yu.



Matthias Esch was born 1988 in Andernach, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. He lives and works in Berlin

2003-2006education as a winemaker
2009-2015studied Fine Art in Kassel, Antwerp and Berlin
2016Master Student, Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin
2018Master of Letters, Glasgow School of Art

selected Exhibitions

2020Disguise, Galerie für Gegenwartskunst, Bremen, with Thilo Jenssen and Daniel Rossei
Oak Island II, Zönotheka, Berlin
Adamant Romance, Blue intolerant, Casino, Berlin
Minibar, Galerie Oel-Früh, Hamburg
2019I Engineer, Halle 12 Spinnerei, Leipzig
Auszug, Galerie Abbau, Berlin
Ingram Collection Purchase Prize, Cello Factory, London
like the ocean does, Sox, Berlin (solo)
Fling Project III, Tramway, Glasgow
Oak Island, Zönoteka, Berlin
Schrein der Freundschaft, BKV Potsdam, Potsdam
Every now and then” (with Thilo Jenssen), New Now, Frankfurt; Kbh_Kabinet, Copenhagen
Drifting, Penthouse, Brussels
Watching a Movie is Watching the Object, Galerie ohne Namen, Munich
2018Romantic Club, II., Raum für drastische Maßnahmen, Berlin
marching through the fields, Jeannie Avent Gallery, London
open exhibition, Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture, Edinburgh
No Safe Haven, The Pipe Factory, Glasgow
Close By, Trongate 39, Glasgow
2017Romantic Club – Octopus love, C4 Project, Copenhagen
das Ernste Zelt, Humboldt Carré, Berlin
bitte bitte bitte, SEZ, Berlin
all I want in life, ITIS Gallery, Brussels (solo)
Terra Incognita, Staldgade 74, Copenhagen
Böse Blüten, Projektraum Bethanien, Berlin
2016more weight, Tat-Ort Bernstraße, Lucerne, with Daniel Rossi (solo)
traces of doubt, Ex14, Dresden, with Florian Birk (solo)
Centro di gravita permanente, Centercourt Gallery, Munich, with Manuel Kirsch (solo)
One Month: After the materialization of the art object, Temporary Gallery, Cologne
Quelltext, Brandenburgischer Kunstverein, Potsdam
2015cool runnings, Kühlhaus, Berlin
1/1, Brandenburgischer Kunstverein, Potsdam (solo)
Walllust, Kunsthalle Weißensee, Berlin
Versteckte Variable, Max Planck Institute, Berlin
2014Kopier mir die Sonne, Akademisches Museum Bonn
Blow Up, Immigration Office, Bremen, with Lennart Rieder (solo)
2013Word of Mouth, Showroom, Antwerp
2012Yes, This year it’s Documenta, Kreuzberg Pavillon, Berlin
Ante Up, Kulturhaus Bayer, Leverkusen
Memory Cash, Project Venus & Apoll, Düsseldorf
Various Artists Vol.3, Stellwerk, Kassel
2011Die Barbie von Sevilla, Artist Unlimited Galerie, Bielefeld
Mitternacht ist keine Stunde, Stellwerk Kasse, with Erik Schäfer (solo)

Grants, prizes etc.


2019Finalist Ingram Collection Prize, UK
Emerging Art Prize, Banditto Gallery, IT
Residency “Hickster Project”, San Giovanni d`Asso, Italy
2018RSA Keith Prize, UK
Lecturer at “Summer academy”, Kunsthochschule Weißensee, Berlin
Residency “Dumfries House”, Ayrshire, Scotland
2016Curator of the experimental Sound Event “NO)))”, Berlin
2015Residency “Casa ugo alto”, San Stino di Livenza, Italy
2010-2013member of “Stellwerk”, Kassel
2012-2016Scholarship holder of Cusanuswerk, Bonn (D)
co-founder of the beneficial art project ,,Memory Cash”