Jim Dempsey

Heavy Hands

The same hand that can write a beautiful poem, can knock you out with
one punch - that’s Poetic Justice.                            -
“Irish” Wayne Kelly

There’s that scene in Wim Wender’s film Wings of Desire where Peter Falk’s character, a former angel, says: “Here, to smoke, have coffee. And if you do it together it’s fantastic. Or to draw: you know, you take a pencil and you make a dark line, then you make a light line, and together it’s a good line. Or when your hands are cold, you rub them together, you see, that’s good, that feels good! There’s so many good things!”

Two hands together. Feels so good. The hands of musicians and athletes often work in tandem, with different characteristics; the callused left hand fingertips of a right-handed guitar player; the bulkier throwing arm of a bowler; the fingers of a pianist, the left hand a rumbling bass and the right a melodic treble; boxers: one hand for a jab, and one for an uppercut; a drummer: all hands on deck.

The paintings and drawings in Peter Brötzmann’s recent body of work focus on the left and right hand. His hands naturally work in tandem on a clarinet or a saxophone, but these works delve into the uncomfortable place where the dominant hand and the weaker hand attempt some sort of symmetry. Think of signing a document or throwing a baseball with the ‘other’ hand.

There are few things that take advantage of the differing powers of a pair of hands. Traditional two-color Fair Isle knitting is one - it is performed with both hands, with the general rule being this: the background color should be in your dominant hand and the foreground color should be in your weaker hand. Why? Your dominant hand tends to work stitches a little tighter than your weaker one, and those looser stitches will pop and be more visually pronounced. This back and forth, forward backward notion works into Brötzmann’s paintings. A watercolor of the right hand composed by the left. And vice-versa. Mirrored images where the asymmetry reveals the quirks and limitations of ‘handedness.’

Brötzmann will sometimes sign an autograph with his name laid down backwards. His signature split in half, each half going the opposite direction. Is Brötzmann ambidextrous? Who knows? He uses both hands.

On a visit to Chicago in 2010, Brötzmann and his friend and admirer Ira Wool view Wool’s collection, gathering around a group of Dieter Roth graphite drawings. These are all made with both hands simultaneously, one side mirroring the other. It’s a technique Brötzmann’s used for ages, but handled in Roth’s own special way. Two artists from Germany with a particular love of Chicago. Two hands attached to the same person, drawing the same thing but never quite identical.

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