Speech on the occasion of the opening at the gallery Tammen & Busch, Berlin, 1.10.2003
When talking of «gesturing» and «gestures» in the title of my speech I mean two very different aspects which this term conveys to me in Sebastian Heiner’s painting. On one hand gesturing while painting meaning the hand’s or the whole bodies’ movement in the act of painting and on the other hand the revealing and referring gestures that appear in many of his paintings.
Gesturing can be viewed foremost in the abstract paintings. These are paintings with a vivid opaque color application by the use of a putty or poured color or even paints worked over with hands and fingers. Paintings that do not try to hide their process of becoming but reveal the sheer strain of handling the composition and color balance in the density and volume of the applied oil paints.
A painter of gestures regards the content in terms of the pictured. Gestures of arms and hands that seem to impress something or want to tell stories. They don’t appear in the abstract paintings but in the figurative compositions. A gesture originally referring to a mime means something completely different in this context. Heiner’s figures don’t have faces. They move across the paintings or stand together in groups some of them gesticulating. Their hands or arms point in a specific direction demonstrating a narrative aspect of the painting. The context becomes clearer as the viewer spends time with the painting.
Sebastian Heiner’s painting is inspired by two very different sources and aligns itself, whether aware of this or not, with very different traditions. «Gesturing» painting goes back to informal art whereas the painted gestures refer to an iconography that in our culture belongs to the source of Christian imagery.
The intentional communicative element of sign language provides a multitude of gestures that are generally comprehensible. A good example of this is the angel who at the fall and the expulsion from paradise is pictured waving his arms at Adam and Eve banishing them from paradise. Another example is the Man of Sorrows pointing to his wound.
Religions or ideologies make use of pictorial references such as the above mentioned forcing the viewer in a humble position by reminding him of his mortality. They allude regions that are beyond physical reality.
Sebastian Heiner employs such means in his paintings. Their content does not adhere strictly to iconographic tradition but leaves it up to our imagination as to what we see in the painting. Merely the painting’s titles suggest a direction… I would like to give you an example. A little unimposing painting titled „Old people with heart« hanging at the front shows a pattern of a human couple without faces.Thus we can’t see the couple’s emotions as the title suggests. The figures and the background color are reserved almost to the point of disappearance, like an evocation, a delicate or even a strong and painful memory.
Facing each other the couple has an air of abysmal sadness. Are they connected by memories of shared moments? The heart mentioned in the painting’s title is not a mere suggestion or a cheesy metaphor. It’s place on the man’s body is marked by chapped paint. The heart opens up on his chest but at the same time denies access The man lets the woman touch his exposed heart.
You will come across a whole lot of paintings containing such suggestions and references. They may not be as intense or intimate as in the painting of the old couple.
The other paintings are more expressive with brushstrokes breaking out of the pictorial space, pointing to an area outside the picture. They may also however enclose a group of people that got together. In whatever context they appear, whether compositional or narrative, the brush strokes make connections, addressing the viewer.
Besides the abstract paintings and those of big and small gestures there is a third group of paintings namely landscape paintings. Abstract landscapes but not in the sense of traditional romantic inwardness.
Autonomous images of nature became worthy of depicting in the times of Albrecht Dürer who introduced the term landscape painting. At first meant for the purpose of topography they soon became a means to stir emotions. Albrecht Altdorfer enhanced them to the cosmic.
In the 17th century interiors were decorated with imaginative landscapes that no longer depicted real scenes and were mostly idealized and harmonious and full of light.
Heiner’s works share the dramatic art of topography with the old paintings, the spectacular that sparks the viewer’s interest. The sublime landscape with or without staffage by which the viewer should realise his submissive role.
The stronger the landscape’s impression on the viewer, the more he submits to nature the more power the painter has over the landscape and thus over the viewer. Cleverly devised compositions with a fore and background as in theatres enhance the near and far. Landscapes flooded by light in chiaroscuro evoke deeply felt dramatic feelings when looking at these paintings.
Humans make nature their subject but may still feel not at home. These paintings with their rich and elaborate choice of tones however are full of lyric feelings and dramatic tension.
Rembrandt and Rubens and a few of their contemporaries discovered the landscape painting’s value that can also be found in Sebastian Heiner’s paintings. I would especially like to refer to Hercules Segher’s, one of the most famous «unknown» Dutch artists from the 17th century. He transformed the newly discovered principles into abstract schemes. His landscapes were imaginative and often without figures, panoramas of sweeping plains or mountainous regions viewed from a high angle. The sky was grey or dense with clouds.
In 1921 the art historian Wilhelm Fraenger described Hercules Segher’s landscapes as apocalyptic. Fraenger saw his own political estrangement and existential isolation in the era of the early Weimarer Republic in the Dutch painter’s assumption of landscapes dramatically sweeping across the canvas.
When I first saw Sebastian Heiner’s landscapes in his studio I had to think of Fraenger’s dramatic descriptions of the chaos of solitude, the swollen clusters of earth and vegetation resembling dumps. Everything dripping and sticky like a swamp oozing through the painting. Tree stumps sprawled across the painting as if fallen in a landslide, every growing plant dead, everywhere grim wilderness where the human race seems to be exterminated.
Fraenger’s expressions and emotions when describing Segher’s surreal dramatic landscapes mirrored the apocalyptic scenes of devastated grounds. Scenes that can hardly be connected with actual experiences but tend to beautify the alleged nature.
Those paintings seemed to have no time or space. Here the prophet from the Old Testament speaks: «looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void;I looked, and behold, there was no man, And all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert; all its towns lay in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.»
It seems a paradox that a painter like Sebastian Heiner uses metaphors for nature’s destruction, disruption and inhospitality as an excuse for his compositions. Destruction equals creation. Therein lies the visual paradox and modernity.
A promise of redemption accompanies the catastrophe of the apocalypse. An energy forces its way from the middle to the outer borders. These light energy fields also appear in Sebastian Heiner’s landscape paintings. It is uncertain however whether they trigger the catastrophe or point to a new otherworldly kingdom that is faced with ruin.
It is difficult to resolve this matter as Heiner’s paintings are abstract. And so I leave it up to the strictly religious apocalypticists to find an answer.
Finally I would like to tell you of a very earthly, or rather nautical experience that happened on my studio visit which I am still thinking of today. While I was preparing for my speech I came across an exciting article on water worlds between glass walls, that is aquariums symbolising inner life and sole.
Sebastian Heiner hast two aquariums and one terrarium in his studio. I stood in front of them magnitized. I must have spent as much time looking at them as I did later when looking at each one of his paintings. Glass shrines as sources of inspiration in midst of a big city where life pulsates? Aquariums as a replacement of a window that in itself is an allegory for a panel painting that enables a view of the outside and that generally involves a naturalistic painting or description?
Looking at the aquarium’s «bonsai see» makes one look inside oneself, the art critic Ursula Harter said in an article of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Newspaper yesterday. Worlds under water generate unconscious visions.
I would not however like to stress this last point too much as the author refers to Joris-Karl Huysmans, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Moreau and other authors and artists of the narcissistic fin de siècle. She saw aquariums as an object of projection for phantasmagoria in which the factitious paradises of opium dreams grow with lurking temptations of figures like medusas, undines, mermaids, corals, sea lilies and sea shells.
And yet to Sebastian Heiner aquariums don’t seem to be merely inspirational sources but reflect his self-reassurance and self-confidence in painting. Metropolises inspire his painting without the painting succumbing to them as is the case in so much art today.
Berlin, 1. October 2003