The history of painting is often no less suspensful than an exciting historical novel. From the very beginning with prehistoric cave paintings to the strictly iconographic rules of the middle ages, from the blossoming of modernity and on to the battles waged among historicism, naturalism and impressionism in the ninetheenth centrury – all this ultimately leads in the twentieth century to the unleashing of pure paint. This is the story of the flight – not from Egypt – but from figuration and on to abstraction. Needless to say, the course of this narrative is far from linear and its developments were far from irreversible. Rather, this is a tightly woven story of constant development. This vecomes evident at the latest with the rise of modernism, with its breaks, deliberate reversals and the movement away from theories of progress and the idea of constant artistic innovation.
This is why we view every new artistic stance with an eye to the background of history and what has already occurred. We strive to place contemporary art in its proper place in art history. Since the end of his painting studies at Berlin´s Academy for fine Arts (Hochschule der Künste Berlin), Sebastian Heiner, born in 1964, has worked as a painter in Germany´s capital city. Heiner plumbs the depths of what oil paint can achieve. Using the classicmedium of oil on canvas, the painter explores the sensuous potential of paint as a very physical medium. For Sebastian Heiner the creative act has lost nothing of the sacral power of its origins. Looking at Heiner´s paintings, we are immediately reminded of Lovis Corinth (1858-1925), one of the most important figures in the reinvigoration of painting at the dawn of the twentieth century and an outsider to modernism somewhere between impressionism and expressionism. The key to understanding Corinth´s work is his emphasis on the power of artistic creation. For Corinth that power was analogous to the creative power of nature, and like a force of nature, the painter brought forth art in a process that was alternately constructive and destructive.
Corinth left us with a body of work which reflected such ambivalence: «On the one hand it is the materialization in paint of all aspects of nature. It is a painterly hymn to creation and to life. On the other hand, it is a transformation of all of nature to painting. It is the dematerialization and spiritualization of physical reality. Objects dissolve into the autonomous and unreal real of pure painting, a process which Corinth set as his highest goal». The result of all this for Corinth was a notion of true art as «a practice of the unreal».
Heiner´s affinity for religion is almost constantly evident with titles of paintings lie «Die Heiligen in der Nacht», (The Holy Ones, 1998) or «Prozession», («Procession, 1998). Yet the pictures are difficult to pin down thematically. It seems that the painter wants to imply somethiing about the mysteries of life and creation without disclosing too much of their secrets.This does not occur so much thruogh the kind of religious affininty to color which we might find in the work of artists like Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941). That German-Russian painter, a member of the Blaue Reiter group, understood his pictures as a type of meditation or prayer in paint. Sebastian Heiner, on the other hand, is more of a sober colorist in the tradition of artists such as Ernst Wilhelm Nay (1902- 1968). Nay worked with a musical, contrapuntal emphasis of abstract planes. He applied solor as a formative force giving this abstraction shape and he described the colorist as painter who very deliberately thinks through paint. The act of viewing, then, is consummated in color.
In this sense we might describe Sebastian Heiner as a lyrics of color. He potrays chance encounters and represents the physiognomy of human psyche visually. Sometimes he breaks out in outbursts of exited impetuousness. Sometimes he is sensitive, cautious and hesitant. All this is to breathe life into his panterly creations.
With the applicaton of paint, Sebastian Heiner does not hesitate to employ what Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), in his color study borrowing from Goethe, called «the great contrasts». According to Kandinsky, for instance, «redand blue do not related for us in some physical context. Yet when they are presented adjacent to each other it is exactly through their intense psychological contrast that they so effect us. The result is one of the strongest, mot harmonious effects that we may choose to present today». As early as 1926, Kandinsky published his theoretical twentieth century for the emancipation of color from the strictures of more narrowly representational arts. Kandinsky sought the possibility of «entering into work of art, becoming active in the work and experiencing its vital pulse with al of the senses.»
In this context, the oil paintings by Sebastian Heiner occupy the middle ground between figurative work and abstraction. The pictures come alive in the gestures of brush stroke, through the strength of the colors and through an eruptive, at times even destructive surface texture. The abstrakt work is more decidedly concentrated on the labors of a thick surface which yields the painting´s astounding narrative potential.
Heavy crusts of paint abur smooth, finely polished surfaces. Traces of scratches, gouged out with reverse end of brushes, produce a fragile screen of lines over which at times several centimeters of paint are piled up. Swirling smears are brought forth with the use of a balled-up hand or paper towel rolls and the painting as a proces is thus highlighted. In some portrayals, such as «Feuer, Wind und Sturm», («Fire, Wind and Dust», 2000) the borders of the picture are pressed until they are bursting at the seams and through give-and-take a dynamic develops. The application of paint alternates between stable balance and sweeping motion. Arhythm comes forth, which is determined by the composition of the picture.
With Sebastian Heiner the issue at hand is not one of the dissolution of figurative representation into mere abstraction. Rather, a transformation takes place. Concrete objects yield to figurative fragments, heightended atmospheric elements and intsified color effects. The painer finds inspiration in music, film, literature and the pictorial arts. He stries for compositional balance and the hamonization of color tone. And yet these very elements are often disrupted to positve effect throughthe essential structure of the constructed painting. The muse of music is reflected in painting titles like «Sinfonie in Rot», (Symphonie in Red, 2000), «Der Tanz» (The Dance, 2000) or «Das Konzert» (The Concert, 2000). Rythym in the paintings is more than a simple matter of style, however. Painting becomes the basis of a transcribed score of contrasts. Drive and reason, anxiety and calm, brutality and gentleness, chaos and order, desire and anger, past and present. All of these are the notes of the visual score. In the more complete represantations, such tension often arouse a feeling of uneasiness or wary alertness. The viewer´s eye passes over the painting in a state of anticipation and one expects to make new discoveries. Some structures require a second or third look to become apparent at all. Unperceived nuances of color suddenly spring forth. The longer one looks at the picture the more it morphs into something new right befor our eyes. In ostensibly darker paintings like «Tunnelfahrt», (Riding through the Tunnel, 1999) or «Blick auf die Stadt», (View of the City, 1999), closer observation with time revals the somewhat brighter sections in a clearer light and the carefully composed nuances of color begin to work more in their dark surroundings. The brighter colors step forht from shades of black.
When it comes to the traditional genre of landscape painting, Sebastian Heiner either picks up the lyrical/poetic mode of voice as with «Blauer Regen», (Blue Rain, 1999) and «Nach dem Regen»» (After the Rain, 1999) or he hold of a powerful, expressive mode in portrayal such as «Durchbrochender Horizont», (Broken Horizon, 2000).
In the figurative work, time and again an emblematic, simplified stick figure appears in a rather awkward, rigid stance. Born and raised in Berlin, Sebastian Heiner ist dyed-in the-wool city person. Perhaps that is pecisely th reason he peoples his rural, fantasy landscapes with such odd, archiaic characters. Age, gender, ethnicity and social class are virtually impossible to identify in these figures. The figures mostly appear in groups and their crudeness gives the impression of fragility, vulnerability and brittleness. Any hints of motion are jerky and stiff. Many paintings are devoid of characters and such scenes present a coldly anonymous picture of the human collective. In large panoramic portrayal «Traumwelt» (Dreamworld, 2001) a battle is recognizable while paintings like «Gelber Berg – Figuren im Gespräch», (Yellow Mountain – Conversing Figures, 2000) or «Die Versuchung», (The Temptation, 1999) present a rather peaceable community. The interplay of individuals is evident. They converse or listen to each other intendly.
The paintings of Sebastian Heiner evade unambiguous, meaningful categorization. The painter quite deliberately embraces both stylistic and narrative «disharmonies». He revels in crossing the boundaries between figurative and abstract art. Heiner provides an arena where color contrasts can charge at each other in a battle against the aesthetically mundane. His pictures are first and foremost expressions of individual experience, personal conviction and the multitude conditions of the soul. At the same time they allow the free play of interpretation by their viewers. Confronting these paintings is not mere matter of decoding the thoughts and feelings of their creator. The paintings challenge us to see what is actually presented, to question what exactly the painter wants to portray. The titles provide some clues to answer these questions but on the same note they might just as easily lead to confusion. The painting «Beutezug», (Plunder Hunt, 1999) provides a fine example of this. Despite the title, the scene does not appear to represent the ravenous aggression of war moves. Rather, we might quite easily observe a peaceful gathering of souls. Heiner´s paintings may thus be interpreted as an act of subversion. They demand the conviction of self-conscious, individual autonomy.
Manuela Lintl, Berlin 2001
Translation: Russell Radzinski