Triangle in front of a chessboard – or the other way around?
Thoughts on Christian Hellmich’s paintings
There was a time when the less paintings portrayed, the more they were valued. This was particularly true of the stringent variations of abstract painting prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s in the US. Through the increasing rejection of spatial depth and all figurative references, the artists of this period also sought to avoid any kind of association that might be located outside of the painting itself. However it is difficult to banish reality from painting, something that becomes evident even when attempting to describe the “road to flatness”. Harold Rosenberg, who together with Greenberg was one of this era’s most important publisher companions, reached into the box of metaphors used for everyday life and described the period as follows: “Newman closed the door, Rothko pulled down the blinds and Reinhardt turned off the light.” To puristical representatives of abstraction, such comparisons may have seemed like an inappropriate contamination of aesthetic purity. However, they came closer to the actual creative process than any declaration on paper stating that paintings can only refer to themselves. Hence Ellsworth Kelly’s two-dimensional forms, as he himself proclaimed, were based on his enthusiasm for the rectangular shape of windows. In 1949, for example, the “high, narrow windows of a museum in Paris interested him more than the works exhibited inside.”
For some years now, abstraction has been popular again. When “New Abstraction” is propagated however, we are no longer dealing with an absolutism but with an option, which can today be selected by a painter without causing him or her to be bound by an almost religious belief in an autonomous visual truth outside of reality. The “painting after the death of painting” 57 is created when the light has been turned back on, the blinds pulled back up and the door opened again. Painters in the 1980s took an active approach to associations, for example the constructional abstractions reminiscent of pipes or power lines in the works of Peter Halley, or the swastikas that the viewer who is “cited” in a picture by Martin Kippenberger cannot detect by any stretch of the imagination. Nowadays, associations are generally no longer generated so deliberately, however no attempt is made to avoid them either. This is also true of Christian Hellmich’s painterly oeuvre, which usually shows a balance between formal design and figurative references. It also applies to the earliest painting pictured in this publication, which typically also appears first: the “Kleine Bauzaun” (small construction fence) from 2006. The construction fence does not comprise of mesh or slats, but of images. And the fact that canvasses on stretcher frames are also based on slats, just like wooden fences, it represents a very direct analogy between the painting and the outside world, expressed by Hellmich in an almost Magritte-like manner. Many of his paintings produced in recent years show architectural elements: high-rise buildings, escalators or a red, supporting grid construction (“Dach” (Roof), 2006). The paintings are “constructed”, in terms of composition, from structural forms. There are constant indications of spatial depth, without which however a homogenous three-dimensional space is created. The subsequent paintings were increasingly two-dimensional, while subtle references to three-dimensionality are generated more by the impression of a succession of layers, which in some cases also pervade one other in an ambiguous manner.
In the case of “Pavilion” (2008), a small triangle hovers in front of a curved surface with a black-and-white chessboard pattern. But what does “in front of” mean? Must everything be “read” from a three-dimensional viewpoint? Or does the triangle provide a view of a second plane or a space behind the first plane? Is it a window or a mirror that we see on the right? The picture seems to comprise of several pictures within a picture. Individual elements constantly appear in different forms, framed within the pictorial space. In the case of “Panel“ (2008), the greyish-brown element , outlined in black, which gave the work its title, takes up half of the picture. The form is reminiscent of a speech bubble in a comic, only that it does not contain any text. In “Pixy” (2010), the shape of the framed element in the centre of the picture is more similar to a cartouche or rocaille. As a result, rococo ornamentation may come to mind, only that the striped wallpaper is visible inside of the decorative element and not around it. Or is it a mirror, in which one can see the wallpapered wall opposite? By reworking and correcting several times, a textured surface is created, on which pastose sections are found next to thinly- glazed areas. Individual splatterings of paint also emphasise the process-oriented aspect, which visibly comes to a standstill in the result itself. In the paintings produced since 2010, individual elements have become more visible again within the two-dimensional setting. In the work “In the air tonight”, elongated, rounded rods or large pills hover in front of the half-open shutter of a large window. In other paintings, the picture plane or pictorial space is considerably reduced. Single elements hover in front of a thinly applied, almost monochrome background, like a dark grey awning on a blue-grey surface (“Feeding”, 2011). In another work, a round object that is reminiscent of a lampshade against a green background could be a kind of satellite, circulating in space (untitled, 2012). Yet the object also creates a shadow on the background. Hence the universe could also simply be a green wall. Another painting from 2012 is again much more figurative. It contains clearly identifiable objects, namely a tower comprising of loudspeakers, which merge to form rectangular shapes. Here too, there is a reference to music, which is hinted at in Hellmich’s own statement that his art “is a cross-section of the visual background noise of our time. The constant stream of images we encounter could be perceived as visual background noise and each time something is selected from it, it represents a kind of cross section. Hellmich has compiled a large image archive, with its own photos, images from discount store brochures, various jpgs from the Internet or art historical sources from different periods. At the same time, this archive represents the sketch book or book of samples on which the artist’s paintings are based, although the choice of motifs is not based on any kind of classification but is instead intuitive… As a result, Christian Hellmich’s painting is also based on the potential means of distribution offered by today’s media, without explicitly broaching this issue. It is rather the painterly process itself that expresses an approach to images that is characterised by references, constant retrievability, erasability and convertibility.
It is painting in our digital age that is inspired less by a “digital aesthetic” and more by an attitude towards life, which is co-determined by the virtual nature of the digital visual universes. In this way, they constantly permeate different perceptions of space, without uniting in the totality of a common perspective. Likewise, that which is portrayed is constantly permeated by the reflection of artistic means, as in the case with the poet Christian Morgenstern, who about one hundred years ago constructed a lattice fence – perhaps a building site fence? – using the letters of the alphabet taken from a typewriter.