"This is the House that Jack Built….."
(The Paintings of Christian Hellmich)
We are all familiar with the architectonics of space, but can the same be said for the role played by architectonics in the formation of our spatial perceptions? While the idea of 'architectonics' as the general science of architecture is clearly understood, how do the other constituent parts of the word's meaning, namely the constructive, controlling, and directing aspects find a substantive and perceivable state of visual realisation? Which is to say the fundamental state of forming and shaping that petains to the arrangement of an architectural knowledge as we experience it. Otherwise expressed what is the the defined outcome that we call the architectonics of visual spatial perception, and by degree that which follows thereafter as to the route or visual argument, that leads us into a new state of changed architectural perception and imagination.
In consequence, and with immediate relevance to our current concerns with the painter Christian Hellmich, how are the perceivable contents of his composed and admittedly derived (or, found) architectural motifs translated into an alternative and constructed world of representation? Or, put more succinctly, and quite literally, re-presented to create another type of visual perception and experience as a painting. It seems to me that Hellmich's involvement with a series of architectural motifs has less to do with what is already known, than that which he considers to be potentially knowable. Something which can only become increasingly known over time and through a long term engagement with the artist's constructive use of materials in his paintings.
Christian Hellmich's architectural spaces or chosen motifs are not simply imagined any more than they are actually real. It appears too obvious to call them mere conflations of the seen, for it seems evident that there is another form of knowledge that is being generated here. But the revealed knowledge such as it is, is only achieved through the twofold principle of Hellmich's mastery of process and painterly presence in the work. Indeed, it is that quality which is always in 'a state of making', and gradually becomes knowable through a sense of verified material presence. These perceptual processes are only gradually achieved, and its realisation mastered through the actual practice of making a painting.
In Hellmich's paintings we are not presented with a world of recognisable or pre-determined iconographic meaning(s) and/or contents as such (a familiar and comparative spotting of sources), but an accumulated series of personal interpretations that create a summation of translated architectual perceptions re-orchestrated from edited source materials. That the paintings are figurative is not in fact the most relevant of issues, that they are deliberately configurative seems to be more to the point. They are about external figures and translated shapes rather than immediately associative and recognisable appearances. The distinction between the configurative and figurative is that while the former is cognisable, the latter is intended to be recognisable and has the tendency to take you outside the painting. This it appears to me is an essential characteristic found in Hellmich's paintings, the contents are cognisable but never recognisable or site-specifically placed. They are not so much references as referents, or ascribed attributes taken and re-articulated from things seen – architectural and spatial elements that the painter is able to remake anew.
However, these distinctions are best exposed by looking at the paintings themselves. In Hellmich's painting called Trinkhalle (2005), three aspects are immediately apparent, namely flatness, perspective and varied use of facture. But what is interesting is the particular dialectic (one might almost say visual conversation) that he sets up between them. Broad fields of flatly applied and overlayed colour using a palette knife, with a ragged edge that stresses the paint application abuts against the flatness of a decorative chequerboard pattern in the upper part of the painting. Then the same chequerboard pattern below turns from stressing flatness to functioning as an orthodiagonal from the left corner, the pattern itself decaying into pattern-less-ness lower right, almost giving out the sense as if tiles have been stripped from a wall. Hence what serves one purpose (flatness) at one moment, serves yet another (recession) as you increasingly enter into and survey the painting. The central construction of the imagined drinks booth similarly suggests orthogonal dimensions, that are then internally flattened within the interior space as the eye passes through the allusory windows. An obtuse rectangular lozenge seems to levitate in the fore-to-mid ground space, while the image of a spiralled cable passes through the painting creating, perhaps, a reference to the golden section, but more than than re-emphasising the multiplicity of impossible spaces he has created, and that evoke a tension between two and three-dimensions.
If flatness and dimensionality contest each other in Trinkhalle, in Kiosk II (2005) the engagement is with planometrics and the optical processes of material facture. Like a scarified stage set in initial appearance, a shallow diagonal presents a overall facade with rectlinear apertures show a doorway and inset window space. The stress is placed upon rectangular repetition throughout, the purportedly bricked-up window space in the dominant plane, whose rectangular bricks echo the apertures beside them, and the horizontal rectangles and cube is the upper reaches. This austerity is then discreetly softened by the use of an asymmetrical flounce or apron protruding from a stained canopy recess above. It seems an unusually humorous interjection into such a building that does not exist, and probably could never existed as the artist has constituted it. But that is the point, namely that it just might exist in an imaginary state, for in a strange way it reminds of a sort of minimal stripped down and essentialised architectural structure. The conflation of buildings derived from primary elements he chooses to realise 'into' a painting are all modernist and hint at the ubiquitous commonplace, any suggestion as to their having a particular history is strictly stripped away. However, and contradictorily, as with nearly all Hellmich's works, and particularly so in the current series, there is a constructed and directed means that attests to a building's state of singularity and isolation, most often expressed by intimated references to abandonment and dereliction. Hence seemingly and slightly run-down they become vehicles of Spartan-like expression, always places of a theoretical human presence, but whose presence is always denied. Afterall the drinks booth or kiosk are obvious places of human interaction, but to the mind of Hellmich they are turned into tightly controlled imaginary objects, not only because he strips away any possibility of a narrative reading, but because they are portals of his imagination loaded with referents but with non-specific references. And yet the use facture which is very strongly present in Kiosk II, suggests a very powerful human content, but it is something he realises only through the material and painterly 'making of the painting'. Hellmich seems to be saying that it is directly within the processes of human expression our humanity resides. But we know all paintings have to have a subject, even if the subject is that of painting itself. This is the reason that best explains the loose, scumbled, and daubed or often messy paint areas that surrounds the architectural structure of Kiosk II. Material and expressive facture serves to stress a larger reality, and that larger human reality is the fact that you can have little or no doubt you looking at a painting.
The transposition of what begins with original source materials to an imagined place and then to a non-place, or, paradoxically, and potentially, an any place, is similarly echoed in Schänke (2005), which also emphasises the artist's recurrent attention to ideas of portals and points of entry. Using a reverse and deeper orthodiagonal to Kiosk II, the work is close to a currently unfinished painting (at the time of writing) of a down escalator stressing descent into a underground theatre or cinema venue. The advantage of looking at the unfinished work is that it shows how the artist builds up his perceptual spaces. Masking tape is used to create the linearity of the structures and to integrate the different boundaries of the derived source elements. It shows how painting application is multi-layered, and how vital drawing is the to composition of the newly formed structure. Indeed, this is the reason why he frequently makes apparent the underlying drawn elements of his paintings, and for the same reason frequently the painted underlayers are left to show through.. Further evidence, perhaps, that their meaning resides in their making, and that we are looking at an imaginatively constructed building. This does negate, however, the general impulse to believe them as being quite specific, but reveals how their non-specificity craves in the viewer an identifiable and associative content. In short the ability of a painting to create another world which we might seek to grasp and locate.
That the works are structures and models of the world is made clear in the Untitled 4 (2005), where a potentially model-house has been placed on a table with the same orthogonal and rectilinear symmetries. A vertical emphasis is stressed throughout the painting, with an oblique reference to the natural conifers serving purely a structural rather than a pictorial purpose. This work deliberately indicates the method of perceived construction of the painter Hellmich, since the grid-like nature of the work is foregrounded, and the drawn elements with thin paint layers are made transparent. In the painting Treppe (2005), closer in compositional terms to Kiosk II , the use of a period identification becomes more apparent (usually the everyday architecture of the 50s and 60s), and the railings of the steps recall countless similar examples found in post-war German architecture. They are, like the facades themselves, an echo the now slightly shabby reality of the post-war Wirtschaftwunder. By training and studying in Essen, a city all but totally obliterated in Second World War bombing raids, Hellmich saw this type of architecture every day. That the artist does not merely transcribe them but creates an alternative hybridity from these sources is not the least of his achievements. The severely minimal contents of this architecture is not only stressed but exaggerated, since no anachronistic or personal accretions as permitted. This might suggest the abstract and undefined lives of the buildings inhabitants, for he invariably indicates either places of public transition or closed domestic architecture, while equally using non-specific referents to a generic reality. For example the frosted glass in the windows of Treppe exist in countless domestic and non-descript buildings of this architecturally generalised post-war period. However, at the same time, I am also made aware that to make such references merely illustrates my own yearning to identify with the contents of what is shown. But in reality I suspect Hellmich would say he is simply making a painting, or, and it always something of a vice to quote oneself, "to show how the displacement of things in the world makes them become somehow more real when they are seen in a painting."
What we have in Christian Hellmich's paintings is his own visual vocabulary, that which I referred to at the beginning of this essay, as the constructive, controlling, and directing aspects, that find a substantive and perceivable state of visual realisation. That it is a vocabulary is no better illustrated that in comparing a work like Trinkhalle with that of Imbiss (2005). Both share the same transverse recessions, the sense of anonymity and non-place, the same stress on planometry and substructure that points to the facture of their making. It would be very wrong, however, to cast Hellmich's work as if it existed in a vacuum, for it part of a much larger concern also expressed by many of his contemporaries, not least several of the well-known and emerging Leipzig painters, who also share the same concerns with perception and spatial architectonics. It might be argued that this simply respresents a return to making, and to ideas concerning the phenomena of material presence in an art work. Hellmich belongs to a new generation of painters, who after some forty years of structural and post-structural thought, have developed a new phenomenology that has none of the faux idealism of that found in the immediate post-war period. Yet it does present again in another way the case for what Merleau-Ponty argued "The perceiving mind is an incarnated mind. I have tried, first of all to re-establish the roots of the mind in its body and in its world….." The same attitude is present in the paintings of Hellmich, and in his present series of paintings we are made aware that they are translated perceptual propositions of the architectural world, less that of mere staged perceptions or intuitions, but rather paintings that question a renewed engagement with the spatial reconfiguration of perception. In our time-based and obsessively mediated world of virtual and so-called post-virtual reality, Hellmich's paintings give us salutary reminders that we inhabit an incarnated body and that our lives are still lived in space as much as time. The making of a painting is always phenomenal, the solitary practices of the studio ineluctably force a painter into confronting his own presence with and in the work, and it is the residual power of painting that we will always remain capable of identifying with the power of that making.
Wednesday, 22 March 2006