Thursday, June 1st, 2006

Christian Hellmich: Arrangement

Lehmann Maupin
540 W. 26th Street
New York, N.Y., 10001
212 255 2923

June 1-July 14, 2006

Christin Hellmich Eingang IV 2006 oil on canvas, 110-1/4 x 157-1/2 inches Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York
Christin Hellmich, Eingang IV 2006 oil on canvas, 110-1/4 x 157-1/2 inches Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York

All of Hellmich’s paintings include intentionally skewed architectural forms, buildings, staircases, facades, railings, escalators, warehouse interiors, cement partitions and roadways, doorways, garage doors, etc., and his use of architecture and perspective or orthogonals, is not haphazard or incidental. He carefully renders architectural details, but he leaves them unresolved in the name of high concept. The few loosely painted passages that appear in his paintings are tightly contained within an architectonic structure or they are intermittent, isolated, self conscious gestures. They are merely embellishments. Hellmich’s combining of painterly or abstract passages (drips, splatters, impasto, scraping) and representational passages has its roots in analytical and synthetic cubism, but minus the synthesis.

The catalogue essay written by Mark Gisbourne and the title of this show emphasize the idea that subject matter is inconsequential and that Hellmich is primarily concerned with process. “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.” According to the O.E.D. the definition of configuration is, “Arrangement of parts or elements in a particular form or figure.” The definition of figurative is, “Of a style of the visual arts; esp. applied to painting in which the forms are recognizably derived from objective sources without necessarily being clearly representational.” These definitions aren’t entirely exclusive. Both of them emphasize the importance of or at the very least the existence of forms and/or figures. The term configuration emphasizes process and figuration refers more to style.

But clearly Hellmich is not a radically abstract painter and his conceptual leanings prevent him from exploring representation or abstraction very deeply. What undermines the intellectual packaging of this exhibition is the fact that Hellmich places carefully rendered architectural fragments in his paintings. These paintings can’t be discussed without taking their representational aspects seriously.

His palette, which includes dour blue grays and yellow ochres, and his distortions of perspective are reminiscent of De Chirico. However, Hellmich use of architecture has no metaphysical undercurrent. He wants his cake and to eat it to, meaning he wants to come across as a high concept painter, self conscious about the painterly process, never completely abandoning himself to representation or abstraction, but he also wants to paint things he is interested in or good at painting, mainly architectural structures. His need to remind us repeatedly that art is artifice is tiresome because he employs realism and painterly abstraction in a disingenuous manner, to show us how smart he is, but not to make interesting pictorial spaces or variegated surfaces.

Christian Hellmich Kontainer 2006 oil on canvas, 55 x 70-3/4 inches Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York
Christian Hellmich, Kontainer 2006 oil on canvas, 55 x 70-3/4 inches Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York

It is inaccurate to say that Hellmich is more interested in the painting process than the rendering of legible forms. While his spatial ambiguities undermine coherence our gaze is drawn into these paintings because of the use of perspective and the representational elements. The abstract passages, impasto, layering, scraping, drips and splatters, are unsatisfying because they act as little more than signifiers, or quotation marks. They disrupt the representational passages and reference other painting styles. Hellmich’s jumbling of painterly styles and ways of depicting pictorial space, his disjointed surfaces, do not cohere or become something greater than the individual parts. When working with fragments it is hard to create poetic resonances. Although Ken Johnson feels that the overall effect, “is to evoke a nostalgic mourning for the undelivered promises of modernity and for the unrealized possibilities of collective public life” I would say these paintings are more opportunistic than nostalgic.

Hellmich’s major at the University of Essen was free diagramming/painting. I went to the University of Essen website but could not find any information about this peculiarly named major. I would conclude after seeing these paintings that Hellmich is at home with geometric forms and technical drawing, and can’t paint organic forms very convincingly. His Frankensteinian architectural compositions do make the viewer aware of the constructive principles at work in the paintings, but without their recognizable forms and fragmentary yet coherent spatial relationships these compositions would fall apart. There is a collagist element present but there is too little variation in texture or interesting contrasting values between parts.

Hellmich is obviously good at painting architectural structures. The architectonic structures in the paintings are strongly reminiscent of the hideous, concrete, communist building complexes that litter (or littered) Eastern Europe (I am thinking of the monstrosities I saw in Prague a decade ago). Sometimes, as in “Kontainer,” (2006), he includes trees and patches of sky. I would assume that the awful way in which Hellmich paints trees and sky is supposed to be ironic or a not so subtle comment on our alienation from the natural world, but seriously, Bob Ross could do a better job. Ironic bad painting is an attempt to increase the idea content, but the strategy has become commonplace. The metal containers in “Kontainer” take on a monumental quality but the silly trees Hellmich places directly behind them are little more than self conscious winks at the viewer, which fall flat and undermine any good qualities found in the work.

Hellmich’s use of color is too clever and controlled. His canvases mostly consist of self consciously cool and bland middle tones. Hellmich is pretentiously bland. He always adds enlivening but small passages of bright pigment, swirling pinks and oranges which are stand-ins for fluorescent tubes, small passages of hot green, purple, and yellow (straight or wavy lines that disrupt the dismal fields of gray blue, blue gray, plain old gray, yellow ochre, and pale yellow and blue). These patches of bright color are oddly placed and activate the dull mid-tones, but they leave me wanting more. The intentional dreariness of Hellmich’s palette fails to sustain any mood or emotion in the viewer and his vacillating painting technique and deadpan renderings alienate to the point of indifference.

Hellmich generally tends to paint even and flat surfaces with the colors tightly contained within rectilinear forms, but with isolated passages of expressive painterliness. In “Eingang III” (2006) for instance we see splatters of paint in the glass panes of a crisply delineated door The painterly passages that often appear in a frame within a frame begin to make you feel uncomfortable, as if Hellmich is suppressing all urges to cut loose.

Hellmich uses othogonals and perspective to create a sense of place or specificity but he contradicts any sense of order or three-dimensionality these formal devices generate. He likes to play suggestions of depth off of pattern or flatness. He enjoys creating spatial contradictions. We are disorientated by them and they suck our eyes into the large expanse of canvas, but it becomes gimmicky fairly quickly. For me, the most successful paintings in this exhibition, “Trinkhalle,” (2005) and “Eingang IV,” (2006) are successful because of the clever use of perspective. We see a building or drink stand in the near distance in “Trinkhalle” and our gaze enters the composition through an expansive tiled field which switches between checkerboard pattern and receding plane. The weird floating structure generates a genuine sense of otherness. In “Eingang IV” our eyes travel down the length of a descending escalator while the walls and windows above and beyond the escalator appear in depth and as part of an asymmetrical geometric pattern. The first person perspective works really well and the shadowy spaces at the bottom of the escalator are very suggestive and eerie. The desolate industrial structures in the few successful paintings lend pathos to the compositions because we can all relate to barren urban landscapes, places dominated by rectangular structures.