Jens Schröter

On the Formation of Images
Comments on Christian Hellmich’s Paintings Against the Background of the Media Upheaval in the World of Images[*]

At first glance, the work of Christian Hellmich seems to belong to the broad, heterogeneous current of neo-figurative painting that has come to increasing public attention since the early 1980s. ‘Postmodern’ neo-figuration sought to do away with conventions established by a predominantly anti-representational modernism and so sparked off much polemic debate. Modernist discourse, particularly during the 1960s, rejected representational or figurative tendencies, for – as Clement Greenberg put it – Realism and/or Naturalism disclaim the medium (of painting). Greenberg argued that an uncompromising form of modernist painting should focus on the the determinants of the painterly medium, i.e. the surface, the (mostly) rectangular format of the canvas, the material substance of paint and the materiality of colour. Although Greenberg conceded that painting’s ‘self-critique’ and self-analysis does not necessarily imply the denial of representation, his argument did ultimately support post-war American abstract painting, with its increasingly radical tendency to reduce the image to its ‘flatness’. Despite the fact that the significance of Greenberg’s teleological, normative modernism gradually waned from the 1970s onwards, the questions he – and others – raised concerning the relation between external reference and the self-referentiality of a given medium continue to be of central importance.

This is even more plausible if we consider the fundamental paradigm shift in the world of images, which took place more or less concurrently to the return of representationalism in painting: the gradual emergence of more and more ‘realistic’ computer-generated images – a parallel suggested by Lev Manovich. But for one, we cannot postulate any direct connection between these two developments. Secondly, the situation is decidedly more complex, for precisely the increasingly representational nature of many computer-generated images entailed a ‘crisis of representation’ elsewhere. Indeed, insofar as computer-generated images were subordinated to the criteria of ‘realism’ – and hence to the authoritative paradigms of the photographic image –, photography had to give up its promise of depending – more than any other visual medium – almost entirely on references to objective reality.

A striking moment in the debate on the shifts and instabilities of traditional ascriptions of pictorial self- reference and other-reference is the frequent recurrence of positions linking the emergence of digital imagery to a kind of ‘return of painting’. As early as 1992, W. J. Mitchell (in his book The Reconfigured Eye) forwarded the – since then often repeated – thesis that the effortless manipulation of the digital image blurs the distinction between photography and painting. Recently, Rainer Metzger has claimed a general recurrence of principles of painting for digitalisation and image processing. Such views are often based on the rather simplistic assumption that an artist who employs the digital media resembles a painter because the image is being constructed pixel by pixel: One is therefore obviously not restricted to merely selecting and possibly processing an appropriate segment of a (found) image, which – as with photography – has technically produced itself, without the assistance of the artist.

But against the art- and media-historical background briefly outlined above, the ‘return of painting’ could be understood differently. For quite some time now, painting has been dealing with the conflict between self-referentiality and object-reference. More often than not, the specific demands of planar composition conflicted with the construction of a more or less developed representation geared towards concealing the structure of an underlying pictorial order. In these terms, the ‘return’ of painting would imply that the issues formulated in the context of this conflict could conceivably serve as a point of departure from which to address the conceptually not yet fully grasped destabilization and upheavals in the field of images. With recourse to the notion of representation as representation, painting thus appears as an appropriate medium for investigating the limitations and potentials of pictorial representation between self-referentiality and object-reference since the emergence of digital images.

In this essay, I will consider Christian Hellmich’s work in terms of the art- and media-historical perspective outlined above. Upon closer investigation, Hellmich’s paintings portray (not only) the abandoned architecture typical for the Ruhr region (the artist studied in Essen) with its dreary 1950s charm. Bild 1 depicts a petit-bourgeois corner house: a shut blind, a mosaic window of blue and green glass bricks, dull, light-blue windows, one of which has a noticeably pink frame, six illuminated neon light boxes, now merely opaque and of a rich yellow, a balcony rendered in greenish hues. In the foreground, a dark, open garage. In the background, two trees looming in front of a slightly overcast, whitish sky in various shades of blue. Up front – it seems – three smallish black pines. And in between, a sequence of hard-to-describe occurrences. This attempted – yet inconclusive – description irrefutably falls short of the image itself. The representation of the scene seems to have wrested itself with reluctance from the inherent pictorial dynamics – the indefinable apparitions in the painting and the ‘evaporating trees-becoming-colour’ (see also Bild 3, in which the left section of the picture dissolves into white) show this forcefully. Yet, the apparently stable edge of the roof is seconded by two horizontal, perspectival lines – remnants of the underlying preliminary drawing. Similarly, there are two vertical lines on the left. Hellmich repeatedly preserves traces of the preparatory sketch (cf. Bild 4 & 5), thus referring to the constructed nature of the portrayed object. These references doubly reveal perspectival foreshortening (cf. Bild 2, in which the preparatory lines of the grandstand on the right-hand side of the picture necessarily effect foreshortening). Central perspective has long been the main (mathematical) means of representing spatial depth in painting and then structured the optical hardware of photography until it came into use in contemporary computer graphics (at least in so far as it aims at photo-realism). By means of an exaggerated sense of perspective (illustrated by Bild 2 or particularly by the red glitter balls in Bild 6), Hellmich alludes to conventions of the photographic image which often seeks to conceal its own pictorial quality in favour of an echeloned perspectival construction producing a vista effect. Hellmich’s reference to photography may be interpreted as a link to his specific subject matter: photographs have been and continue to be a major means of constructing memory. The photographed past appears as the indexical trace of spatial homogeneity and therefore as objective. Furthermore, by citing photographs and at the same time emphasizing the construed nature of (all) images, Hellmich accentuates the artificial nature of remembrance - of a both cosily familiar and uncanny, shady realm of the 1950s. However, by reflecting precisely the opacity and flatness of what Husserl termed the ‘picture-thing’, Hellmich’s analysis of image-making extends beyond a mere pointing-out of the construed nature of purportedly homogenous pictorial space (photography), calling to memory a past world. The frames and grids in Hellmich’s works – panelled and/or gridded windows, echeloned balconies, striped deck chairs, and especially the dull windows blocking a voyeuristic gaze into depth – allude (in the sense of Rosalind Krauss) to the flatness of the pictorial plane. In Bild 1, the blind, the yellow neon sign, the blue panel window, the faded blue squares of the window and the dark square of the garage form a geometric configuration. This is even more obvious in Bild 4 – again, the image vanishes to the right down a funnel of echeloned houses and orange pines. At the same time, the surface of the painting is subdivided into the rhythmic progression of white (windows) and yellow (balconies), foreshortened squares (cf. Bild 5). But the grids and lattices also recall the representation-generating processes of computerized images. Geometric structures defined via data bases compose the outlines of objects (‘wireframes’) and are then given textural substance (‘texture mapping’). Hence, it is possible to decipher the elongated, transparent rectangle in front of the garage in Bild 1: It is, as the artist says himself, the picture of a low wall as it may look in very low-resolution computer graphics before texture has been added. Conversely, the coloration of the black and/or orange pine trees demonstrably caricatures the concept of ‘realistic’ texture and detail that is a dominant criterion in computer graphics, particularly in the computer game genre. The black pines billowing into the picture foreground, and the flowers occupying the foreground without any spatial justification in Bild 2 and Bild 3 are further allusions to the formal characteristics of computer-generated imagery. In computer graphics there is a distinction between the ‘background graphic’ and so-called ‘sprites’, self-contained graphic elements (e.g. computer game figures) that move individually in front of the background. Therefore, Manovich – generously paraphrasing Panofsky – speaks of the ‘aggregative’ space of computer graphics. Although computer graphics may employ the methods of perspective to compete with photography and film, it neither necessarily needs to adhere to the principles of perspectival construction nor in fact actually does, due to its inherently aggregative nature. That particular type of space, oscillating between perspectival coherence and aggregative montage, seems to be depicted in Hellmich’s works. For instance, Bild 2 reveals bizarre spatial folds and superimpositions: the flowers’ stems partly disappear behind stripes and surfaces that should actually be located in the background; similarly, in the foreground, the grandstand’s outer left pylon is partially obscured by a blue stain that should belong to the distant horizon. Correspondingly, Hellmich repeatedly recombines the same, or similar, picture elements such as the flowers in the foreground or the yellow neon sign in Bild 1 and Bild 2. Christian Hellmich says: ‘The world is small and the world of objects redundant’. In that respect, the painter returns to what Manovich calls the ‘logic of the data base’: out of a matrix of pictorial elements, one could almost say ‘samples’, an infinite number of new images may be generated irrespective of spatial cohesion. Again, this corresponds to the pictures’ subject matter – for are not these images uncanny precisely because they reveal the aggregative, always recombinatorial nature of memory in general? Are they not demonstrating that in the age of arbitrarily permutable visual data bases memory is (negatively speaking) precarious and (to put it positively) recognizable as merely constructed? Again and again familiar elements appear, clichés of a nostalgic culture of remembrance, and it is precisely their persistent repetition that indicates how little trust we can put in our own – constantly reconstructed – memories. And so our own selves are becoming uncanny...

Ultimately, the construed nature of the images is made overly explicit by the traces of liquid colour. To reduce them to a mere ‘expressive’ gesture would, however, miss the point – given the uncanny, geometric structure of the pictures. The materiality of paint, its uncontrollable wetness becomes thematic. And in this, Hellmich finally pinpoints – if one disregards for a moment the liquids of photographic developers and fixatives – a specificity of painting, namely its basic fluidity which would literally cause every computer to break down. His paintings flow and ultimately congeal, they constitute objects in the exciting instant of a cross-section through the formation of images.

[*] For the sake of briefness and clarity I have avoided extensive quotations in this essay. I would like to thank Christian Hellmich and Julia Wirxel for informative conversations, as well as Bernhard Ebersohl for his corrections and research.