PAINTING AS BASIC RESEARCH
Interview by Nicole Büsing & Heiko Klaas
Nicole Büsing & Heiko Klaas: The title of this catalogue is Reflection. What does that title mean to you? Is the word reflection ambiguous—in that it suggests mirroring on the one hand and intellectual contemplation on the other?
Jochen Hein: I could answer this question with a simple yes. It has always touched me to think that while the reflection of light makes everything visible in the first place and we thus see only the reflection, we not only cannot see anything when looking directly at the sun or the center of a light source, but can even become blind from doing so. Thinking about what we can see and what we cannot see, what we learn about the world and its actual nature, and how little of it is really visible or depictable, is also the starting point for the path I have taken with my painting. We see only the image that our brain generates; in this respect, we reflect the world through our thoughts. We reflect reflections—it’s endless and unavoidable, as when mirrors are placed opposite one another. Humankind could never step out of this situation or through the mirror to tear the veil, but my canvases make the veil visible as such.
NB & HK: Aren’t you also referring here to Renaissance painting theorists such as Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), who defined the mirror image of a finished painting as a gauge of the degree of painterly fidelity?
JH: The fact that a painting, to which one has become “blind,” so to speak, can be viewed in a mirror, in the reversal of the composition, in a new and fresh way, has indeed been used regularly as an aid in the past. That’s why I have a large dance hall mirror in my studio. The best thing is to turn the picture upside down or on its side, turn around and then look at it in the mirror, and immediately recognize what’s wrong. A good painting can withstand any rotation or mirror reflection. Of course, when you alter the composition in this way, it is a different picture every time—this is, incidentally, also extremely interesting and instructive to see. The funny thing is that this question makes it clear to me that I don’t even know how many years it’s been since I did this the last time—I obviously don’t need it anymore. The mirror is now only an anticipated Gerhard Richter (laughs).
NB & HK: The term “surface” always seems to come to mind when looking at your paintings. What do surfaces mean to you? To what extent do they have something to do with your own perception and the perception of the viewer?
JH: Photons that bounce off the surface are then assembled, via our retina, in our brain to form what we call reality. Since the outer appearance of the world seems to mean something to us, however, all mysteries of our existence are inscribed in this surface. I am irritated, but also a bit amused, when people think that I’m capturing something invisible, possibly the soul of things. People obviously have an extreme and widespread desire to believe that there might be a “behind”—to believe that one can bring pictures from that place, from oneself, from the depths, or from who knows where, out into the light. But there is neither a “behind,” nor an invisible that could be perceived, let alone made visible. What we have, if you look closely, is surface—and all sorts of it. What I create from a three-dimensional underlying structure and thin skins of paint enables a play of light—mind you, in front of the original—which reflects the illusion of the world and the riddles of its meaning. Surface is thus both the theme and the medium of my work.
NB & HK: How would you describe the difference between perception and reality? To what extent is this difference reflected in your painting?
JH: When viewing the world, perception has precisely as little to do with reality as our limited spectrum of vision allows. We know that reality is something else, but we cannot see it. We remain in our bubble just as every other living being remains in its own bubble. In our case, all sorts of cognitive simulation complement our view of the world where our senses are insufficient, and the grey mass in our heads feeds us with what we can expect. In any case, we assemble reality from loose parts and assumptions and make a seemingly complete world out of it, without any gaps. These gaps between perception and reality are the reason why my paintings can appear to be real—you only have to throw in the right chunks for the brain to eat them. But the only real thing about it is that they are not true, despite the fact that we gladly accept them as true.
NB & HK: The introductory essay of Kulturgeschichte des Wassers(Cultural History of Water), edited by the cultural scientist Hartmut Böhme, states: “The reason for the inexhaustibility of water as a reservoir for worlds of cultural symbols is the wealth and evidence of its phenomena. Water emerges from the earth as a wellspring, flows as a river, stands as a lake, is in eternal peace and endless motion as the sea. It transforms itself into ice or steam; it moves upwards through evaporation and downwards as rain, snow or hail; it flies as a cloud. It is seed that fertilizes the earth. It splashes, rushes, sprays, gurgles, chortles, whirls, falls, binds, rolls, trickles, hisses, waves, seeps, ripples, murmurs, mirrors, swells, trickles, surges... It is colorless and can take on all colors.”
This description also seems suitable for your seascapes, which you have created for many years now. Why are you so fascinated by water? And could it be that, in the future, you will also deal with other phenomena and aggregate forms of water in a painterly way?
JH: Water is a material that, in every form of movement, cloaks itself in the most amazing reflections. That you want to look at it but can’t even really follow a single wave has been on my mind since time spent on my grandfather’s sailboat. In no time at all, the “information overflow” makes you start looking without seeing—this is where the meditative effect of water lies. At the same time, of course, it can also develop a force beyond all imagination. Yet the sea is much more than merely greater than us; it also makes us seem like nothing in the face of eternity. I encounter this form of eternity with fascination and reverence. But rendering the sea visible, literally capturing it, breaking down its complexity to a human scale without losing what is essential, has always been an extreme challenge for me. I ultimately pressed the horizon down and placed other states of aggregation, the sky, into the painting.
NB & HK: In this context, we would also like to know how far you are interested in frozen water, which can be experienced primarily in high mountains and polar regions.
JH: It’s possible that the frozen state will still receive its due. I remember only vaguely that ice had piled up on North German beaches. But ever since I scraped past Greenland, eight hours through the Prince Christian Sound, where shipping seems like space travel, an encounter with another planet, I have wanted to see more ice in the polar regions. I will then know whether and how this could affect my paintings. But with the sea alone, liquid as I know it, I already have enough to keep me painting for an eternity. This theme is, as they say, virtually inexhaustible.
NB & HK: The novel Moby Dickby the American writer Herman Melville was published in 1851. At the center of the work, which is interspersed with many philosophical and art historical essays, is the fictional whaling ship the Pequod; its motley crew and the charismatic but shady Captain Ahab set out to hunt down the white whale Moby Dick. In addition to the depiction of water, does the idea of the underlying world populated by sea creatures such as fish, whales, coral, algae, and possibly even mythical figures play a role for you?
JH: The novel is unbelievable—particularly the range in which Melville works on this material, from documentation to mythology. But you won’t find one or the other in my own works. My work begins and ends before the story, so to speak—I leave explanations and allegories to others.
NB & HK: How do you see your painting in contrast to the realistic and naturalistic depictions of nature of the nineteenth century? Even then, a few artists were already interested in the subject of the “empty sea,” that is to say in pure depictions of the power of waves without narrative accessories.
JH: At the time, they could not yet do so completely without narrative accessories; there was always a reference, to seafaring for example—even when it came to the absence of a ship, at least allegorically a few seagulls glided through the pictorial space. It never comes to that with me. In realistic painting, social, naturalistic, and scientific considerations played an essential role. In contrast, my approach begins before these connotations and is more indebted to Minimalism. Apart from that, as a result of all the media developed since then, today’s visual experiences are quite different than they were—at the time it was only possible to observe nature and paintings with one’s own eyes. Today, everything that noisy cathode ray tubes, grainy photographs, half-tone printed products, and JPEG files consisting of countless pixels show us of the world overlays and affects our gaze. All of this, like the abovementioned forms of translations of the visible, shows up in my pictorial language and is the reason, also in terms of technique, why my work is different from the painting of the nineteenth century.
NB & HK: Could you explain in more detail how you actually produce your paintings?
JH: At first glance, you might think that my works have been executed in oil, or that they’re perhaps prints or even photographs—in reality, they are simulations of simulation. For each picture, I develop my technique further. In this process, accidents are the most valuable mutations in my efforts to get to new possibilities of painting. The combination of glazes, liquid acrylic paint, and three-dimensional undercoats, and the application and removal of the paint with all possible means is what makes it my painting. But it would also be justified to say that I am basically not a painter in the strict sense of the word—instead, I “make” pictures with paint. And in absolute contrast to the painters of earlier centuries, I do not depict: “Look here, this is how it looks,” but rather “Look here, this is NOT how it looks.”