A second contemporary art exhibition is being held in the St. Jodokus Church cloister. In Sebastian Heiner we find an artist whose work bears a closer connection to this venue than it might seem at first glance, though his oeuvre also goes far beyond.
Three weeks ago, when I entered St. Jodokus Church in the knowledge that I would be opening this exhibition of Heiner’s paintings here, the rooms seemed bright, wide, and “tidy” — full of visual axes and striking spaces. I had remembered the church as rather dark and cramped from my school days, which are some years ago now. And yet bringing an exhibition and thus contemporary art into the church interior — and especially into the bright cloister — seems to me a logical continuation of efforts to permanently furnish and adorn both the rooms of the church and its Klosterplatz- and Obernstraße-facing facades with modern works of art.
I would like to point out in particular the church foyer, which was redesigned a few years ago. Two small but expressive, rather cleverly-placed sculptures of St. Michael and St. Francis welcome the visitor there. I would also point out the nave, with its vibrant, monumental, and visually powerful figurative stained glass windows. These works were created by Sebastian Heiner’s grandfather, Wilhelm Heiner. The fiftieth anniversary of Wilhelm Heiner’s death was commemorated with a service in St. Pius Church a few days ago, along with a small exhibition in Bielefeld’s Senne district: a wonderful, if not exhibition-defining proximity between two artists.
Now for a few words about the artist’s biography: Sebastian Heiner was born into an artistically- and musically-inclined and talented family — not in Bielefeld, but in 1964 Berlin. Although his life and work do not appear to have been influenced by his East Westphalian origins, he does maintain close ties to the city, to relatives and friends that live here. Heiner mentioned these connections surprisingly often in our conversations before the opening, thus emphasizing rather than denying his ancestral roots. Yet another reason to think his exhibition has found an extraordinarily suitable venue here.
Sebastian Heiner attended the University of the Arts in Berlin from 1984 to 1991, more specifically the class of Klaus Fußmann, a painter best known for his boldly-rendered landscapes and flowers in vibrant colors.
Sebastian Heiner’s path as a painter was set, and it took him far abroad in the 2000s: to East Asian countries, to Japan, China (he had a studio in Beijing from 2004 to 2008) and finally to Shanghai in 2010 and 2011, then to Bangkok and in recent months also to Israel and Jordan. Though these distant lands have had no discernible impact on subjects of the artist’s work, they have left their mark on his thinking, reasoning, and life. Whereas his work in the 1990s and early 2000s was dominated by figurative representations, individuals and groups, abstraction crept into his canvases and eventually took over.
This takeover does not appear to have come on abruptly, which is to say the figures that appear in Heiner’s paintings of the period were gradually painted over with increasingly heavy traces of color. Colors blurred and blended over the figures’ bodies until they were finally covered over to such an extent that only limbs, hands, or feet were visible — an growing abstraction superimposed over the figures, just as one might find in a Willem de Kooning or Asger Jorn painting, for example. This period also saw the introduction of new, somewhat “trashy”-seeming materials as painting supports in Heiner’s work, which is to say he painted on industrially-produced, patterned fabrics or carpets; another instance finds the classic, rectangular outline of the canvas practically exploded by a star shape — a work from that series is on view in this exhibition.
The twelve paintings in this exhibition show his work’s evolution into completely abstract inventions; all were created in the artist’s Berlin studio over the past few months. The clear colors and presence of these works strike a distinct contrast to the white walls of the cloister, and they also meet the St. Jodokus’s extraordinarily “picture-less” or even “abstract” monochrome Stations of the Cross. And just one has to read the Stations of the Cross scenes in the dark gray panels, Sebastian Heiner’s paintings invite the viewer to draw their own associations. At the same time, the short, often geographical titles — perhaps a reference to further places of longing for the artist — serve only as a rather broad point of orientation. Selected by the artist after the paintings are completed, they are of no help in discerning the works’ deeper, symbolic significance.
The artist’s homepage features an impressive sequence of photographs Heiner’s creative process: stills from a video that was shot as he worked on one of his paintings. In describing these photos, I hope to offer some insight into how the artist’s works come into being. Because it does indeed look like “work” in the photos: The first thing you see is a studio space where veritable carpet of paint residue, paint-smeared paper, and working materials has formed on the floor; it reminds me a little of the famous photographs showing Francis Bacon’s studio. Then we see the artist, first neatly dressed, then in paint-smeared overalls as he hangs a black-primed canvas on the studio wall. The oil paint is then squeezed directly from tubes or scooped from buckets. One image shows Sebastian Heiner stepping on a paint tube with his foot. The viscous painting material is at first pressed onto the canvas, sometimes thrown, and then manipulated. Subsequent photographs show paint in the center of the canvas being spread via a broad palette knife or scraper, with the help of the hand and forearm, into loose, mostly circular, swipes and painted forms. Then more paint is applied to the canvas. This time, any tool that might be found in the studio (i.e. a broom, the edge of a piece of cardboard, quite possibly a fly swatter) is substituted for the paintbrush, and the artist’s body comes into play. The paint is spread further with impulsive gestures, mixed, swirled, superimposed, scratched, painted over or brought out of deeper layers of paint; these are usually wave-like swaths of color, which appear explosive and dynamic in some paintings and more static and calm in others. However applied, the paint always draws the eye to across the canvas, leads it to falter and ramble on ... and so the viewer also participates in the process of creating the work. This is of course also reinforced in the tactile feel of the paintings, the sheen and relief-like, centimeter-thick structure of the paint but also — and this was actually my initial thought and the first thing I was afraid of — the very distinct smell of oil paint.
All of the tools I mentioned are used to work the pigment over a monochrome canvas from the center of the painting, creating a relief-like layer of color on top of it. For all the apparent artistic looseness and liberties taken, a viewer always finds nameable forms and one, two, or three dominant colors that ground and stabilize the painting. Not to overstate this, but it’s also something I’ve discussed with Sebastian Heiner: These are often the colors that immediately spring to mind when I think of paintings I know by Wilhelm Heiner: a clear, warm yellow, a bright-but-dull blue, and a luminous red — hues that appear as minor, but powerful colors in the paintings. It may be coincidence. The bright background colors are not, because they are an expression of the artist’s mood; they set the tone of the painting, reinforcing or mellowing the chosen colors and adding to the intensity of the brushwork, which is likewise expressive.
The backgrounds also deliberately leave a kind of colored frame. He consciously avoids an “all-over” blanketing of the canvas, something that was still noticeable in earlier paintings and which art history probably knows best from the work of Jackson Pollock and famous “action painting” photographs of the Abstract Expressionist at work. The new paintings appear more focused and decisive in the truest sense of the word.
What’s more, Heiner’s work is not as berserk as it may have just sounded. He speaks calmly when he talks about his pieces, about concentration while working, about the fact that an image appears on the colored background as if from nowhere and within a few hours, though he rarely works on them in one continuous stretch. Pauses and ever-new approaches are part of the process, he says. This, too, can be seen in the works.
Sebastian Heiner’s paintings — by which I mean the completely new paintings on view here — seem to me to be the next logical step in his oeuvre, but also in his independent dialogue and engagement with forms of gestural abstraction from art history, particularly with the Art Informel or Tachisme styles that emerged in Germany and France. Yet for all Heiner’s enthusiasm for both European Art Informel artists (including Emil Schumacher) and their American contemporaries, Pollock’s famous quote — “When I am in the picture, I am not aware of what I am doing” — would be misleading when it comes to understanding Heiner’s work. Although Sebastian Heiner does create gesturally, perhaps impulsively, he becomes more conscientious as he works on the painting, not less. This is not painting that ends in an ill-considered battle of materials. His beginnings testing figurativeness, the turn to abstraction, and finally the more recently-created body of work with its focus on a gestural-abstract painting have led to paintings that remind me rather of another artist’s quote, this one by Carmen Herrera: “Every painting has been a fight between the painting and me. I tend to win.”
About the artistSebastian Heiner
Sebastian Heiner sebastianheiner.de works on his large-format canvases in the tradition of Informel and Action Painting with unusual painting tools and full physical effort. The resulting paintings show a pastose painting in bright colours that seem to burst out of the canvas like an explosion.
Influenced by his travels to Tokyo in 2001 - and stays of several months, some of them recurring - in Beijing from 2004 to 2008, in Shanghai in 2010/11, in Bangkok in 2012/13 and again in Shanghai in 2017/18 and in Seoul in 2019, he maintained various studios. After his travels, elaborately designed catalogues of works, such as the book "Moloch City", were published. Essays reflect and document his experiences and impressions. In addition to abstract paintings, Sebastian Heiner works on sketchbooks and figurative paintings and stages painting performances.