PLEIN-AIR LOUNGE LIZARD
by Martin Clark
I’m peering into a room, a lounge by the look of it – there’s a sofa, a chair, a coffee table, a rug. It’s empty – or at least it was – empty but for me. There are paintings on the walls, familiar paintings but I’m not sure from where. Like faces that one recognises but cannot place. Left alone in this room, I let my eyes wander, take in the furniture. It’s modular, probably mid ‘70s, the paintings are a curiously disparate collection. Is that a van Gogh, probably a reproduction, a Warholesque silkscreen print, a small oil landscape? Of course they aren’t paintings, not in the real sense, but at the same time that is exactly what they are; paintings of paintings, or perhaps paintings of the idea or memory of painting, because this isn’t a room in the real sense, it too is a painting. This sofa is painted, as is the table, the rug and the chair. And then there are the gaps, the blanks, the holes. Potential space, unpainted space. Empty frames waiting to be filled. Paintings not yet painted or paintings already forgotten? Or perhaps they’re just a suite of smart monochromes – Robert Ryman’s or Gerhard Richter’s. In front of this work I think of other paintings like it, of Matisse’s Red Studio, of Lichtenstein’s Interior with Waterlillies, of Patrick Caulfield’s Interior with Picture or even of Zoffany’s The Tribuna of the Uffizi Gallery. I’m forced to relocate, move in, move out, and it is in this movement, this initial series of dislocations and relocations, that the play begins, that the works begin their work.
These new paintings by Anton Henning continue the tradition of play and performance that has informed his practice for the last decade or so. Over this time Henning has been making work in a huge variety of media, from sculptures and installations to photographs, drawings, paintings and videos. If there is one thing that ties together this seemingly disparate (though as we shall discover incredibly rigorous) practice, then it is the idea of performance, of performing. In his videos he is seen performing in a quite literal way, playing out roles, characters, stories. So too in many of the photographs. In these works his paintings often also appear as performers as, sometimes, do the paintings of others. It seems to me that it is the performative qualities of painting, both as an activity and as an object, that are further explored in these new canvases.
It is perhaps odd to think of paintings in terms of performance, particularly paintings that look like these, like ‘proper’ paintings, like ‘pictures’. Historically the links between performance and painting are usually articulated through a certain kind of action painting. Pollock’s drips and dribbles, recording his movements around the horizontal canvas, Yves Klein and his painted ladies pressing and dragging themselves across the white ground. But the practice of painting is always performative, the painter paints and in doing so performs his role as a painter. In Henning’s work this aspect is very selfconsciously played out. In the diversity of canvases that Henning produces we see painting and its attendant histories played out for us, performed for us. There’s a parallel here with another kind of performance. Play is a musical term as well, and Henning plays paintings a bit like a musician. He ‘covers’ them like one would a good tune, constantly finding nuances – stylistic, tonal, gestural, a series of improvisations, of riffs. Motifs and subjects become ‘standards’ (in the jazz sense of the word) and provide him with the structure in which to play, to improvise. And these standards really are standards, handed down from generation to generation – the still life, the landscape, the nude – played and replayed, the ‘Favourite Things’ and ‘Round Midnight’ of the smock wearing generation.
Henning also uses his paintings in a performative way. He has always played with his paintings through their installation, whether in a seemingly straightforward hang in a gallery or in the created, theatrical space of his walk-in lounge installations, complete with their stripey walls, home-made furniture, and plush tangerine carpet. The way the paintings talk to each other, inform each other, play with and off each other, creates complexity, richness, enigma. The paintings become performers (rather than simply props) engaged in a complex dialogue amongst themselves as well as with the wider context of art and the world. In the paintings of lounges, he decorates and redecorates these generic rooms with zingy colour schemes and eclectic hangs. He has found a new space to inhabit, a new place for his paintings to play.
Then suddenly a painting reappears, here, on another wall, a real wall, the gallery wall; a painting of two happy, healthy, blonde-haired children. They play naked, in a field, with a docile little calf. I’ve seen it before, I recognise it from one of the interior paintings, but now it is here first hand, in the flesh, as it were. I am forced to question which came first, where is the original? Is it indeed this canvas, is it the miniature on the wall of the lounge, or are these already copies of another painting, by another painter, hanging on another wall, in another city? By replacing his pictures (or more accurately repainting his pictures) within the already pictorial space of the rendered room, these relationships are called into question, complicated. The painting itself, though, has a charming simplicity, it is the proverbial picture of innocence, but one cannot remove the ideological baggage that history attaches to the work, projected from the past to colour our present. This kind of ‘boy meets tractor’ social realism, for reasons political as well as aesthetic, is out of fashion. But then this isn’t about fashion, and it certainly isn’t about kitsch. It might be easier if it were, but Henning is obstinately sincere; sincerely ironic, intuitively conceptual and delightfully direct. These works have an easy charm, a lackadaisical assurance which belies their deft sophistication. This is a picture of a type of painting, but a painting itself, nonetheless.
These are all paintings in and of themselves and, though they are players in a complex structure, they must stand or fall on their own terms. Whilst they are parts of the develo-ping ecology of Henning’s practice, they are also mirrors of that ecology. They both create and contain it. Above all, though, they are about painting, that most modernist of subjects, and they delight in that sensual, sumptuous, slippery stuff. If Henning likes playing games with perception, representation, phenomenology, and history, then he doesn’t like it half as much as he likes simply to play with his paint. Colour, texture, gesture, form, dripping, scampering, caking, swirling. Thickening here, looser there. These canvases have an immediacy, a freshness, a dynamic that comes purely from the pleasure of painting. It might be old fashioned but it’s certainly intoxicating. These paintings are fundamentally about beauty (another old fashioned idea). They want to be looked at; they don’t want you to be able to tear your gaze away. They know they look sexy and they’re not going to be shy about it. They flaunt themselves, show off, demand that you indulge in that most erotic of activities, looking. Painting’s orders are collapsed as a representational canvas is invaded by a florid abstraction that can’t contain itself and bursts across the surface. An abstract painting is confused by the appearance of solid forms – hoses, ropes, sausages of colour, looping lazily across the flat fields of paint. A swirling motif appears here as a bouquet of flowers, here as a drape on the ruffled bed of a reclining nude or here as the pattern on van Gogh’s fitted carpet. All of painting’s languages, dialects and inflections babble and chatter and gossip and flirt. Picture galleries have always been good places for paintings to meet up, to converse, but what better place for these colourful encounters than the easy atmosphere of a comfortable lounge; a place for fun, conversation, and possibly more!
Martin Clark, catalogue Interieurs 2001, Wohnmaschine und Vous Etes Ici, 2001