O.T.5, oil on canvas, 2006

Cheap & Plastique interviews Berlin-based artist Christian Hellmich for Issue 10.
See more of Mr. Hellmich’s work here. Christian’s paintings are currently on view here.

C & P: Where did you grow up? Did the environment you experienced as a youth influence your decision to become an artist? Or influence your work at all? If so, how?
Christian: I grew up in a small town near by Düsseldorf and later on I lived more and more in Düsseldorf, studied at Essen´s Folkwang-School, then lived in Cologne as well.
I lived in the Rhineland-region (a part of Northrhine Westfalia) for quite a long time. Even though I was not really raised strictly Catholic, the region’s catholicism was formative to me because of its flood of images, churches, museums, books, etc. As a kid this is really flashing! But it didn’t directly move me toward art. It was more a (dubious) entertainment.
The next kind of images I was really attracted to were comics. I started out hoping to draw comics and much later I found out that studying fine art was a much more satisfying thing. I feel these two things are shining through in my work right now again.

C & P: You now live in Berlin. I have interviewed a few artists from Berlin over the past year and they all tell me that Berlin is still thriving as an arts capital. Do you agree?
Christian: Might be! I moved here from Cologne for personal reasons but I understand your point: A lot of art related people live or move here, nearly every bigger gallery tries to keep an off-shoot in Berlin. And it´s still really fashionable to move here, especially as an artist. But hey, shouldn´t we all live in Brussels meanwhile? As I have heard this is through already as well…

Still, Oil on canvas, 150 x 95 cm, 2011

C & P: What do you like most about living in Berlin? Least? Does being in Berlin inspire your work?
Christian: O.K. I have to confess beside the very different Cologne, I wouldn’t know where else in Germany I wanted to live. Most of all, because it´s the biggest city in Germany, which is indeed inspiring to me. Most of my friends and people I know live here. In comparison to other European cities, Berlin is big, quite cheap and has a social mix that I like. It has broad streets but also a difficult history…

C & P: Tell me a little about the process of creating a new work. What inspires you to begin a picture?
Christian: Actually there are two ways I initially begin: One is what Max Ernst called an optical provocation, which means that I mainly work with quotations. I have an archive/collection of pictorial material. This material can come from any available source. The selection is based on mainly personal decisions, the material needs to trigger a personal reaction. I reinterpret this material by using it in my work. During this process, I examine whether the material is recontextualizable and in most cases an extreme replacement of meaning takes place while I integrate it in my personal context. Then there is a second way of starting a work: what did I do within the last painting and is there a started work in the studio that I could adduct and make a variation on?

C & P: Do you begin sketching out your ideas by drawing something first? Do you ever work out a composition on a computer before you begin to paint?
Christian: No, not preparatory. There are some editions I worked on with a computer and a very new series in collaboration with Georg Parthen (see C & P‘s interview with him here) that we just started working on. But the paintings are executed analog only. They begin as pure colorfields. From this I develop a very gestural and rough abstract moment that most times leads to very simple geometrical forms. From this point on I start to adduct the first representational element from my archive that I integrate to my cosmos and start to work over it again until there is a certain balance between openness and closeness.

Taxidermie I, oil on canvas, 40 X 35 cm, 2011

C & P: In your artistic practice do you paint mainly with oils? Do any other materials find their way into your work?
Christian: Yes, yes.

C & P: You say that you will “borrow” from both high and low culture while scouring source material for your work; taking inspiration from magazines, photography, the internet, as well as other artist’s work. Do you believe that all of these elements in your work are equal?
Christian: Yes.

C & P: You seem to have an affinity for modernist architecture. What interests you about this architectural style? Are you drawn to the work of any architects in particular?
Christian: There are surely some of my favorite architects among the modernists. But since I was living and studying in Essen when I started these paintings, my architectural surrounding didn’t really reference modernism in the original way. Essen as an industrial production city was destroyed in big parts during the Second World War and was rebuilt in a quite typical German post-war style that didn’t come out as a new, self- and media-referencial, universal utopian world language. Some misunderstood modernism found its way into my works. The banality that was often mistaken as modernism was pleasantly useful for the spacial modular-based ideas of painting that I had during these times.

Lift, oil on canvas, 40 X 30 cm, 2011

C & P: Architectural elements recur throughout your work but in your newer work the elements are more abstracted and harder to recognize. How did this shift in style come about?
Christian: After I tried a lot of other media and processes, it became clear to me I had to make a decision where and how to incorporate into the field of painting. The seemingly representational, architectural elements were a good starting point for me. There are many processes that occur in my painting still today. But pragmatically it became too abstract for me redefining an architectonical box again and again. One side effect is that you can squeeze it, stretch it, cut it etc, but as long as there is a rest of figuration in it, you will always have to deal with the box. I opened the sphere of influence for a variety spread, but a lot of the methods I used actually stayed the same. There are still many things you could perceive but do not recognize. It´s still a cut through pictorial noise.

C & P: I find the architecture in Berlin to be fascinating. Are there any buildings in Berlin (or fragments of them) that make an appearance in your work?
Christian: No, besides for a very few exceptions, no real, existing things appear in my paintings.

C & P: Geometric design patterns and painterly textures often repeat from one canvas to another. Is your aim to create a narrative between the works by using the same repetitive patterns over multiple canvasses?
Christian: Hmm, not really. I have always exhibited the constructedness and modularity of my paintings. The exchangeable patterns, textures, recognizable representational parts meant to underline this. For a very long time I tried to avoid as much narration as possible, which changed in way, even though it happened also in a very abstract way.

C & P: Do you utilize a grid to structure the work?
Christian: I am not really sure about your question. To me the grid was an important tool, regarding to content more than a painterly tool, to transfer a sketch or something. Rosalind Krauss´ use of the idea of the grid made some sense and was a personal benchmark to modernism to me.

Boot, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm, 2008

C & P: Also, in your newer work, cylindrical pill-like shapes make their way onto the canvas. Are these forms meant to represent anything? Or are they acting as a decorative element overlaying the abstracted architectural fragments?
Christian: As I said, I have tried to avoid a narrative moment in my work for a very long time. The pill-like, or as a lot of people have seen them, balloon-like forms, developed coincidentally from a form I discovered in an advertisement. It was so simple and so open. On the other hand it had a very explicit quality at the same time. It’s use in a variety of my works allowed me to introduce this thing as a kind of narrative moment. Since every perception has connotation, I am very interested how far one could push an image before it overturns in one direction.

C & P: The painting Feeding looks quite different from the other paintings of yours I have seen, it has an almost eerie feel about it. Could you talk a bit about this work?
Christian: In the 1980s and 90s, the most common goal in (German) painting was, that it must have to “drop off the horse,” meaning: it had to fail. A lot of artist charged the medium of painting with functions/goals that it obviously couldn’t possibly achieve. Even though it wasn´t a direct influence, people like Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, etc., had a very bright emission on me. But it was some time ago I was very touched by some French late 19th century paintings I have seen in Paris. First of all I was impressed how Vuillard pointed to a gap “in between.” It was just that moment where freedom of art was binding, but it wasn’t modernism yet, that he was able to employ and refer to the medium of painting itself and still find a very personal access. This is somehow contrary to the late contemporary art I grew up with. I guess that’s a very old insight but it connected to my weakness for a certain relation of openness and closure.
In 2011 I had the impression that I kept some things out of my work for such a long time, so I was practically forced to just do it (like the narrative moments I’ve been speaking about).
The very abstract (seeming) work I have been creating and some further personal needs have lead me towards a more representational and engaging method for now. For several reasons there are no depictions of humans in my work. If you don´t refer to pop or media reflection, for me painting humans still has to do a lot with suffering flesh, which I didn’t wanted to do. The definitions within the exactitude of the vague that I am doing right now includes a more personal admission, which has an uncanny effect.

Coach, oil on canvas, 40 x 26cm, 2010

C & P: The biomorphic shape in If I Was a Carpenter is the one time a figure (albeit an abstracted one) appears in your work. Could you talk a bit about this work?
Christian: Oh, you mean the grinning vase? Ontological problems…

C & P: There are rarely humans depicted in your paintings (at least in the ones that I have seen). Have you ever painted figures in your work? Is there a reason why your pictures are void of people?
Christian: For some reasons mentioned above I find it difficult. But I think it is still even more important to me to make the beholder the leading actor. Everyone should be able to step inside the works and engage with different connections.

untitled, oil on canvas, 204 x 180 cm, 2010

C & P: Since I am looking at photographic reproductions of your work I am not sure of the physical actuality of the painted marks in the paintings, do you paint mostly in a flat style or do the paintings have complex and varied textural surfaces?
Christian: Photographic reproductions are a problem indeed, as long as you take them frontal, which unfortunately is obligatory. In this way you can not see a lot of shining through layers or the amount of paint I use, that give the works a relief-like quality. So, the reproductions stay a reference. But it’s O.K. It should be an invitation to come and have a look at the original!

C & P: Which artists inspire you? Which artists would you cite as influences? Are there any painters of modernist abstraction that you are especially drawn to?
Christian: As explained above I am really into this second impressionist wave artist right now, Bonnard, Vuillard. And then Paul Sérusier. Later I also rediscovered Ljubow Sergejewna Popowa, who, I guess would be the most modernistic artist I could offer right now.

C & P: What projects are you working on currently?
Christian: Right now I am working on my first institutional solo show, at Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle in Germany, coming up in June this year. Later on this year there will be an other institutional show in Cologne.

C & P: What could you imagine doing if you did not create art?
Christian: I would most definitely be cosmonaut or ornithologist.

Crosstrainer, oil on canvas, 280 X 204 cm, 2011


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