Finding a point of entry to Thilo Heinzmann’s paintings is not that obvious. They are
cool, measured works, often with expanses of sparse whiteness. They are goodlooking, self-referential paintings about painting that somehow manage to avoid parody and end-game scepticism, corralling vast amounts of art history that remains, for the most part, unseen.
What is striking and particular to Heinzmann’s paintings is his use of a range of familiar materials that are unfamiliar to painting. Avoiding traditional materials is a commonplace way of freeing up some territory to work in. It’s a way of debunking
paintings’ traditional values and messing with the instantaneous transmission of those values that go hand in hand with them. Low grade or poor materials offer the artist a relatively straightforward line of defence against those values, a strategy of resistance analogous with bad painting. Heinzmann’s palette of materials, however, is of a higher register. Listing some of them here will give an idea of their tenor: feathers, papyrus, horse and cow skins, marble lacquers, crystals and minerals, molten lead, molten tin, pure pigment. These are distinctively multivalent materials, replete with historical, metaphorical, poetic, and utilitarian values.
One material Heinzmann repeatedly uses - as a support, ground, and as figure - is polystyrene foam. This is a material that does have bad or poor connotations. It’s certainly cheap and ubiquitous. Yet in its pure unsullied state – and by this I mean not found, already used, but coming straight from the suppliers – it is alluring stuff. In sheet format it offers a formally neat solution: it can be support and ground in one. It’s more contemporary than canvas, and it could be said it’s one of the defining media of our petrochemical age.
The support and ground of Untitled (1999) is a rectangle of tiled, thick sheets of expanded polystyrene foam. The painted surface is black pigments mixed with epoxy resin. It has been applied with a combination of a few sparing brush marks, some controlled pours, and a few drops and drips. Some of the pigment and resin soaks in, but most has been applied thick enough to pool and in some places run in rivulets on the surface. The marks run vertically and horizontally, but this modular structure is balanced, and almost over-ridden, by freer forces. Heinzmann has allowed chance to enter the work, but the overall impression is of restraint, control and delicacy even. The support and ground of N.-I.A.N.Y.P.(2000) has been similarly constructed and the painting too has a grid-like structure. This is more of an all-over composition and a finer network of lines. The palette is expanded to include a spectrum of many blueygreens. There is some sense of accident having its role to play, but control mixed with restraint is the painting’s defining quality.
This is a noticeable quality in all of Heinzmann’s work. Take for instance Aicmo VII (2007). It’s a large panel of white powder-coated aluminium. It has been attacked with repeated blows causing a multiple rupturing of the surface. The edges of these slit-like ruptures peel outwards like exit wounds, indicating the blows have come from behind. Some kind of sharp implement must have been used. But there is nothing frenzied about it. There is no sense of destruction or violence. Considerable control has been exerted to keep the size and depth of the holes all within a close range.
There’s an even spacing between the marks, and the expanse of the pristine semi-gloss surface is for the greater part intact. The pattern of marks in Aicmo VII doesn’t offer any obvious reading. The holes themselves could be interpreted as having a sexual connotation. It’s a direction of analysis made more probable when the title of a similar work, Stehende Frau (Standing Woman) (2006) is taken into consideration. Here the figure of a woman is suggested by a single, triangular shaped rupture, (though alternatively this could also be taken as her nose).
In other works Heinzmann plays out similar games of highly reductive figuration. ST (2007) is a triangular composition on a white aluminium panel of just three objects. Two small pieces of elliptical shaped glass (eyes) sit either side of a shell (nose) making a rudimentary face. Liegende (reclining nude) 2006 is a judicious arrangement of a glass marble and three small blocks of wood. And there is a work in his studio - Heinzmann described it to me as a woman with yellow hair - composed from a solitary semi-circular block of yellow wood positioned towards the upper end of a white vertical aluminium panel and set at a slightly cocked angle. These are austere compositions, but they are humorous too, countering the weight of art history that they are quite clearly in dialogue with. For example the reclining nude taking us back all the way to the innovations of Giorgioni. ST plausibly shares something with ethnographic representative art, invoking that moment in European art that heralded the arrival of Modernism. And a woman with yellow hair - surely an homage to one of Picasso’s most celebrated portraits.
The materials discussed so far are at the baser end of Heinzmann’s range of materials: they are cool, industrial and relatively inert. The incorporation of crystals, poured metals, feathers, and animal skins, stands in stark contrast, taking us into a realm of the symbolic, the mystical, the poetic and possibly even the alchemical. You could imagine this would be too much with the work ‘overheating’, but Heinzmann handles his materials with typical restraint. D.C.I.B.I.T (2007) is a good illustration of this. It is a large, squarish white aluminium panel. A flat area of animal hide covering about a third of the top half of the panel, and below it, sitting on the surface is a lump of whitish crystal. There is very little manipulation of the materials - they are presented in a more or less de facto way. A couple of compositional decisions have been made, but not much else. The title is cryptic. The description of media matter-of-fact: ‘fur and crystal on aluminium’. It’s strange because it seems like it shouldn’t really work.
But it does. It’s a beautiful, engaging, sensual work. The animal skin does have an interesting patterning that could suggest a landscape or fire or vegetation. But enough is given for you to accept what remains unknown. The matter-of-fact descriptions of media, common to all his work, belies Heinzmann’s comprehensive knowledge of the different materials he works with. He is working with the subtleties of the materials too. Each piece of lead or tin can have a different colour, tone, and hue. Each animal skin has its own unique pattern. The lacquers and pigments each have their own particular properties. It might be flatly pretentious to say he is a connoisseur of polystyrene foam, but there is a considerable knowledge base and rigour applied to its selection and use. With some materials, like the crystals, minerals, tin and lead, he has amassed quite a collector’s hoard, and when something is to be given up for a work one imagines it’s the result of a very precise, committed and possibly emotional decision.
Heinzmann’s exhibition promotional material, which might feature a naked model smeared with paint, or a giant arse-like bean with triangular thatch of dried grass, or a photo-collage of hundreds of breasts, asks us to consider/discover the presence of a libidinal dimension to his work. In some paintings this is clearly apparent. A series from 2007 - Untitled (fur), Untitled (feather), and Untitled (tin) - do more than hint at female anatomy and bodily fluids. In other instances it’s possible to see Heinzmann’s paintings are acts of polymorphous perversity in formal drag: the splatters of molten metal and dribbles of paint being ejaculations; the holes in the aluminium panel repeated acts of penetration. I wouldn’t want to go too far with this and for the most part Heinzmann’s transformative gestures do predominantly have their legacy in classical, serious painterly concerns.
However what makes his paintings so uplifting and enjoyable is a contributing Orphic sensibility that’s based on an aesthetics of pleasure, sensuality and play.