Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Palimpsest: The Overlapping Visions of Hans Sieverding

Untitled 16.1.2017 by Hans Sieverding. (Acrylic on Canvas, 2017)

“Like a great poet, Nature knows how to produce the greatest effect with the most limited means.” – Heinrich Heine
The accomplished Germany-based painter Han Sieverding is a senior-career artist whose overall body of work indicates both a purity of intention and a persistence of invention. The continuity in his image-making practice is very impressive in that it reveals an ongoing and restless search for new forms of expression which are all embodied within the tightly disciplined aesthetic approach of modernism. He possesses a vitality and energy which younger artists can only dream about as they struggle with their perpetual appetite for newness and novelty and are seduced ever further into the digital domain and its post-sensation agenda.

These vividly alive paintings palpitate: one can almost feel them breathing beneath their swirling liquid surfaces as they flow across the canvas and arrive at their whirlpool-like destinations. Executed in acrylic on canvas, a water-based medium that arose in the 60's and permitted more rapid drying and thus more effective ways of creating transparency and more multi-layered viewing experiences, they simply prompt me to call them palpable. They are definitely immersive and deeply sensorial: we are surrounded and enveloped by their presence and become drawn into their drama, which often appears to almost memorialize the moment in which they were made.

An intense work such as Untitled 16.1.2017, for instance (they often have “titles” which consist of the day, month and year they were born), doesn’t necessarily present a narrative or any programmatic content and yet its story is still utterly captivating. It’s the story of the moment it bumped into being: a story whose throbbing centre is everywhere and whose vast circumference is nowhere.

Untitled 4.1.2017 by Hans Sieverding. (Acrylic on Canvas, 2016)

Untitled 4.1.2017 is another majestic and gripping moment celebrating a frenzy of forms, all jockeying for position in a hierarchy where every square inch is equal to every other one. No centre, no figure, no ground, no edge: each fragmented form is on personal speaking terms with the void from which it emerged. In fact, his splendid works are actually postcards from the void.

The overlapping visions he shares with those fortunate enough to encounter them are all analog in nature, as in haptic, a sensational realm emphasizing the hand of the maker, the eye of the viewer, and the mind of the in-between. In the past, this visual poet of fluidity and flux has explored multiple subjects and themes in a lively and comprehensive study of form and function which always arrests the retina and calms the soul in the same image. He has over time produced portraits, still lifes and landscapes, as well as the free-form visual content of contemporary abstraction.

But, like nature, whatever means he chooses to utilize, he consistently manages to create the most powerful effect with an admirable economy. In his latest offerings, however, he has also managed to combine and amalgamate all the themes and formats into radically elegant pictorial stage sets that feel as intimate as faces, as graceful as a flower, as grand as a wild vista and as arresting as an abstract expressionist dance. Now, with these latest works, perhaps the artist has allowed himself the freedom and ease of expression which hopefully comes to us all after eight decades on earth.

The word haptic suggests the quality of touch, of sheer physicality proper, and his images often invite us to caress their sensual surfaces, in fact to even plunge our hands into their illusory but seductive spaces. While mostly abstract, they still occupy a stylistic domain known as the biomorphic, in the sense that while their formal structure functions as pure content, they still reference the organic, the living, the biological and often even the botanical.

Iris 3 by Hans Sieverding.  (Acrylic on Canvas)
Iris 2 and Iris 3, for example, are clearly floral theatres of growth and outreach and yet they don’t depict what an iris structure looks like to us but rather how that flower feels to us. They’re much more like x-rays of the inner life of the plants than like mere reports on their exteriors, and thus we ourselves are much more drawn in, immersed so to speak, in what a flower might be thinking.

Ironically, two other canvases, Untitled 8.10 2014 and Untitled 10.7.2016 are just as capable of carrying the charmed still-life content of flowers, but we’re allowed to resist that plot device and just rest on their exquisite surfaces for as long as we choose, which, in the case of the verdant emerald kingdom of the former, could be forever. The eye does not willingly depart from that incredible green poem. I felt the same symphonic visual experience waiting to be unleashed in the even more recent Untitled 5.2.2017, with its lush swaying forest of nooks and crannies, concealing who knows what dreaming creatures asleep in the wind that seems to sweep across the sloping hills of its slender and shimmering graphic gestures.

If I were allowed to bestow titles on them I would call them palimpsests, a word deriving from both Latin and ancient Greek, meaning scraped clean and used once again.

Originally referencing manuscripts where the earlier writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain, in a wider sense it strikes me that natural cycles and seasons, within which some of these biomorphic forms of his could reside, also sweep clean and give birth to new shapes, time and time again. In general it suggests something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.

Thus two supremely floral works such as Untitled 6.1.2016 and Untitled 16.6.2016, seemingly still-life twins born ten days apart, look and feel like the natural world but are portrayed in a supernatural pictorial language. They too read like palimpsests of the physical dimension we ourselves occupy, and indeed, aren’t we too, living in our bodies, also biological palimpsests until we leave them behind and find new ones?

My personal favourites in this suite are also a cluster that have somewhat more literal references, but again, only on the surface of their meaning. Landshaft 1 and Landshaft 2 are, of course, landscapes but they are also maps of a metaphysical territory and a terrain you may not have walked across apart from in a dreamscape. In each one, a red outline and a white outline both suggest potential figures moving across the ground; however, these subtly transparent and tender graphic lines could just as easily be lush and exotic spiritual foliage about to erupt into the realm of our physical life. These splendid landscapes are clearly topographical spaces located in a geographical atlas of the imagination.

Luzin 11 by Hans Sieverding. (Acrylic on Canvas)

And for me, perhaps, the most splendid of them all, two enigmatic pieces which offer us some narrative clarity, although it also comes along with an even more equally enhanced mystery. The two paintings called Luzin 2 and Luzin 11 both appear to reference the mystical Russian mathematician Nokolai Luzin, best known for elaborating a complex investigation of set theory and the properties of space that are preserved under continuous deformations such as stretching and bending. The perfect description for Sieverding’s overall work: we don’t have to be mathematicians to appreciate the alluring fact that these images plunge us into a topology of the infinite.

Important topological properties, only obliquely referenced, also include both connectedness and interconnectedness, and one of the best known examples of a topological space (even to untutored lay people like us) is the Möbius strip, a form with only one surface and one edge, though they bend back upon themselves in an eternal loop. The broken lines in both these Luzin images are almost a visual Morse code transmitting an elusive but elegant message. Indeed, the colourful and languid overlapping visions of Hans Sieverding are precisely these kinds of eternal loops: self-referential and gloriously unique, they invite us to return to their open-ended spaces again and again to refresh ourselves in their soothing Möbius breezes.

Hans Sieverding is represented by the Odon Wagner Contemporary Gallery in Toronto, which will be mounting a solo exhibition of his new work there from May 5-27, 2017.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called The Devil in Miss Jones: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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