GiG air – Hannes Heinrich

This is the first of a series of ‘air’ exhibitions, based on a visit to the artist studio.

Hannes Heinrich, Untitled (Rockaway), 2022, charcoal & oil on canvas, 45 x 35 cm

When attempting to describe the paintings of Hannes Heinrich, it seems useful to think in terms of Peirce’s typology of the sign. For there are three ways in which a sign might denote the object, all at work in his painting. The first way is iconic, where the sign in some way resembles or imitates its object; the second is indexical, where the sign and the object have a direct connection, and finally, the third is symbolic, where the sign denotes the object by means of a convention or rule that allows for interpretation. Now by large, Hannes Heinrich paints objects he finds in his studio. Nothing uncommon and everything ordinary: there is a chair, a plant by the window, trainers with shoelaces undone. There is his body, his head, face, hands and feet. Especially in the past we could clearly distinguish these objects in his paintings as he traced their shadows directly onto canvas. His work was thus primarily iconic, although the actual shadows cast by the objects would be described as indexical. In the last couple of years a shift occurred in his work, where instead of using charcoal to trace an object’s shadow he began to wrap the canvas around an object and trace it directly, in a kind of vaguely erotic, masturbatory surrealist act. In this new work, the technique of frottage was no longer limited to a textured surface but now included the object in its three dimensional entirety. These charcoal tracings would then become the basis for his paintings as elements were further rubbed away or painted over.  The indexical aspect of his work therefore gained importance. 

Hannes Heinrich, ‘o.T.’, 2021, oil on canvas, 210 x 160 cm

Yet whether more iconic or more indexical, this did not alter the work’s symbolic character. As much as his, or indeed any other painting, looks like or is a trace of an object, it must also be understood as a convention or a sign – a fact of which Heinrich is well aware. Already Braque and Picasso’s art dealer understood this explicitly, associating cubism’s new found freedom from illusionistic practice with the recognition of painting as ‘script’ ( as quoted by Yve-Alain Bois in ‘Kahnweiler’s Lesson‘). But structuralist and poststructuralist readings of western art history especially common in the 80s and 90s, showed that all painting, no matter how abstract or realistic, also functioned within this symbolic system. When introducing cubism as an art movement, Francis Frascina shows that the use of the symbol was already at work in the most illusionistic of Chardin’s still lifes, arguing that a painting like ‘The Ray’ was not only about the painter’s ability to depict the light glistening on the ray’s wet and slimy surface, but also about his ability to play with symbolic meaning. There is sexual significance to be found in the exposed gonads of the ray fish – not to mention its sexually suggestive shape – as well as in a particular kind of jug, that Chardin’s contemporaries would well understand. 

Jean Simeon Chardin, ‘The Ray’, 1728, oil on canvas, 114 cm × 146 cm, Louvre Museum, Paris

If Frascina could still be confident that in the 1700s a jug could stand for a uterus and then show how the later, more contradictory and playful Picasso collage questions the conditions of representability, in our post-internet age signs have shown themselves to be inherently far more slippery. We may think of signs consisting of a signifier and signified, a particular expression linked to a certain content, but within the social context of the sign (a sign always needs to be interpreted by someone) a sign refers to as much another sign as it does a signified. This is why Deleuze and Guattari in the chapter ‘587 BC–AD 70: On Several Regimes of Signs’ of  A Thousand Plateaus do not think of the sign as a Saussurian closed language system, terms defined by a set of relations, but instead as a deceptive signifying regime of endless, circular debt. A sign always refers to another sign and in doing so marks itself as deceptive. We see or hear something, but we also know that meaning is not found in the shapes that we see or the sounds that we hear – that meaning is found elsewhere. What we hear and see is meant to deceive us. There is paranoia associated with the sign, we, forever suspicious as to what a thing might or might not signify. 

What is it then, that we see or hear in this paranoid way, if the signifier always deceives us, hiding its meaning somewhere else for us to find? Deleuze and Guattari would argue that what we encounter in the signifying regime is a mask or a face. Or rather, the face is always already a mask. We do not see the order behind the visible, but the structure of the visible, and that takes empty, hollow shape of the mask. That we are able to negotiate this world of signs and not fall into a constant state of paranoia, is because of the meaning we find in the face itself and which we then project onto the world. According to Deleuze and Guattari, the face is the means by which the signifying regime controls and organises the world, the semiotic configuration of political power. As such it is despotic, in that someone – the despot – has to tell us in a manner that brooks no argument: see this, in that. The despot needs the face in order to wield his power over us.  

(And it has to be said, there is something despotic about the way semiotic interpretations have been used in art history and it is indeed unsurprising that someone like Frascina mentions masks in his discussion of cubism. The distorted faces of Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ are presented as references to the ‘primitive’ African mask, signifier of the then contemporary obsession with ‘primitive cultures’ and marked by the fear of the other.)

But despite including his face as one of the objects in his studio that he wraps in canvas and traces in charcoal, in a gesture that echoes St. Veronica’s veil – and let us remember, for Deleuze and Guattari, faciality is something they specifically associate with the rise of Christianity in western culture – there are no faces in Hannes Heinrich’s paintings. There isn’t even a faciality at work. As signs, his canvases with their traces of charcoal and paint do not deceive us, instead I would argue, they betray. Rather than confronting us with an empty frontal stare, they turn their face away, and we are forever looking around the edge of the canvas, with its marker line, to guess at the pattern of the folds, the movement of charcoal, and the object that the canvas once held. How is it that Heinrich repeatedly confronts the objects in his studio? He wraps them in canvas to hide them, so that they cannot be seen, so that their gaze is averted, veiled. If in Hebrew the word for face is ‘presence,’ then the veiled face, the face hidden in the hands of Moses, would be understood as absence.  

For Deleuze and Guattari, betrayal is central to the new post signifying or passional regime, to which it bears witness. They argue that we do not live in the one signifying regime – neither do we only live in the other, the post signifying one – but always in a mix of both. In the signifying regime we are always faced with a multitude of signs, one forever leading to another; in the passional regime, there is a plurality of the subject, a ‘redoubling of the subject with a point of subjectification.’ In their reading of Althusser, when someone or something calls to us, we, as social individuals become constituted as interpellated subjects. You call and ‘I’ answer, your call determining in part that ‘I’ I become and which I in answering accept. On the other hand, the point of subjectification is the object that Heinrich so obsesses over – the chair, shoes, plant, whatever the case may be – that he cannot let go, that he repeatedly covers and rubs all over. The object of subjectification also calls out, yes, but not to me, because it is standing in profile and looking somewhere else. Heinrich obsesses about his object because as much as he wants to see it, the object doesn’t want to see him. The love here is unrequited. 

For Deleuze and Guattari this moment of unrequited love turning away is an act of betrayal, and it is worth mentioning that in Meyer Schapiro’s account of symbolic form, within our system of visual representation – the account that Frascina draws on so heavily – Judas, the ultimate betrayer, is presented in profile. When it stands in profile, the object as a sign betrays you, because it does not do what it was supposed to do, face you, so that you can find meaning within its mask-like structure. Before, in the paranoid system, everything was about me – me finding significance in everything. Now, I nothing is about me, and I seem irrelevant. By facing somewhere else, the point of subjectification indicates meaning is to be found elsewhere, by a different subject within a different social context and a different organisation of power. The task is now up to me, to assume authority and lend interpretation. But I also betray the object of subjectification, as cannot absorb the this object, I cannot fully mirror the speaking subject that interpellates me. And this double betrayal creates a powerful bond between us. 

Hannes Heinrich institutes his painting within a regime of signs, a mixed regime, as much signifying as passional. Or rather the hold of the object over him, and his paintings over us, is of passion, lending this configuration of power its semiotic structure. His objects are in profile, as are we, when we encounter them in his paintings. I keep returning to his work, not because I find the objects interesting or because they have some hidden meaning but because I am forced by them to look somewhere else, and in doing so, to be someone other than me. 

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