Tuesday, 25 September 2007



(First published 31st July 2007)

Henning is a German artist known for the variety of his mediums; even within painting he favours awkward mixes of twentieth century abstraction and more figurative genres. But more recently he is noted for installations built around the paintings, and the play made with additional furniture and décor.

His work is interesting for the way two distinct strands to contemporary art converge here, the first a concern with genres, and implicitly a return to easel painting, even for abstraction, the second, installation that looks to sculptural properties of furniture, the colours and painterly aspects to lighting, shadow, architecture and furnishings. The first strand is dealt with in Posts 5, 11 and 16, the second is exemplified in the work of Andrea Zittel, (she currently has a survey show in Vancouver) Jorge Pardo, Carsten Holler and Franz West, for example, is anticipated in the work Donald Judd, Reinhard Mucha, Bertrand Lavier and others. Also of note, Pardo’s work occasionally offers interesting comparison with Tobias Rehberger (see also Post 8).

But so far Henning has not been drawn to the kind of elaborate fabrication and commission that often follows from this interest in installation. His needs seem satisfied with fairly basic plinths and lighting arrangements, as in Krefeld (2005). But the issues are really what can his painting do for such installation; and what can such installation do for his painting? Firstly there is the project to the mixing of styles and demonstration of genres, such as portrait, the nude, still life, landscape and full abstraction. In this Henning is not drawn to obvious parody or caricature, as in a Currin, or to the documentary sources of a Tuymans. Nor does he preserve consistent features across works, but rather embraces variety or eclecticism. Consequently, works are not strictly devoted to historical or current pictorial genres, nor restricted to sources in painting or printing, but embrace a looser, more homogenous mix.

On the one hand what is displayed or sampled is finally just easel painting, especially in a salon arrangement. But on the other hand easel painting lacks much relevance for being pointed to in just this way. Perhaps for this reason Henning is then attracted to a surrounding context, an adequate framework within which to showcase ‘easel painting’. The result is an elaborate extension to architecture and furniture, in which scale and placement upon the wall, matching décor, lighting and architectural features contrast and harmonise the collection of paintings, in an exaggerated or extreme way.

The paintings now are not so important for their various genres or hybrids, but for the way they punctuate and align the rest of the room. They now ‘work’ far better as generic or no-name versions, for having this larger function. So that for example the ochre tones of the rest of the room now subordinate and assimilate the flesh tones of the nudes, even pornography, in accompanying paintings. The banal curvilinear abstraction to the Tokyo Installation (2007) now serves (only) to off-set the heavy, fortress-like proportions of its gloomy setting.

Pardo, interestingly, seems to share a similar taste in mid-twentieth century abstraction, its biomorphism and stricter geometries, but where others embrace furniture and décor as a more assimilated play between painting and sculpture – an all-encompassing ensemble of function and form, in Henning, pictures mark off and delineate the rest of the room, stress a compartmentalisation that takes its cue from the picture sizes and proportions, colours and contrasts. The portraits, still lives, porn with abstraction all have their place, as paintings, where a sufficiently strict framework throughout the room is in place. This is surely one of the more provocative points to the exercise. This framework assimilates function and form, scale, lighting and so on, much as in the installations of others, but there is an irony in that it now draws on painting, only to be drawn to painting. Pictures maintain a distinct priority and Henning’s versions reduce the free play of installations, uncomfortably to the assimilation of kitsch.

Henning is unlikely to be attracted to the mural-scale projects undertaken by someone like Sarah Morris, for example, in a bid for greater painting to architecture, but nor can his generous array of genres survive on just painting at easel scale. It is a project, that like the re-deployment of fashions in furniture, for the moment seems hostage to a slender history and expansive future.

The artist’s own website, www.antonhenning.com has been especially useful in researching this post.

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