A Conversation with Eberhard Havekost
Eberhard Havekost calls his paintings "user interfaces." The Dresden-born artistís style is distanced and almost documentary in its depiction of the media world. His cool, fragmentary images have made Havekost one of the most important protagonists in the resurgence of figurative painting. With numerous works on paper the artist is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. Now, his show "Retina" at the Schirn in Frankfurt surprisingly features paintings that are almost abstract. How did this change come about? Hortense Pisano went to find out.
||Hortense Pisano: Eberhard Havekost, up until now the art world has valued your authenticity in painting people and the objects they surround themselves with on canvas. If one looks at your earlier works in the Deutsche Bank Collection, for instance, the building in the series "4 Cabins" (2000) seems monotonous and almost banal, in the way this kind of architecture is usually perceived on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, the leather sofa in the series "Shimmery Mauve" (2007) has something of a trendy cult object. Now, however, your new paintings, on show for the first time in the Schirn Kunsthalle, elude interpretation.
Eberhard Havekost: You mention the series 4 Cabins, and Iíd like to explain where the idea for the motif came from. When I walk to my studio in Frankfurtís Ostend each day, I pass by buildings that look lost; they resemble hotels somehow. This atmosphere of loneliness, together with the monotony I feel when I pass these buildings, was something I wanted to convey in these paintings. On the other hand, my main interest in painting the 2007 series Shimmery Mauve was the dissolution of the object. The motif was merely a vehicle for going on an imaginary journey. I mean by that the ability to think about entirely different things in an ordinary situation. For instance, I photographed the leather sofa from a variety of perspectives and then I painted it; by the way, the sofa is in my studio to this dayóI sit on it, which resulted in the wrinkles you see. In my opinion, this multiplicity of perspectives, which is borrowed from Cubism, has the effect that one no longer perceives the object as a solid unit.
The series "Shimmery Mauve" was also a step in the direction of your partially abstract images. Looking back, one has the impression of a successive dismantling of form and color progressing from your first portraits of women in 1996 to the new oil paint series "Retina" and "Flatscreen."
I think what was more important to me than the subject, even in the older paintings, was testing the effects of different materials and surface textures on canvas. Take for example my portrait series Snow Lounge from 2000. For me, the exciting thing throughout the painting process was to let the natural organ of the skin transition as seamlessly as possible into the synthetic material of the ski goggles. In the portraits, skin and goggles merge into something artificial, into a surface designed to incite desire in the viewer.
Are your ski goggles metaphors for desire, because the goggles screen off peopleís eyes, making them almost invisible?
Yes. They mask the gaze of the persons depicted, which lends them a certain coolness. At the same time, they serve as an ideal surface for the viewer to project his or her own personal desire onto the figure.
Your earlier portraits inspired a kind of immediate recognition in the viewer. Those delicate, beautiful heads of women, such as in "Click and Fly," seemed strangely familiar due to advertising and fashion photography. Compared with these expressive commercial beauties, your current images seem rather soft. Why do your new works turn away from reality?
My new paintings donít turn away from reality at all, and they donít constitute a break for me, either. Basically, over the past several years Iíve been moving steadily closer to the object in question, both with the camera and in painting. In terms of the strongly accentuated complementary contrasts, I didnít place them next to one another on the canvas this time, but allowed them to blend into one another. This melting of color makes the painted surface appear soft. In contrast to my earlier paintings, this time Iíve eradicated every form of memory fragment. There is no information conveyed that can be read; instead, the viewer is thrown back upon his or her own personal interpretation.
How do you make the color gradations, or rather, how do you create this impression of blurriness? Do you get up close to the subject while taking the photograph, or do you alter your images on the computer? Or do you achieve these effects only through painting?
Of course I experiment on the computer with the possibilities of the digital imaging programsóI try out the standard color filters and work with the focus effects. But what actually happens on the canvas in terms of process can only be simulated with digital tools to a certain degree. In this case, Iíd prefer to compare the act of painting to a chemical process. The oil paint is removed layer by layer; a process of liquefying sets in through the addition of turpentine, which in the painting series Retina leads to the two complementary colors red and green melting into one another.
"Retina" is based on a photograph of a flat screen on which the station "Comedy Central" was playing. I ask myself why the work entails such an elaborate degree of translationófrom the media image carrier to digital photography to the painted image.
This attempt to gradually recreate a physical presence in painting might well seem uneconomical. But the painting recreates the physically palpable experience out of the dematerialized seeing that takes place today through the technical image and the media. Perception is increasingly affected by the media; this results in the disappearance of materiality and a growing similarity of very divergent surfaces. For instance, metal can seem very soft in digital photography, while a cloud can seem quite hard. A complete distortion of reality takes place. The physical act of painting is the prerequisite for feeling oneís own body again, not only for the viewer, but also for me.
So this merging of organic and synthetic surfaces returns as a formal aspect, as in the "Snow Lounge" series. Among your new, apparently abstract paintings based on wooden surfaces and the surfaces of flat screens, recognizable motifs suddenly turn up, such as the silhouette of the "Stern" magazine logo or a reproduction of a childrenís drawing.
I think that every kind of symbol hinders direct access to reality. Thatís why my version of the star is a constructed formal element. But even though Iíve changed the original size of the star and removed its characteristic red color, the reduced version still attracts attention. The Stern image is one of the few fragments of the painting that a viewer can decode. Other than that, it would be difficult to find other recognizable imagery in the exhibition, because in contrast with my earlier paintings, Iíve eradicated every form of memory fragment this time. There is no communication of understandable information; the viewer has to revert to his or her own personal interpretation.
My process is less and less directed towards a goal; instead, I reflect on the perception process. Iím interested in questions of how pictorial effects are created today, in which standard forms exist. Unfortunately, I notice more and more frequently that the results are often unbelievably boring in visual terms, whether weíre looking at the way symbols are used, or at poster design.
Do I hear a latent media criticism in these words?
No. I donít see my exhibition as a media critique. Instead, I offer a proposal to the viewer. A way to think in visual processes.
Eberhard Havekost. Retina
January 15. - March 14, 2010
Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt