The canvas tells me what to do

Nicole Büsing and Heiko Klaas in a conversation with Hamburg-based artist Jochen Hein

You were born in Husum in 1960 and later studied in Hamburg. How did it come that you became an artist?

   Jochen Hein: I was born an artist. Although I only admitted that many years later, just when I really could do what I wanted. But by nature and predisposition, I grasped onto the visible since the beginning, to understand how we experience the surface of the world by light and what that all is supposed to mean to us.

Over the years you developed a very specific technique. Could you briefly describe this technique?

   JH: Because a painting first seems successful to me, when I don’t know myself how I got there; I couldn’t describe that in detail anyway. I develop my technique further for every painting. Here accidents are the most precious mutations to attain new possibilities of painting. The combination of glazes of fluid acrylic and sculptural foundations, application and removal of the colors with all kinds of instruments and self-circumvention makes it my painting.

It seems like you rather place special emphasis on the timeless and existential questions. What are the big themes that define your work?

   JH: Life, love and death, the questionable sense of the whole rigmarole and the mess with time, which always fades away and one can not hold on to anything — simply the whole program . . .  These themes keep me quite busy for now.

One of your preferential subjects is the ocean. Why do you paint the sea again and again?

   JH: For me the beach is already a border to the afterlife, less the horizon. Despite what many people think, I do not love the water. Rather I am afraid of it, stand in awe of it. For me it is the expression of a primeval aggregation state, which we come from and were we eventually end up.

What significance and role do the portraits play in your work and why don’t you paint any self-portraits?

   JH: I want to show people what I see through my eyes and I don’t spend much time in front of the mirror—I prefer looking at others, Actually I exclusively do self-portraits, except on the basis of other people. I can give an attention, love, and honesty to them, which would be embarrassing for me if used on myself. And these paintings of course play a central role in and for the understanding of my work.

How did your technique change in the course of your carrier?

   JH: Originally I painted my way along a clear vision to the final painting or it was destroyed when one and one didn’t produce three. So it was always one painting after the other, always in hope to complete a theme with a final work. Those were paintings I often was working on for months. This deep immersion helped me developing a greater sovereignty for dealing with the motifs and the material. By now I both work on several paintings at the same time and serially on one or totally different themes. I experiment a lot, spontaneous fragments arise, new possibilities unfold in destruction. And if that becomes to freely for me, I return again to a canvas, which tells me what to do, as I have to work on it for a long time.

What art historical precursors are you interested in? Which artists do you see familiarities to?

   JH: It’s always just single paintings hat really appeal to me. Those are works by William Turner, Vermeer, Frans Hals, en plain air-studies by the early Romantics, but not their studio-works, Monet, Much … a lot and more at random, but always more on the impressionistic site. There is no artist who would interest me in the totality of his works or as a person so that I would feel really related to him. But artists who created their own work transversal to their times have my sympathy.

Some painters have their personal „heroes“, on which they work themselves off. What about you in regard to that?

   JH: Heroes are absolutely suspect to me. And I’m already working off myself enough with my own stuff.

Which contemporaries of yours are you interest you?

   JH: I remember that for example Robert Ryman, Chuck Close, Gerhard Richter, Thomas Hirschhorn or Walter De Maria really impressed me. The latter isn’t alive anymore and in terms of figures most artists, which I regard as contemporary, are dead. The last time I took a closer look was at Neo Rauch, Michaël Borremans or Adrian Ghenie. But all far away from my work.

Do you collect works of other artists? If not, which artists would you purchase if you collected?

   JH: Unfortunately I decided too late to collect. That’s why I don’t have many works which would be dear to me today, but too expensive today.

Do you paint more for yourself or for the viewer?

   JH: Only for myself. Otherwise nothing would come out, that could than also concern the viewer.

Is your work more about an image of the world or your inner state?

   JH: Of the world, it’s image, but also of his inside man has hardly any idea. Our perception and ability of capacity for cognition only allows a quite superficial notion. This surface and the illusion that is connected to it, interests me. We are and remain forced to a tunnel-reality: That’s why image of the world is inner state and inner state is image of the world.

Why do you choose very big sizes sometimes?

   JH: Because it shocks! No, size is not the only way to overwhelm, but it’s one. You can discover a painting newly again and again from different distances, the bigger the painting, the more often you can do that. And some motifs beg for being big. But than I also like many small ones …

Let us talk about your technique: What pre-stages or intermediate steps are in your work?

   JH: I always prepare my undergrounds – no matter if it is jute, canvas, wood or paper. I so to say start by creating a body, which is later covered in “skins of color” by me. With brushes, scrapers and by grinding and other techniques the priming coat is applied in many layers. Sometimes it is dyed right away, sometimes I blacken the priming coat just to repaint it in white again. That may sound crazy and like extra work. That it is, but it's worth it because that way structures and shades arise, which make the painting more lively since the beginning.

What role does the preparing photography play here?

   JH: For the portraits the photography I take in my studio is crucial to „extend a moment in time“. These two hundredths of a second is the guideline to capture something particular that would become blurry in a longer session. In contrast photographs sometimes serve as an extension of my cerebral cortex for my landscapes. But in the end one must always be more clever than the guideline when it comes to a final painting. As I search for my „first“ images and the primordial memory anyway, I rather leave the photos aside and tackle the painting right away.

You seem like you don’t trust photography much. Where are the limits of the medium of photography?

   JH: Photography was invented for reproduction, that’s why it works best in magazines. As it normally is an industrially produced product, it lacks independent materiality. Photography indeed originally inhabits a documentation-character, as the moment is captured with time and place. But that is toady to some degree weakened by image editing. But I see less a problem in that, but rather in the daily millionfold accruing photos, manipulated or not, the actual threat is the mere quantity: a tsunami of insignificance.

What is it that painting can tell us about the world that goes further than the possibilities of photography? What are the specific instruments it creates meaning with?

   JH: If photography is for the moment, than painting is for eternity … well, at least till the next ice age. The quality of painting is that it becomes timeless if it has quality. A “Perro semihundido” (Head of a “half tired” Dog) by Goya is today as lively as always – and will stay that way. It is like the last brushstroke was made just in this moment. In this respect painting overcomes time and space, while a photo stays a piece of paper in it’s time.

Let us turn to the special aura of your paintings: Why do they often appear so detailed and nearly photo-realistic from a distance and on the other hand decompose into seemingly incoherent splashes of color at extremely close vision?

   JH: By accident. My painting is a mixture of accident and necessity, that means I indeed have a plan but in detail the uncontrollable has to interfere in order to give the motifs their appropriate complexity. Creation isn't fun for me without mutations! By the way, this is the process in which life, evolution developed. How else should nature be depicted appropriately? And the tension between the visual appearance of the paintings from the distance and their banal material character from close-by reflects the tension that lies between expectation and reality. I want to show that we don't realize what we see: even illusion is an illusion.

To what extend are you interested in problems of painting techniques and their solution? Do you search for new challenges again and again? What kinds of challenges could that be?

   JH: The accidents in the studio are the most interesting impulses to find new ways – and that’s what I want all the time. If I turn to the old themes, I need to do that in my own and surprising way. By now I already use a whole bunch of my own techniques and methods but I have to expand and renew them constantly, otherwise it will become boring for me.

What role do colors play in your oeuvre? You work in series which are named after colors … What meaning do the different colors have for you here?

   JH: Just because I already use Blue and Green as umbrella terms for groups of works that does not mean that all other colors will follow. You have to name your children in order to be able to call them. Otherwise I wouldn’t give any names to paintings or groups of works, because the titles don’t add anything. But to call everything “untitled” is silly too. What meaning the colors have? Well here I would prefer to let my paintings speak for themselves.

Which works would you consider your most personal ones?

   JH: That’s hard to say, as it is not the portraits of my family, what would probably be the most obvious assumption. All my paintings, not just the portraits, are of course self-portraits. And the most personal ones are maybe the ones where my own heart beats the strongest. But I won’t tell which ones that are – as it is most personal.

Why do you paint your family?

   JH: For the portraits, which are explicitly self-portraits as I already said, I was looking for characters in the beginning of which I knew exactly how their eyes and corners of the mouths etc. “function”. Later I found the expression I was looking for also in people who I only saw once. In principle everyone belongs to my family. But I won’t be able to paint them all.

In your opinion: Is there still potential for development in painting, or has everything been there before?

   JH: If that would be the case I wouldn’t need to paint anything anymore and finally had time for other things (laughs). No, I honestly have to admit, that I would find it regrettable if I wouldn’t paint my paintings anymore – because then they wouldn’t be here at all! New ideas might be the enemies of present ones, but they never stop.

To what extend does for example the technological advance affect the vocabulary of painting?

   JH: Except for the very first moments of our lives, we never have the world in front of our eyes nakedly, it is always disguised in images we saw of it. Camera obscura, photography, film, computer, all images of all media influence our sight, our brain and the way we observe with our own eyes inevitably. By that, art changes and it’s perception in turn affects the media in ever shorter cycles. The interdependencies are multitudinous. For myself I can say: Naturally do the aesthetic aspects of tubes, through which we stare at the world, as well as the aesthetic aspects of all other imaging methods inclusive painting itself appear in my painting.

Do you participate a lot in the German or rather the international art world? Do you visit big exhibitions, fairs, biennales? Do you often visit openings? If not, what annoys you about it?

   JH: It’s part of it when you are young and want to play “hustle and bustle”. Not that long ago I experimentally joined the fray to get an overview of what is going on right now – and regretted it. Big exhibitions like biennales volatilize into social utopias, while hard-core capitalism is going around at the fairs. What is collectively called culture, degenerates into questionable circles instead of creating healthy children by stirring the intellectual, artistic gene pool. That’s why I would always prefer my studio to the art world.

The work in the studio is occasionally very lonely. How do you deal with that? Do you listen to music while painting? How do you spend your breaks from painting?

   JH: I get the world into my studio, so with my paintings I’m never alone. In the studio I pick up the brush today where I formerly regularly had turned on the music first. So it often stays heavenly quiet around me. But I discovered that, when my back already notices: “now it’s enough”, audio books let me paint longer. Like that I catch up on the literature for which I did not have the time to read. And concerning breaks from painting – what should those be good for?!

What inspires you outside of art?

   JH: Outside? You mean voyages? Those do, but is it not the whole life that inspires me? Hopefully! Life and art interfuse with each other, so this “outside” makes no sense to me.

Do you participate in social discourses as an artist? Or, asked differently, is there a specific social responsibility an artist should face?

   JH: Social responsibility is something every human has to face generally, and artists are only human too …

The end of painting has often been announced. What do you reply to those who declare painting as dead?

   JH: I have to admit it was some kind of sport in the 20th century to declare painting as dead. Those declarations are as old as the hills just like the answer to it: “There is life in the old dog yet.”

Maybe you would briefly talk with us about your upcoming projects? What exhibitions are planned for 2016?

   JH: At Untitled art fair in Miami at the beginning of December I was invited to a solo show at Volta New York, from March 2 to March 6, where Galerie Thomas Fuchs will represent me, just like they will at Art Karlsruhe, from February 18 to February 21, and Positions in Berlin, from September 15 to September 17.

On June 25, 2016 a solo show with the title “Über die Tiefe” will open at the Museum Kunst der Westkünste on Föhr in Alkersum. Seascapes and other landscapes and portraits will be exhibited there.
Additionally big paintings will be shown from September 17, 2016 in the first three rooms of the same museum in dialog with the temporary collection under the title “Jenseits der Zeit – Jochen Hein und die Sammlung Kunst der Westküste”. Both exhibitions will run until January 15, 2017.

And there are also invitations to group exhibitions with the theme “water” in Los Angeles and the theme “light” in New York, both in summer 2016 and maybe again Miami at the end of the year.

Jochen, thank you very much for the conversation.

The interview was conducted by Nicole Büsing and Heiko Klaas