'One cannot embellish nature'
Auguste Rodin

'What goes on in abstract art is the proclaiming of aesthetic principles... It is in our own time that we have become aware of pure aesthetic considerations. Art never can be imitation'
Hans Hofmann

From medieval times (and the rediscovery of Aristotle‘s concept of the elements), earth, fire, air and water have been perceived as the fundamental building blocks of nature. When considering the paintings of a young abstract artist working in the 21st Century, it might initially seem strange to take the elements as a starting point. However, the deeper we look at the practice of the German artist Sebastian Gumpinger, the more acutely we become aware of the timeless nature of his chosen medium and the alchemical transformations he achieves in his paintings as he pits the elements against each other in an ongoing artistic experiment.

The Renaissance physician, chemist and alchemist, ‚Paracelsus‘ (1493-1541), was a proponent of Aristotle‘s concept of the four elements, but he also introduced the notion that the cosmos is fashioned from three spiritual substances: the ‚Tria Prima‘ of mercury, sulphur, and salt. These he believed to lend every object its inner essence and outward form. Mercury represented the transformative agent (that is fusibility and volatility); sulphur was the binding agent necessary between substance and transformation (or flammability); and salt represented the solidifying/substantiating agent of fixity. 

For Paracelsus, the ‚Tria Prima‘ also defined human identity. He saw sulphur as the embodiment of the soul; salt as representing the body and mercury as the epitome of the spirit or mind. The notion of ‚mind, body and soul‘ has persisted into our 21st Century consciousness and the relationship between these three aspects of being human are particularly poignant for artists; especially those working in the field of abstraction. The question - even at a subconscious level - of how to produce a painting that can satisfy the ‚Tria Prima‘ is a constant preoccupation for artists. It involves the engagement of the mind, the physical engagement of the body, and the application of the material. In Gumpinger‘s practice there is also another process at work: the dematerialisation and re-materialisation of the art object.

Artists sometimes describe the state of mind they need to find themselves in so that they can paint freely as ‚shamanic‘. They speak of feeling at times as if their hand is directed, guided by a greater force. We could understand this to be a spiritual intervention or adopt the secular view that this is the subconscious at work, taking over from the conscious state in order to allow the artist greater freedom of expression from the pull of the world around him. This process though needs to start somewhere, and in the practice of Sebastian Gumpinger it begins as a playful experiment.

The artist talks of beginning by determining to find out: ‚how things are related, how to push the material and how to play with it.‘ He enjoys improvising with techniques and watching the elements playing against or with each other. Though he knows this to be an endless journey, it is one that he says he would be more than happy to keep trying for the rest of his life.

Gumpinger did not set out to become an abstract artist. He began his painting career by working in figuration in the traditional medium of oil. Nothing really remains of this early period as the artist took to destroying these works. Indeed the process of destruction was an important one for Gumpinger as it lead him to the realisation that it wasn‘t necessarily the act of painting or the subject matter itself that was important, but the relationship between the medium, the material and the de-material. Gumpinger describes how he saw some differently coloured drips of paint on a piece of paper that he‘d left on his studio table. Rather than focusing his attention on what he himself could do with these colours in a traditional, transformative sense, he began to consider the drips of paint as a work in themselves. The shape and the composition of the colours seemed already absolutely perfect to him. Mesmerised, he started to scan the floor of his work space, only to discover that the accidental spots, colour combinations and compositions formed as by-products of his painting process were proving more interesting and exciting to him than his own experiments on canvas. 

With his eyes now open to new possibilities, Gumpinger began to look at the world around him differently. The experience of seeing the beauty in something mercurial or accidental opened his mind to the formative experiences of his youth and this unlocked something deep in his subconscious. Gumpinger spent his early years in Morocco. Although he left the country at the tender age of five, he can readily recall his experiences there. He remembers what he describes as: ‚This incredible light, the ocean, my Nanny, Minna, and our huge fish tank‘. Gumpinger grew up in the historic centre of Agadir and he can still conjure up the intense scent of the spice market which was round the corner from his home. Born in the late 1970‘s, Gumpinger was running around Agadir in the days prior to tourism and so, as a small blond boy, found himself hunted by ladies who kept wanting to touch his golden hair.

The time in Morocco had a profound affect on Gumpinger, and formed an awareness of and attitude to nature that has persisted through his adult life and affects his artistic practice today. He is provoked not to try and capture nature in the form of creating a reproduction, but to engage with it in a real way. He explains: ‚It works something like this. As an adult during a stay on Ischia and on some Spanish islands I didn‘t think about nature. It was just there. And my approach to painting is pretty much defined by the materiality of its nature in the same way. I don‘t think about what paint could depict, but what the paint already is. I often end up with natural shapes as the liquidity finds its own way on the canvas, but what I‘m interested in is the materiality of the paint itself. I do not push it in this direction or that, but I select techniques to influence a certain development and I try to be always in keeping with the integrity of the elements.‘  

Often, Gumpinger begins with a single spot of paint. He introduces heat by trying to dry the edges with a hair-dryer, and he washes out what he describes as the ‚inner body‘ of the paint with water. More experiments follow: he injects ethanol to initiate a chemical reaction and fix the paint onto the canvas. Subsequent to this he applies liquid latex to cover the painting with an actual layer. The soft consistency of the latex allows organic negatives to occur after the latex is pulled away. He continues the work by incorporating several different printing techniques using paper and Plexiglas to print, which results in elevated islands of colour being deposited over the canvas in bas-relief. Gumpinger uses more than twenty of these various techniques and his impression is that everything that comes into his mind requires its own distinct process. His only mantra is never to bring the brush to the canvas. If he is seeking to achieve a certain effect, he investigates the behaviour of the materials.

Not surprisingly, Gumpinger‘s challenging, inventive practice is driven by curiosity. He says: ‚I want to find out what happens when I try this or that‘. Though thoughts are intangible the creation process gives his inner agenda a shape, a figure, a form that he can look at and touch; it is there. Generally, he has no fixed schedule, what is vital is that he finds a way to clear his mind as his work is very much a thinking process. To begin, he often completes what might appear to be mundane, every-day tasks like building canvases or cleaning up his working space. Sometimes he tries to build up the different layers of a painting in his mind before he physically begins working with the paint. This for him is the most challenging aspect of his practice as it involves great concentration and discipline, but also openness. The practical work itself is the easiest and most enjoyable part and as the thinking process is completed before he starts to paint, while he works he says he doesn‘t think but rather chooses to immerse himself in a sea of different materials. 

In terms of contextualising Gumpinger‘s practice, he can be situated within a group of young and more established German artists such as Volker Hueller, Gregor Hildebrandt and Hansjörg Dobliar (and amongst a growing wave across Europe and the US), who rather than continue to embrace a preoccupation with figuration (as exemplified by the Leipzig School), instead look towards abstraction for inspiration, with a particular interest in re-investigating modernism. However, the techniques Gumpinger has devised in his intense and complicated process set him apart. His work space is half way between an artists‘s studio, and a laboratory. He uses acrylic colours, fluid latex, ethanol and acrylic spray; drying them using blow dryers and portable fans. The colours are highly diluted so that they can spread across the surface of his canvases. When it feels like everything is on the canvas that should be there and the work could not be improved by the addition of further substances; the painting is finished. Sometimes Gumpinger feels this to be a steady, progressive business, but often it can take him by surprise, and he finds himself confronting a finished work sooner than he anticipated. As we might expect for an artist who is so connected to nature and the environment, it is important to Gumpinger to make the space he works in, his own. Not only this, he physically needs to reconnect with nature on a regular basis (particularly with the ocean, where he likes to surf), in order to calm and restore his mind. 

This is not a modern phenomenon. There is an established tradition of recognition among thinkers and artists for the need to connect with nature in order to liberate the mind to think. Even if we only go back as far as the 20th Century, we find Wittgenstein who worked for a time as a gardener, which proved therapeutic for him, and Sigmar Polke - an influence on Gumpinger - declaring that he: ‚accepts the power of nature as religious‘. 

While Gumpinger admires Polke for his inventive genius, he also cites other masters as influential. The late works of Monet that relate to natural forms are a particular source of inspiration, as are Matisse‘s cut outs and the simplicity and energy of Paul Klee‘s paintings. Gumpinger respects Richter for his dedication and perfectionism in working out techniques, and Pollock: ‚for how he must have felt when he saw his first spot on the canvas that was telling him so much....‘. The paintings and lithographs of Günther Förg have also had a profound effect on Gumpinger, but perhaps Förg‘s belief in: ‚doing less and letting the material speak‘, has proved even more significant for the artist as it is a philosophy he has taken to heart for his own practice.

While it is possible to find traces of evidence of all the above in Gumpinger‘s work (if not directly then in terms of influence by example through attitude and approach), there is one source of inspiration that over-arches all the others and to whom Gumpinger keeps returning: nature. During the beginning of his time at the Academy, Gumpinger read a book entitled: ‚Rodin- Die Kunst‘. Comprised of a series of collected interviews with Auguste Rodin, the book begins with a testament given by Rodin to the next generation of artists: ‚Nature is your only goddess, believe in her without reservation and be convinced that she is never ugly, nor will she ever inhibit your ambition to serve her. All is beautiful to the artist, his penetrating gaze discovers the true character of all things and all beings, that is to say, the inner truth that shines through the form and this truth is beauty...and you will meet up with this truth.. work persistently.‘

As Gumpinger studied the lives of artists, he realised that over time, many of them found their way back to natural forms and shapes by the end of their working lives. He determined not to stray too far from nature as his muse of choice, and instead to try and look for the essence of a particular material through following its character and natural behaviour. This for him became the essence of painting, not the ‚false‘ process of forcing things into specifically designed forms. As a consequence, a natural form which has more or less developed by itself has always appeared more beautiful and intriguing to Gumpinger than a man-made, constructed one. For the artist it is the material itself that shows him the way and allows him to react and experiment.

There is then a certain childish joy and playfulness that runs through Gumpinger‘s practice. Like a child who explores his surroundings by touching the things around him, Gumpinger plays with his materials in order to determine their properties. He thus instigates an equation that runs as follows: exploring material means exploring reality, and that explored reality is the painting itself, not what it shows or what he might want it to communicate. Through his working method which powerfully engages with a very physical means of abstraction, Gumpinger succeeds in creating a haptic sensibility. We wonder at the surface of his work which is multi-layered, his complicated scientific processes and the sheer dynamic physical work involved in the creation of each painting. However, Gumpinger‘s practice pushes us to go further, and imagine what lies beneath as well as what we can find shimmering on the surface of his multi-faceted paintings. The subtext of his working method plays with invisibility using paint to create an emotional as well as a physical context. The result is that we muse on what is unseen, or partially uncovered and what the layers might contain or mask. A tension is created between what is visible on the surface and what might exist below it, just as we might imagine what lies under the grass in a field, or the surface of the ocean.

Though his practice is playful and experimental, Gumpinger did not arrive at this point solely through happy accident. The grid, and understanding its function, was extremely important to his artistic development. It served as a a ‚matrix‘ or ‚frame‘ within which he could work and play and upon which he could build. For almost three years Gumpinger committed to investigating the formal concerns of the grid, which he now credits as enabling him to understand the structure of everything. 

Once the grid had taken hold in his mind, Gumpinger was free to begin his alchemical experiments with the elements. There are times when looking at his work that it is difficult to find a place to rest the eye. It can be like looking through fog when the light bounces back and it becomes almost impossible to judge distance and depth. Again and again the eye circles around, drawn to the surface, then below, then back up again. The temptation is to draw an immediate comparison with water, but the physicality of Gumpinger‘s process also encourages us to embrace the corporeal nature of his work, which in turn, draws us back to thinking about our own bodies, and the often strained relationship between exterior and interior. Besides the complicated but hidden physical workings of the body, there is the relationship between the mind and the body, and the impact our thoughts and emotions can have on our physical form as they translate into physical acts or symptoms. Our skin, the first organic defence against attack, can do nothing to protect us against psychological onslaughts and indeed stress from inside can register on the outside of the body, affecting and marking it.  

Here again we find ourselves drawn back to the notion of the: ‚Tria Prima‘ that for Paracelsus defined human identity, and that he believed lent every object its inner essence and outward form: the trio of mind, body and soul. The physicality of Gumpinger‘s work causes us to keep circling around the inter-connectedness of these three essential precepts. Whatever we see, registers in our minds, and in our imagination, but when we look at something we also experience a physical reaction. It is not enough to look at a painting and engage with it on a purely intellectual level. For painting to succeed in communicating the motivations of the artist (in this case the exploration of reality through an investigation of materiality), it should engender a visceral response in the viewer.  

Gumpinger‘s work reaches out to the viewer by engaging with our multiple senses. His work is appealing to the eye, but it is also invitingly tactile, and through the manipulation and essentialising of the various media and techniques he employs, he draws us into a space between reality and the imagination. This place, the ‚in between‘ could be air or water, but it could also be sound, darkness or an endless open sky. We imagine then, not only what the work would look like - were we to take a cross section through all its many layers - but what it might feel like or even sound like. Gumpinger has opened a door for us into the beauty of nature, but not as we might know it or experience it on a superficial level. He prompts us to go deeper, to think about the essence of all that surrounds us and underpins our lives, our minds and our bodies. This grid is itself founded in nature, and though as Rodin said, nature cannot be embellished, it can be surveyed, explored and experimented with. It can be stripped back to the bones, to the basics of existence, and then re-woven, stretched and spun into a new state of being, not better, but transposed and different and no less glorious or inspiring to behold; the artist‘s only goddess re-formed and reincarnated.

(Text: Jane Neal)