About the Work in the Show: Frank Herrmann 7/17/2007
In August and September of 2001 I had the good fortune to be in residence at castle Cimelice through the Foundation and Center for Contemporary Art and the Ohio Arts Council. While in residence I completed several small paintings, one 56" x 48’ and the large-scale painting "Cimelice Thinking: Fumeripits and the Brazza Baroque" which is in the collection of the FCCA.
At the end of the residency I produced three black and white collages made from photocopies of a Yupmakcain, Asmat, New Guinea shield I found on the Internet. I took the collages home to Ohio. Recently I have been reinvestigating the collages as a source of imagery in numerous paintings. This past Spring I was introduced to the possibilities of the laser cutter in the Rapid Prototyping Center at the Collage of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, University of Cincinnati. The collages scanned, programmed and laser cut out of double thick cotton twill, layered with a copper wire inside and painted. The paintings can be manipulated as stand-alone paintings or wall relief.
It is interesting to think this archaic woodcarving motif being scanned into a computer and reinterpreted through what might be considered modern woodcarving.
It is an honor to present these works of a new direction for the first time at Skolska 28 Gallery.
Painting as exploration
Rarely depicting a true landscape or interior, Frank Herrmann’s canvases nevertheless suggest spaces that can be entered and explored. They are riddled with artifacts and relics, textual clues and textural maps, symbolic space and bold patterns. The spirit of exploration is pervasive throughout Herrmann’s entire practice. The majority of the materials in the studio are the result of his continual research of the art and culture of the Oceanic Asmat people of New Guinea. Seemingly, each object yields a new line of inquiry. Certainly artists examining and drawing inspiration from the artifacts and motifs of other cultures is nothing new. Herrmann, however, is determined to push beyond appropriating imagery. His effort is focused upon absorbing the origins of the objects, understanding the functional, creative impulse that brought these objects into existence. Herrmann speaks of the objects with a mixture of reverence, curiosity and scholarly fascination. This unique approach carries over to the canvas.
The Asmat culture has not produced its own written language though Herrmann has developed a quasi-calligraphy based on Asmat carvings and a trade language created by Dutch settlers to the remote regions of New Guinea. In particular, Herrmann is drawn to words such as WOWIPITS that can be understood as "wood man" or "wood carver." Of course, this could easily be interpreted (or reinterpreted) as "artist," the conduit for communication in a culture without a formalized written language. The patterned marks and glyphs that Herrmann uses to "write" on the canvas take on an entirely new demeanor when applied in paint. Visible in nearly all of the work from these series, the "writing" becomes a patterned formal element in Herrmann’s compositions. He uses the motifs most frequently as a patterned overlay or built up as surface texture. Occasionally though, he will employ the text to different ends. In Asmat Specimen [Acrylic & Asmat shield rubbings on canvas, 2004], for example, the word "asmat" is used to create a sense of deep space and a platform for Herrmann’s depiction of an Asmat carving. The text is simultaneously a communicative and structural tool.
In Asmat Specimen, as in many of the other works in this series, Herrmann reveals another strategic technique. Herrmann makes rubbings from the objects in his studio and manipulates them within the canvas. This serves not only to create a more direct connection between the Asmat objects and Herrmann’s paintings, but also pulls Herrmann into closer contact with the objects. From these rubbings, Herrmann is able to distill the essence of the motifs and draw connections to the visual language of the Asmat and, in a larger sense, explore the origins of written language being born from a creative impulse. To work through these ideas, Herrmann has completed a large number of small canvases. Though he considers them mostly in the role of studies for larger pieces, Herrmann’s small, intimate canvases are not lacking in strength and impact. Consider the work in the Asmat Motif Construct series. Most of them less than ten inches square, this series nonetheless communicates the power of the common motifs Herrmann frequently explores. The curvilinear patterns take center stage and dominate the foreground When the patterns are translated onto the larger canvases they prove to be versatile options in Herrmann’s vast vocabulary of Asmat imagery.
Herrmann’s recent work is predicated almost entirely on his studies of and fascination with Asmat culture. This does not mean that the work is not also infused with certain Western constructs and devices. In the both of the works Asmat Specimen and Decline, Change, Evolve II [Acrylic on canvas, 2004], Herrmann places Asmat objects on display as if they were in a museum. Rather than floating free as loose elements in a composition as in other canvases, these pieces are grounded and "mounted" on museum-style display bases. This subtle distinction cleverly alludes to Herrmann’s own position as a Western commenter on Oceanic culture. The first encounter with primitive cultures for the vast majority of the Western population is mediated by museum practice. Of course, the same could be said of contemporary art. Herrmann recounts his own initial contact with the Asmat symbolism and its lingering impact.
"Since my first exposure to Asmat art at the New York’s Metropolitan Museum over twenty years ago, their motifs and myths have become an integral part of my own creative works. And, though I utilize these tribal images differently, I have a deep commitment to the preservation of this rich artistic and anthropological find."
Evidenced within this statement is Herrmann’s conscientious use of the symbolism, relics and imagery of a culture that is not his own.
Several other works also suggest a Western perspective on the Oceanic culture Herrmann investigates. Though Herrmann himself might deflect this relationship, paintings such as Cimelice Thinking: Wowipits and the Brazza Baroque [Acrylic & Asmat shield rubbings on canvas, 2001] would rest comfortably in the realm of graffiti as it is translated to the gallery world. Intriguingly, Herrmann is approaching text and language from a nearly opposite context as graffiti artists. Herrmann is interested in taking abstract forms and motifs and making them understandable, trying to decipher their intuitive, spiritual meaning in a broad context. In contrast, the majority of graffiti artists, or any text-based artist for that matter, seems most keenly focused on turning language into something unfamiliar or, at the very least, abstract. Nevertheless, an arguably Western impulse to seek a connection between abstraction and communication is at play in Herrmann’s work.
A similar collision of cultural references takes place in the series of Safan paintings, most notably in Safan I [Acrylic and rubbings on canvas, 2002] and Safan II [Acrylic & Asmat shield rubbings on canvas, 2003]. Here, Herrmann creates incredibly striking compositions that force a confrontation/collaboration between Primitive Art and Color-Field painting. He splits the canvas in half, devoting equal space to Asmat motifs as modulated surface texture and color. The top halves of these canvases are expanded versions of the Asmat Motif Construct series while the bottom halves are stunning monochrome paintings that force a consideration of the directional influence of Western culture.
Taken as a complete body of work, Frank Herrmann’s deep and thoughtful investigation into the culture and symbolism of the Asmat, is a compelling advocate for further research into the nature of primitive art and its sophisticated imagery. As an insertion into the history of contemporary art, this body of work is a sparkling example of what can happen to disparate cultures come into contact through an artistic vision. Surely this work will resonate beyond the culture it references and the culture in which it was created.
Contemporary Arts Center
About Frank Herrmann
Frank Herrmann is a Professor of Painting at the University of Cincinnati’s College of DAAP. He received Bachelors of the Arts from Western Kentucky University in 1969 and a Masters of the Fine Arts from the University of Cincinnati in 1972. Some major achievements for Herrmann have included solo exhibitions at the First Institute, Hong Kong, and the Henri Gallery, Washington D.C. His other major accomplishments include the Ohio Arts Council’s Cimelice Castle Residency, FCCA Prague in the Czech Republic, and most recently notable the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.
The shape of the knot I learnt to the core... (–Dante, Paradise)
What exactly has the author been striving to create in his recent works? Is he assembling a chaotic tangle which he is going to untangle, or does he want to reveal to us some hidden "convoluted dimensions"? The recent large work by Tomáš Medek, called "Tangle/Untangle" is created by the system of quarter-circled segments. By linking them into a whole, a series of random or deliberate variations of knotted shapes originates. To cut the Gordian knot is, for example, also an attempt of Superstring Theory.
The shape which seems like a "mere" knotted string to one person, may remind others of a three-dimensional abstraction of one of Calabi-Yau varieties. Under this term there is hidden one of the interesting problems of contemporary physics. It is about the space in which it is possible to "roll up" additional dimensions predicted by the so called Theory of Strings. Nevertheless, Medek’s object also has its purely artistic uniqueness: it can change its shape with every new installation. The segments, carved out from plywood, are linked together with joiner’s clips which emphasize the "model-like character" and "infinality" of the whole project. Although the mentioned object has been created recently, its prototype or idea appeared in the year 2000 when the tiny, but important work called "The Knot" originated.
Approximately by the mid 1990s, the key position of Medek’s creation had been represented by the shape of a cube. For its stability, it is sometimes symbolically compared to the ground. The old ancient Timaeus’s geometric model regarded the following four shapes as the structure (geometric essence) of the elements: tetrahedron which was matched to fire, hexahedron (cube) matched to ground, octahedron matched to air and dodecahedron matched to water. (Z. Neubauer)
Its regular shape provides the artist with the spatial framework which he sometimes "fills up" with organized, sometimes with chaotic structure. Some variations create a spatial network or grid which enables to perceive an object as a pattern of a higher rank order. It tries "not to be one nor plurality°°" (Deleuze, Guattari). In these variations the author may intuitively find the place or moment in which the change between the organized and chaotic status is happening. In the terms of physics, the artist touches "the edge of chaos". In many cases it is difficult to distinguish between the meanings of the words such as "order" and "chaos". Is a tropical primaeval forest an organized or chaotic system? (I. Prigogine).
As a typically illustrative case may serve Medek’s "The Cube of the Cubes" (1998) where the fractal thinking displays the elements of efficacious tautology. In his later realizations, the artist transmutes the subject of a cube through the magic of subjects: the chaotically looking structure, constricted into the shape of a cube, is created by spoons, bottles or nails.
In recent years, the concept of a cube seems to become for the artist too narrow. In his creation, he paradoxically proceeds in a reverse direction than one might expect. From the reduction of shapes he is heading towards morphologically more complex forms which he "dresses" in the spatial "virtual" network. Also in these translucent thickets of spatial models we can see hidden dimensions. However, this time "the genetic cellular information", which models elegant, complex typology of banana or tangerine shapes, is brought into play.
Like in biology, where the success of a species and its chance to survive thrives on the edge of chaos, we might see the precondition of the development of the author’s creation namely in the systems which are close to the frontiers between the organized and chaotic behavior. Particularly this dynamic point represents a creative step into forthcoming newness which is sometimes labeled an essence of the evolutionary process. At least it is a hypothesis about the way things are in the world or, more precisely, in the world of art.
—Kaliopi Chamonikola, Jiří Sobotka
M.A. Tomáš Medek, Born 1969 in Brno, 1983 – 1987 Wood and Metal Modeller, 1997 – 1998 Graduate studies of sculpture with Prof. V. Preclík, Faculty of Fine Arts Technical University of Brno, The Czech Republic, 1998 - present Assistant at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Technical University of Brno, (Czech Republic) Received several awards and scholarships including 2003 Grant Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York, (USA).