Hard Candy or the Schizophrenia of Beauty
by Stephan Köhler (Translation: Mitch Cohen)
Interested viewers of pictures stand in the midst of today’s immense production of images, can hardly believe their good fortune, and search more than ever for original, visual nourishment, in order to filter all its nuances. Aficionados of contemporary painting are among the core group of this species; they even visit special places like galleries and museums to enjoy the pictures in their pure form, as an arrangement of solitaries, removed from the daily, multimedia flood of images.
Based on his individual experience, each picture viewer develops his own perceptual filter and lets it operate in advance, often at great speed, on what is presented. Confronted with Simone Haack’s works, this rapid scanning bogs down, because the pictures stand out because of the beguiling pithiness of what is inexplicably, trustworthily familiar. But how can pictures arouse trust?
Mimicry is zoology’s term for evolutionarily developed adaptations in which animals’ appearances purport that they are something other than they are. In the animal kingdom, for example, harmless insects imitate the bold patterns of other, especially dangerous species, as deterrence. The mimicry in Haack’s works functions in the opposite direction. At first glance, the viewer is lulled into a feeling of security, then fettered in pleasure, and finally confronted with successive insights that can be quite disturbing. Only when one enters lightly into Haack’s pictorial world is its danger unveiled. The following suggests some glimpses into the complex of Haack’s oeuvre.
THE SURFACE LEVEL – The compelling logic of general well-being –
“The commonality is very simple to see: it is smoothness. Smoothness characterizes our present.”*
If we assume that well-being in the reception of painting corresponds to a pleasure in the picture, then Haack’s pictorial creations are equipped with much that initially provides security, enabling them to trigger fascinated pleasure.
Her figurative-landscape motifs are characterized by a high degree of recognizability. Depictions of people display clear patterns: the figures seem Central European, have broad faces with eyes set wide apart, small noses and mouths, and an extremely smooth, almost shimmering skin. Their expressions are always calm, seemingly turned inward, sometimes almost dimwitted. Their gaze is either averted or turned directly at the viewer, as if looking at a confidant. Many of the figures are children or youths. Haack thereby domesticates the typecasting of an image of the person, resulting in a high recognition factor. A large number of portraits form the core of this development. If we take into consideration that most of these are purely fictitious portraits, then it is clear how thoroughly Haack penetrates her figuration and in particularly how thoroughly she has mastered physiognomy. The second elemental family of figures that appears in Haack’s pictorial world is mammals. Possibly because of the diversity of their species, they are not subject to the same pithy typing, but they are often presented to the viewer as companions or as an expectant counterpart.
When Haack introduces pictorial spaces other than shimmering, monochromatic backgrounds, they are always set pieces of European landscapes, never architectonic sites. Whether primevally wild or shaped by human hands, landscape, as naturally given or a kind of “intact” environment, is never questioned.
Haack’s coloration has become more intense in recent years. A well worked out glazing and mixed-media technique ensures that already powerful natural colors are taken to excesses with the partial use of almost synthetically brilliant colors, and certain passages of the picture develop an activating, unnatural appearance.
Haack pulls out all the stops in her use of lighting effects, as well: whether her virtuoso approach to multiple light sources, including reflected and scattered light, strange lighting from below (see 9, “Four”, 170x120cm), or even illumination from within, the motifs veritably radiate light vibrations into the exhibition space and potentiate the attractive power of the pictures.
Haack’s painterly gesture is soft, densely ordered, and always in the service of creating the form of what is depicted. It never moves into the foreground or becomes an expressive end in itself. Things are different with her middle-format graphite drawings. Here, the figure is peeled from a pelting thicket of variously hard, parallel cross-hatching set in a gestural flow. (See 25, “Man Without Qualities”, 100x70 cm). Crucial passages in the drawing are then made more precise and deepened by densifying and varying the cross-hatching (see untitled, 2013 or 2014?, 80x60 cm). These pictures thereby display a high graphic quality powerfully reminiscent of the character of dry point engravings and can be clearly distinguished as a second work complex within Haack’s oeuvre.
The execution of these characteristics is compositionally and formally brilliant; and thus the beauty of the familiar can entice. Based on a superficial gaze, one could speak of a life-affirming realism. But a closer look leads to the realization that, here, so many aspects of a Pollyanna world are condensed that distortions arise. This high density of the positive in her pictorial language leads to a kind of “hyper-familiarity” that seems not to have to present any alternatives anymore and that may now be enjoyed as a permanent state. And that is suspicious, because pure enjoyment arises only in the experiencing knowledge of its opposite. We needn’t even seek this opposite “other” outside of Haack’s pictorial world; already on second glance, subversive uncertainties creep into what is to be seen: the “other” is already present, and eeriness comes into its own.
THE DEEPER LAYER – The effervescing seepage of insanity –
“The human truth that insanity discovers, however, is the direct contradiction of the moral and societal truth of human beings.”**
Two adolescent girlfriends who have just watched a cloudy sky together now open up an amorphous hole between the floorboards (see 2, “Clouds”, 120x150cm and 1, “The Hole”, 105x150cm, both 2014). Four youngsters float in a bluish, crystalline fluid in postures that provide little information about the state of their health (see 10, “Drifters”, 190x140cm, 2014). Two young ladies in cocktail dresses look into the dawn with lowered heads (see “Morning”, 110x150, 2012). Behind seeming incidentals, in the absurdity of the situation, and from the viewer’s angle of sight, abysses open up. When thinking further about these abnormalities, the viewer cannot avoid psychoanalyzing himself.
Why do so many figures from Haack’s imaginary realm seem to come from the same extended family: blond to dark blond smooth hair; bright, wide-set eyes? Has incest inscribed itself here? Thanks to Haack’s abilities, the figures seem remarkably individual, despite their similarity. A feeling comes over the viewer that he knows these human beings; they are like the people that surround him every day, but captured on the canvases in an obscure transformation. As a viewer, one wanders through the fictitious counterparts and feels as if someone had seen through and recognized one. One is unavoidably turned into a voyeur and senses danger, because the indications increase that something is not quite right here.
Why are almost exclusively young people on view? Is it a coincidence that the remaining two adult protagonists in Haack’s painting since 2011 appear solely as heads without bodies (see 20, untitled, 100x80cm, 2014 and “Headhunter”, 90x140, 2015)? Her drawings, however, contain many completely grownup, older people. Here a reflection of the painting seems to be in the offing; metaphorically, the painting serves the younger generation’s collective memory. Is the homo ludens of the paintings not permitted to age? Is decay lurking after a certain age, and who is responsible for it? Forever young? We see young girls handling weapons (see 19, “Trigger Happy” (03), 80x70cm, 2015), washing mustached heads, or setting forests on fire. So, what is the character of a world in which none other than seeming innocents “get their hands dirty”?
Another level of meaning applies to the animals. They gaze at the viewer in a stance of relaxed expectation (sew “White Animal Park”, 140x180, 2015) or are companions. Their traits are often found again in the depictions of people, whether in the form of postures or masquerades. According to Hans Belting, the mask can “represent equally the side of society (i.e., role and person) against alien nature or the side of a magically charged nature against society”.*** In the pictures here, the second option seems more likely and even culminates in unusual, direct fusions (see “Hairman”, 60x50, 20..?). Even if they don’t seem to emanate any direct danger, the animal bearers of meaning still seem to be envoys and guards of a subversive reality in which the subconscious dominates the ego.
The ambivalences pervade the roles of the sexes, as well. Female figuration, including a large number of nudes, dominates Haack’s motifs. A world without sexually mature men is, in itself, a fact that can trigger crises. When the role model of the woman seems to swing between potential victim and potential perpetrator and the dividing line between them is narrow, Haack’s work confronts us with two problems: in this context, what does “potential” mean, i.e., what are the precise traits that we attribute to female victims and perpetrators? And what characterizes the area in between? While masculinity seems to play practically no role in the pictures, femininity seems to be stuck in a crisis of extremes.
These few examples already make it clear: our accustomed patterns of thought and our ideas about morals are threatened with collapse here. We have relied on a harmony; now we are entangled in contradictions; we feel what is alien and with it the fear that slowly penetrates through the openings of our imagination. In no way does reason rule here with the aid of an edifying realism, but rather a well-dosed insanity in the form of a toxic surrealism that is closely tied to our own world of life.
THE BREAKTHROUGH – The capitulating drift in contradiction –
“Art’s rescuing aspect lies in the act with which the mind in it throws itself away”****
In his “pinturas negras” series, begun in 1820, Francisco de Goya captured the dominion of surreal horror in the side of life that resists reason. Conspicuous is that he, too, thereby used a typecasting of physiognomy, as if his victims’ dark insanity ground away their individuality. While with Goya the coloration and application clearly announce the saturnine theme and then the handling of motifs opens up a broad scope for “healthy” horror, Haack’s pictures refuse this closed symbolism. They hold us fast in contradiction: they are beautiful and abyssal. They seem young, and yet they tell a tale of death. If we open ourselves to these pictures, repressed inklings rise to the surface of our consciousness. The risk of viewing art.
But we need not fear any final consequences or reach a moral judgment. We can let go, abandon ourselves to the reversion of the picture code, and let ourselves drift in contradiction. The enhanced attention of a state of emergency is the result or the activated perception of the intoxication. In this state, perhaps we will recognize that the abysses are what are actually familiar. For despite all their strangeness, these amoral beings evoke our empathy. In the end, we are inclined to assume that these are people, people like you and I. In reality, we do not have this choice.
* Byung-Chul Han, “Das Glatte charakterisiert unsere Gegenwart”, ZEIT Wissen No. 05/2014
** Michel Foucault, “Wahnsinn und Gesellschaft”, p.547, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, 1st ed. 1973, Frankfurt am Main 1969
*** Hans Belting, “Faces. Eine Geschichte des Gesichts”, p 13, C.H. Beck oHG, Munich 2013
**** Theodor W. Adorno, “Ästhetische Theorie”, p.180, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, 1st ed. 2003, Frankfurt am Main 1970