With technical skill almost comparable to Rubens, the German artist Eckhart Hahn has rendered a painstaking variation on the Adoration of the Magi (Anbetung der Könige, 2011). The main difference between the Hahn and the Rubens though, is that to adorn the shoulders of the Magi Hahn has forgone the rich folds of Oriental textiles for the crinkles of plastic bags from Adidas, DM and Edeka.
Among the other Hahn paintings gracing the wall at Wagner & Partner–a gallery more often known for its selection of contemporary photography—there are myriad references to classical themes. Leda, (2011) is a trash-bag figure being ravaged by a swan before a horizon-less, McDonald’s-yellow background, while King Louis the XIV (XIV, 2011) is painted in regal splendor from the waist down, only to have his black curls and face concealed, again, by the black undulations of a trash bag.
Were these bag-figures staged as photographs, or assembled together as collages, the result could perhaps be conceptually a bit trite. But the thought that such works have not been just months but years in the making, realized with the help of dazzling technical skill and intent, makes one pause and absorb a bit.
According to the gallerist, Cai Wagner, “[nowadays], a painter has to decide why he’s painting…. What is the contribution to contemporary art? To questions of reality?"
The act of painting, and further, the act of painting in such a neo-figural style, is very much a choice. In an era when images can be so easily and widely reproduced, works that require so much skill and time to produce cannot help but include the idea of that time in their presentation.
Memory, pictorial and otherwise, has in many ways been transferred to the collective brain of the internet. Visual icons, memories, milestones are often referenced, but their original incarnation is lost to time, diluted, mutated.
Not only will most of the present generation’s encounter with Old Master paintings come as reproductions in screensavers and magnets, but they may even come completely unawares. That is, oftentimes when old images or ideas are reused or repurposed (like plastic bags, perhaps) the viewer or the reader is unaware of the reference. Working back from the present, discovering “where things come from” visually is an act of excavation, even if it only occurs on Google.
Hahn’s paintings and installations, which can act as visual puns on old myths and fairy tales as well as on Old Master themes, insist that we look at where, and how, we get our knowledge these days. How much of what we “see” when we look at something comes from “reality”? Or does it come from the trash can? Is “reality,” indeed, in the trash can?
If so, how can we reuse and recycle it in a way that we honor what it was before it got there? I would venture that Hahn takes a worthy, skillful crack at it.
~Mara Goldwyn, a writer living in Berlin
(Images:Eckart Hahn, Leda, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 70 cm; Anbetung der Könige, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 240 x 180 cm; Tale, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 60 cm; Courtesy Galerie WAGNER + PARTNER, Berlin)