I’m at Thilo Heinzmann’s studio, but he isn’t showing me his winter coat, nor his chest, as he utters these words. He’s pointing to one of his pigment paintings and almost touching some teeny-tiny fibers which seem to grow like hair at the edge of the canvas.
All of these minute hairs have been painted white, but they are not entirely part of the smooth coat of the same white paint that covers the canvas. Some strands stand erect; others are oddly bent over; they remind me of the Pompeii residents stopped in their tracks by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, although the hairs escaped a fast-moving wave of paint instead of heat, lava and ash. Like the plaster casts of the volcano’s victims, the hairs caught in the white paint demonstrate that the canvas is part of a living, organic world, which has disappeared but somehow persists: blue flax flowers growing in a field, insects and wind moving around the blossoms, the stalks collected, their filaments extracted and wound into soft blonde piles, some weaving, stretching and nailing, paint
brushes wooshing, sand paper sanding, pigment powder tossed here and there. And then silence. More silence. Until it’s broken one rainy day by the happy aside: “It’s my fur.” The stray fibers from the flax stalks—which seem to refuse to stop growing, even if they have stopped moving—do indeed resemble fur, albeit rubbed in many wrong ways. Without Heinzmann’s help, I never would have even noticed these near-microscopic beings which refuse to lie quietly dormant in the warp and the weft of the canvas. Heinzmann’s identification with them—his desire to confound the canvas with his skin, to see the work as an extension of his own body—recasts painting as a microcosm of the world instead of a picture of one part of the world. His paintings are closer to living things than to representations of them, closer to an experience of totality than an accurate fragment.
Just like the canvas, the pigment powder has its origins in nature where it used to be stone, minerals, plants with their own origins, surroundings and destinies. Unlike so many painters over the last decades, Heinzmann does not take his inspiration from popular culture, whether auteur movies, archives or commodities. Although the artist identifies with his works, these are never diaristic, nor autobiographical moments, whether monumental or passing, private or public. And despite the abstract appearance of the pigment paintings—there might even seem to be a dash of Ab Ex in the colour dust strewn liberally across the canvas—his works capture gesture in the way that a petri dish conserves a live culture.
Far from a scientific experiment, the pigment paintings are one attempt to view the world through a particular material, whose variations produce a singular experience of beauty, not truth. In addition to pigment on canvas, Heinzmann has used different types of cotton wool, tanned gunny and white styrofoam as well as press board, fabrics and aluminium, among many others. He always brings a gestural quality to his treatment of each material, which he will use again and again, as if he were trying to revel in all of its possible visual and aesthetic properties in close quarters with paint. The cotton wool is torn into tufts or may be paired with crystals; the styrofoam is cut to precision although the resulting shapes don’t recall anything precise; the gunny is fixed by coloured epoxy resin lines and spots. Here, paint becomes a kind of glue: not representing but affixing a particular moment and material. Built up in many layers, the cotton seems to get bogged down in a moist layer of white primer while the pigment lands and sticks, like bugs on the wet paint. Indeed, the pigment is never mixed with a brush to become a representational medium but appears as a material caught in motion. And just as the scientist seals the petri dish, Heinzmann seals his canvases with a protective sheet of plexiglass, which allows the viewer to get up close and see what’s going on underneath.
The idea of painting as a living microcosm of beauty—where both the painter and the painting thrive, their existences intertwined in an organic way instead of an art historical one—reflects the forgotten aesthetic experience of les curieux (the curious ones). A trace has been preserved in the French moralist Jean de La Bruyère’s book Les caractères (1688). His description, however critical, shows a human subject and a beloved beautiful object, which are fused through the gaze. One man—consumed by contemplating and admiring his tulip “Solitaire” all day long—forgets his own hunger and fails to eat. The curious pined after rare, unique and exceptional objects, including deformities. A two-headed tulip had more value in a cabinet of curiosities than a perfect tulip whose ideal beauty belongs to our modern idea of art. The cabinets mixed art works with other objects, both natural and handmade, to capture the full potential of creativity in the world, reflected in a small prism. Painting – unlike antique coins, stuffed crocodiles and other favourite curiosities—survived the cabinets to play a main role in the modern museum. But the meaning of the medium changed completely: from a rarity, valued for its singularity, to a tool of representation. From an object in the world to a picture of the world. Instead of reviving or copying the paintings that once adorned cabinets of curiosity, Heinzmann brings the aesthetic experience of curiosity to contemporary painting: the desire to become one with a unique object. He moves enthusiastically from one lovely Solitaire to the next in his studio, which also holds both traditional and contemporary curiosities: rare stones, sea shells, a butterfly collection, a stool made of petrified wood and a ladies’ hat made of purple-blue feathers, yearning to be stroked by the finger tips. Like these treasures, his paintings are not to be confused with collections; his works are neither serial, nor minimal, despite the repetition of materials and their simple appearance.
In effect, Heinzmann does not paint series but repeats a gesture with a particular material to find an absolute singularity. The canvas’s fur, lying this way, not that way; a puffy cotton composition, fluffed just so and stuck right there; a tiny mineral pebble glittering among the dust particles of pigment, like a coin in sand. Indeed, some pigment paintings are made outside—the colour dust thrown by hand and carried by the wind to the canvas—so that the resulting patterns are rudimentary anemometers, which measure the wind’s direction and force at a certain moment of the day with respect to the artist’s gesture. The actual time and date are insignificant; what matters is that Heinzmann was there.