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Issue 223

Henrik Håkansson Knocks Painting Off its Perch

At Galleria Franco Noero, Turin, the artist's current series is exposed to the elements and requires avian participation

BY Saim Demircan in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 22 SEP 21

Henrik Håkansson’s latest exhibition, ‘Paintings of Trees for Birds’, is his sixth show with Franco Noero but the first to solely occupy the gallery’s new ancillary space – an abandoned neighbouring warehouse that’s been left partly overgrown and half-exposed to the elements. Its derelict architecture provides the perfect foil for a new series of unprimed canvases to which the artist has affixed plastic bottles, each containing a branch of a different tree specimen. The works’ titles include the Latin plant names, which combined with their formal composition – each bottle is centred at the lower edge of the canvas to frame the growth of the cuttings as they take root in water – merges botanical genus with image-making. While most hold a single leafy offshoot, the largest canvas – A Painting of a Tree (Ailanthus altissima) (2021) – hangs horizontally to support seven bottles containing deciduous chestnut. Meanwhile, on the floor, two sculptures, Cut #001 and Cut #002 (both 2021), each comprises a sheet of glass bisecting a tree branch, holding them static in space, and calling to mind John Latham’s Glass / Book Sculpture (1990).

Henrik Håkansson, A Painting of a Tree (Ailanthus altissima), 2021, unprimed cotton canvas, Ailanthus altissima, metal, PET bottle 250 × 450 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin

If Håkansson’s work can be seen to inherit traits of time-based conceptual or entropic land art – or even to indirectly reference environmental, processual works such as Joseph Beuys’s 7000  Eichen (7000 Oaks, 1982) – then he leaves the final stages of their realization deliberately open to the natural world. Nowhere is this question of finitude more apparent than in A Painting of a Bird (#001–#003) (all 2021). Two of these, each featuring a perpendicular protruding rod on sheets of plain wood, are placed high up on the brick walls at the grassy, open-roofed end of the space. The proposition here is deceptively simple yet sincere: the painting isn’t finished until a bird alights on the perch. Like his paintings of trees, these works also speak to portraiture, just with an unknown sitter as the subject. Both series pay lip service to ecosystems not just of nature but, perhaps, painting itself – a medium that needs constant replenishment in order to stay alive.

Henrik Håkansson, A Painting of a Bird #001, 2021, unprimed jute canvas, wood, aluminium, 160 × 140 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin

The artist has worked with natural materials, especially trees, throughout his practice: dividing them between floors (A Tree with Roots, 2010), chopping them up (One Hundred and One Pieces of a Tree, 2020) or appending them (A Tree [Suspended], 2016). Such preoccupation with altering the perennial form shares a likeness with Gustav Metzger’s Flailing Trees (2009), for which he upended willow saplings in a concrete base, so their dying roots were on display as a symbolic reversal of the natural order. Metzger’s commentary was part of the late artist’s environmentalism in the years before his passing, which follows his own personal trauma of living with mass destruction throughout his life from witnessing ethnic cleansing to his concerns about ecological neglect. Following a spate of painfully stark reminders of the global climate crisis that culminated in a summer of wildfires raging through the Mediterranean, it’s hard not to read a message of sustainability into Håkansson’s exhibition. Installed within a liminal setting that exists somewhere between the traditional gallery space and the natural environment, the artworks in it depends on certain causal elements – namely cultivation or an avian participant – for completion. It’s a gesture that appears to hint at the need for a more shared, symbiotic relationship with nature, one that is contingent on our ability to co-habit rather than auto-destruct.

Henrik Håkansson’s ‘Paintings of Trees for Birds’ is on view at Galleria Franco Noero, Turin, until 23 October 2021.

Main image: Henrik Håkansson, 'Paintings of Trees for Birds', 2021, exhbition view, Galleria Franco Noero, Turin. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin


Saim Demircan is a curator and writer. He lives in Turin, Italy. He recently curated ‘Exhibition as Image’ at 80WSE, New York, USA.