The forest, and specifically the oak tree, has long been associated with a sense of German national identity and Heimat, from the dense woods in early German Renaissance paintings to the ubiquitous forest in tales of the Brothers Grimm and the shadowy woodland and lone oak in the allegorical paintings of the German Romantics. The sylvan settings that occur in many of Uwe Henneken’s paintings are often borrowed from their Romantic or Symbolist predecessors, but their allegorical resonance is tweaked into the realm of the uncanny by his use of vibrant, clashing colours or the appearance of weird other-worldly interlopers.
In Januar im Mai (January in May, 2005) a blasted oak stands alone in the foreground against a blistering orange sky. Its gnarled bark is garish red and green, and a single eyeball stares out of its centre. The meaning of the blasted oak, symbol of untimely destruction, decline, death and disease and the unnatural reversal of seasons implied by the painting’s title, assumes another strange dimension as the eye stares straight out, returning the viewer’s gaze. In other paintings, such as Vom Nichts ins Nirgends (From Nothing to Nowhere, 2004) or Europa Has Burned And Will Burn Again (2004), a wooded landscape is cast in shadow against a dramatic sky that reinforces the apocalyptic strain of the literary titles. Henneken’s landscapes are borrowed passages, literal quotations from previous paintings whose cultural relevance remains just as shadowy. His landscapes exist in a protracted state of twilight, an ongoing decline of culture, civilization and, for that matter, landscape itself. Such doom-laden prophecy is relieved, however, by colour schemes bordering on the kitsch or quasi-comical interventions that seem to raise an ironic eyebrow. Twilight may be an in-between state, but it must not imply a final collapse into darkness; if it is seen as part of an organic, cyclical civilization, this is just a stage in the journey to eventual regeneration.
‘There is no surer way of evading the world than through art, and there is no surer way of connecting with the world than through art’, wrote Johann Wolfgang Goethe in his Maxims and Reflections (1840). This slippery relay between evasion and confrontation of reality seems to underpin Henneken’s work. Having initially studied ancient history and ethnology, he came to art relatively late and, with practically no experience, chose oil painting as his medium; a choice as obvious, for its ties to tradition, as anachronistic, given its troubled status at the close of the 20th century. While Henneken alludes to a Romantic tradition, the distance between his position in the cultural cycle and the origins of that which he cites is made clear by his brisk reinventions and the irreverent characters he introduces from other cultural dimensions: fantastical fairy-tale creatures, primitive mask-like faces, kitschy doe-eyed animals. This serves not so much to bring the paintings into the present, however, as to transport them into a temporal limbo. While conscious citation, intervention and recontextualization are practised strategies in recent art, the unfashionable mythical or primitive subjects, not to mention an apparent dabbling in the spiritual, leave Henneken’s paintings awkwardly aloof.
An ongoing series of paintings titled ‘Nihil’ describe this contradictory confrontation of familiar reality and imaginative void. Reminiscent of the cartoon figure ‘Mr Chad’ that became popular in Britain during World War II – a big-nosed bald head peering over a wall – Henneken’s figures are gaudy approximations of primitive masks, arrangements of brightly coloured forms ransacked from a distant culture now peering over a wall into our world. Does the ‘nothing’ of the Latinate title refer to the black background out of which the figure appears or to the space he is staring into, on our side of the wall? In another recent series of paintings, similar other-worldly figures appear gawking over the hills in pastoral landscapes; comical but sympathetic characters inserted into generic landscape paintings picked up by Henneken at flea markets. A cultural confrontation, but who is out of place? Which side of the picture represents the true world and which do we stand on?
There is something tragicomic about Henneken’s paintings and certainly something of the Grotesque in their interleaving of ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures and framing of large, resonant questions about the nature of reality in humorous, sometimes almost ridiculous, terms. As Victor Hugo described it, the Grotesque has a vital role to play in the shaping of the modern spirit: ‘by its nature … it marks a sort of pause, and forms a point of comparison refreshing and sharpening our faculties, from which we can rise up towards the beautiful.’ Henneken’s paintings – puzzling and paradoxical, full of muddled allegories and shuffled citations – speak no clear message but demand just such a protracted pause for thought.