by David M. Roth
How often do we encounter an artist who is reinvigorating painting? Such instances are exceedingly rare. Nevertheless, I’m sticking my neck out for Jutta Haeckel, a 50-year-old Düsseldorf artist who’s developed an innovative approach. Her process, a mix of abstraction and representation, begins with jute whose threads she pries apart to create loose scaffolds onto which she suspends dense topographies — achieved by pushing paint through the grid from the rear and by projecting abstract images onto the front which she paints realistically. Surfaces, dotted with clusters of neon-colored nubs that protrude outward through the weave at low relief, resemble pin maps of the sort once seen in televised police procedurals. You’d be hard-pressed to find more intensely worked paintings.
From a distance, the 23 pieces in Golden Threads, a museum-quality exhibition on view at Hosfelt Gallery, recall exploding nebulae, microscopic views of organic matter, satellite pictures of the Earth, Op-ish geometric patterns and a lot else. If these allusions have a familiar ring, that is because Haeckel has borrowed and bent to her own ends some of the conceptual thinking and material inventions of other painters: Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, most notably, but also those of her teachers, Karin Kneffel (a star pupil of Richter’s) and Katharina Grosse, each of whom embrace the idea that paint can be made do most anything. Haeckel took that idea and ran with it. For example, where Richter famously re-presented photos as blurry black-and-white paintings — occasionally effacing them to achieve even greater levels of abstraction – Haeckel does the opposite. She takes photos of abstract forms and paints them realistically onto the surfaces of her works, the result being faithful reproductions of things only she (or scientists) can identify.
The sources? Some of what’s seen in Golden Threads derives from mycorrhizal networks, the underground systems in forests that allow trees and plants to “communicate” and thereby survive environmental threats. Other sources include images of brains and nerves, mathematically generated optical patterns, microscopic images of plants, satellite pictures, digitally altered fingerprints, and photos of brushstrokes, paint drips, splashes and puddles of thinned paint taken in the artist’s studio. All are unrecognizable to the untrained eye. But looking at Haeckel’s renderings of them, astute observers may see other things. A notable example appeared in a 2017 exhibition in which Haeckel, in one painting, reproduced a detail from a Richter squeegee painting that I took to be collage; close inspection revealed it to be trompe l’oeil, a clever deception activated by masterfully executed drop shadows. A subsequent body of work, shown in 2019, employed similar methods to create the opposite effect: décollage, like what we see in peeling billboards.
Shadowy hieroglyphs portending semantic meaning comprise a particularly noteworthy portion of the imagery Haeckel paints onto the faces her paintings. Such shapes, as it happens, bear a strong resemblance to the offset lithographic forms Polke superimposed on paintings and drawings made in the late 1990s and early 2000s as part of a show called History of Everything. Never mind that Polke, in that exhibition, was calling out some of the more unsavory aspects of American culture. The fact that his shapes originated from mechanical enlargements of print media and Haeckel’s arose from organic matter lends credence to her assertion that differences between most things dissolve at the micro level. It’s a notion that accords well with Buddhist thought and the physical reality of paint, which, if allowed (or coaxed), mimics natural processes, those being the primary associations triggered by Golden Threads. The most graphic example, Winding Ways, located at the entrance to the gallery, resembles a vast alluvial flood plain viewed from the sky. The point, Haeckel told me, is to make visual the unseen networks that impact life below the threshold of consciousness, an endeavor that necessarily entails a multilayered approach. Her efforts are, without exception, beguiling, so it’s nearly impossible to name highlights. Each painting presents unique perceptual challenges.
Pattern of Chance I and II, large-scale works measuring 59 x 47 inches, appear side-by-side against a wall painted robin’s egg blue. The choice is strategic – and destabilizing. The color appears in both paintings. So, when you see yawning gaps between the threads in Pattern of Chance I, it’s natural to think you see the wall. You’re not. You’re seeing a patch of congealed pigment of the same color bleeding from the backside. A similar gap in Pattern of Chances II shows the wall peeking through unimpeded. The illusion (and the simultaneous revelation of it) sow doubt, and soon you begin questioning your senses.
Six smaller paintings arrayed across the opposite wall deal with light. Steam, a scattergram of bright dots set against a cement-colored ground, has pale shadows emerging from the depths, evoking some of the spookier paintings Ross Bleckner made in the mid-1980s. Undala I and II show the pictures’ underlying grids bent into concentric half-circles. They coalesce into moiré patterns that break, left-to-right, across the surface in evanescent clouds of black, red, green and pink. As conveyances of fugitive chromatic information, Haeckel’s subsurface structural manipulations set up discernible rhythms, often combining to blur distinctions between absence and presence, as in Golden Thread II, which carries what looks to be the vague outline of a human head, the exhibition’s only hint of recognizable imagery.
Sedimentary Layers, the show’s most complex painting, is also one of its largest, a 75 x 90-inch mash-up of competing shapes, colors and sutured-together segments united by repeated marks that appear to be imprinted. At the center, what look like gestures from competing graffiti taggers square off at indeterminate depths, surrounded by patches of yellow, orange and green. Contemplation I-IV, a series of four pictures stretching across the gallery’s back wall, delivers more tangible allusions, mainly because they align with what we know from aerial photos of toxic industrial sites taken by David Maisel. Two other pictures, Nebula and Light Dots Waves IV, also held my attention, the first for its evocation of star maps, the second for references to what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call electromagnetic waveforms, looking as if they’d been digitally altered by Hokusai.
In these and everything else on view, Haeckel’s unorthodox methods – painting on both sides of the picture surface and applying paint to the versos in pointillistic pixel-like units — have the uncanny effect of collapsing macro and micro views. They declare the presence of unseen phenomena while emphatically affirming painting’s tactile, textile essence.
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Jutta Haeckel: “Golden Threads” @ Hosfelt Gallery through November 23, 2022.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder where he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.