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HEIKE ARNDT - Where is home? by Luigi Cavadini museo de Arte Contemporanea Lissone/ Milano Italy 2010
Where is home? Where can I feel at home? Where do I decide to stop? These questions epitomize an existential issue that probably affects many of us. It is an issue Heike Arndt has experienced profoundly - and probably still does - in her history as an artist. She was born and trained in East Germany, from which she managed to escape when she was 21, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The artist settled in Denmark, but above all sought to confront the world by travelling and spending periods of work in close contact with craftsmen and artists in the various countries she visited (Italy, Belgium, Holland, Greenland, Ethiopia, the United States, South America, Sweden, Finland, Spain and, more recently, for five years, China), gradually identifying special places which she visits regularly in order to explore techniques and materials.
The understandable disquiet that fuels these wanderings has a secure frame of reference, a "home" about which there are no doubts, and this home, a world in itself, is art. Inside it Arndt is always at home: when she models clay and then awaits the results of firing and the effects of pigments and glazes, when she uses the colours and signs of painting directly and with great energy, when she engraves plates for graphics and makes her sculptures for casting in bronze.
This is why the artist can feel at home everywhere, though she can be seen as a woman working on the confines between East and West, who has assimilated these places/non-places, abstract entities made concrete only by lived experiences. A woman of a thousand places and a thousand encounters, who calibrates her existence on the people she approaches and their work, open to debate with the conviction that “respect, tolerance and acceptance of others are the conditions for overcoming cultural differences, besides being necessary for survival in a globalized world like ours.” This is why Arndt’s work is underpinned by principles resting on human relations. Encounters with others, without distinction, are essential to her. From these encounters she draws feelings and ideas that are transformed into signs and colours (or matter), into research and the expressive representation of approaches, comparisons, resistances, misunderstandings, arrogance and contacts.
The interpretation of the situations which the artist presents in her works is closely focused; and though it may sometimes seem heavy and harsh, it still stands as a positive reaction to stress, in the belief that her encounters with different situations (and people) lay the foundations for a new and productive coexistence.
Arndt's vision stems from a profound ethical and moral insight and gives rise to a determination that strengthens both her life and art and brings her into conflict every day with herself and the world, suspended and disoriented between the happiness she wishes for all and the problems that trigger misunderstandings and conflicts at all levels.
The narratives in the paintings and sculptures may be barely mentioned, yet they embody the power to stimulate the mind of the viewer. Rather than proposing an answer, they ask questions which everyone is called on to answer.
The roots of Arndt's art go deep. It began to take shape when she was not yet ten years old, in the home of her grandfather who guided and encouraged her, with a keen appreciation of her talent. When she was sixteen she left home, having already gained an outstanding technical ability in the representation of flowers, landscapes and portraits. This skill soon led to the creation of artefacts and works in ceramics, while she studied the whole range of techniques in workshops with established masters, from learning to handle clay to the application of pigments and glazes and finally to methods of firing. For some years her interest and work were mainly developed in this sector, and among many other media she has continued to return to it and explore new sides of the art in the following decades, working in leading workshops in Italy, such as the Mazzotti studio at Albisola and the Lorenzini studio in Savona.
In Liguria, where she lived like a daughter in the home of Ansgar Elde (a friend of Asger Jorn), working for almost 20 years in the studio in Savona, she also produced graphic artworks at the renowned Stamperia del Bostrico of Albisola. In the second half of the '80s she made a major and definitive return to painting, in which she brought to fruition some of the advances she had made through experiments with ceramics. In particular, she began to make substantial use of the sign, as an element affecting form or simply to trace contours and impart dynamism to the whole. The most significant development, however, was the conquest of informality in her figuration which placed her in the mainstream of contemporary painting, having first achieved the ability to narrate and "live" above all, and then to transmit those sensations made up of reality and contingent circumstances, but also of experiences and memories that emerge from the depths and are the full expression of her history. This leads to an expressive efficacy which leaves its mark, because it first bewilders the eye and then the mind of the viewer, focusing attention and drawing it into that maelstrom created by colours and vigorous drawing, disorderly in appearance, that distinguishes them.
In her paintings we seem to have to reread, as a distant echo, the experiences of the German Expressionists in the first two decades of the 1900s together with those that were developed after World War II by members of the CoBrA group active in Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. The use of violent colours with a sharp impact, often reinforced by an incisive sign, characterized the work of the artists of Die Brücke (1906) - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and then Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein – who were active in the Dresden area. This was echoed some years later, in a rather different logic aimed at abstraction by the members of Der Blaue Reiter, founded in Munich in 1911 by Franz Marc and Vassily Kandinsky, which also numbered Klee, Macke, Jawlensky, Münter and Werefkin. Social and political tensions and aspirations, together with the quest for an art free from constraints of any kind underlay the foundation of Die Brücke, as well as the development of Der Blaue Reiter. But while the colouring of the former group expressed the artists’ exasperation at the situation of their time, for the latter it became a medium for open creativity, unshackled by the realistic values of representation. And in primitive sculpture these artists found the tactile transposition of their research and their expressive intentions.
The action of CoBrA took place immediately after the war and therefore also had critical and provocative motives. It used colour, often heavily marked in a decidedly tactile application, as a pregnant mode of expression. The image that resulted, especially in this second phase, though living by implicit references to reality, seems to be trying to detach itself from it and send messages that are more distinctive thanks to the vivacity of their implications rather than their explicit narrative.
If we review Heike Arndt's life it seems almost natural that some of the pressures and modes of expression acquired in those far-off years could have influenced her profound cultural training, eliciting compositional results that are related to those teachers and works. Arndt has travelled through the same places, she has suffered from similar experiences, she has manifestly sought to forge her own powers of expression. Above all, she has looked about her, determined to give voice not only to her own free spirit but also to those who are without a voice. This is why her canvases are peopled by figures who seek their own individuality, escaping, or trying to escape, from constraints and oppression, from subjugation and abuse, figures who are often confused with their settings and whom we can recognize only by a few signs or signals. Also important appear the attitudes of figures who are perhaps barely perceptible. Entangled on themselves in a cocoon, unable to tell whether it is a refuge or a prison, abandoned in a long and inhospitable landscape, embracing other figures in the search for a modicum of warmth, alone among others like the child in Without Words…, sun in the midst of many people, lost in a landscape in which the anguish of Munch seems to rise while shadows encroach on the countryside. And often the focus of the composition and the thought of the artist is that small child who risks being alone or that woman enclosed in herself who lowers her head and loses her individuality.
Painting, the artist seems to say in her work, is not just colour and design, painting is thought, reflection, protest. Painting is speech ... speech for me and speech for those without a voice, or for those who have lost their voices by shouting without being heard.
But to understand the artist’s commitment more fully, we will return to the exhibition title: Where is Home?
It is not a random title but a title chosen as an appeal. It reflects a meditation which the artist has been engaged in for years and it is the basis on which her work rests. It is a universal question that underpins everyone’s life. It's a question that is not only the physicality of a house, but also the mental aspect of being truly at home (wherever and whatever it is). Even when there is thousands of miles from home you may feel physically and mentally in the right place (at home), because you feel welcome, just as you may feel an abysmal distance while living in a place of which is your exclusive property. Then you realize that, as already mentioned at first, a house is not made up so much of masonry, or walls of mud or tents, as of relations and hence the ability to understand: gestures, language, behaviour. Heike Arndt has experienced all this in her life and she has been exploring it in depth for years, strong in an experience that took her away from where she was born, integrating her into a country other than their own, which has enabled her to travel and meet very different people, cultures and lifestyles. Through these contacts and the relations that developed from them she finds stimuli and the themes of the art she creates. It is expressed in vivid colours, where red and blue, hot and cold, always prevail, also enhancing the significance of the other presences. The vibrations that arise from contrasts of colour and brushwork, now linear and now enveloping, bring out the continuing dialogue between the artist and the themes she deals with. I believe that there is a direct current running through heart-thought-hand-painting. There is never any sign of blurring or bursts of colour which seem useless, unnecessary, incomprehensible, there are no casual presences, but each element fits into the overall atmosphere with perfect naturalness and merges with it.
So the works the artist creates have lived with her like luggage - the title of a long series of works - meaning as elements of a particular mental baggage which characterizes her being, luggage being made up of memories, symbols, profound acquisitions (social, cultural and familial), and of teachings. Her own exclusive luggage which is unique and acts as a filter through which she interprets reality and events and which becomes fundamental in identifying paths to follow in search of the home in which she will stay for good.
The role of colour, with those veils of paint, sometimes dense, sometimes almost transparent, is undoubtedly important in focusing attention but equally significant and intense is the way she narrates by small signs, by tiny presences, which qualify her graphic work in particular. The various techniques of engraving, which the artist uses with the greatest skill, sometimes in combinations, enable her to modulate the representation, in some cases underscoring and crowding together the images in the manner of the Expressionists, in others working lightly on the figures, almost afraid to disturb them in their simplicity. When they belong to the colourful world of painting, or when they appear in a minor tone in graphics, the figures are represented simply, almost carelessly traced, rather like the way a child might depict them than the kinds of effects we would expect in the work of a painter. The recovery of childhood ingenuousness adds freshness to these paintings of thoughts, these visions in which a small object barely indicated suffices to epitomize a long and complex story. Even more basic - and surprisingly more incisive - are the inks in which the sign is pure language, clear, even hard. They can be seen as the summa of all Arndt’s research and her poetic. Everything is condensed and focused: the colours are sucked into the whiteness and the restraint of her vocabulary makes everything more real and convincing. And even you as you view it cannot remain indifferent.
And always in following this path, with these intentions, in sculpture, the artist confronts space. Here she focuses on two themes: man and movement. Man’s attitudes, dreaming, speaking, hoping, relaxing, waiting, calling ... A man who seems to emerge from out of a sheet of paper, "cut out" of a surface and left free to identify himself and establish his own home as and where he chooses and desires. Man as an individual, almost surprising in Arndt’s life, and who (I believe) could herald a new period where these cut-out men either return to their imaginary sheet or become freely and independently capable of giving rise to an imaginary and imagined "book", where, in three true dimensions their stories intertwine and their individual homes end up gradually building a town. But those other figures, who do not know whether they are idols or prisoners, seeds or shells, will also have to leave the cocoon in which they are compressed. Enigmatic and intriguing figures derived directly from some of the works painted in China.
Evident here is the Oriental and almost aristocratic matrix which I seem to find in a popular version in the wagons that make up the other side of the artist's sculptural narration. If there was something mysterious present in the “cocoons” (the title luggage, with its many possible meanings, also returns for them), I must say that even in this parade of wagons - varied, elementary, almost toys - one wonders what their meaning is and where they are leading. Then you realize that their form is designed so that they become the links in a chain and then, perhaps, the artist's intent becomes clear.
I have purposely left to the conclusion the large ceramic dishes whose history, we can say, coincides with Arndt’s life, because ceramic, above all at the start, was a privileged medium of expression. Now this passion for clay to model and then fill with her stories returns occasionally, the same stories that run through her paintings, sculptures and drawings. But she also uses ceramics as a palette of thought on which she leaves impressed the landscapes of her soul, with some overspill into the world of abstraction which culminates in the spiral – a metaphor for life – whose movement towards an interior that tends to an infinitely distant point or to an exterior that aims at an endless dilation, leaves man with the certainty that her going will never end.