German-born, Antwerp-based Kati Heck’s first show with Sadie Coles HQ centres on six large paintings hung in a purpose-built enclosure within the gallery’s main space. They’re based on Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s 1911 six-part sung symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), itself a setting-to-music of texts derived from Chinese poems of the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD). The Song of the Earth is all about the joys of life, of friendship, of drinking, music, youth and beauty, tempered by melancholic apprehensions of life’s transience and the omnipotence of death.
Heck’s revisiting of this (maybe corny) romanticism, winding through the centuries, produces these surreal, anarchic and weirdly charming paintings of pale, charismatically awkward thirty-somethings (and one or two paunchy older men); all vaguely bohemian in their demeanour and dress, with questioning stares and knowing smiles playing about their lips. They exist in a faintly north European subcultural ambiance – drinking in an old bar, performing in a rock band – or, more bucolically, sitting by lakesides among the reeds, contemplating beauty and the pathos of existence, maybe.
But their status as subjects is precarious, subjected to Heck’s quizzical meddling in how they’re painted. Heck’s painting has been known to draw on the history of classical painting, but history is also here in faint, random historical echoes of the twentieth century’s disenfranchised, also-ran history of figurative painting – Otto Dix, DDR socialist realism, early Lucian Freud, Francis Picabia, postwar Surrealism filtered through prog-rock album-cover art…
But Heck riddles her paintings with bizarre malfunctions: the arm of the lute-wielding woman in the twilight forest of Der Abschied (The Farewell, all works 2017) is rendered with pasty, chunky fleshiness, but her hand disintegrates, letting the background pierce through. In the louche bacchanal Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow), the shoes of a raincoated man blend into the patterned tiles he’s standing on. The dive-bar four-piece of Der Trunkene im Frühling (Drunkards in Spring) play their 1980s indie rock in a swirling, slathered maelstrom of black paint. Naturalistic modelling deteriorates into a flat, sketched-in area in the leg of the scarlet-dressed woman in Von Der Schönheit (Of Beauty), as she gazes with anticipation, perhaps, towards some out-of-frame handsome youth: ‘Her proud pose is but a pretence; in the flash of her big eyes, in the darkness of her ardent gaze beats longingly her burning heart,’ read Mahler’s lines, a century back. The word ‘bingo’ appears in two paintings, like some involuntary reflex.
What stops these devices from ending up as deconstructive whimsy is how they create a tension between narrative seriousness and delirium – Heck’s figures have the mien of friends and collaborators, with the look of those complicit in their being staged by the painter, whose painterly skill gives them shape as much as it threatens their dissolution.
This is painting as sociability, which Heck does plenty of. In the adjoining space is a soft sculpture, a whitish spiralling sausage-arm with a fist, a support for a screen looping Der springende Punkt case II: O – a psychedelic outing of Heck’s alter ego Babydetektiv. Somewhere in that narrative is a self-administered Heimlich manoeuvre, to dislodge a pitted olive, and an egg is swallowed by one character only to be regurgitated by another. Something needs to be released from a throat. On the plinth of the sculpture an inscription from Heck’s Babydetektivclub manifesto: ‘To hell with all definitive ideologies! The shy, yes almost shameful ignorance is my hot spring, my deception. The sensical and the non-sensical,’ it starts. Heck implicates passion, feeling, friendship, intoxication, without setting these against self-consciousness, reflection or knowledge of history. Painting, poetry, music, singing – it’s living-as-an-artist-as-gesamtkunstwerk.
Kati Heck: Heimlich Manoeuvre runs from 23 November – 10 February
From the January & February issue of ArtReview