"The spatiality is what interests me the most.
What are the spaces between the objects, so to speak?
How do I create the long path between the chair and the object?" – Matthias WeischerIn over two decades of painting, Matthias Weischer has built a practice that continues to imagine a unique spatiality within the limits of the two-dimensional medium. The human figure is rarely present in Weischer’s pictorial universe, which makes his own appearance in a portrait by the famed British painter, David Hockney, all the more remarkable. With a new group of works exhibited in Seoul this fall, Weischer’s painterly worlds keep expanding along with their ever-greater reach.
In 2005, through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, Matthias Weischer, one of the most significant figures to emerge from the New Leipzig School of painting in Germany, was paired with the British artist, David Hockney. While the mentorship took place over the course of a year of studio visits and engaged conversations about the languages of their respective practices, a friendship has since ensued. Even today, Weischer regularly sends images of his finished works to Hockney, to which the elder painter often responds with comments, praise, and insights. Weischer maintains that Hockney was a pivotal artist for him long before the two were paired together, and that the relationship that has taken place over the last seventeen years is one which the German painter relishes and returns to for inspiration and a lasting example of the complex scenography of compositional space that characterizes both artists’ work.Mentorship, Weischer admitted in a recent conversation, is an incredibly important topic, and one that is often overlooked or simplified, owing to the fact that some artists simply refuse to talk about it. Weischer maintains that, “Everyone has one, a mentor-like figure. I’m sure of it.” What is unique is that Weischer was able to connect with his, and that the influence was not constrained by the limitations of the initial occasion. Seen through the newest works, as well as those that Weischer created decades ago, the relationship is truly a painterly one – Hockney’s Southern California light against Weischer’s post-GDR interiors – each bounded, or freed, by the surface of a canvas. It is a story that lives on through the appearance of a celebrated German painter under the guise of the elder British artist, and through the complexity of room-space, both that of an actual interior and the interior of the painted picture.
A decade after their first meeting, Weischer sat for Hockney to be included in a portrait series of 82 different figures, each one with either a cobalt blue or teal background set. Weischer, like most others in the series, is depicted seated, legs crossed, hands resting, one on the arm of the chair, the other, on his leg. He looks out unmarked, eyes wide open, mouth closed. The scene is relatively serene, not too serious but nonetheless absent of any tinge of humour or irony. It is not a snapshot, Hockney’s portrait, it is too self-possessed, too embedded in the time of sitting, posing, being there: it is unquestionably a painting.The construction of the surroundings in Hockney’s portrait is not unlike those that Weischer himself turns to in his most recent paintings exhibited this fall at KÖNIG SEOUL, filled with perspectival shifts, angles that describe both interior expanses as well as the flat space of the works’ surfaces, the mirror both an object and metaphor for the act of painting. The exhibition, MIRRORS AND THINGS, presented twelve new paintings by the Leipzig-based artist, charged with objects, textiles, artworks, and dividing lines of sight. Unlike Hockney’s portrait of Weischer, however, these are devoid of the human figure. Weischer’s interiors spread out like crime scenes, containing the traces of some lived experience, towels left behind or hung up to dry, screens separating a room along an oblique axis in BLENDE 1 & 2 (all works 2022). In the large format DEPOT, the horizontal expanse allows the eye easy entry into the room, but the fourth wall of Weischer’s construction is an open question, as it almost always is, though nevertheless alluded to through devices that hint at the world outside the picture. A circular mirror hung on the wall reflects a fragment of something otherwise hidden from the imagined space of the painting – a building, another object, it is entirely unclear.The two bodies of works, Hockney’s and Weischer’s, are separated by time, generations, and geographic distance, and were in no way created out of an explicit dialogue with one another – this was never intended or planned. Nevertheless, Hockney’s portrait and Weischer’s exhibition in Seoul connect through interpictorial conversation, each complementing the other. It is clear that the mentorship program has lived up to its name. In Hockney’s portrait of Weischer, space is closed, direct, intimate though unfamiliar, whereas Weischer’s latest paintings, like PLATFORM, evince a much greater, internal expanse, connecting through geometry and architecture rather than through the likeness of the face.
In HEAD, a smaller picture included in Seoul, a mask sits on a low table, propped against the wall, a decorative device no longer in use, its sculptural qualities opposing the flatness of the picture that hangs above it. At a distance, the mask in HEAD looks like a mask, an inanimate artefact from some distant culture, but on closer inspection, the eyes do not appear stylized but seem to be animated, one closed, one slightly open, winking or simply looking out at something across the room. It is, in Weischer’s pictorial language, the closest thing to a portrait. The hint that this quasi-portrait gives to a place outside of the picture gestures to the possibility of another line of sight, and with it, a position that is not directly represented within the composition. Before it becomes possible to get lost within the rooms that Weischer paints, that which is not captured, the outside, nevertheless appears as absence. The conspicuous exclusion of the human figure is not then a complete turn away from the potential placement of a viewer, and, after all, Weischer is the first observer of his works, even if he is also the one who first brings them into being.The inclusion of cultural artefacts in the works in MIRRORS AND THINGS extends to fabrics, textiles, and scenography reminiscent of 19th-century Japanese still life as in PODIUM, packed together with floral and other organic motifs, frozen in a cross-cultural mashup united by Weischer’s attention to the formal strictures of point, line, plane, and volume. The textile, or flat fabric, acts as yet another layer of complexity to the picture’s space, even as it rests on the same surface of the canvas. Do works like PODIUM aspire to the condition of decorative elements, or are they devices to help engender an experience in viewers of the restless play between depicted and real space? What is so engaging about Weischer’s choice of elements is their double-life as both singular objects and activators for spatial construction. Despite the generous distance provided in these newer works – they are never crowded – each belongs to the larger whole, and each depiction is charged with the capacity to connect to the larger structure of the room: singular and yet contingent.
The unique treatment that Weischer gives his surfaces is also an important factor, and one which contrasts productively with Hockney’s, whose slickness carries the legacy of 1960s Pop, the flashbulb white of Weischer’s countenance exemplary of this fact. Unlike Hockney, Weischer sands his oil compositions once they are dried, putting them in a photographic light as well, not the sheen of glossy magazines but the wear and erasure of time, both historical and personal. How time is experience in the two artists’ works is crucial to the appreciation of the dialogue that has benefited each in their own way. The portrait is necessarily a step out of the present, capturing a single figure in whatever state as they sit, entering into an almost vertical expanse of a single life. Weischer, on the other hand, creates a horizontal timeline, which points to the existence of artefacts and their arrangements in a given setting, even as their cultural context is hidden from view. The sanding also unifies the otherwise disparate elements found in these paintings and ensures that each object in the work is given similar treatment, flattening the normal hierarchy of subjects and forms. In both artists, what is not represented assumes an importance that is almost as significant as what is present in their works. For Hockney, the trappings of a singular life, and for Weischer, the history and cultural references that might provide an orientation into the depiction of a given room or scene. This play between presence and absence brings the otherwise disparate contexts of each artist into dialogue with the possibilities that exist for painting in the present, where the constructed picture is capable of holding radically different moments together in a single presentation.
The seriality of Hockney’s portraits, of which Weischer is merely one example, dispenses with the usual affectations that adorn many portraits in favour of compositional unity, an evenness to the treatment of each individual element or motif. In the painting of Weischer, the artist’s face has garnered as much attention as the shirt, or the pant leg, or the toe of the painter’s shoe: it is a complete democratisation of forms, a uniformity that Hockney has worked to achieve in his work for over a half a century now. And the chair that Weischer sits on looks like it could have been ragpicked from the same homes that are featured in the German’s canvases, its faded yellow seat similarly the product of an outdated epoch, one defined by the understated, the inwardness of domestic interiors and their peaky palettes – mustard yellows, mauves, and pea greens, and a special brand of brown. The blueness of the background almost threatens to overtake Weischer, until it becomes apparent that this is repeated in the artist’s eyes, the possibility of a congruence between subject and setting.The organisation of pictorial space, the palette, the absence of a face or a figure, the universal treatment of surface, and the very specific perspective through which the eye encounters its objects of investigation, are all preoccupations that Weischer and Hockney share, each with their own unique take. As MIRRORS AND THINGS was presented to audiences in Seoul this fall, new connections between practices spanning ever-greater distances and cultural divides no doubt emerged. For Weischer, that “one figure” he mentioned is clear, but like any good relationship, it is animated by the conversation that the two artists have, and that includes the way in which the paintings also communicate with each another. There is a mystery to the pictures and to the relationships that emerge within them, and that makes for greater intrigue and openness toward the idea of mentorship and its lasting effects. For Weischer, Seoul presented a unique opportunity to expand the vocabulary of his paintings without doing away with their grammar. Painting is a language, after all, and how it speaks, and to whom, is never set in stone.