Art What the heck!

The bizarre and amusing details in Kati Heck’s paintings.

This week Kati Heck’s new body of work will be presented in the Frieze New York online viewing room. In her monumental sized paintings Heck puts many amusing and bizarre details. Her newest body of work features a caterpillar smoking a cigarette, two teabags applied on a canvas and a densely populated fantastical scene reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. In presenting these works online it is likely that these details might be overlooked. In this interview with Heck we focus on some of the details in her work so you won’t miss them.

Are you disappointed that you won’t be able to present your newest work in a physical space but online?

Well, I’m glad that I don’t have to travel to New York during this pandemic. There is, though, some added value to view these paintings in real life as I put in many details which you probably won’t notice on a photograph. Also for the installation of the booth I made a table with four stools that are connected with my paintings. For instance, on the frame of my painting ‘Ins Dunkel!’ I applied sunflower seeds that also reoccur in the legs of the table. Unfortunately the furniture doesn’t make any sense now as my dear dealer won’t be able to use it as the fair will be online. But I can use the chairs now to sit on them at my studio [laughs].

The press release states that you have created a new series of paintings and drawings in which you portray “people who are in the middle of accomplishing their own mission”. Could you elaborate on that?

[hesitates] I’m afraid I would over explain when I talk about the mission I’m looking for. It would like the viewer to find his own explanation.

But is it your mission or the mission of the figures in the painting?

The mission of the figures. They are exploring stuff. For me, the painting with the lady that goes into the ground is about that you look for the roots of things, whatever roots that might be. You take something by the root and you examine it. You’re going into the earth and ‘talk’ to the animals living beneath the earth’s surface. That’s why I painted some worms and a little caterpillar in a study room.

So it’s not about one’s own roots?

No, it’s about the roots where things are coming from. We like to understand why things are happening to us or why things look the way they are. It’s not about one’s own roots or where you’re coming from. Maybe that is also a part of it. I leave it open for the interpretation of the viewer.

Your work ‘Ins Dunkel’ (In the Dark) is based on Hermann Hesse’s book ‘Steppenwolf’ in which he portrays Harry Haller’s split between his humanity and his wolf-like aggression and homelessness. What interested you to base a painting on this book?

Many of my works are based on the idea of the book not especially on Hesse’s book or on Harry Haller. This split personality is a recurring theme in my work. It’s even in the technique how I paint; it’s a combination of very realistic elements and bigger gestures that are more expressionistic. I don’t know if every person feels it, but I feel it very strongly that I have two sides in my personality; I want to please and I want to revolt. It’s this fascination for ambiguity and schizophrenia that you often see in my works.

You put a lot of details in your paintings – an enchanting blend of photorealism, illustrations, cartoons and texts in German – your native language. How important are details for you in a painting?

For me there can never be too many details. In my paintings I want to portray the figures life size but I don’t want my paintings to be about one thing. Therefore I put in little side stories to create a full picture of the character I’m portraying or the story I want to tell. I think adding those details will enrich the painting.
Also, when the viewer looks at my paintings in real life and inspects it from different angles I want him to discover new details. I want it to be a positive surprise and not a let down.

In these details can you express your joy for painting?

I don’t know where I express my joy for painting. The joy is very limited, though, it is a brief moment. Most of the time painting is work and there is little joy. Overall it’s much joy of course [laughs].

Aesthetically there is a lot to enjoy in these details as well. For instance, when I look at your painting ‘Von der Jugend’ it is delightful in how you painted the fine embroidery on the diaphanous trousers that the girl is wearing.

Yes, sometimes it gives satisfaction to paint something like that. When I paint a light reflection on a golden ring or a necklace suddenly it starts to shine and comes to life on the canvas. There is something magical about that.

Some of the details are also very bizarre but humorous such as the caterpillar smoking a cigarette in ‘Ins Unten’. How important is humour in your work?

I’m not an optimist or a pessimist but a realist. Some of my paintings are very melancholic and you have to make them bearable. Humour is the best way to do that. It is easier to enter a painting through humour and then discover the deeper meaning behind it.

Humour as a tool to engage the viewer?

Yes, although I don’t think so much about the viewer when I paint. For me, it is fun to paint a caterpillar who smokes in his study room [laughs]. It is a way to amuse myself.

Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers
Images: Kati Heck with her new body of work; furniture set; Kati Heck, Ins Unten, 2020. Oil and crayon on canvas, 140 x 281 cm. Courtesy Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp; Kati Heck, Ins Dunkel!, 2020. Oil, golden horse apples on stitched canvas, 220 x 200 cm. Courtesy Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp; detail of Ins Dunkel!; detail of Ins Unten.

Frieze New New York online viewing room 8-15 May. More information here

Upcoming exhibition: Kati Heck – Harauck d’Orange, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Netherlands, 6 June until 8 November 2020

More 200% interviews with contemporary artists: David Salle, Alex Katz and Lisa Yuskavage