Historical Journal


Anton Henning

October 1, 1991
Alan J. Hanson

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When synesthesia was first used to herald the entrance into abstract art, suddenly and peculiarly, the word became the subject of its own anathema. Let’s say that Kandinsky did it. He pronounced a curse upon language; he, who was well trained in penal logic, and as an artist guided his hand along the contours of visual correspondence to create paintings which, in relation to the accepted canon of imagery, looked like many things and nothing at the same time. Hence, his somewhat hysterical response to his creation: we should consider if his eye was overwhelmed by the images it saw, that his paintings literally spoke to him through these images, as if through an icon, and that he invoked music in order to drive away the pain inflicted by the piercing phonetics of their words, which most likely had themselves many things at once and yet nothing at all left to signify. Music and words on the inside, words being forced out; the body self-contained in the harmony of sight and internal, wordless sound; words infiltrating the body through the mind and blocking there the false accord between one sense based on perception, sight, and another transported by imagination, hearing. Hearing sounds in response to color and form is a sign of a synesthetic experience, and one of the blessed fruits of high modernist culture hearing words, on the other hand, is a harbinger of the schizophrenic.
Anton Henning’s paintings appeal to schizo-experience and schizo-culture. (Before moving on quickly from that proposition, three questions necessarily arise out of it, each one separately from the other two: is there a little schizophrenic in each of us whose interest is being aroused by his art? does the artist make an urgent request that we understand the schizophrenic, at the least in a theoretic sense? schizophrenia, is that some kind of higher authority?) What keeps an individual separate from collective experience here is akin to the subtle difference between illogic and a passion for guilt by association on one side, and anti-logic and the freedom from reason implicit in association on the other. Together these two sides oppose a third, a culturally determined schizo-experience, which is neither an individual nor a collective one. Like an absent book, its meaning cannot be read directly, but though it stands tangential to his work- problematical meaning, painful meaning-its meaning can be described, by referring to Henning’s paintings, as a system of aesthetic morality, like synesthesia, that obscures precisely the meaning of language in the medium of language. We will come back to this.
Fundamental to any appreciation of Henning’s artwork in a cultural context is first to recognize that it itself is a culture; a smaller culture built upon still smaller ones; a biologic culture in which images are grown inside paint and paper; a culture of lineage; and a schizophrenic culture, in that its images function phonetically through the medium of words that have detached from their significations. If we look at the work, a single example of how he projects an image from out of its abstract state and into others, for example, organic and figural, will serve to illustrate this metaphor for culture: at first, a simple triangle; then it appears as a floral blossom, and at the same time, feminine genitalia; then, most definitely, it represents a mons veneris replete with public hair, but in the same vicinity it takes the form of a cow’s udder, dangling breasts, a spray of milk or pure light, a dusty road that sharply recedes to a single point and vanishes; and to complicate matters, the style and media in which these permutations of the image are rendered changes-usually gestural in style and schematic in form, he uses an all out scribble to great effect, gauzy photographs, ink splotches, finger painting and collage, intermittently. It is as if the ramified substance of cultural representation were being articulated in the guise of visually corresponding taxa. More specifically, what we have here Barbara Kruger may have said it best, “We won’t play nature to your culture”- is the automatic, and thereby ideologic, deep association of the feminine with nature, which has been, of course, a stalwart subject of patronymic art and literature for centuries at least. What makes Henning’s art different and important is that it reveals, in part, how such cultural representations are constructed, and how, in turn, from the viewer’s or critic’s perspective, they might be dissected using language-its shizophrenic aspect. But before we do that, let us consider just one more imagic example: cell, egg, eye, testicle, breast-areola-nipple, big nipple, glans penis, ball, pearl, atom, axondendrite … head.
Some people find it helpful comparing Henning’s work to jazz-fusion music, in order to more readily grasp its syncopated, recapitulating formal qualities. This is a desperate act, and one that purposely or inadvertently glosses over deeper issues of which form plays only a outlying role, for already the act of seeing signifies the real absence of music, or sound. Instead, sounds are seen. Images are spoken: recounting to oneself what one sees and constructing with it a narrative that fits Henning’s imagery, recapitulated or otherwise, into a coherent whole, raises a more substantial and difficult issue about representation. Tending to coalesce visually as a result of their formal affinities, the images in his paintings simply do not hang together on this linguistic level unless subjectively motivated to do so. Women are not akin to cows, and the feminine is no more and no less natural than the masculine, except, for example, insofar as it has been used historically as the raw material and site for the erection of male fantasies. No act is unmotivated his work tells us, although many appear to be. Likewise, the appearance of (visual) continuity seduces the viewer into attempting narrative reconciliation in the same way, which holds only tragic implications, because words correspond (in a manner like visual correspondence) through their sounds, which are absent here, and not through their meanings, which are always present, freely floating, and produced by difference rather than similitude. (Meanings agree in ideologies.) If one tries to construct a meaningful paradigm for these images in words which lacks motivation, that is to say, an amoral, objective, or continuous paradigm, then, like the images themselves-cut up, severed and detached bodies, heaving expressions, all divisions permeable, screen memories-breakdown must certainly ensue on the levels of language and the self both, simultaneously. Words split from their significations: they are words as such no longer, but guttural, screaming, monotone, cackling phonetics; they descend from the head, where meaning is kept, into the intestines and limbs where they are inscribed as corporal commands in the pages of a hidden, and thus absent, book. At this level of depth, the depth which Anton Henning’s paintings express, words affect the body directly and the body responds automatically. Every word carries this power, too.
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