Rembrandt’s The Painter in His Studio, while providing a self-portrait of the great painter, wordlessly conveys a description of the creative process itself. The viewer is deprived access to the artist’s work- in -progress—and Rembrandt delivers the lesson. We are invited to speculate, not only on the subject of the artist’s painting, but also on the artist’s role as a conduit and filter for ideas and concepts, facts and visions. The physical painting is a portrait. What I find more compelling, however, is the promise of the painting Rembrandt conceals from us. The Painter in His Studio has always held meaning for me as the artist’s comment on the synergy between subject and artist—between the viewer and the viewed. “Studio” serves as a metaphor for what I see as the process and –just as importantly—the promise of a painted work.
As a 20th, and now, 21st century American artist, I continue to be inspired by Rembrandt’s example from 17th century Europe. Though my world-view is informed by the massive cultural and artistic changes that have taken place since he lived, and our painting styles are radically different, my starting premise as a painter is this:--That the painter, usually working alone and/or in collaboration, looks out at the world, filtering and processing references and ideas to transform paint and canvas into a lively discussion without words.
I am not interested in painting that is cynical about painting or painting that is merely an exercise in craft without idea.
After almost forty years, my pleasure at my good fortune to be involved in the art’s great history has not diminished. The touch, the smell and the substance of paint are mingled with the possibilities-- of fact, fantasy, philosophy, illusion; with the unique interaction between concepts and images.
For me the most exciting painting is the painting I haven’t yet made, those problems I haven’t yet solved. Making paintings, is a difficult proposition and I know that one really never learns how to paint. For me, each painting is a mistake, asking a question that points toward the possibility of the next painting. What I want for my paintings is that painting on the other side of Rembrandt’s easel, the one that has not been revealed. Almost four centuries his painting still asks questions about painting and the future of painting. The painting unseen. I want that!
Painting As Exploration
by Matt Distel, Director of the Country Club Gallery, Former Curatorial Advisor, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio
Rarely depicting a true landscape or interior, Frank Herrmann's canvases nevertheless suggest spaces that can be entered and explored. They are riddled with artifacts and relics, textual clues and textural maps, symbolic space and bold patterns. The spirit of exploration is pervasive throughout Herrmann’s entire practice. The majority of the materials in the studio are the result of his continual research of the art and culture of the Oceanic Asmat people of New Guinea. Seemingly, each object yields a new line of inquiry. Certainly artists examining and drawing inspiration from the artifacts and motifs of other cultures is nothing new. Herrmann, however, is determined to push beyond appropriating imagery. His effort is focused upon absorbing the origins of the objects, understanding the functional, creative impulse that brought these objects into existence. Herrmann speaks of the objects with a mixture of reverence, curiosity and scholarly fascination. This unique approach carries over to the canvas.
The Asmat culture has not produced its own written language though Herrmann has developed a quasi-calligraphy based on Asmat carvings and a trade language created by Dutch settlers to the remote regions of New Guinea. In particular, Herrmann is drawn to words such as WOWIPITS that can be understood as “wood man” or “wood carver.” Of course, this could easily be interpreted (or reinterpreted) as “artist,” the conduit for communication in a culture without a formalized written language. The patterned marks and glyphs that Herrmann uses to “write” on the canvas take on an entirely new demeanor when applied in paint. Visible in nearly all of the work from these series, the “writing” becomes a patterned formal element in Herrmann’s compositions. He uses the motifs most frequently as a patterned overlay or built up as surface texture. Occasionally though, he will employ the text to different ends. In Asmat Specimen [Acrylic & Asmat shield rubbings on canvas, 2004], for example, the word “asmat” is used to create a sense of deep space and a platform for Herrmann’s depiction of an Asmat carving. The text is simultaneously a communicative and structural tool.
In Asmat Specimen, as in many of the other works in this series, Herrmann reveals another strategic technique. Herrmann makes rubbings from the objects in his studio and manipulates them within the canvas. This serves not only to create a more direct connection between the Asmat objects and Herrmann’s paintings, but also pulls Herrmann into closer contact with the objects. From these rubbings, Herrmann is able to distill the essence of the motifs and draw connections to the visual language of the Asmat and, in a larger sense, explore the origins of written language being born from a creative impulse. To work through these ideas, Herrmann has completed a large number of small canvases. Though he considers them mostly in the role of studies for larger pieces, Herrmann’s small, intimate canvases are not lacking in strength and impact. Consider the work in the Asmat Motif Construct series. Most of them less than ten inches square, this series nonetheless communicates the power of the common motifs Herrmann frequently explores. The curvilinear patterns take center stage and dominate the foreground When the patterns are translated onto the larger canvases they prove to be versatile options in Herrmann’s vast vocabulary of Asmat imagery.
Herrmann’s recent work is predicated almost entirely on his studies of and fascination with Asmat culture. This does not mean that the work is not also infused with certain Western constructs and devices. In the both of the works Asmat Specimen and Decline, Change, Evolve II [Acrylic on canvas, 2004], Herrmann places Asmat objects on display as if they were in a museum. Rather than floating free as loose elements in a composition as in other canvases, these pieces are grounded and “mounted” on museum-style display bases. This subtle distinction cleverly alludes to Herrmann’s own position as a Western commenter on Oceanic culture. The first encounter with primitive cultures for the vast majority of the Western population is mediated by museum practice. Of course, the same could be said of contemporary art. Herrmann recounts his own initial contact with the Asmat symbolism and its lingering impact.
“Since my first exposure to Asmat art at the New York’s Metropolitan Museum over twenty years ago, their motifs and myths have become an integral part of my own creative works. And, though I utilize these tribal images differently, I have a deep commitment to the preservation of this rich artistic and anthropological find.”
Evidenced within this statement is Herrmann’s conscientious use of the symbolism, relics and imagery of a culture that is not his own.
Several other works also suggest a Western perspective on the Oceanic culture Herrmann investigates. Though Herrmann himself might deflect this relationship, paintings such as Cimelice Thinking: Wowipits and the Brazza Baroque [Acrylic & Asmat shield rubbings on canvas, 2001] would rest comfortably in the realm of graffiti as it is translated to the gallery world. Intriguingly, Herrmann is approaching text and language from a nearly opposite context as graffiti artists. Herrmann is interested in taking abstract forms and motifs and making them understandable, trying to decipher their intuitive, spiritual meaning in a broad context. In contrast, the majority of graffiti artists, or any text-based artist for that matter, seems most keenly focused on turning language into something unfamiliar or, at the very least, abstract. Nevertheless, an arguably Western impulse to seek a connection between abstraction and communication is at play in Herrmann’s work.
A similar collision of cultural references takes place in the series of Safan paintings, most notably in Safan I [Acrylic and rubbings on canvas, 2002] and Safan II [Acrylic & Asmat shield rubbings on canvas, 2003]. Here, Herrmann creates incredibly striking compositions that force a confrontation/collaboration between Primitive Art and Color-Field painting. He splits the canvas in half, devoting equal space to Asmat motifs as modulated surface texture and color. The top halves of these canvases are expanded versions of the Asmat Motif Construct series while the bottom halves are stunning monochrome paintings that force a consideration of the directional influence of Western culture.
Taken as a complete body of work, Frank Herrmann’s deep and thoughtful investigation into the culture and symbolism of the Asmat is a compelling advocate for further research into the nature of primitive art and its sophisticated imagery. As an insertion into the history of contemporary art, this body of work is a sparkling example of what can happen to disparate cultures come into contact through an artistic vision. Surely this work will resonate beyond the culture it references and the culture in which it was created.
Matt Distel, Director of the Country Club Gallery
Former Curatorial Advisor
Contemporary Arts Center
Contemporary Translations of a Primordial World
by Steve Chiaramonte, Asmat Collector
In an inhospitable lowland jungle of mangroves and unpredictable flooding tides. Caught between a massive equatorial cordillera and a shallow, innavigable and roiling sea. Teeming with mosquitoes, the largest of ferocious salt water crocodiles and deadly snakes that glide through the air from trees above to strike at the throat of those unwary. Brackish and muddy, a fragile alluvial wasteland hardly able to support life of any kind. Six thousand square miles mostly swamp and isolated from all the world. Unsuited to agriculture and unapproachable from the sea, a nether land where introduced livestock falters and fails. This is the paradise and the paradox of Asmat.
Humankind could not possibly exist here, yet they do. Somehow. Perhaps seventy thousand Asmat people make their home here. These are the Papuan descendants of a people thought to have crossed, almost impossibly, north to south from the lowlands of north-central New Guinea to the swamps of the southwest. Escaping tribal war, famine, ecological decline, natural disaster and perhaps all of these to some degree, the Asmat are thought to have arrived at their present home on the coasts of southwest New Guinea only some four hundred years ago.
While an ancient culture on Easter Island was erecting the last of its giant Moai, at a precipice about to fade from existence, the ancestors of today’s Asmat were undertaking a migration that would allow them to persevere. A people without written language, they are a culture of storytellers. Myths; creation, war, salvation. Celebration; life, death, initiation. The stories of the Asmat have indeed been recorded for a century or more; if not by written word then instead sculpted in wood. These are the libraries of the Asmat; a rich and diverse collection of history, knowledge and religious belief carved into wood and blended into their material culture at every point. The Asmat are held at all times in the graces of their ancestors; protected but controlled. The spirits of those passed, every tree, every tool, each day, inhabits all of Asmat. The art of the Asmat is how man communicates with the greater cosmos.
For the first several centuries in their new home, the Asmat must have struggled to establish themselves, learning to live in a place perhaps more difficult that that from which they had fled. These must have been the times of their historical genesis, as little in their mythology can be understood to reach further in their history. By the 17th century the Dutch explorers Willem Jansz and Jan Carstenz had recorded brief, chance encounters with the Asmat and later, upon making landfall in Asmat to replenish supplies of fresh water and food, the men of Captain James Cook exchanged hostilities with frightened Asmat warriors. A nearly forgotten holding of the V.O.C. (the Dutch East Indies Company) for a long period, then a buffer between the Allies and Japan during the second war, Asmat land and people became world news in the 1960s upon the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller and descriptions of his demise in this land of unforgiving seas, fierce crocodiles and headhunting cannibals.
The Asmat of the 21st century lead a challenging existence. An overwhelming cultural swell from the west has brought an end too much of their tradition of headhunting, cannibalism has all but been eliminated and Catholicism along with pockets of protestant missionaryism has created a hybrid Asmat cosmos. The sovereign authority of Indonesia, a desire for the material wealth exhibited by missions and tourists, and the exploitation of the regions rich natural resources have provided an unyielding catalyst for change. The Asmat today are torn by the coercion, temptation and innovation brought about by a cultural evolution which pits traditional beliefs against western concepts of progress.
From a visual perspective, Asmat art fits reasonably within our expectations for the arts of coastal New Guinea. Of course this has a great deal to do with the materials available to the New Guinean people, and otherwise to their environment, their beliefs and ways of life. Historically a land with no stone or metal, the Asmat had learned their intricate carving skills using bone and shell as their primary tools. The trees or particular woods chosen for carving were governed by a belief system which required that particular objects could be carved from only a single species of tree, and further, that other species were completely taboo. Many of these trees are softwood varieties that yield themselves well to a bone chisel pounded with a coconut or wooden mallet. The heavy and hard ironwood trees were never carved by the Asmat until they were convinced in the 1960s by missionaries that they would not sicken and die if they did so. Soon after, they were taught how to roughly carve this difficult wood when green and finish the fine details once the wood had dried. Finish-carving on the hardwoods required the flattened nail found in flotsam on the shore and eventually the steel chisels provided by outsiders, but surprisingly, only in recent years have western tools found general acceptance. Likewise string and cord was fashioned from the bark of the paper mulberry as seen in so many traditional cultures and only slowly did the fishing line and bits of western cloth find their way into Asmat "modern art". There have been other changes to Asmat art over the century or so of historical record and of course, today there is also a "market" for Asmat carvings that find there way to various collections across the world.
What has changed little in Asmat however is the respect and awe that is reserved for the best of the ritual carvers. Perhaps more so than in our familiar western society, The Asmat carver is cared for and revered as a shaman of sorts. Once recognized for his capacity to carve powerful imagery into his work, he is similarly known for his ability to embody the spirits of the ancestors into wood. In this way the Asmat are able to both placate and control the ancestral spirits who share their world at every moment. The ritual wood carver is among the most important member of the Asmat village, an important figure who shares his wisdom amongst the similarly respected orators and warriors in the village. These carvers, there may be just one or several, are called upon professionally by the people in a village to create commissioned objects for many of the most important life events. For instance, when a person dies in Asmat and his death is not a direct result of warfare, it is traditionally thought to be the result of magic perpetrated by a neighboring village. These deaths and indeed nearly all deaths must be avenged if there is to remain equilibrium in the village. The carving of wood, and the embodiment of the spirit into that carving, is required in order to placate the spirit world. Today nearly every Asmat man might carve objects for everyday use or sale to tourists, but the ritual carver remains a powerful man at the core of this language of art.
So what is it then that connects the work of a western painter and university professor with the expressions of ritual hunter-gatherers a hemisphere away and across the equator? Is it some primordial desire of expression? An artists sense of space, color or texture? Are spirits embodied in these paintings and is equilibrium somehow restored? Does the completion of a painting here in the American Midwest initiate a feast? Clearly not a cannibal feast to appease the ancestors!
As a collector, enthusiast and student of Asmat art and culture for many years, I have had the pleasure of knowing Frank Hermann since the earliest part of 2001 when we became acquainted pursuant to his research on Asmat art. Passionate about his pursuits, I discovered Frank to be an inquisitive man of untold artistic talents. Ours was a fast friendship founded on a common passion for art and academic study. In my case the study of Asmat art and culture and in the case of Frank, the study of how these very same data would come to affect and influence his own creative art. Once coming to know Frank better, I found him thoroughly infused with the imagery of the Aboriginal churinga. Within a short time however, I witnessed his interest migrate and evolve toward a concentration on the complex and profound imagery resident in traditional Asmat carving. Over time, I watched Frank adapt and change to his growing knowledge and wonder about the Asmat and their art.
In discussions with Frank, he relates three stages in that development. Initially of course, his discovery of the imagery and a beginning to understand the history, myth and ritual that forms the basis of thought underlying the powerful imagery. The series of painting the Frank calls “Thinking” draws on these initial discoveries. Next Frank became interested and perplexed at the same time by his understanding of the physical conditions of Asmat. These thoughts and discoveries formed an intellectual basis for the series of paintings he called “Safan I, II & III” as well as the paintings “Decline, Change Evolve I & II and Asmat Specimen”. The latest developments of Franks continuing interest in Asmat imagery is represented in his third series is a series of paintings. These paintings stretch the boundaries of Asmat thought and display the raw influence of their work in various abstractions in paint. Derived from a now well-assembled database of Asmat imagery, perception and experience, this abstract series departs from direct Asmat forms to incorporate threads of thought and bits of data in a true development of western origin.
Wielding both his enthusiasm and his wondrous ability to draw on the imagery of the Asmat for his own creations, within just a single year Frank had made a profound impact on my own interpretation of traditional art. In the autumn of 2001 I was honored to host Frank at an exhibition I had assembled for the Department of Visual Arts at Weber State University in Utah. Spellbound Vision (viewing Asmat art through the eyes of the western contemporary artist) was a smashing success due in part to the nine insightful paintings contributed by Frank as well as to his thoughts and discussions freely shared with students, faculty and patrons of the exhibition. Describing for me the influences provided him by the Asmat, Frank opened an entire horizon of study that now accounts for a good deal of my work with Asmat material and beyond.
Speaking as a steward of the Asmat in our culture of the west, standing as a surrogate for the Asmat in this world as we know it, I have found Frank Hermann’s western eye and modern artistic talents to serve as a Trojan Horse within which the Asmat carver is able to enter the consciousness of a public not always willing or able to accept the strong and initially foreign concept of Asmat imagery. Having created and interpreted this bridge between two artistic worlds is an important feat.