The Landscape in Its Many Dimensions
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Just about every year Walter Bischoff sends someone from his stable of artists in Germany to San Jose, California, to paint in the barn/studio of his quaint farm retreat on Aborn Road, high in the hills overlooking Santa Clara Valley. At the end of several sequestered months’ work, the new art is often inaugurated in the galleries at San Jose State University’s School of Art and Design.

Thomas Henninger’s Gebirge 8

This summer, Berlin artist Thomas Henninger arrived in San Jose to spend five months producing the The Extension of the Landscape. Henninger is graduate of the University of Halle, Germany where he studied painting with Otto Möhwald and Ute Pfluge.

Henninger’s Gebirge 5.1

The writer Velten Wagner finds Henninger’s paintings to be an horrific illusion, presented to his audience by the magus of end-time, “before it disinegrates into dust…” For viewers hopelessly tied to the eyeball-to-paintbrush-to-canvas method of painting for establishing authenticity, Gebirge 5.1 is indeed unsettling. The strange artificiality and cold coloration of the leaves on the foreground branches, the height and threatening wave that approaches out of a displaced body of water , the unwelcoming snow and uninhabitable rocky peaks — all reach deep into the psyche. And clearly, this image does not come from a place we really know. To the extent that we agree that of much of Henninger’s commentary is about the falseness of our experience of the natural world, and that these paintings are simulacra of media simulacra, Wagner could be right. We recognize what we see, but we only know it in an altered state of consciouness.

Gebirge 12.2 (left) and Gebirge 12.1

In Gebirge 12.1, Henninger complicates our impressiones by the appearance of small floating lights in a mountain gorge at dusk. They are not fires. They do not seem anchored, nor is there any evidence of human intervention (beyond the artist’s) in this landscape. Extraterrestrials? For Wagner, this and much of Henninger’s process is about “yearning for a world other than the material one as well as one of grief”. Yes, it is so German, so romantic! I am not willing to go that far. I am quite hppy to be seduced by “aesthetically motivated escapism”, and feel more optimistic about the inherent message of Henniger’s art. Perhaps he is just saying, “We make our own reality.” That responsibility is frightening enough.

Henninger’s landscapes are exquisite, but the exhibition at San Jose State goes far beyond anything that may be categorized simply as landscape painting. It incorporates references to a long historical span of landscape painting epochs and attitudes, and takes the viewer through experiences that are sometimes emotional, sometimes entertaining and sometimes dispassionately instructional.

Thomas Henninger has his own iconography of deep space seen through plant forms

Henninger visits many evocative earthy landscapes and takes a great deal more than form away with him. His personal iconography of deep space begins in the virtual world where he interprets his photographic sources and allows memory to evoke essences of the breathtaking heights of the Swiss Alps or ponderous bastions of Yosemite. His larger paintings on canvas are frequently a juxtaposition of these grand views seen in atmospheric perspective through a foreground web of virtually generated plant forms. A certain, vaguely familiar houseplant or tropical varietal repeats throughout, as does another stem with wispy leaves and clusters of seedpods. Henninger’s stark palette is black through greys to white, with touches of green. Some of his paintings outside this exhibition use a blue pallette. This particularly personal repertoire is eerily-convincing, recalling our emotions on visiting the grand landscapes of great scale, our intimacy with our gardens and indoor plants, and dreamlike states where the settings are ever so close to real, yet inaccessible.

Henninger’s painting is an amalgam of views of the high altitudes of Yosemite and computer generated foliage in the foreground.

Henninger presents The Extension of the Landscape as a collection of untitled elements that he intends to be a single unit of exploration. Here, there is a subtle yet vital interplay of discrete paintings on canvas with nearly invisible installation elements that allows us to slowly discover the complexity of his presentation. There is a continuum to be discerned and constructed by and around the viewer. We are enveloped into his landscape. Henninger begins with the history of romantic landscape painting – all of the moodiness, the angst, the grandeur and worshipful undertones of Caspar David Friedrich. Eventually he guides the viewer to the varied clinical observations of Gerhard Richter. Henninger’s deliciously effective hyper-reality manages to refer at once to both the passionate and reverent context of the epoch of romantic landscapes and the contemporary phenomenon of virtual reality. It certainly encapsulates a lot of the German relationship to the landscape.

Henninger uses mirrors to draw the viewer in to a three-dimensional experience of the black and white landscape painted on two opposing walls.

Upon entry, Henninger must draw the viewer to the crisp virtuosity of his “traditional” painting on canvas, primarily the untitled canvas that springs from views of Yosemite. Then, one arrives at two graphic works painted on directly opposite walls that are mirror opposites. His installation of two critically located small mirrors on adjacent upper corners of a pedestal in the room invites the viewer to place his/her nose in between them to see these landscapes in a simultaneous vision that our eyes render three dimensional. A similar phenomenon occurs looking through a small flat lens positioned a few inches in front of a tiny sequence of separate landscape elements lined up against the wall. They merge into another illusion of three-dimensional space.

In a sequence of blurry elements in soft grays, Henninger seems to comment on all things from the seasons to our own impressions that pass fleetingly.

Henninger plays with other phenomena of vision in this show, too — there is the blurry Richter-like landscape that flies past us from the window of our industrial age vehicle, (or it may be just a reminder of how quickly the image passes through our consciousness.) In another work, his signature stem with a few leaves and seedpods, seen in soft focus under layers of wax, takes us back to landmark images in our memory, recalled imperfectly but with great tenderness.

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