Critics’ Picks

Helmut Federle, Bird Migration at Azusa-Gawa River in Winter, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 27 1/2 × 39 3/8".

Helmut Federle, Bird Migration at Azusa-Gawa River in Winter, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 27 1/2 × 39 3/8".


Helmut Federle

Galerie nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwälder
Grünangergasse 1
February 11–March 25, 2023

The dominant landscape tradition in East Asian art is called shan shui, or mountain and water. Aside from describing its chief subjects, the term also indicates the specificity of its medium: the liquidity of ink. In traditional paintings from China, Korea, and Japan, black fluid flows like water through intricate compositions infused with a serene atmosphere and material succulence. Recent works by Helmut Federle display a clear affinity for this genre, both through their color palette and wetness, while circumventing such an overt association through the process of repeated accumulation and erasure.

The show features a grouping of relatively small abstractions painted between 2020 and 2023 that are mostly black-and-white, accented by occasional sections of green-tinted yellow or warm beige. Thoroughly nonobjective, the canvases’ depth derives from traces of paint applied and then rubbed off, producing a blurred, permanently moist quality. Take Bird Migration at Azusa-Gawa River in Winter, 2022: The center is dominated by a horizontal band of watery gray paint interrupted by vertical brushstrokes and emphasized by thicker black paint on the edges. Is a landscape implied? The title, referring to a river in Japan, certainly suggests one—or did the artist call on East Asian pictorial conventions to explore the viscosity of paint?

The exhibited pieces evoke the sensation of being immersed in a water-rich landscape rather than rendering a specific place or geological form. This approach also points to a connection with the aesthetic philosophy of East Asia, as those classical paintings rarely depicted real locations, instead relying on gesture to convey a naturalistic ideal. Western and East Asian arts have been mutually influencing each other throughout modernity. It appears that Federle expanded on elements extracted from this style and filtered them through the modernist language of gestural abstraction to produce a new visual syntax, offering a distinct contribution to the ongoing synthesis of artistic traditions.