Thomas Helbig

Galerie Guido W. Baudach

This show of new work by Thomas Helbig was staged in two locations: Galerie Guido W. Baudach’s extensive exhibition hall in the Wedding district, and its recently opened cabinet-like showroom in Charlottenburg. Precisely placed in self-contained arrangements, the paintings, drawings, and reliefs (and one sculpture, in the new venue) were presented as individual pieces, but Helbig was clearly interested in creating a specific atmosphere for each location.

In Wedding, on both sides of a specially built freestanding wall in the middle of the gallery, Helbig hung painstakingly configured sequences of large abstract paintings, more intimate, semifigurative drawings in oil crayon and graphite, and the tondo Fötus mit Quadrat (Fetus with Square), 2009. The smaller-format pictures and objects on display in Charlottenburg were arranged around the perimeter of the room. The exhibition’s only sculpture, Homo, 2010, a torso positioned upside down on a four-legged pedestal near the center of the space, gave the show its focal point and suggested an existential element at the core of these esoteric images.

Although the works in both spaces were hung relatively far apart, in a staggered rhythm of dissimilar formats, close inspection revealed a number of common motifs. The organic, abstract figure that dominates the painting Imperium (Empire), 2010—two ovals and a small circular element—is varied and recombined in the drawings. In two versions of Strahlung (Radiation) (both 2010) it appears sometimes as a firm outline, at other times as a delicate, faintly visible dusting of powdered graphite; and in an untitled work from 2010, it overlays a fragmentary nude in a powdery spray. The abstract shorthand of a tiny square, two circles, and eyebrowlike strokes recurs elsewhere, hovering in the pale sulphur yellow expanse of the large painting Kirche (Church), 2010, like a vaguely schematic face, and appearing again in both Strahlung and the drawing Mädchen und Licht (Girl and Light), 2010. With these and other enigmatic echoes, Helbig suggests common contexts for his pictures, underscoring the fundamentally auratic basis of his work. This quasi-spiritual coding is often transformed, via the images’ insistent materiality, into a strong physical presence: These paintings can be read as portals to imaginary cosmic spaces, while at the same time they resemble cult objects, almost like altars, conjuring occult forces.

Interestingly, Helbig’s playful use of sacral codes is neither consistently naive nor explicitly ironic. In fact, he pulls off a balancing act. By engaging so intensively with a vaguely protoavant-garde vocabulary—which looks rather out of place in the context of today’s zeitgeist—he succeeds in putting this figurative material to use in ways that transcend appropriation. In other words, he resees these elements, assigns them new value, even reinvents them. Helbig’s atavistic style has occasionally been described as a paraphrase of Suprematism, and indeed, his pictures do seem inspired by that union of the occult and the avant-garde that flourished at the beginning of the twentieth century in the spirit of Lebensreform and theosophy. Formally, his image vocabulary is perhaps more closely tied to these of Hilma af Klint and František Kupka, though at no point does Helbig limit himself to mere paraphrase. He is concerned less with quotations and hidden meanings than with the allure of abstraction as a way of depicting spiritual states, along with the speculative elusiveness that such subjects entail. By provocatively invoking intractable, alienating elements, Helbig’s pictures and sculptures import this pictorial impulse into the discursive space of the present.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.