Finding oneself in a painting

With her Sunday paintings, Heike Ising-Alms has revealed herself to be a historian who appears to have discovered painting as a medium with which to turn her own history into image. This is, strictly speaking, nothing new: in the Western tradition painting has always been a means to illustrate the past. However, it is not hereby primarily about history in the broad sense or the history of a family in the more narrow sense, but about Christian salvific history, which constituted the loftiest subject in painting over many centuries. In countless variations, the history of art has given rise to paintings of the Nativity, the Passion and Christ’s dogma, as well as that of his saints and martyrs. These pictorial themes preoccupied painters well into the 20th century, evidenced by the early works of, for instance, Max Beckmann’s Crucifixion and Deposition.

It was only when the Renaissance rediscovered the portrait that the simple moment in life was again considered worthy of depiction, as well as the commemoration of that moment in which the subject who was painted emerged, seemingly raised from the temporal continuum to perpetuity, since the portrait, as a rule, generally outlives the person being portrayed. It is perhaps precisely in portraiture that the possibility of visible memory, the mnemesis as the ancient Greeks called it, is most distinct; and in view of our unavoidable mortality, it may be a small consolation to visually capture the quickly-dissipated moment without having to weigh it down with a special meaning into the bargain.

The moment that materializes without needing to signify much is, in the modern age, indeed rarely the painter’s focus; this is better expressed through the modern technology of photography, since the remembrance of a moment in life can be captured with relatively little effort, no matter what this moment is supposed to and is able to suggest. When imagery is involved, we are perhaps always dealing with mnemonics, which can be an important moment of interpretation for us.

Mnemesis is, according to Aristotle, the most important capacity of thinking, if not, in fact, its prerequisite; and the image, the inner image (the notion) as well, occupies an essential part of our consciousness. The image has, perhaps, its own discourse and creates its own meaning, which is then only discoverable through the image. Heike Ising-Alms’ Sunday Paintings allude to, for me, this enigmatic process: The point of departure of her work is photos which partly stem from her family history, from a traditional family photo album that, for the most part, represents the highlights of a family’s past and is therefore reserved for the realm of reminiscence. Thus, a father stands with his son by a garden fence, imposingly positioning himself there to be recorded for posterity. Heike Ising-Alms then takes this photograph and uses it as a photorealist would – as the source for a painting. This is the transfer of a metaphor of remembrance into another metaphor of remembrance: one could speak of a metonymic chain as defined by French structuralists. During this process, a homochromic image of the undefined is formed, which removes from the photo exactly that which it intends to be: namely, an excellent rendering of what was. The photo thereby loses its own function – for a snapshot, in which the faces of those photographed cannot clearly be seen, is of no value and can be considered, consistent with aesthetic tenets, to be a failure.

Instead, father and son now stand there with the blurred contours of run colours, appearing to the viewer as if they are emerging from the mist of the past, thereby creating a mood that only the painting itself can convey, and which has something to do with the transitoriness of phenomena. One could in effect say that the special mark of this painting – and of course in other works by Ising-Alms – lies in the discernability of something that generally has to do with remembering.

Often when we remember something, the commencement of the memory is a feeling that can best be expressed in colour; and only slowly, through the effort of concentration, is the coloured space of this feeling structured though contours. The photograph, particularly when it is a black and white photo, provides the contours for the painted conversion.

This entire process could be called Ising-Alms’ mnemonics of a painting.

We find ourselves in a place where we remember, and most noticeably in a place where we are depicted.

Karl Neuffer, April 2005