Christopher Hartmann makes paintings of unknown and ordinary young men exploring the portrayal of the human existence through a distinctive figurative imagery. In Hartmann’s male dominated-portraiture, an apparent leaning towards anxiety and psychological emptiness is demonstrated on the surface of his canvases. Visually playing with austere facial expressions and tensions, the emerging artist’s narrative is ironically developed into a detached environment rendered in a colourful setting. Introducing distressing notions of the human nature, Hartmann captures moments depicted with thorough consciousness of gesture, human psychology and detail. The artist examines multiple channels that lead to the construction of an alienated reality on canvas, emphasizing the withdrawn emotions in a meticulous way. Hartmann explores rigorous depictions of the human psychology with a creative tranquility and precision using the human body as a means to frame ordinary peoples’ mental concerns on the surface of his canvases.
Words: Yannis Kostarias
Vivid colours and body movements remarkably contrast the lack of an unreserved facial expressiveness. Regarding the artist’s paint application, an elegant colour palette intertwines bright hues with warm tones, while the selection of bold colours boosts the inner struggle. Hence, the artist’s preference on a pastel palette valuably manages to amplify the sentimental concepts by evoking a range of dispirited moods and emotions.
Hartmann’s contemporary depictions operate as snapshots of daily experiences and capture multi-layered moments. Within the artist’s detached reality, his paintings enfold voyeuristic dimensions and vivid reproductions of more intimate scenes developing a distinctive and dynamic visual language. Besides the appealingly voiceless portraits, Hartmann’s narrative challenges the viewer’s gaze through an emphatic paradox of the beautifully arranged exterior world on canvas and the skillful portrayal of his protagonists’ mental battles. The boundaries between these motifs may become blurry at first glance, but they eventually get clarified with the necessary attention.
Although the artist highlights that he is not only interested in depicting male figures, he does aim to create “a lot of work challenging traditional notions of masculinity”. Highlighting feelings of loneliness and lack of enthusiasm, the artist manipulates the smooth and delicate fluidity of the male body on canvas by putting greater emphasis on the imagery of contemporary masculinity. Based on his recent body of work, such as in Holding on to you (2020) or Hiding until you or I forget (2020), the painter concentrates on an uncommon reproduction of masculinity; his male figures look vulnerable reflecting a passive energy derived from confusion and anxiety. Besides the static position of the figures’ bodies, there is an inner psychic tension that is hidden in one hand, but is also rendered by a subtle dynamism on the other. Hartmann’s male figures dominate the pictorial plane rearranging the human body as an allegoric site in which the communication between his models seems dysfunctional. This underlying symbolic disconnection or distance not only painterly lurks in their state of mind and their bodies, but also creates an intellectual ambiguity to the viewers. Hartmann transports the audience into his intricate reality in which the gaze interacts with depth and understanding on the issues the artist aims to raise with his iconography.
Having the German and Costa-Rican nationalities, Christopher Hartmann was born in Germany in 1993 and currently lives and works in London. He received a Bachelor in Fine Fine Arts from University of Barcelona in 2015 and a Masters in Communication Design from Central Saint Martins in 2018. He is currently undertaking an MFA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a grantee from the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation (2020) and a finalist in HIX Awards (2019). Recent and upcoming exhibitions: ‘Tomorrow: London’, White Cube (Online, 2020), ‘Come so close (that I might see)‘, Peter von Kant, London (2020); ‘Drawn Together’, Unit London (Online, 2020); ‘Crowd‘, Hannah Barry Gallery, London (2020); ‘I Hope This Finds You Well”, Eve Leibe Gallery, London (2019).
Can you tell us about the process of making your work?
Before I start a painting, I spend a lot of time taking and looking at photographs, fashion editorials for instance. Once I have an idea in my mind, I ask people to pose for me and I take images. I start editing them in Photoshop and experiment with the composition, angles and proportions.I spend a lot of time planning a painting. After drawing the outline of the motif on the canvas, I start by painting an under layer so that the second layer appears richer and brighter, inspired by the brightness of the screens I’m constantly looking at while painting. Since it takes a few days for the under layer to dry I usually work on several paintings at the same time.
How would you define your work in a few words (ideally in 3 words)?
Ambiguous, Alienated, Vulnerable.
Can you name any artists you, lately or generally, take inspiration from?
I take a lot of inspiration from photography, especially fashion photography. I’m a big fan of Wolfgang Tillmans. I love looking at film stills of movies by Michelangelo Antonioni, especially his alienation trilogy. I’m fascinated by the compositions and atmosphere of these images. I’m also into Tim Eitel’s and Muntean & Rosenblum’s paintings. Lately I’ve been looking a lot at paintings by Pontormo, I admire the use of colours in his work. I also like Ed Atkin’s work, especially the way he emphasises the otherness of his subjects. I also take inspiration from books. I recently read ‘Something bright, then holes’ which is a collection of poems by Maggie Nelson. I love all her books, my favourite being ‘Bluets’ which has had a big impact on my work.
Your imagery seems to concentrate on the depiction of male characters? Are you interested in notions of masculinity? In addition, are they real or simply fictional figures?
When I was at Central Saint Martins, I made a lot of work challenging traditional notions of masculinity and it has definitely had an impact on my subsequent work. However, I wouldn’t say my work is primarily about masculinity. My work deals with themes such as alienation, detachment or (unresponded) intimacy, themes you wouldn’t traditionally associate with masculinity.
I use models for all of my paintings, so the photographs I work from are based on real people, but I’m not really interested in depicting a particular person when I paint. I use the photographs as tools/guidelines to then depict non-specific fictional figures.I’m interested in the otherness and artificialness of these bodies. I deliberately bleach out details that would give them too much individuality which makes reference to social media filters or mainstream contemporary uniform. To sum it up, I would say that I create fictional figures that belong to contemporary narratives.
In some paintings, you painterly pay attention to more intimate parts of the male body. For instance, in your recent painting, Far way, 2020, the protagonist is the picture of a nipple painted as a phone screenshot. Could you share with us some more thoughts about this artwork? Is there any story behind it?
During the lockdown I had to work from home, and I had to go much smaller in scale. All the figures of my larger paintings are bigger than life size and I wanted to keep that in my smaller works. This made me crop the images, zoom in and get up much closer to the subjects which made all of these paintings much more intimate. As a result, I started thinking a lot more about intimacy and the way we experience intimacy during a pandemic. How does the digital/the screen affect our experiences of intimacy? During the lockdown, how can you be intimate with someone who is either not there or always there? I thought of the screen as a metaphor for the gap/boundary of two bodies touching each other. The title ‘Far Away’ makes reference to the distance between the two.
What about the place where you work? What’s your studio space like, and how does it affect your process?
Until the lockdown I was working in my studio at the Goldsmiths MFA program. The good thing about is that I have enough space to make big paintings and that there is an ongoing dialogue with other artists.Since the lockdown I’ve been working at home in a little spare room. Being completely isolated in a small space has been the complete opposite to what I’m used to and made me reflect deeply about my practice. Initially I felt very limited space wise, but I adapted quickly and made much more intimate work. Living with my paintings made it quite hard though to disconnect from my practice. It’s been intense at times.
How do you know when a painting is finished?
I normally have a very clear idea of how I want my painting to look like. I tend to plan my paintings quite a lot before I start so many decisions are made at the start. When I start painting I ‘just’ have to execute and get closer to what I imagined this painting to look like. Of course, it always ends up looking different to a certain degree which makes it exciting. I think you just know when to stop. There is always a moment in which I wonder whether I should add details or let it be. It’s very important for me that the painting is visually balanced, too many details can really mess up the painting. I always wonder how much visual information I need in the painting; you just keep asking yourself until it feels right to stop. Sometimes I let the painting ‘rest’ for a day, go back to it and decide whether it needs final touches or not.
What do you hope audiences will take from your work?
As cheesy as it sounds, I do hope that people can connect to my paintings on an emotional and psychological level. All my paintings are bound to contemporary narratives, I address universal themes any person has surely experienced to a certain extent, so I hope that people are able to identify with the narratives of my paintings. Even though many of my paintings are deeply personal, I hope that my work is able to activate the experiences of anyone who takes the time to look at them.
Are you a morning person or a night owl?
I’m both. Depending on my schedule I adapt.
Is the glass half empty or half full?
Which are your plans for the near future?
I’m part of an online exhibition at White Cube and I have an upcoming solo show at Peter Von Kant which opens on 25th July. I’m planning to create new bodies of work for other exhibitions. I’m lucky to be a resident at The Fores Project during the summer, so I finally got enough space to go bigger in scale. Considering that there is still a pandemic going around, you cannot control or plan things too far ahead. My only plan is to keep painting and see what opportunities arise.
© All images are courtesy of the artist