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Frank Herrmann, Frank Herrmann Art, Frank Herrmann Painting, Frank Herrmann Drawings, Frank Herrmann Watercolors, Frank Herrmann University of Cincinnati, Frank Herrmann Recent Work, Frank Herrmann 2017



by Matt Distel

Director of the Country Club Gallery,

Former Curatorial Advisor, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio


Rarely depicting a true landscape or interior, Frank Herrmann's canvases nevertheless suggest spaces that can be entered and explored. They are riddled with artifacts and relics, textual clues and textural maps, symbolic space and bold patterns. The spirit of exploration is pervasive throughout Herrmann’s entire practice. The majority of the materials in the studio are the result of his continual research of the art and culture of the Oceanic Asmat people of New Guinea. Seemingly, each object yields a new line of inquiry. Certainly artists examining and drawing inspiration from the artifacts and motifs of other cultures is nothing new. Herrmann, however, is determined to push beyond appropriating imagery. His effort is focused upon absorbing the origins of the objects, understanding the functional, creative impulse that brought these objects into existence. Herrmann speaks of the objects with a mixture of reverence, curiosity and scholarly fascination. This unique approach carries over to the canvas.

The Asmat culture has not produced its own written language though Herrmann has developed a quasi-calligraphy based on Asmat carvings and a trade language created by Dutch settlers to the remote regions of New Guinea. In particular, Herrmann is drawn to words such as WOWIPITS that can be understood as “wood man” or “wood carver.” Of course, this could easily be interpreted (or reinterpreted) as “artist,” the conduit for communication in a culture without a formalized written language. The patterned marks and glyphs that Herrmann uses to “write” on the canvas take on an entirely new demeanor when applied in paint. Visible in nearly all of the work from these series, the “writing” becomes a patterned formal element in Herrmann’s compositions. He uses the motifs most frequently as a patterned overlay or built up as surface texture. Occasionally though, he will employ the text to different ends. In Asmat Specimen [Acrylic & Asmat shield rubbings on canvas, 2004], for example, the word “asmat” is used to create a sense of deep space and a platform for Herrmann’s depiction of an Asmat carving. The text is simultaneously a communicative and structural tool.

In Asmat Specimen, as in many of the other works in this series, Herrmann reveals another strategic technique. Herrmann makes rubbings from the objects in his studio and manipulates them within the canvas. This serves not only to create a more direct connection between the Asmat objects and Herrmann’s paintings, but also pulls Herrmann into closer contact with the objects. From these rubbings, Herrmann is able to distill the essence of the motifs and draw connections to the visual language of the Asmat and, in a larger sense, explore the origins of written language being born from a creative impulse. To work through these ideas, Herrmann has completed a large number of small canvases. Though he considers them mostly in the role of studies for larger pieces, Herrmann’s small, intimate canvases are not lacking in strength and impact. Consider the work in the Asmat Motif Construct series. Most of them less than ten inches square, this series nonetheless communicates the power of the common motifs Herrmann frequently explores. The curvilinear patterns take center stage and dominate the foreground When the patterns are translated onto the larger canvases they prove to be versatile options in Herrmann’s vast vocabulary of Asmat imagery.

Herrmann’s recent work is predicated almost entirely on his studies of and fascination with Asmat culture. This does not mean that the work is not also infused with certain Western constructs and devices. In the both of the works Asmat Specimen and Decline, Change, Evolve II [Acrylic on canvas, 2004], Herrmann places Asmat objects on display as if they were in a museum. Rather than floating free as loose elements in a composition as in other canvases, these pieces are grounded and “mounted” on museum-style display bases. This subtle distinction cleverly alludes to Herrmann’s own position as a Western commenter on Oceanic culture. The first encounter with primitive cultures for the vast majority of the Western population is mediated by museum practice. Of course, the same could be said of contemporary art. Herrmann recounts his own initial contact with the Asmat symbolism and its lingering impact.

“Since my first exposure to Asmat art at the New York’s Metropolitan Museum over twenty years ago, their motifs and myths have become an integral part of my own creative works. And, though I utilize these tribal images differently, I have a deep commitment to the preservation of this rich artistic and anthropological find.”

Evidenced within this statement is Herrmann’s conscientious use of the symbolism, relics and imagery of a culture that is not his own. 

Several other works also suggest a Western perspective on the Oceanic culture Herrmann investigates. Though Herrmann himself might deflect this relationship, paintings such as Cimelice Thinking: Wowipits and the Brazza Baroque [Acrylic & Asmat shield rubbings on canvas, 2001] would rest comfortably in the realm of graffiti as it is translated to the gallery world. Intriguingly, Herrmann is approaching text and language from a nearly opposite context as graffiti artists. Herrmann is interested in taking abstract forms and motifs and making them understandable, trying to decipher their intuitive, spiritual meaning in a broad context. In contrast, the majority of graffiti artists, or any text-based artist for that matter, seems most keenly focused on turning language into something unfamiliar or, at the very least, abstract. Nevertheless, an arguably Western impulse to seek a connection between abstraction and communication is at play in Herrmann’s work.

A similar collision of cultural references takes place in the series of Safan paintings, most notably in Safan I [Acrylic and rubbings on canvas, 2002] and Safan II [Acrylic & Asmat shield rubbings on canvas, 2003]. Here, Herrmann creates incredibly striking compositions that force a confrontation/collaboration between Primitive Art and Color-Field painting. He splits the canvas in half, devoting equal space to Asmat motifs as modulated surface texture and color. The top halves of these canvases are expanded versions of the Asmat Motif Construct series while the bottom halves are stunning monochrome paintings that force a consideration of the directional influence of Western culture. 

Taken as a complete body of work, Frank Herrmann’s deep and thoughtful investigation into the culture and symbolism of the Asmat is a compelling advocate for further research into the nature of primitive art and its sophisticated imagery. As an insertion into the history of contemporary art, this body of work is a sparkling example of what can happen to disparate cultures come into contact through an artistic vision. Surely this work will resonate beyond the culture it references and the culture in which it was created.

Matt Distel, Director of the Country Club Gallery
Former Curatorial Advisor
Contemporary Arts Center
Cincinnati, Ohio

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