Volker Hermes is a unique artist. His classically themed paintings are uniquely both replicating the original and entirely original unto themselves. By creating his own concept and sticking to it - to remix classics using only elements from within the original painting - he has almost created an entirely new genre.
At first sight, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re reproductions of classics. Either that or you might even think that they are classics, just painted by a whacky Old Master going through their experimental phase. Whichever way Hermes’ paintings are viewed, whether on first viewing or later on down the line, that they could so easily be mistaken as something from the past is testament to his attention to detail and unquestionable skill as an artist, perfectly harnessing the possibilities of digital image creation and manipulation.
Obviously, upon closer inspection, something is amiss. Her face shouldn’t be obscured that way, should it? His eyes probably shouldn’t be completely covered by a piece of his armour, should they? In taking the time to dig into his art, Hermes’ process is actually more akin to that of a music producer than anything else, expertly crafting his own story through that of somebody else's.
Taking on the appearance of an haute couture advertising campaign, the faces of Hermes’ subjects are all obscured in some way, like precursors to the Martin Margiela masks worn by Kanye West. The artist obviously has a clear affection for the fashion world, the way he manages to weave fabrics, shapes and structures in his paintings, re-envisaging what the original composition means and stands for in a contemporary context.
Exploring the heritage of his subjects is key to Hermes. He highlights the different ways that we understand the past in the present, how our understanding of certain things - from art history and portraiture to popular culture itself - shifts over time. What was radical at the time of the original image would be deeply conservative now. His radical reimaginings, as they are now, would be completely unimaginable centuries ago.
Covering the face of a portrait is an instantly subversive act. When the face, partly obscured in his art, is unable to communicate the theme, a message or emotions, Hermes utilises the overall composition as his narrative device. Now the eyes are no longer the key to the soul, replaced by the accessories on his subjects face, he flips the very notion and purpose of portraiture.
When we scroll through our newsfeeds, selfies are one of the things that have evolved the most and will, unfortunately, continue to do so. People no longer pause for a duck face, no longer stop scrolling for Bambi eyes partly obscured by an emo fringe. Get creative, people. Hermes does just that, as if the characters of old are losing their relevance in a world obsessed with attention. In order to reclaim it, they’re fighting back in their own strange ways.
It’s just hardwired into humans to be curious. We will always and automatically want to know what’s under a mask or, at the very least, why somebody is covering themselves up. This is the beauty of Hermes’ act of artistic attention-seeking - his subjects get lavished with it. Just as the artist is overcome with curiosity when he searches for a new subject, his audience, taken aback by the recontextualisation of the past, likewise become curious of the image in and of itself, as well as the concept of the past as an object of intrigue.
During an era of unprecedented change, Hermes wants something very simple that has become increasingly rare - moments of appreciation for that which has come before. Looking back, as it were, to look forward.
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