- Enrichetta Frezzato
The birthplace of some of the world’s most prominent artists like Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and the cradle of highly influential avant-garde art movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, Austria lies at the core of European art. Its contemporary art scene breeds from its tradition and twists it with experimental, cutting-edge ideas. Working with photography, painting, installation art, or sculpture, here are ten Austrian contemporary artists you should know.
Stemming from a reflection rooted in modernist abstraction and Minimalism, the fundamental coordinates of Heimo Zobernig’s art are colour theory and the geometry of grids. Zobernig’s art spans different media to include painting, sculpture, video, and installations. Particularly in his paintings, the artist harks back to a modernist use of the monochrome, in places fusing it with the use of decorative elements like Swarovski stones and other crystals to achieve an original, playful compromise between tradition and innovative art. Also classically modernist, the subject of the grid began dominating the artist’s production in 2000, structuring most of his painted works.
Born in Vienna in 1948, Gottfried Helnwein is one the most influential artists from Austria. Educated at the University of Visual Arts in Vienna, Helnwein represents the quintessentially eclectic artist, having worked with a range of different media, from painting and drawing to photography, from murals to sculpture, to installations and performance art. Initially associated with Hyperrealism due to the style of his early watercolours depicting wounded children, Helnwein draws together in his multifaceted oeuvre a diverse span of influences, like German Expressionism and American Pop Art, with this latter side of his art emerging from his interest in cartoons, especially Disney characters. Painted in 2011, ‘Pink Mouse’ is an example of how the artist’s practice has evolved to twist the significance of the comic subject into a much more sinister presence. Dividing his time between Ireland and Los Angeles, Helnwein continues to bring to the surface deeply rooted anxieties through his highly controversial subjects.
Born in Bruck an der Mur in 1954, Erwin Wurm is best known for his humorous approach to formalist art and for his comically distorting depiction of everyday life and objects. Aiming to raise questions about the nature of sculpture and what defines it, Wurm includes objects of common use in his work to challenge the traditional form and idea of what it means to create a sculpture. This idea is especially visible in his famous One Minute Figures and One Minute Sculptures, series of works in which the artist instructs a model, or a member of the public, and indeed himself, to perform a specific action using an object that has been assigned to them. Always encouraged to interact with the artist’s installations, the viewer becomes an integral part of Wurm’s art: being physically placed in it, like in Drinking Sculptures, where the audience is asked to enter a piece of furniture and drink, or being challenged by the deformation of common objects like in Fat House or Misconceivable (a sculpture of a curved boat leaning over water).
Xenia Hausner (Vienna, 1951) began her career as a stage designer, creating sets for theatres like the Burgtheater in Vienna and Covent Garden in London. She started devoting herself to painting in the early 1990s and turned exclusively to this medium in 1992. The themes of Hausner’s work incorporate a strong female presence, which dominates her full-scale oils and acrylics with wide, vivid, bright strokes. The artist’s current technique involves incorporating working materials into the painting, so that large-format photographs of her models become a surface on which layers of paint and other collage media, like fabric or wood, bring out the lives and human bonds of her subjects.
Together with Otto Muehl, Günter Brus, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Hermann Nitsch (born in Vienna in 1938) was one of the four founders of Viennese Actionism, a fierce artistic movement that fostered the development of ‘action art’ in the 1960s. Action painting and performance art remained the core of Nitsch’s works. Intended for the viewer to witness and fully absorb the process of artistic creation, his performances are guided by the original idea of the Orgien Mysterien Theater, whereby the remains of multi-sensorial Dionysian fetes involving robed rituals and animal sacrifices would later appear on canvas. Alongside his actions, splatter paintings (his series of Schüttbild) also represent a fundamental facet of the artist’s highly contentious work.
Waltraud Höllinger renounced her name in 1967 to become Valie Export, in a self-determining political act that was meant to redefine her identity. After graduating in 1964, her early work developed in the direction of experimental feminist art, the artist’s own body employed in performance and photographic art to challenge the prevailing hypocrisy of mores and the socially codified idea of the female. Subsequently, her research moved towards a more conceptual sphere, as the artist began to work with a wide variety of media, including videos, installations, body performances, feature and experimental films, documentaries and sculptures. Her 1971 video Facing a Family constitutes pioneering work: here, the artist questions the relation between the media and the spectator by broadcasting on TV a video of a middle class family watching TV while having dinner to an audience of middle class families who see themselves mirrored in the screen.
Voted Nature Photographer of the Year in 2007, his work regularly showcased in exhibitions throughout Europe, the Americas and Russia, Josef Hoflehner (born in 1955), is one of Austria’s most prominent living photographers. Internationally acclaimed mostly for his dramatic black and white landscapes, Hoflener also authored some hypnotic colour collections of American and Japanese landscapes. Among his most recent projects, Patience, shot between 2006 and 2013, draws together years of waiting for the right tones and light combination in every corner of the world. Also produced in recent years, Jet Airliner (2009 – 2011), captures planes while landing a few meters above bathers’ heads at Maho Beach, on the Caribbean Island of St Martin.
Thomas Feuerstein was born in 1968 in Innsbruck, where he also earned a doctorate in art history and philosophy in 1995. His artistic practice sustained by solid theoretical reflections, one of Feuerstein’s main concerns lies in the complex relation between human life and technology, and in processes involving transitions and transformations. In his complex installation work Poem, Feurestein incorporates his viewers into one such process by creating a structure that condenses the air visitors breathe against the surfaces of ice objects in two other sculptures, thus producing water. The water obtained would in turn stimulate a chemical process producing amino acids and ethanol, whose distillates would then be collected in the drinks cabinet Genius in the Bottle, sourcing a circle of art talk, water, alcohol, and more art talk.
See Thomas Feuerstein’s work at Galerie Elisabeth & Klaus Thoman, Maria-Theresien-Straße 34, Innsbruck, Austria, & +43 512 575785 & Seilerstätte 7 , 1010 Vienna, +43 1 512 0840
Born in 1967, Mario Marino has been working as a travel photographer since 2000. His work presented in many exhibitions across Europe, Marino specialises in portraits, some of his recent projects including work from India and Africa. Central to the photographer’s work is the bond that ties together the subjects of his pictures and their homeland. With the aim of capturing people’s true cultural background and identity, Marino crafts intense portraits which, in the case of his project Faces of Africa, he refers to as ‘photographic psychograms’. Taken in the Omo River Valley, each of the pictures in the series represents one of the microcultures that populate this area of southern Ethiopia.
The work of Linz native Gerwald Rockenschaub (born in 1952) absorbs many different influences ranging from the Nat-Geo movement to Minimalism to Conceptualism and Pop Art. The artist’s early work, mostly oil paintings, dates back to the early 1980s and is centred around colourful abstract geometries. These patterns later evolved into more complex spatial structures and installations, fusing the different models that formed the artist’s background into his own personal voice, expressed through a range of media including foil, acrylic glass, and PVC objects. Using the exhibition rooms housing his work as a blank canvas, Rockenschaub paints the white space, combining architectural elements with sculptures and ready-mades.