Whitehot Magazine

Helmut Koller: Creatures of Utopia

Helmut Koller

By ANNA SCOLA May, 2019 

How does one justify hyperrealistic painting in an era where the camera can capture everything? What does it possess that the camera will never be able to do? Helmut Koller transverses this field and has presented us with utopia. A glowing blue tiger against a peach-colored background, a radiating purple panda stalled in a red void. On the brink of reality, we are invited into a separate world that is beautiful and mystifying.

Helmut Koller is an Austrian artist based in Palm Beach, Florida. As a professional photographer, he spent his early career capturing important figures of the opera and ballet and contributing to fashion magazines. Koller abandoned photography for painting in 1988 and yet the style that he has now established does not depart too far from his roots as a photographer. Koller has an extensive body of work of photorealistic paintings depicting animals. This realism is hindered by a striking alteration to the animal’s fur. Rather than what we predict the animal’s colors to be, Koller paints them in saturated, synthetic hues. This ranging color application to various species from the animal kingdom has been designated the title Kollerism.  

Helmut Koller in Palm Beach

Many a time these creatures look towards the viewer. You are unsure what to expect, how to sit without stirring a little. In Dürer Hare in Orange, the hare is perched, painted in an alarming color against a lilac ground, the colors generate an ambiguity between real and unreal. Blue Leopard with Yellow Eyes is beautiful as much it is aggressive - nevertheless, it is all so real.

Kollerism is a nod to the Fauves. Fauvism was a French avant-garde movement of the early 1900s. Henri Matisse pioneered the style and was joined by Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck among others. While those of the post-impressionists in their elemental simplicity inspired the forms, the distinction existed with the color acting on its emotive possibilities. The artists detached their subjects from the colors they naturally assumed, choosing instead to color nature however it could be personally expressed. The first appearances of these unnatural associations of color garnered the name of the style—‘Wild Beasts.’ As in Zebra in Red and White on Blue, Koller’s beasts are a contemporary approach to Fauvism; each painting boasting with synthetic colors that are not natural to their respective subject matter. 

Helmut Koller, Zebra In Red &White On Blue

As these earlier styles process nature with spontaneity, Koller reimagines it with calculated precision. Here, he peers through the lens of a camera and witnesses an alternate space. The realism with which Koller translates the colors begs the viewer to wonder of its actual possibility. He takes notes from Surrealism: painting the obscure so real that one cannot help but question his own reality. This is where the effect Kollerism is truly understood. Kollerism draws out a desire to exist somewhere else; some alternate dimension where such beauty walks among us.

Tiger in Turquoise & Yellow 120 x 180 cm

To look at Helmut Koller’s painting, what is felt is the human touch, a touch that is absent from the surface of a photograph. The translation into paint what could have taken an instant to capture by a camera is one of laborious rendering, it is the essence of this that makes the observation irresistible. The viewer can stand in front of Leopard in Magenta and Green and feel the weighing presence of time spent detailing the texture in the fur. An acute awareness follows that Koller deliberately placed each stroke in its exact space. One may not appreciate this from afar because it does not seem possible, but an extended meditation with the work proves that each moment of the canvas has been designed to realize this animal’s being. This is the irrefutable brilliance of painting. Each painting in this series houses a single animal suspended in a solid-colored background. There is no context to the place or time in which these animals rest. The animals in the paintings simply exist because any such particularity would demystify their presence. 

Leopard in Magenta & Green, 120 x 180 cm

In a work of art, one is only ever able to comment when there is a missing piece. This is because that void becomes so obviously present. One may not know what the missing piece is, only that it is missing and thus must be filled. But when something is so perfectly constructed there is nothing to say; nothing to be said, because all parts come together effortlessly - It is perfect in its completion, the textures in Koller’s work invoke this sensation. The fur of a cheetah is painted so delicately, the iguana scales painted iridescently. One can only observe and contemplate in silence. Though they hover in emptiness, there is nothing beyond itself to anticipate from the surface. There is no absence. Instead, you are focused entirely on the silence between yourself and the animal. Because of the colors, a departure from reality, the sensation is enhanced for the viewer.

Siberian Tiger In Blue, 200 x 140 cm

Koller’s vivid subjects are animals, and yet to use that word does not seem to explain entirely what is painted. They are much rather creatures from utopia. In Siberian Tiger in Blue, there is stoicism in the animal’s posture - he is firm but relaxed. The character of the animal is so well articulated that the beings are captured in a moment in which they appear almost human. The way they stand or rest is familiar to the animal as it is in nature, but the longer you stare at its glowing skin, the more you begin to think it could not be what we already know. The distinct line between man and beast is blurred. While we are conscious of the differences, we see so much more of ourselves in them and fear them less as being different. We are imagining a world that is in our minds and here it is in electric tones on canvas, painted into reality.

Since the beginnings of the camera, painting abstracted itself further because what could be seen could be shown again and again. So instead, the subjects of painting throughout the 20th century became less of what could be seen, and rather more what could be felt, to which point, painting developed into absolute abstraction. But the camera, as we know it today, has also motivated painting into the opposite direction as well. Looking through the photographer’s lens, Koller searches for a realism that can only be discovered through painting. While a photograph frames a truth that is already present, painting depicts a dream that desires to be. With photographic realism, Koller makes these dreams almost tangible. WM


Anna Scola

Anna Scola is an American and Russian artist, writer and curator based in Singapore and New York. As a practicing artist, Anna uses performance and installation to explore issues of identity and insecurity that arise from personal and socio-political relations to contemporary migration. As a curator, she has conceptualized and managed a number of exhibitions that create unique conditions for the artists and explore the potential of a gallery space.


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