A leitmotif is a melody that, in the context of a music drama, is associated with a certain concept, situation or the appearance of a specific character. The term is also used to indicate a theme that recurs in a literary piece or an idea that underpins a philosopher’s thought. “We are what we eat” is the leitmotif in the mid-19th century work of Ludwig Feuerbach. It summarises lengthy considerations on the importance of food: through our bloodstream, he believed, it reached our brain and heart, and ultimately produced our emotions and ideas. This reflection led the German thinker to conclude that not only the individuals’ thoughts, but culture depends on how people eat. The philanthropic, socio-political and economic implications of this are bottled in the leitfmotif – whose essence, however, is easily dispersed. “We are what we eat” is a famous quote but rarely is Feuerbach acknowledged – it stuck with us but the trail of its scent is lost.
At first sight, there is no strict theme linking the series of works by Uwe Henneken exhibited at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery. They do not belong to a single series, the subject matter shifts from bestial creatures to human figures, from magical settings to surreal landscapes. The link between them eludes the figurative realm. In ‘The Art of Jumping Timelines’, glistening silhouettes clash against the dark background; bright stars shine out of the blue in ‘A Call’ and the outline of a child glows in the gloom. Every single work hung on the gallery walls seems to be defined by the dialogue between its hues.
I wonder whether the leitfmotif that runs through Henneken’s eclectic group of paintings may be a key to read the title of his show. ‘The teachings of the Transhistorical Flamingo’ seems arbitrary because the long-legged bird never features in the works. It eludes the realm of the canvas; it asks that we take on its frame of mind and give our own imagination wing. Yet things are not as rosy when the flamingo is mid-flight. The feathers beneath a flamingo’s wings are specifically designed to give the bird stability for flight. The presence of the pigment melanin makes them more robust – whilst also turning them black. In a way, the flamingo with its conflict between pink and black embodies, precisely, Henneken’s leitmotif. But perhaps a heavier responsibility weighs on his feathers too. The underlying darker layer stays hidden whilst the bird wades to forage for food – the algae and crustaceans containing carotenoids to which a flamingo owes its brilliant pink. It becomes visible only when the flamingo quits the lands on which it feeds, so muddy that it could get stuck. As it spreads its wings and takes off, the sight is revelatory – but we must follow the trail until it lands.