Hans Kreiner

Cutting a fine line: Hans Kreiner

You could look out of the dining room window over the backyard into the gloom of Centennial Park at night. There was a low ditch and a couple of strands of barbed wire between our new house and the steadily filling back-lots of the cemetery. After dark the ghost lady was something to frighten my little brother about. I had to stand outside in the darkness with the ghostly monument hovering in the distance for an hour after he dobbed me in once. During daylight we’d fang around the goldfish ponds and the rows of rose bushes and graves on our bikes.

(artist’s statement, Povdom, Hans Kreiner)

The art of Hans Kreiner, which often utilises crisp lines cut by a very sharp scalpel, straddles a line between cute and confronting, a cheery folk art feeling and gallows humour. Lines make divisions between inside and outside, good and bad, clean and unclean, me and you, tree and sky, yet are divisions ever so simple? Kreiner’s work may seem sweet and naïve, a light-hearted celebration of the joy of living, but often holds within it incisive observations about the difficult, unjust and ludicrous aspects of life. Like the Eastern European puppetry and folk traditions, and the Dada absurdist theatre he admires Kreiner’s work uses satire and comedy to explore the human condition.

Most artists in Australia have day jobs, only a few can live from sales of their artwork. For many years now Hans Kreiner’s day job, part-time employment with Community Bridging Services Art Program, the Broughton Art Society and, in the past, as artist in residence at Glenside Mental Hospital, has involved teaching art to adults with disabilities. Their lives are full of immense challenges. They include people with mental illness, intellectual disability including autism, acquired brain injury, dementia and different kinds of physical disability. Whether they were born or became disabled their condition tends to define them and their place in society. Being with them can sometimes be distressing as witnessing their struggles to do things we take for granted – like stand, sit up, walk, talk, stay still and communicate directly – continually remind us of how frail and fragile humans are, and of the fine line between sickness and wellness, capability and incapability.

Each day that Kreiner teaches and invents art projects for people in these situations he faces this bleak truth and does what he can to alleviate it through teaching art, the making of which can show the inside of a person to the outside or simply change the colour of their day or at least an hour of it. Constant exposure to these situations develops an attitude of humility and sometimes despair, an unflinching facing of reality. Kreiner remarks that: “The despair is balanced by the shared good (gallows) humour many people living with adversity seem to shield themselves with, also sometimes people actually recover some of their ability over time which is heartening.”

There is also a personal aspect to Kreiner’s engagement, he suffered from meningitis as a child and subsequently experienced deafness; also his father, who was a carpenter then an architect, was a patient at Glenside Mental Hospital for a short time. Kreiner’s father was Austrian (his heritage also includes Ireland and Corsica) and the cultural heritage of Northern European artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald, as well the Neo-Expressionists of the 70s and 80s are influences on his work.

Many years of engagement with film, performance and puppetry are the background to Kreiner’s more recent constructed and cut-out works. Initially he trained as a carpenter and joiner thus possesses highly developed skills in draughtsmanship and woodworking. Ideals of the sustainability of art-making have led Kreiner to often use recycled materials whether paper, plastic, cardboard or vinyl. His concern with big issues and his delight in fabrication, in precision and repetition through the imaginative use of modular elements are keynotes of his art practice.

Curiously there is also often, due to its symbolic use of animals and skeletons, an almost medieval flavour to Kreiner’s art. He has pointed out that the Zeitgeist of today is one of apocalypse, something the Middle Ages knew from their experience of the Black Plague. The paintings on church walls of the Dance of Death where skeletons accompany humans are not far from Kreiner’s personal outlook. A recent work Death Devours shows multiple skeletons joined together in a mesh of tendrils and is cut from soft tanned lambskin leather. Its title is inspired by the proverb: “Death devours lambs as well as sheep.”

Temple, a two meter long intricate numbered map of the human cardiovascular system cut precisely out of heavy awning canvas evokes early medical diagrams and the words in the Bible “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit”, while Beautiful Monster is an amazing intricate parade of vinyl farm animals – cows, goats, sheep and horses, with riveted moveable heads and limbs. It is like a marvellous star-map as well as a sombre reflection on human intervention in nature. About Beautiful Monster Kreiner has written: “I just wanted to say something that talks about the awful biggest cloud of bother weighing down on all our heads. Ugly is the new beautiful. And you know if you’re going to have a monster it may as well be pretty.”

The papercut faces of Demon Cloud were a response to the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in Japan but also evoke the nastiness of the dystopian film Clockwork Orange. Kreiner’s prize-winning work 17 Jewels involves multiple boxers (pugilists) cut out of cardboard food boxes. It is about “the archetypal struggle for existence and the rule of time”. The box-boxers are light and disposable yet battle daily life with persistence.

Each cut-out artwork by Kreiner can be displayed in a different way each time it is exhibited. And they are always shown alongside the material they are cut out of – the leftover, the offcut or ‘waste’. Thus the substance on either side of the cut line, both positive and negative, is shown. This aspect of ambivalence, inside/outside, pretty/ugly, is a great strength of Kreiner’s work.

The artist is also very interested in language; he creates words and extends ideas like povdom (the kingdom of poverty which includes poverty in ideas and humanity as well on a material plane) or finds strange words like crunki (a hybrid of the words crazy and drunk from hip hop) or uses the creative errors made by mishearing or misreading language (common sense/common scents). The banner of Povdom is designed to look like an oversized embroidery sampler for giant children. Woven from bright plastic sheeting, it contains playful images and “partly illegible and vaguely inarticulate slogans” involving real anger about poverty that belie its cheerful surface.

Hans Kreiner is determinedly based in Adelaide where he was born and is attached to it as his home city. Each day that he works inside what he says feels like the separate bubble of the world of disability, mental illness and the hospital, he travels to ‘another country’, a parallel world where his abilities with art fruitfully encourage and inspire, and his encounters with alternate universes feed depth and intensity into his own artwork.

Kreiner’s life is both hard and hard-working. As I write he is working on a substantial commission and the University of Adelaide has just bought the artwork Huey, a series of one hundred and twenty-eight hand-coloured cut-out lithographs of budgies mounted on the wall with plastic strips. They bounce cheerfully as you walk by. Huey was a blue and white budgie owned by Kreiner. The artist says that the work is about joy and “the enthusiastic chatter, lively comic spirit and beautiful hues” of budgies but also the selective breeding that has developed multiple artificial colour combinations for these pets. Huey is a “metaphor for all the individual viewpoints and overlapping relationships that contribute to diversity in society”. The work looks light and airborne but it is full of weight and depth.

Stephanie Radok