JOHN FRANZEN, Each Line One Breath N° Black Copper 8, 2015, black varnished copper plate, 100 × 150 cm. Courtesy Parkview Art Hong Kong.

Each Line One Breath

John Franzen

Parkview Art Hong Kong
Hong Kong The Netherlands Germany

What is most arresting upon walking into John Franzen’s solo exhibition at Parkview Art Hong Kong is the simplicity of his works amid the grandeur of the gallery space. The title “Each Line One Breath” makes no illusion about the context of the works on view. The Masstricht-based, Germany-born artist produces abstract, minimalist drawings using the most fundamental element: the line. The “beginning” of each drawing begins with a single straight line. In a quietly meditative gesture, Franzen draws each subsequent mark using a single exhale—a motion he describes as “breathing the line.”

Franzen’s morphogenetic drawings on paper and soft metals, such as brass, copper and aluminum, are compositionally clean and modest. It is only after allowing seconds and even minutes to pass that the drawings’ true vigor reveals itself to the patient viewer. In several pieces, such as Each Line One Breath N° Black Copper 8 (2015), the intensity of undulating lines mirrors the artist’s energy. Countless lines scratched into black varnished copper commence straight, each attempting to imitate the preceding line, but as the artist’s concentration wavers, so does the line. Each line reflects the imperfection of the last. The end result is a work exuding life as the fluidity within the drawings captures nuances of the artist’s psychology.

JOHN FRANZEN, Each Line One Breath N° A 12, 2015, permanent finalizer on white coated aluminum composite sheet, 120 × 120 cm. Courtesy Parkview Art Hong Kong.

By contrast, Each Line One Breath N° A 12 (2015) stands out for its exceptionally straight lines from beginning to end. The rectilinear result of the pen on aluminum drawing echoes the extreme intensity of Franzen’s concentration in the moment of creation. It radiates calmness and lacks the vibrant energy of other drawings. To breathe is a fundamental physiological motion we consciously make; the vital act of respiration carries oxygen to the cells in our bodies and rids our body of carbon dioxide. Nevertheless, the concept of the breath extends beyond science. In Buddhist and Taoist philosophies, breath cultivates mindfulness and living in the present. Franzen’s impeccably vertical lines require his utmost focus, hinting at the necessity of seeking mindfulness at the time of production.

Four works on display muse on a different philosophical thought. Probing the idea that “creation is destruction,” Franzen pierced brass plates with multiple bullet holes, and in Creation is Destruction – Big Axe Plate N° 1 (2015) he slashed the metal “canvas” repeatedly with axes for one hour. More than just a physical act of the body, the gestures of destruction are also a liberation of the mind. Yet an inevitable masculinity underscores these particular works, along with a tinge of violence that is aided by his deliberate choice of tools.

JOHN FRANZEN, Creation is Destruction – Big Axe Plate N° 1, 2015, polished brass, 100 × 200 cm. Courtesy Parkview Art Hong Kong.

Franzen’s drawings that are produced using his own blood pale in comparison to the aesthetic boldness of Creation is Destruction; however, Each Line One Breath – Drawn by Blood N° 3 (2015) beholds a sense of intimacy and purity that are lacking in his previous works. Replacing synthetic mediums such as ink with blood, Franzen draws with the vital bodily fluid taken from his body—a literal gesture of giving himself to his practice. The use of blood may inspire squeamishness for some, but this form of writing was for centuries regarded as an ascetic practice that followed the ancient tradition of scripting Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist sutras in a mixture of blood and ink. Blood is also considered the material form of qi, the essential life force in Chinese medicine. While the use of blood in contemporary art is no longer unique or even surprising—there is British sculptor Marc Quinn’s casts of his head made from his frozen blood, Antony Gormley’s blood drawings, and the increasingly popular use of menstruation blood by women artists—Franzen’s approach avoids the use of blood simply for shock factor or as a means of protest. The soft lines that he creates are faint, tender and exposed.

JOHN FRANZEN, Each Line One Breath – Drawn by Blood N° 3, 2015, blood on paper, 123 × 123 cm. Courtesy Parkview Art Hong Kong.

Buddhist master and spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh preaches the importance of connecting with one’s mind and body through the breath. He describes the act as follows: “Breathing in, I follow my in-breath from the beginning to the end. Breathing out, I follow my out-breath from the beginning to the end.” Those privileged with observing Franzen in his practice will find it captivating. A conversation with Franzen makes clear that the creation of the line is his meditation—a moment in which the world around dissipates, and only the artist and his tool exist.

“Each Line One Breath” is on view at Parkview Art Hong Kong, until November 13, 2015.

Denise Tsui is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.