Kurt Herrmann: Bandits, Bears and Dirty Bombs


Born and raised in central Pennsylvania, artist Kurt Herrmann is accustomed to the landscape and people of the Appalachian Mountains. Through his daily painting practice, Herrmann recreates the rich and varied experiences of living in rural America with a luminous intensity, switching between minimal abstract paintings swathed in pure colour and highly detailed narrative based work. With a style reminiscent of the character driven images of Reg Mombassa and the dreamlike figures of Mirka Mora, Hermann visually references everything from Shakespeare to rattlesnakes.

For his solo show, Bandits, Bears and Dirty Bombs, Herrmann has focused on the figurative, with a collection of surreal portraits depicting fang-toothed cowboys, masked bandits and oversized rabbits grasping handfuls of tiny snakes. Full of riotous, crackling colour, Herrmann’s paintings embody the landscape, animals and people that surround him.

At Hobart’s Penny Contemporary, Herrmann’s latest work is literally half a world away from his Pennsylvanian hometown.

When asked how he ended up exhibiting in Tasmania, Herrmann reveals that the journey was set in motion by a chance encounter in the USA with Australian artist Johnny Romeo. “When we met in 2016, Johnny told me he could see a connection between the mountains of Pennsylvania and the wilderness in Tasmania,” explains Herrmann. “He looked at all of my work and really responded to the primitive and wild aspects of the subject matter. I remember the conversation we had; it really did change the trajectory of my career.”

While he acknowledges Pennsylvania will always be his home, Herrmann is a keen traveler and has spent time in Siberia, Northern Africa and Europe, experiences that have emphasised the unexpected intricacies of everyday life. “Although I am extremely local in many ways, I also feel like a foreigner. So my view on life is very international,” he says. “I am fascinated by the most common aspects of life – those we take for granted but at the same time are actually quite ludicrous and exotic.”

As a result, elements of the bizarre are peppered throughout Herrmann’s paintings and many present curious scenes filled with fervid action.

In Red Rain, 2017, a huge red bird floats beneath a bridge where a pair of white rabbits peer over the edge and a man flees on horseback clutching a blackbird by the neck. Herrmann says he initially intended the painting to be a portrayal of Hamlet’s Ophelia. “I’m not sure how Ophelia transformed into a big red bird,” Herrmann admits. “The landscape and creatures of my home often have major roles that reference Shakespeare plays and I usually depict them in an absurd and personal way.”

Music has also been an influence on Bandits, Bears and Dirty Bombs and Herrmann likens the sounds coming from his studio record player to a conductor directing his creativity. “Music is key,” he says. “It is almost as if my record player pulls the strings to make me move. During a painting session, I may go from improvisational John Coltrane to Chopin’s Études before ending up with Frank Zappa. To me, there’s a logical and distinct link with every choice of music that mirrors my art as well. Basically, there’s all this stuff shooting out of the faucet and I’m not going to turn it off.”

Bandits, Bears and Dirty Bombs
Kurt Herrmann
Penny Contemporary
26 April – 17 May

Preview Words by Briony Downes