In contrast to reductionist tendencies in twentieth century art through which means, media, and parameters of artistic work were investigated, isolated, and sorted out, a contrary strategy is strikingly evident in your oeuvre: the maximum utilisation of a variety of those means which are traditionally available to painting. These include the representative function of painting – the figuration and construction of an illusionistic pictorial space –, borrowings from classical iconography and symbols, an extreme wealth of detail in the monumental paintings, but also composition, tonality, and modulation of the oil paints. What is the motivation for this assertive reactivation of painterly means?
I understand the qualitative principle of reduction and esteem quite highly some of the works of art to which it has given rise, but there is a danger of thereby excessively shortening the path to the picture. I am not against reduction and simplicity, but on the other side are mass, chaos, complexity, and abundance. Simplicity tries to find one sign for our communication. But the world is cynical. A single sign is not enough. Sometimes less is in fact less. Notwithstanding, during my student days this reduction was propagated as a standard of value. Fidelity to a concept makes you defensive; I wanted to work offensively. It was a deliberate step to restore a name to precisely that which in fact was not supposed to be named. It was not only a formal concept, but also a contentual consideration that motivated my reaction. The individual already harbours within himself deep complexity and an entire range of contrasts. Our present era is characterised by inundation. We experience overflowing structures, sheer mass, and also chaos. We live with sand and poison. Why shouldn’t all that be painted? The quality of a picture should be evaluated independently of dogmas.
Quite diverse aspects of painting come to the fore in your pictures: sometimes it is more the construction of the pictorial space, at other times the dissolution of space through the accumulation of figures, or the emphasising of the figure through the coloured ground.
Figurative painting induces a spatial construction of the picture; that is the habit of our perception. But one of the wonderful illusions of painting is of course to build up a tension between space and surface. There arises an endlessly appealing contrast between recognisability and abstraction. The manipulation of the authentic. We want to be able to follow clearly the narrative of the picture, but we sense the intensity of the picture primarily on the abstract level. It is the subtext that determines the artistic quality. The contents must be transformed into the language of visual art. To put it simply: The intellect follows the gesture, and the emotions follow the colour and of course also the form, the light, the tonality, and the composition, because it is not a matter of representing something but of bringing something about. If I want to create pictorial unrest, then I try to construct a composition in which many similarly large forms overlap or directly adjoin each other. This renders the value unclear, so that the viewer’s gaze begins to dart about, and restlessness ensues. It arises not only thematically, but also formally. This can be continued on all levels. If I repeatedly set cold and warm colours in mutual contrast, an unrest likewise arises. One could create a perspectival vanishing point that gives an illusion of depth. But if I maintain the values of colour and light on one level, the picture conveys an impression of flatness, and a tension arises. In this way, the pictorial space is actually always subordinated to the vibrancy of the idea of the picture.
The human figure is the central focus of your works. These are often types from different contexts who act within your stage-like pictorial spaces: archaic figures from foreign cultures, grotesque characters as well as fantastic beings. These diverse groupings are connected by the fact that as outsiders of enlightened Western society, they have always served as projection surfaces for the Other, the foreign and repressed elements of our culture. What function do you consider this pictorial personnel to fulfill?
My interest is directed principally toward the phenomenon of the human being, the problematic of his self-definition. The human being doesn’t know what a human being is. We do not have any standard map; we have to redetermine our coordinates again and again. In this self-reflection, we are permanently searching. For we are not simply instinctive beings. The ensuing uncertainty leads to a need to embed ourselves. We disguise ourselves, subordinate ourselves to a culture, a ceremony, a rite, a fashion, a religion. I don’t know how many thousands of gods human beings have invented in order to discover themselves therein. Unlike animals, human beings argue with their existence, their definition. I am interested in this phenomenon. When you see a monkey, it looks like a monkey, and a dog looks like a dog. But a human being doesn’t look like a human being; he is masquerading and wears the insignia of his particular culture. I am interested in this phenomenon over the entire course of human history; for that reason I also use extremely archaic figures. It may be that five thousand years ago the painting of the skin as a component of tribal culture responded to the same need – the need for mental representation, for a self-image. The wish to integrate oneself within a wider context. I hope that with my figures I am painting a symbol for human beings. My interest is directed, not toward the real individual, but toward his mental border areas, in which the archaic, the inner, and the illusionistic principles are valid. Ten figural circumstances could be formulated in representation of one individual.
What role is played here by difference and diversity, by the contrast between the familiar aspects of one’s own culture and the incoherence of forms of human existence which do not have a common denominator?
Here as well, this definitional problematic is involved. The individual must define himself with all his inner contradictions and at the same time function within the mass, in society – a conflict in which we are caught. Thus
the recognition of difference and diversity can be transferred into the narrowest contexts, even onto the individual himself.
Figures that ladle paint, splotch themselves, decorate and dye themselves apparently refer to the symbolical function of paint and painting. In addition, masks, costumes, and body paintings bear witness to our urge toward self-representation. They point toward a staging in which the figures create a role, an identity, a self-image for themselves. Does the choice of religiously connotated contexts and of the communal rites of the figures – such as processions, ablutions, or funerals – stand in connection with the potential of painting to impart meaning, its capacity for creating worlds and establishing meaning?
Most definitely. Rituals are part of our search; I don’t do anything other than to paint the battlefield on which this takes place. I don’t take up any historically determinable themes for this purpose. My pictures are not concerned with concrete events, for example those from religious contexts. The feeling of familiarity comes from the fact that I endeavour to paint what has always concerned us in any case, because it is existential. We have the impression of being present at a ritual although we don’t recognise it at all, don’t know what the figures are actually doing there. But illusion is a part of our lives; it is the longing to discover something more than we are. This is also one of the aspects of the title of the exhibition, Schutt und Futter | Rubble and Fodder. I take what is actually refuse, garbage, or banalities and try to create out of it scenarios in which the figures spiritually elevate themselves – out of nothing. It remains at best beautiful filth. There is an interesting phenomenon that painting is an illusion which we consider to belong to us. Painting is not something fully artificial and aloof, a pure fiction; instead illusion is part of our reality, we live with it. We cry in the cinema, although we know that the film is deception.
You create time-transcending, fantastical scenarios in a pictorial space which remains coherent in spite of what are sometimes distorted proportions, in which gaps such as canyons or windows point toward another sphere. The selection of fantastical subjects in the Symbolism of the late nineteenth century or efforts by Surrealism to represent the unconscious may be considered as reactions of painting to photography, as an attempt to confront the medium of documentation and depiction with representations of another reality. What role can be taken on by the representative function of painting in view of a surfeit of digital images that can perfectly simulate fictitious worlds?
I have seldom seen the means of producing digital pictures being used for something other than entertainment. I do not strive to entertain. On the other hand, the medium is not important; it is the means to an end. Intensity can be attained everywhere. Something that I value in the medium of painting is that I can reinvent my pictorial language every day – there is a vast spectrum of illusion. The affective work of painting stands in contrast to the construction of the digital image, where a concept is carried out and runs the risk of becoming illustrative. One brushstroke can alter an entire picture.
Just as through photography the representative function of painting can be called into question, the digital production of pictures also enters into competition with elements of painting, whereas other aspects remain fully untouched – such as the painting process or the artisanal aspect, which differ fundamentally from the digital production of pictures, in which there initially predominates a fundamental separation between the producer and the picture.
The question is what an image is – photography can only create one form of image. Painting proceeds upon several pathways. Where things really work is in the medium of film, with its digitally created scenarios which doubtlessly extend the spectrum of film. But to what purpose? I have another goal. In art I have seldom experienced that the result was more than the illustration of a good idea.
In the handling of the brush, in the application of paint in a manner ranging from pastose texture to transparent expanse, the process of painting always remains visible in your pictures, and here and there – for example, in depictions of walls or at the edges of the picture – the illusionistic representation is totally disrupted, is transferred into abstract, sometimes ornamentally structured parts, into rhythmic brushstrokes and splotches of paint, or is dissolved into the flat pictorial ground. How do you attempt to capture the relationship between the materiality of paint, abstraction, and that which is being represented?
I try to subordinate the process of painting to the flow, the contents of the picture. The structure thereby arising must serve the atmosphere of the picture and not the other way around. I have always been irritated when a picture is reduced only to an invented, stylised handling of the brush. Nevertheless, its structure of course determines the intensity of the picture. It represents the emotions, that which remains unsaid, the abstraction. Thus even a seemingly real figure can take on an aspect of irreality through the application of paint and the internal structure. The inner attitude to the painted surface determines the outcome. If I want to describe a piece of fabric and view it as a sort of liquid, then the result will be different.
The figures in your pictures are involved in communal activities: They dump, push, lift, ladle, or are shown in moments of reflective isolation. But the individual sequences do not conjoin into a superordinate narrative; instead one has the impression of witnessing an absurd, ultimately incoherent occurrence. Through stories, we can situate individual events in an overall context of meaning. As a means of self-reassurance, we allow ourselves to try out possibilities of action, to construct identities, and to come to an understanding of our position in the world. Your pictures evoke narrativity and tie in with these narrative functions. To what extent are you inclined to convey the meanings offered by a narrative context?
In all probability, I don’t paint anything different than a site where the traces of an intellectual process may be seen. What seems to be narrational is perhaps ultimately impossible to decipher; but of course all these actions make sense to me, nothing is random, and in principle I can explain each detail in terms of content. But inner processes are difficult to label, because they are often deeply based on emotion, and every individual has an idiosyncratic perception of the world. For it is not a matter of telling a historical tale, but of creating a image in a pictorial manner, a symbolic sense. The picture is not supposed to be thought, but instead to be felt. Perhaps this can be described through the difference between prose and lyric poetry. I try to create lyric poetry. In spite of all dramaturgy, it is silence that I am concerned with. What requires the most effort in my working process is the attempt to attain the climate of a picture, because only therein do I actually see the possibility of producing something outside of space and time, of acting on a superordinate level, of not succumbing to the fleeting nature of a story. It is a matter of the picture per se.
You have said that it is important to you to record and to convey general human feelings by means of painting. This is less a matter of a subjective sentiment than of an intersubjective emotion which is supposed to have a direct impact on the viewer. Recently the philosopher Gernot Böhme sought to draw the notion of atmosphere into the centre of aesthetic theory. He characterises atmosphere as stirring expressions of emotion which link subject with object and emanate from things, as the spatial conveyor of moods.1 This notion of atmosphere is closely connected to the concept of climate which you apply to your oeuvre: something situated between the viewer and your work and emanating from it, for which you activate a multiplicity of registers in order to maximise the impact.
It is true that I operate with many registers, but I am concerned with one thing, namely with assuring that this climate predominates. It would be enough for me if the viewers did not necessarily comprehend the entire picture, but simply sensed the energy that creates this climate. Our intellectual analysis – also with regard to narratives – is designed above all for short stretches of time; it allows us to function, understand, see, act, and react. Over an extended period of time and on an intensive, existential level, it is especially emotions which have an impact and remain in the memory.
I believe that both levels are closely connected, for which reason the figure and the narrative element play an important role in your painting, as crystallisation points of atmosphere which allow the viewer to enter into a pictorial world. You are concerned above all with emotional impact. What is the relation here between participation and distance, emotional reaction and rational reflection?
Emotion predominates perhaps, but of course both aspects should come together. But between distance and proximity there is also this contradiction: I wish to create pictures in which you have the sense of wanting to plunge into this world and yet prefer not to do so. And this contradiction is what is actually interesting here, because we don’t know of any solution, or do we? We can simply produce a state of intensity that perhaps conveys a little knowledge, but the contradiction remains.
An important role for the psychological expressivity of your figures is played by pathos formulas as general symbols of human emotions. There are certain attitudes and gestures running through pictorial and cultural history which were characterised by Aby Warburg as forms for expressing an intense state of inner emotion.2 Alongside other aspects ‒ such as the depicted person, the symbolic props, the spatial concept, the indefinite temporal situation, and the narrativity ‒ they are a further pictorial means by which familiar, intimate, decipherable aspects are distorted, exaggerated, disconnected, and withdrawn from immediate access. How do you view this interplay between the familiar and the foreign in the context of your work?
I want to engage people, but also to irritate them. This interplay already begins in the painting process; here it is a longer path, actually a struggle to bring the objects of the world into my pictures. I must evaluate every object that I paint as to whether or not it functions. For the major problem is that what is currently in fashion is superimposed on us and plays tricks on us. I am interested, however, in what lies beneath, in the symbolical principle. For this reason, I require a long time to look for and to find those things that I want to use in my pictures. I would most likely not paint a cola can, except as a form. The objects in my pictures ‒ for example, leaves, ribbons, or sticks ‒ are simple, abstract, highly reduced forms which go to the heart of what they represent. A stick, for instance, can be everything. What is actually present in the picture is only the extract of what is a long, thin, flexible form. But it can affix, connect, protect, knot, decorate, and so forth.
But doesn’t that also have to do with the history and familiarity of the symbol, when a more vivid expressivity is achieved with certain pictorial objects?
That has to do with this fact from which we cannot exonerate ourselves. In my opinion, however, the old, pathos-laden forms of expression are not taboo. I continue to believe in timelessness. I believe that we must endeavour to create timelessness in visual art. What, if not that, is of interest? Fashions come and go. What remains as an underlying sediment? What are the things that bring us further? That’s what matters. And through transformation, we are capable of that, inasmuch as I take content and transform it into the language of visual art in terms of form, colour, light, sound, and so forth. I can look at ancient Egyptian art without having an idea of the religion, without knowing how those people lived and thought. Nonetheless, the works are present in any case, and one senses an attitude or an atmosphere. Here we have arrived again at that strange word, but we don’t have so many alternatives in our vocabulary for the intensity which these things radiate.
On the other hand, there are perhaps only various social frameworks, determined only by certain historical contexts, but not a basic human nature or fundamental, timeless symbols. At best, there are symbols with a long history. What role does history play for you? This question also arises with respect to your monumental pictures tying into the tradition of History Painting, the genre which, by means of narrative motifs, endeavours to attain a timeless symbolism that, however, has come in the meantime to itself belong to the rubble of history.
I am quite interested in history, but I am more concerned with the phenomena of our behaviour which it contains. I don’t tell historical stories in my pictures. I invent scenarios based on the existential activities of human beings. So you sometimes believe yourself to have identified an actual story, but in fact you won’t find one. The historical pictures of the nineteenth century are extremely well-painted in technical terms, but in my opinion, they are thematically uninteresting. It was once the fashion to mourn the myth of ancient history, but for me that is too sentimental.
Through its involvement with historical themes as an outgrowth of escapism or as a projection screen for national ideologies or sexual taboos, historicism is deeply rooted in its own era. But is it not possible, in concession to a certain era, to attain something that is also important or valid in another epoch ‒ for instance, Andy Warhol, who takes up pop culture and contemporary phenomena but thereby creates pictures which remain interesting past a limited period of time?
I don’t know whether we can already assess Warhol. Perhaps we are fascinated because we are still involved in this society that both wears and worships sneakers. He probably created a symbol, but increasingly I consider his work to be decoration.
Do you not see in your own work any connections to pop culture or to the entertainment industry?
Pop culture has created an artificiality and an extension of contrast that pleases me quite well and that I also see as part of my own work.
Or are there also links to phenomena such as fantasy? That which in your case is fantastic corresponds in the world of fantasy to the merging of fictional designs of the world as a strategy of entertainment. Here is a parallel with which the entertainment industry enters into competition with art: in the creation of images, the staging of identities, but also the generation of atmosphere. In the meantime, this has not only become the goal of the entertainment industry, but more and more it is becoming the core area of the entire industrial production. When a whole lifestyle is bound up in a product, when stories and identificatory offerings are created through industrially produced commodities, then this represents a strong competition with a role once discerned by art.
It is true that today commodities are staged and a lifestyle is marketed through the emotions. That is certainly interesting and also fully legitimate. The question is only whether in art we in fact want to do something entirely different; in other words, the question is whether a competitive situation actually exists. There is this razor’s edge; it is incredibly narrow, but extremely important. We wish to give rise to a mental attitude or to initiate a process in the brain or the belly. We don’t want to achieve an effect in order to sell a product.
Doesn’t art simply lie at the extreme end of the scale, where there exists no additional product, where what is sold is simply pictures and the generation of meaning?
What is actually so terrible about this long-established notion that a picture should generate meaning? That it should have an impact on people, is allowed to irritate them, and doesn’t necessarily have to be pleasant.
The name of your exhibition at the kestnergesellschaft comes from the title of the painting Schutt und Futter | Rubble and Fodder (2012) 10. What is striking about this picture is the almost unmanageable accumulation of pictorial objects which, at the same time, can also be seen as a study of various forms of applying paint and representing textures, fabrics, and materials. Pursued to an extreme here is a principle that also applies to your other pictures. It is not only that many objects from various contexts are taken up, but also that many levels are set in motion: This is an accumulation of painterly means through which painting is represented in its diversity. How important is this principle of accumulation in your work?
It is a matter of the principle of chaos and irritation. The irritation comes when things combine and then strike each other once again. This is what I was concerned with in Suchtpuls | addicted to pulse (2011) 16, which in my exhibition Gift gegen Zeit (2012, Blain|Southern, Berlin) was hung opposite from Luft nach Schlag | calm after the strike (2012) 17. With this pair of paintings, it was a matter of at one time completely exaggerating and at of one time reducing. These are two aspects which are part of our life: that on the one hand, we are surrounded by an incredible amount of stuff; and that on the other hand, the individual is accordingly overwhelmed. I often have the feeling that one person isn’t enough for the theme being handled. We are animals of the herd; we produce things out of quantity, out of mass, and out of chaos. What is important is to rummage around in the dirt in order to find some sort of correspondence in meaning. That is one path. The other is: do away with everything; quiet, a wall, a figure; that’s it. This is the other attitude, namely that the work is achieved through the inner process, whereas on he external path, I must set masses in motion. In the case of Rubble and Fodder (2012) 33 in particular, it was actually a refuse heap at an unappealing site. The rest of a society which is left over, from which we form something anew, in which we settle down, or out of which we attempt to make something that is more than we ourselves are.
The rubble can also be considered as ballast, as waste, as the flotsam and jetsam of history, but also as a means of painting. At the same time it is the fodder for satisfying the concomitant greed to devour images, our desire to generate new interconnections out of a disjointed heap.
Greed is an appropriate word: We are greedy to find something therein, to take it up again, or to make something out of it. But in this mad endeavour we are helpless, overburdened in our urban life by a hundred thousand things. We only use those things for a short while. It is the same with intellectual ideas. This is why fashion has grown so strong; we are addicted to fashion. The rapid, slight distraction; the rapid, slight suggestion of security.
Fashion as a possibility of producing something new from the rubble again and again?
Yes, we want to get in there repeatedly, and of course industry knows that. The production cycles become shorter and shorter, and we consume things faster and faster. But in this way we lose depth, diminish in density, become a little flatter. All this has turned into a gigantic, voracious machine in which we all participate. There are photographs of rubbish heaps outside of Bangkok in which people live. This is incredibly symbolic for our era. I am concerned with the symbol of this pile lying there without rotting any longer. With reference to painting, to art, there is on the one hand this chaos of pictoriality, but on the other hand a tradition and a history in which there are still things to be taken seriously, and not just garbage. And in parallel, there is our almost poignant need to seize hold of a crumb from the pile, to raise it up, and to imbue it with some sort of hopeful spirit.
The end of painting, which was proclaimed again and again during the twentieth century, can be linked to two developments. On the one hand, it may be understood as a reaction to new means of production: the industrial manufacture of commodities, but also to those mechanical means of producing pictures such as photography and printing technologies. On the other hand, it results from a diagnosed disturbance in the relationship between representation, author, and recipient. Also on the basis of its artisanal origins, there seems to be a close connection in painting between author and work. The picture is apparently a direct attestation of its process of creation, inasmuch as it manifests traces of the actions of the artist-subject.3 But precisely on the basis of the described development, this connection was repeatedly put to question during the twentieth century, and doubt arose as to whether painting can in any way achieve a symbolic impact or possess expressive power. How effective can painting still be against this background?
Of course I believe in the effectiveness of painting. Whether my pictures have a symbolic impact is something that the viewers must decide. When I see the pictures hanging on the wall, I think that everything is working fine, although in fact I might not be seeing the forest for all the trees. Obviously, the jury conducts its examination from an external perspective and over the course of centuries. We don’t know whether all that is art at all; that it will subsequently be valid and possess more value than simply entertainment for the moment is a hope that I of course have. What doesn’t change is the fact that we have a need for illusion. Indeed, illusion is not a pure fiction that has nothing to do with us; it is a part of our reality. Painting invents its world, whereas photography is compelled to depict it.
That is possibly due to the fact that in photography the mechanical process is inserted in between, whereas that is not the case with painting.
Yet this romantic image of the artist doesn’t really interest me, the notion of the painter working with dirty pigments. What strikes me is the phenomenon that this illusion surface functions so well. That has always fascinated me; otherwise I would have worked with other media if they had managed to convince me. I do classic painting because I continue to consider the most interesting principle to be representing things, in other words constructing a world, generating an illusion, and engaging in this intellectual process.
But on what is this enduring evocative power of painting based, especially when there are so many other possibilities and areas for creating images?
Photography depicts reality. That doesn’t have anything to do with painting. Painting is not interested in reality; it doesn’t strive to show what is here, but what is also here, to generate a sort of subtext. The crucial distinction is that from the very beginning I am within an image, within illusion, whereas the photographer is initially not within illusion, but within reality, for which reason the photograph always seems like a documentation. There exist only a few photographers who think in terms of illusion from the very beginning and try to shift reality so that it corresponds to their illusionistic image. But they do exist.
The evocative connection between creative act and medium, between subject and brushstroke is one of the reasons why the concept of authenticity often comes up in connection with painting, why it is assumed that in this medium
it is to a greater extent possible to achieve a pure and undistorted representation. When you speak about the fact that painting has always been illusionistic, has always operated symbolically, but that you desire to be authentic, isn’t it precisely the artificial aspect that makes possible an authentic representation?
Correct, and painting can do something that other means of pictorial representation cannot achieve. Painting is invention. It is a false conclusion to think that painting is something ancient just because it has always existed. That is wrong, painting works, that’s what matters ‒ and it will continue to work in the future as well.
Do you not see the danger of its wearing away over time? One problem of painting is not only that there are other procedures for producing images, but also that many of its possibilities seem to have been exhausted.
What is interesting is that it succeeds again and again. I too marvel at the fact that one can still paint a new picture, but it is indeed possible. The language is infinite. There are an infinite number of possibilities for painting a picture.
On the other hand, painting is faced with the challenge that a symbol which once conveyed a multiplicity of meanings loses its power through constant repetition and ultimately becomes a cliché.
But isn’t it the case that the really excellent things don’t succumb to wear and tear? Doesn’t Nefertiti continue to be outstanding? Even if millions of people try to reduce her to a cliché through never-ending photographs? Didn’t the Egyptians in fact create something which continues to have an impact beyond its original functional context, precisely because they transformed reality in so powerful a manner? That is true today as well. Where do we find a symbol which is not only fashionable but which proceeds further, defines us as human beings? For we continue to be human beings, not puppets for the purpose of entertainment.