Category Archives: Artist Interview

“‘Every work I create is a mathematical dream’ – an interview with Beatriz Milhazes,” By Amandas Ong

Beatriz Milhazes creates colourful compositions in a variety of mediums, inspired by landscape of Brazil and modernist traditions in both Europe and Latin America. She speaks to Amandas Ong about her new exhibition, ‘Rio Azul’, at White Cube in Bermondsey.

‘Rio Azul’ means ‘blue river’ in Portuguese, but it also refers to an important Mayan site in Guatemala. How did you arrive at this title for the exhibition?
It’s the title of the tapestry that’s on display. The idea of a river is probably what inspired me most: in our imagination, rivers are blue, but they can also be any other colour depending on the light. There’s also something magical about rivers because they support life.

It was very difficult to choose a title that could capture the diversity of my work – I paint, I make collages, and now I make tapestries, too. But the tapestry is one of the largest works on display. And in all my work it’s important for me that viewers are able to engage in a dialogue between symbolism and material fact, so I wanted the title to reflect this interaction.

Installation view, ‘Beatriz Milhazes: Rio Azul’ at White Cube, Bermondsey, 2018. Photo: © White Cube (Ollie Hammick); © Beatriz Milhazes

The tapestry is one of a number of works in the show made collaboratively with others. What role does collaboration play in your artistic process?
I’ve always enjoyed and been curious about collaborative effort. I worked with my sister, Marcia Milhazes, to design the set for the performances that she choreographs for her dance company, but was happy for her to make most of the major creative decisions – she’s the one who stages the actual dances.

To make Rio Azul, I had to learn lots about weaving, which is a whole different craft to anything I’d ever done before, so that was fascinating. Collaboration requires a generosity of spirit, and you need to strike a balance between pushing your ideas across and knowing when to be a bit more passive. Because the weavers were the ones who had the technical knowledge to make my dream come to life, I had to make sure they really understood my vision and were on the same page as me.

Installation view, ‘Beatriz Milhazes: Rio Azul’ at White Cube, Bermondsey, 2018. Photo: © White Cube (Ollie Hammick); © Beatriz Milhazes

What it was like working with the master weavers at the Pinton Mill in France to create the tapestry?
I chose the Pinton Mill, who have been operating since 1867, because they had a rich tradition of working with modernist artists like Sonia Delaunay and Alexander Calder. The partnership felt a little like travelling back in time – to work in the same space as Delaunay was a huge honour for me.

I was very impressed by how closely the Pinton family is involved in the creative process, from shearing the wool to dyeing to the actual weaving. It took more than a year to have the tapestry made – and up until the moment when it was unveiled, nobody had seen it in its entirety, even the weavers, because different groups would be participating in the project at any one time. It was a very emotional moment for all of us.

Descriptions of your work often refer to the colours and natural landscape of Brazil. Are these references to your home country deliberate?
The first studio I had was in the same neighbourhood as the botanical gardens in Rio de Janeiro, and so I was constantly surrounded by nature – I think that’s why there are so many tropical colours and so much green in my work. After I became more internationally recognised, it was even more important for me to establish a sense of identity that was tied to home. I’m definitely very attached to my country – I’ve never thought about leaving Brazil because all my friends and family are there.

Goa (2017), Beatriz Milhazes. Photo: © Pepe Schettino; courtesy White Cube. © Beatriz Milhazes

Given the wide range of mediums that you use, do you have a creative philosophy that applies to all of them?
My work centres on the paintings – they’re sort of how I think, and they’re also the most energy-consuming and require the most focus. My collages take up a lot of time, but sourcing the materials is a more varied process. I collect sweet wrappers, silkscreen and holographic papers, and I piece them together.

I’d say that the use of colour is a characteristic that unites my work, which is funny because when I first started out all I wanted to use was white. Now, colour is a way for me to create contrast, drama and mystery. Every work I create is a mathematical dream and colours are a way of emphasising that.

‘Beatriz Milhazes: Rio Azul’ is at White Cube, Bermondsey, until 1 July.


By Amandos Ong, Reprint from Apollo magazine, 24 April 2018, © 2018 Apollo Magazine.

” ‘Every Painting Is Abstract’: Adrian Ghenie on His Recent Work and Evolving Sense of Self,” By Andy Batagglia

Adrian Ghenie, Rest During the Flight Into Egypt, 2016, oil on canvas. ©ADRIAN GHENIE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY


” ‘Every Painting Is Abstract’:
Adrian Ghenie on His Recent Work and Evolving Sense of Self”
 
By ANDY BATTAGLIA

The large and small works in Adrian Ghenie’s “Recent Paintings” show at Pace Gallery in New York—comprising recent paintings, as might be surmised, but also preparatory collages—range from figurative to abstract and back again. The finer points of such distinctions, however, are beside the greater overall point for an artist who retains a lot of faith in painting as an enterprise.

“Every painting is abstract,” Ghenie said in the midst of an exhibition that counts as his first in New York in nearly four years. “I don’t believe in figurative. As soon as it starts to imitate, to depict something, then a painting is dead. This is the moment when you kill painting.”

Compositions can be figurative, he said, but the power of painting—when it has any power at all—is less in the cause than in the effect. And that effect is abstract regardless of the elements that went into creating a picture or considering it after the fact. “People imagine that abstraction is some kind of gesture,” Ghenie said of those who approach abstraction as a rhetorical stance. “But when you try to paint a tree, you realize, ‘I cannot paint all the leaves, I cannot paint all the textures.’ So you have to invent a movement of the brush that would suggest, in your mind, a tree. That is, essentially, abstract.”

Subject matter, though, can be as concrete as could be imaginable. To the points of reference he has privileged as personal touchstones throughout his career thus far—Tintoretto and the Venetian school, the early Flemish Renaissance, Vincent van Gogh—the 39-year-old artist has added more recent allusions. Rest During the Flight into Egypt (2016), full of slashing, sloshing colors (magentas, blues, and reds) and drama that is inescapable at a scale of nearly 10 by 8 feet, draws on the recent refugee crisis roiling Europe. So does Crossing the Sea of Reeds (2016), the same size but darker and more ominous, with gulls and fish spying a water-borne figure bobbing in a lifejacket.

“Painting has always reacted to big, epic stories, whether battles or biblical stories,” Ghenie said. “Art history is already full of this kind of depiction”—of struggle, toil, persecuted people moving en masse. “Everything you see on TV, if you remove the clothes, it’s the same as a Renaissance scene—a man followed by his wife holding a child with a landscape in the background. The only thing that’s missing is a donkey.”

The refugee crisis has struck close to home for the artist, who has lived for years in Berlin after having grown up in Romania. But it is another abstraction of a kind for a painter who remains—in Ghenie’s mind, at least—fated to abstraction no matter the subject at hand. “The subject of migration was used by artists in the Renaissance and the Baroque era as an excuse to paint landscapes,” he said. “The church would never pay for just a landscape, so the landscape had to be a background for a biblical scene in front. Artists were not going to fight with the church, so they found this perfect subject. They shot two rabbits with the same bullet.” (This last point, he averred, is a Romanian way of otherwise talking about birds and stones.)

Adrian Ghenie, Crossing the Sea of Reeds, 2016, oil on canvas.
©ADRIAN GHENIE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY

The present sense of upheaval in the world, however, is more than just mere aesthetic pretense for an artist whose roots grow back to Romania. “I’m not trying to make my biography like I grew up in a communist dictatorship—I was just a kid, I didn’t have any trauma,” he said. “But what happened in Romania after ’89”—the fall of the Berlin Wall—“was very interesting. When you realize a whole country can be manipulated and made to believe one thing about itself, and then the regime falls and you find out that no, it was the other way around . . . I saw how it is possible to manipulate a whole country. What is the truth? What is trauma? Do we just think we’re humiliated, or are we really humiliated? In the end, wars and tragedies are all the same.”

His art is not political in a direct sense, he said—at least no more or less political than any other artist’s. “Can you be apolitical today? Could you be apolitical after the French Revolution? Was Rothko apolitical and Rauschenberg political? Was Goya a political painter? This is a fake concept.”

Another subject surrounding Ghenie right now is the ascendance of his work on the market, with paintings of his commanding prices that not all agree are rational—including the artist himself. Nickelodeon, a work from 2008, fetched £7.1 million ($9 million) at auction at Christie’s in London last October, and Flight into Egypt(2008) went for $3.9 million in November in New York.

“You can’t ignore it—how can you ignore that?” he said. “Asking an artist, ‘How does the market’s hysterical behavior affect you?’ is like asking a crazy person, ‘How crazy do you think you are?’ Maybe it has affected me, but I would say, to the mirror in the morning, it hasn’t.”

Adrian Ghenie, Self-Portrait, 2016, oil on canvas.
©ADRIAN GHENIE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY

He continued, “In the beginning it was flattering, but then it got to be a bit weird. It’s like if somebody tells you there is a porn movie about you on the internet and you cannot do anything about it. How would you react? They say, ‘Oh, no, you look good in it—you’re hot.’ But it’s still a porn movie, and you realize, Okay, I have to live with that. My friends and everybody can see it, but it’s not bad. It’s not embarrassing. It’s something vulgar, but it’s not in my control.”

Living in Berlin provides a buffer, he said. “One of the things I love about Berlin is it’s not a city that is obsessed with celebrity. Because there is no money there really, it’s a city that has accepted anonymity. We don’t have a social pyramid like London or New York. In Berlin, I don’t think anything of it.”

Nonetheless, it is a matter that is inescapable. “One thing I can say for sure is that the media and the market created a second persona, a person created and fed by the media and the market,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s me, but this person exists.”

Questioning of that sort would seem to pertain to a series of self-portraits in the Pace Gallery show (on view through February 18), which features smaller frontal headshot paintings that present the artist in what appear to be varying stages of evocation and erasure. “I want a deconstruction of the portrait,” Ghenie said. “In the 20th century, the people who did it really radically were Picasso and Bacon. They took elements of the face and rearranged it. There is no nose, there is no mouth, there is no eye—no sense of anatomy.”

“The portrait,” he continued, “was a landscape, basically.”

Adrian Ghenie.
©ADRIAN GHENIE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY


By Andy Battaglia, Reprint from ARTnews magazine / ARTnews, 17 February 2017, © 2017, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc.

“Everything I know comes from painting,” Interview with Markus Lüpertz, By Maggie Gray

Markus Lüpertz (German, b. 1941): Arcadia – The High Mountain (Arkadien – Der hohe Berg), 2013.  Courtesy the Phillips Collection.


“Everything I know comes from painting”

Interview with Markus Lüpertz

By Maggie Gray


It’s a dirty business,’ notes Markus Lüpertz (b. 1941) as he steps over sheets of paper strewn across the wooden floor. The top one bears the image of a nude viewed from behind, and is dusted with dark footprints. His studio spans the top floor of an outbuilding on art dealer Michael Werner’s 50-acre estate near Berlin, and is littered with the tools of his trade, along with some altogether stranger items. A stuffed crocodile broods in a corner, its back turned to a flock of taxidermy birds roosting in the eaves. A soldier’s helmet rests on a table. Near the doorway, weights and a punching bag lie on the floor, beside a clothes rail packed with long dark coats and a pool table covered in men’s hats. The artist moved here permanently last year, abandoning a larger studio in Teltow after a burglary: it feels like there’s unpacking still to be done.

Immaculately dressed and carrying his signature black cane, the painter heads to the far end of the room past strange, mute gatherings of the rough-edged classical figures that populate his recent works. We stop in front of an easel painting of a muscular nude on a grassy bank. To his right are quiet waterways and trees: to his left, the scene disintegrates and a skeletal figure peers out, painted in a viscous black. ‘If you take away one layer of the world, you see its skeleton,’ Lüpertz suggests through our interpreter, when I ask about it. At this point Michael Werner interrupts. ‘Maybe it’s useful to tell you the ongoing struggle with interviewers and Markus Lüpertz,’ he says with a half-smile. ‘If he could explain a painting he wouldn’t paint it. You’re probably used to well-educated artists who are prepared to give you any answer you want […] He is not this type. He’s complicated.’

For Lüpertz to be anything else would be quite a surprise. For decades he has been an uncooperative force in the art world; a self-styled dandy in the postmodern age; a fervent champion of unfashionable painterly traditions, whose work nonetheless speaks directly to contemporary anxieties. His paintings are packed with recognisable subjects, yet he insists that art is abstract. So complicated – and overlooked – is his substantial oeuvre that when curators in Washington, D.C. began discussing his first US retrospective, they wound up staging two, at the Phillips Collection and the Hirshhorn Museum, both of which open this month.

There was never any doubt over Lüpertz’s calling. ‘Everything I know and everything I am comes from painting,’ he tells me. Born in Liberec (formerly Reichenberg), Bohemia, in 1941, the artist fled as a child with his family to West Germany’s Rhineland. As a teenager, he attended the School of Applied Arts in Krefeld, supplementing his studies with stints in construction work and mining. A truncated period at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and a short spell in Paris introduced him to art history’s methods and masterpieces, but it was only on moving to West Berlin in 1962 that he found an artistic community in which he would flourish. ‘Berlin was a dried-out city after the war, but it rose from the ashes,’ he reminisces, about a place that he now finds disappointingly bourgeois. ‘The bars always stayed open, there was work to find, and you could afford it.’ He fell in with the group of artists – Georg Baselitz, A.R. Penck, and Jörg Immendorff among them – that gathered around Werner (who opened his first gallery in 1963) and quickly emerged as a force to be reckoned with in German post-war art.

Performance and conceptual art, which was gaining a following around Joseph Beuys, did not interest Lüpertz professionally, but the prevailing currents of 1960s painting – Abstract Expressionism and Pop – dissatisfied the young painter, too. In an audacious early series, the Donald Duck paintings, he crashed both styles together. Donald’s cartoonish features are hopelessly confused in a medley of expressive brushstrokes – and yet his presence there at all renders the ostensibly abstract idiom absurd. The duck’s demise emphasised a problem recognised by many painters at the time – the supposed incompatibility of representational and abstract art. The former was treated with suspicion because it could be, and frequently was, put at the service of propaganda and populism; but abstract artists, Lüpertz believed, were labouring under a misapprehension. ‘Whenever you paint something abstract the eye leads you to search for a figurative element, and vice versa.’ There had to be some way to reintroduce the subject without detracting from the painting itself.

Diamant–dithyrambisch (Diamond–Dithyrambic) (1965), Markus Lüpertz. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, London and New York; © the artist.

Lüpertz’s solution, and his first major contribution to contemporary art, was the ‘dithyramb’. Inspired by the fabled ecstatic chants of Dionysian revellers, he embarked on a series of paintings in which he worked obsessively over shapes and forms. In some cases, he built solid-looking, but nondescript objects intuitively out of patches of colour; in others, he worked in reverse, rehearsing and re-forming a simple motif until – like a word chanted too many times – it lost its original meaning. For one such series, Lüpertz took tents as his starting point. There can be no question over the ‘subject’ of the resulting paintings: canopies, poles, and canvas walls appear, in simple yet legible permutations, in every one. But their very obviousness transforms them. Subject matter established, the viewer can move on to notice the subtle illogicality of their shapes (many are as impossible as the architecture in medieval altarpieces), the intensity of their colours, the ambiguity of their contexts. The imagery acts as a way in to the painting, not a destination in itself – a tent pitched in the colour fields of abstract art.

Manner ohne Frauen. Parsifal (Men without Women: Parsifal) (1993), Markus Lüpertz. Image courtesy the Phillips Collection.

Perhaps the most sustained example of Lüpertz’s dithyrambic method is Men without Women (Parsifal) from the 1990s, a huge series of faces assembled from the sparest of pictorial elements – blocks of colour or networks of lines. It is impossible not to read their features as human, impossible not to see them as grids – and so we must hold both those possibilities in mind at once. ‘My generation lifted the dissonance between abstraction and figuration,’ Lüpertz explains of his breakthrough. ‘Both are possible […] That’s why we can paint so well today.’ He continues to work consistently and prolifically in series. Hundreds of drawings pave the way for dozens of paintings, each inflected by the last. The dithyrambs of the 1960s offered a promising modus operandi, which Lüpertz soon tested out on the most loaded subject imaginable at the time – Germany’s fascist past. His infamous German Motifs from the 1970s depict the uniforms and weaponry of Nazi aggression and the imperial symbols that glorified it. These were images whose significance was impossible to overlook – yet, true to his method, Lüpertz raked over and over them with the result that no particular message or moral could take root. InSinking Helmets, the discarded combat gear presses grimly into muddy painted ground, the monumental scale matching the gravity of the subject. In Helmet II the object rests menacingly on top of an army jacket, while in Black-Red-Goldit balances on a Roman-looking breastplate and chariot wheels stuck in the rutted soil. Germany’s tricolour flag was banned by the Nazis in favour of the imperial black, red and white, and only reinstated after the war. While artistically these assemblages resemble De Chirico’s surreal classical monuments, emotionally they feel like phantoms or, more troublingly, grim resurrections of a still unburied past.

Lüpertz was not alone in his choice of subject. Baselitz had already painted his broken Heroes; Kiefer was soon to publish his Occupations series, for which he photographed himself giving the Nazi salute. Their decision to grapple with Germany’s recent past meant accepting the uncomfortable intimacy that such gestures entailed; inevitably the work proved controversial. ‘There were bohemians, and the establishment’ in Berlin at the time, Lüpertz recalls. ‘The establishment rejected the works because they didn’t know how to deal with the German motifs.’

These paintings have become no less inscrutable with age – just differently so, as the Hirshhorn’s ‘Threads of History’ exhibition, dedicated to his formative years, makes clear. ‘What’s interesting is how his paintings acquire different meanings through time,’ curator Evelyn Hankins comments, explaining how the ears of corn Lüpertz painted at the time, for example, have largely shed their connotations with the ‘Blood and Soil’ rhetoric of the Third Reich and will be understood differently in the US. The exhibition concludes with a set of paintings started soon after the German motif works and named after Babylon – a comparatively remote subject at the time, which this year will surely harbour new emotional charge in light of the destruction in Iraq. Hankins describes the Babylon paintings as ‘the beginning of a retreat into history’ for Lüpertz. But if their political implications were less prominent, artistically they signalled an important opening out of his work.

Over the decades, Lüpertz has painted motifs culled from sources as diverse as fashion advertising, Romantic landscapes, and cubist still lifes. He’s created bodies of work devoted to specific classical heroes, and a series of Arcadias, which pulls them – or the motifs and statuary by which we know them – together in verdant settings. He has quoted directly from old and modern masters, honouring some of them, such as Corot and Dürer, with series of their own. Some of these allusions have the visual irony of his Donald Ducks – in Sleep/Prometheus (After Poussin) from 1989, a reclining figure from the French painter’s Echo and Narcissus naps under a blanket seemingly made by Mondrian – but the gesture of recognition is sincere. ‘I live within painting, and painters who have passed away live on in their paintings,’ the artist tells me. ‘Their work is relevant to me – up to date. I am in discourse with the paintings from previous generations, from my contemporaries, and from the future.’

This sense of the timelessness of art, with nothing off limits to the contemporary painter, is important. Over series and in single compositions, Lüpertz accumulates familiar motifs with the effect of making them more abstract, more fluid. In this context, the German motifs, which he never completely abandoned and includes frequently in recent pictures, take their place among shells, statues and skulls as modern memento mori – the rawest signs of Western culture’s long cycle through periods of aspiration, civilisation, and destruction. ‘There is nothing new in painting. It is a discipline [that] we are working within,’ he tells me. ‘Painting regenerates through the input of new painters – that’s why it is vital. The quality of painting is a given. We all fail [to meet its] high demands. The key is to fail on higher grounds.’ Several times during our conversation, he alludes to painting as something divine, existing outside of time. By extension, the entire, evolving art-historical canon might be seen as one long dithyramb in its honour.

For a man so staunchly committed to painting, Lüpertz has many creative side-lines. He’s a talented pianist (a C. Bechstein sits open in the studio’s anteroom), has worked on set designs, and since the 1970s has published his own poems. At the end of our meeting he hands me his latest book, Arkadien, illustrated with lithographs reminiscent of his paintings. When I ask whether he is tempted to experiment more with printmaking (his repetition of motifs, in different states each time, begs the question) he looks thoughtful. ‘I have only worked with it peripherally,’ he replies, ‘and it is still dependent on what I paint or sculpt. I’m in the process of developing a unique thematic for printmaking, to grant it independence within my oeuvre. My dream is Goya’s Disasters of War. It is the pinnacle of printmaking.’

Achilles (2014), Markus Lüpertz, installed at Michael Werner’s estate outside Berlin. Photo: Thomas Meyer; courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London; © the artist.

Of all Lüpertz’s creative offshoots, his sculpture is the most well known. He created his first works in 1981, ironically at a time when painting was enjoying a critical revival. (That year, Lüpertz participated in the Royal Academy’s  ‘A New Spirit in Painting’ where his work inspired a young Peter Doig.) ‘I created a world with a horizon,’ he tells me of his decision to experiment in three dimensions. ‘This world and the horizon needed inhabitants.’ Several of his sculptures lope through the estate, looking for all the world like they’ve stepped out of one of his Arcadias. Among them is Achilles, seemingly based on Rodin’s fractured Walking Man. This armless, athletic figure is roughly put together; his surface pockmarked; his dark bronze face painted to recall war paint and court makeup simultaneously. Like his paintings, Lüpertz’s figurative sculptures fuse a jumble of art-historical tropes with surprising coherence and grace. They are foolish heroes, or heroic fools, whose damaged forms express the trauma of the 20th century while acknowledging heroism’s enduring appeal.

In 2005, Lüpertz created a monument to Mozart in Salzburg. Gerhard Richter called it a ‘depravation’ of art and a few disgruntled locals tarred and feathered it. ‘I am not interested in provocation: I am part of society’, he tells me when I ask about the controversies that have peppered his career. ‘If society does not agree with what it creates, it is society’s problem.’ Lüpertz is clear in his belief that people have a responsibility to cultivate themselves. In the literature accompanying his 2015 retrospective at Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne, he spells it out: ‘Painting is an abstract product, and it is only through the viewer that it tells a story. Painting does not educate the person looking at it, it does not provide lessons, but it takes the viewer seriously and ennobles him by assuming an intellectually emancipated world.’ As dean of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf – a post he held for 21 years until 2009 – he invited great artists not to teach, but to inspire, conceiving of the institution as a meeting place of receptive minds.

Is the next generation of artists up to the challenge? Lüpertz insists that there are great painters in every age, but perhaps the current one is not conducive to their success. ‘People are like puppets – always on their phones and computers,’ complains the painter, who owns neither. ‘Everything is controlled with little room for intelligence. But with the next war this will all be dealt with.’ It’s a provocative statement, particularly today, with nationalistic, racial and religious tensions on the rise around the world. I ask him what role artists should play in times of such uncertainty. ‘It’s not a problem for the artists, but a problem for all of us,’ he replies. ‘We must learn to live in peace, but up to today we have only managed to defend it. People are surprised by peace and degenerate the moment they achieve it. The degeneration is sold as freedom. And that freedom right now is very vague, because freedom demands intelligence and there is a world-wide shortage.’

At the end of our interview, Lüpertz is ushered downstairs by his studio manager, who wants him to make a few phone calls on the landline. I take the opportunity to look again at his work in light of all we’ve discussed. His classical heroes show the wear and tear of centuries – used to bolster one set of ideals, damaged or abandoned in society’s inevitable counter-movement – and the skeleton in the corner seems a fitting symbol of the violence underpinning it all. But then I look again. At the edge of one figure group, a yellow-painted grid lies visible on the surface. In another, a centaur’s human and animal halves are joined by a large block of black dots. ‘If you take away one layer of the world, you see its skeleton,’ Lüpertz said. But this is the world of painting, and its framework is different. There’s nothing to suggest Lüpertz will paint over his grids and leave the skeleton; nothing really to suggest he sees them differently at all. ‘I am curious about your interpretation, not my own,’ he tells me before I leave. ‘I can say something different every day.’

Markus Lüpertz (b. 1941) at his studio outside Berlin in February 2017. Photo: Thomas Meyer.


“Markus Lüpertz”
May 27 – September 3, 2017
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Info: http://bit.ly/2qly2EU

“Markus Lüpertz: Threads of History”
May 24 – September 10, 2017
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Info: http://s.si.edu/2qpdCXw


By Maggie Gray, Reprint from Apollo Magazine, 20 May 2017, © 2017 Apollo Magazine

Billy Childish: Interview

Billy Childish (English, b. 1959): sailish fisherman, 2015. Oil and charcoal on linen. Courtesy the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London, UK. Photo: Andy Keate.

“My paintings are traditionally modern. I’m not romancing a past time but I’m not nailing myself to the 21st Century either. I think there’s nothing as dated as the contemporary: much of the output by young artists in the 1990’s who ‘reflected their time and culture’ looks dated already. Great art transcends time. I don’t choose my influences – they choose me.” (Billy Childish)

Billy Childish, aka William Hamper, is much more than the sum of his widely known, many moving parts. A creative dynamo, to his credit are over 150 or so albums, 40 poetry collections, 5 novels. He is a co-founder of Stuckism, an internationally recognized painter, an influencer of the YBAs. Ever true to himself, he is a creative force to be reckoned with. Key to this achievement may reside in an imperative drive and desire for freedom. His work, his paintings, emerge unfettered by the clutter of passing artistic trends and fads and a unique voice rings clear and strong. Compelling.

I Require Art: Your poetry and writing, your music, your painting, coalesce and converge — and then, you pump them out. The results: raw power, unique, staggering, utterly compelling. I can’t get enough. Clearly, I’m not alone. I say “raw” in the sense of your clear-eyed brutal honesty in extending outward, an essence, a piece, of your complex and unique life. Powerful stuff.

—Speaking now of your paintings — energy surges from your works. Palpable.

What goes on within you when you paint? … and around you when you paint? … and when you’re finished?

Billy Childish: I paint the large works in my studio which is in the old boatswains office in Chatham Dockyard. Often I conduct interviews as I paint, or chat with one of the young artists I’ve invited to work in the studio. I seem to paint largely from a different part of the brain I use for everyday communication so I can paint pretty much without concern or worry. I seem to be able to paint and talk simultaneously without too much confliction. A painting is started and finished on the same day then I forget about it and get on with life.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): clamming on maud (Version X), 2013. Oil and charcoal on linen, 183 x 305 cm. Courtesy the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London, UK.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): clamming on maud (Version X), 2013. Oil and charcoal on linen, 183 x 305 cm. Courtesy the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London, UK.

IRA: Are you aware of a sense of timelessness in your works? What do you think might contribute to this sense of the universal in these vigorous, bold pieces?

BC: I like writing and painting (and to some extent music) that can’t be precisely pinned down to the era in which it was made. In his novel Hunger, Knut Hamsun encapsulates this – there’s no big reference to the period it’s written in, so it can fit any time. My paintings are traditionally modern. I’m not romancing a past time but I’m not nailing myself to the 21st Century either. I think there’s nothing as dated as the contemporary: much of the output by young artists in the 1990’s who ‘reflected their time and culture’ looks dated already. Great art transcends time. I don’t choose my influences – they choose me, and I definitely don’t choose to be ‘cool’ or ‘relevant’. Someone mentioned that my group Thee Mighty Caesars, (1985) though often dismissed at the time as being retro – now sound like ‘any time’ where as the pop of the period is very dated.

IRA: Can you tell us about your physical process of painting? What interests you most about the process? The when, the where, the mood, the how?

BC: I draw quickly with charcoal on raw linen, finishing the drawing with speed (and boldness hopefully). I then paint immediately and allow colours to suggest themselves. I try to get out the way and let the painting paint itself.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): umiak Alaska, 2013. Oil and charcoal on linen, 72 × 108-1/10 inches (183 × 274.5 cm). Courtesy the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London, UK.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): umiak alaska, 2013. Oil and charcoal on linen, 72 × 108-1/10 inches (183 × 274.5 cm). Courtesy the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London, UK.

IRA: In what way(s) does autobiographical content affect your work?

BC: I often paint my daughter, son, wife and many self-portraits, but they are best seen as universal representations. I believe that a landscape is a self-portrait – it’s all gods face

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): walking in gods butie, 2013. Oil and charcoal on linen, 108.07 x 72.05 inches (274.5 x 183 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): walking in gods butie, 2013. Oil and charcoal on linen, 108.07 x 72.05 inches (274.5 x 183 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

                                                           Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): Man in a Small Boat, Winter; 2013. Oil and charcoal on linen, 40.55 x 120.08 inches (103 x 305 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): man in a small boat, winter; 2013. Oil and charcoal on linen, 40.55 x 120.08 inches (103 x 305 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): Sea of galilee, night; 2012. Oil and charcoal on linen, 183 x 244 cm. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Neugerriemschneider, Berlin, Germany. Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): sea of galilee, night; 2012. Oil and charcoal on linen, 183 x 244 cm. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Neugerriemschneider, Berlin, Germany. Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin.

IRA: Is photography an influence in your work?

BC: I have used photography extensively since the early 1980’s. As long as you can escape the 2 dimensions of the photograph (and see round the corners into what’s hidden) it’s not a problem, but I don’t recommend it for everyone.

IRA: You are noted as advocating for the artist, the pursuit of the essential values of the amateur vs. the professional. I believe this is extraordinarily relevant in today’s art world. Can you tell us about this distinction, as it affects you personally and perhaps more broadly?

BC: I use that as a joke – but a true joke. In French Amateur means ‘done through love’, not to pay the mortgage (which in French means death grip). Amateurs enjoy freedom. I wanted to become an artist because I wanted to be free – not be bound by a job. I also tell people I make pictures, not art – this is another joke at the artists.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): alaska fur packer, 2015. Oil and charcoal on linen, 72 × 87 inches (183 × 221 cm). Courtesy the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London, UK.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): alaska fur packer, 2015. Oil and charcoal on linen, 72 × 87 inches (183 × 221 cm). Courtesy the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London, UK.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): River Garden, Kroonstad 1901 (version); 2014. Oil and charcoal on linen, 183 x 274.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London, UK.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): river garden, kroonstad 1901 (version); 2014. Oil and charcoal on linen, 183 x 274.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London, UK.

IRA: How important to you is the act of painting? Is it something you would be able, or choose, to put aside?

BC: No I must paint at least every week or two. I believe you can tell if someone is an artist by if they would still create their work on a desert island, or commercial isolation with no audience.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): Man on Chairs (Peeling Orange), 2012. Oil and charcoal on linen, 72.05 x 108.07 inches. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): man on chairs (peeling orange), 2012. Oil and charcoal on linen, 72.05 x 108.07 inches. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

IRA: You are a creative gale force wind. How do you navigate the creative flows of music performance, writing, painting? How do your various talents affect or engage with each other?

BC: They are joined in that I like the bare bones in all of these disciplines.

I write every morning, I paint on Mondays, and I make music when I get the urge. I try not to be a wimp, but also don’t force it.

IRA: Does inspiration always flow? Can you speak to what lies at the core of your wellspring of inspiration?

BC: I don’t worry about inspiration (actually I do – but i ignore my worries) the best way forward for all is work. Freedom through work (excuse the nazi connotation – they are bastards)

IRA: Is there anything you’d like to share with the viewers?

BC: Perhaps a few new canvases.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): birches with bluebells, 2016. Oil and charcoal on linen. Courtesy the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London, UK. Photo: Andy Keate.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): birches with bluebells, 2016. Oil and charcoal on linen. Courtesy the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London, UK. Photo: Andy Keate.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): girl reclining version, 2015. Oil and charcoal on linen, 108.07 x 72.05 inches (274.5 x 183 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): girl reclining version, 2015. Oil and charcoal on linen, 108.07 x 72.05 inches (274.5 x 183 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): man howling to wolves, 2015. Oil and charcoal on linen, 72.05 x 108.07 inches (183 x 274.5 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Billy Childish (British, b. 1959): man howling to wolves, 2015. Oil and charcoal on linen, 72.05 x 108.07 inches (183 x 274.5 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

IRA: Where and when can viewers next experience an exhibition of your artwork? Our viewers often mention your music performances. Where and when can we next hear you perform?

BC: Lehmann Maupin will feature a solo presentation of paintings at ADAA: The Art Show in March 2017, followed by an exhibition at the Goss Michael Foundation in Dallas, Texas in April 2017. It’s also worth keeping an eye on the L-13 (L-13.org) website for forthcoming editions, books and other shenanigans, and the Damaged Goods site (damagedgoods.co.uk) for recordings and news of any gigs (though we have none planned in the near future).

 

— Jules Cavanaugh


© 2016 I Require Art Studios, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

László Fehér: Interview

“The world around me ceased and I found myself expelled from time… ” (László Fehér)

And so commences the artwork that flows from the hand and vision of László Fehér, iconic Hungarian artist. He is among the most important Hungarian artists and noteworthy among the resurgence of figurative artists. His ability to distill transcendent moments from life’s “series of banalities” is staggering. Merging form, figuration and abstraction with profound social and moral sensibilities, his deft hand works visual magic.

I Require Art: A strong sense of emotion, isolation, of moments floating in time, permeates your work. These sensibilities, tightly focused through a visual lens of aloof, flat, reduced imagery, create a riveting and dynamic visual poetry. I am mesmerized by your artist’s vision and aesthetic. Where are these sensibilities rooted?

László Fehér: My childhood is the most memorable experience of my life. As children we are completely one with ourselves, and we can draw upon these experiences as long as we live. I was born into a great and strong repressive dictatorship that lead to the revolution of 1956, then after its defeat there followed a slightly less repressive dictatorship of another kind in which I lived until the democratic changes of 1990. Let me relate to you one of the fundamental stories of my childhood.

I was five at the time and I loved to sit by the shore of the lake, which was one of the most important places for me as a boy. I liked to sit and watch as the light plunging into the water multiplied the infinite vistas. Once as I was sitting there, an old man, Uncle Miklós Boda, an old friend of the family, asked me if I’d like to go with him in his boat to haul up the fish traps. We got in the boat, rowed into the middle of the lake and hauled up the first trap. It was teeming with fish. The smaller fish wriggled about merrily, while the big and noble long pike died, its glassy eyes turned to the sun. When we hauled up the second trap, the same thing happened again. When we hauled up the third trap, I couldn’t restrain myself anymore and asked, tell me, Uncle Miklós, how come that the smaller fish are splashing and wriggling about merrily here in the trap while this carp, it doesn’t even have to go hunting, it just opens its mouth and it can eat, and then this carp dies. Tell me please why this is. And then Uncle Miklós said, you know, son, the carp is different. The carp was born to be free. If it can’t be free, it would rather die.

Memorable experiences like this came to define my thinking. They shed light on the political situation of the fifties in which I lived. In fact, they shed light on the essence of human existence, which is also the essence of art. It’s called freedom. If an artist does not add something new to things, if he does not expand the concept of art, if he doesn’t create new ways of relating to things, then he in fact gives nothing and his mystical gesture remains of no importance from the point of view of art.

My work to date can be divided into various periods. In 1974, when I was attending the Art Academy, I began painting hyperrealistic or photorealistic works. These were unabashedly sociological in intention. For example, based on some photographs I found in a shipyard newspaper I painted the outstanding workers of the month, thereby holding up a mirror to society. On other pictures I painted underpasses and trams.  I worked mostly in gray and black colors. I considered there the colors of everyday life. The scene of these pictures, titled Underpass I, was the underground stop of the subway in front of the Academy. I made several photographs for the painting and spent a lot of time mulling over what I should do. Working in the studio of the Academy, I tried everything I could think of, but I couldn’t find a solution, and then in anger and frustration I threw one of the photographs on the floor and trampled it underfoot. When I took my foot from the photograph, there was the solution. A crowd of humiliated human beings going up the stairs, creased and trampled underfoot. As far as I was concerned, this picture served as the case history of the state of things in the world in which I lived. I picked the picture off the floor and holding it in my hand as I worked, I painted it on a two and a half meter canvas. The result was that they withdrew all the benefits that came with attending the last year of graduate school, and after a couple of months I was called into the army, even though I was officially too old.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Underground Passage I, 1975. Oil on wood-fibre, 241 x 170 cm. © László Fehér.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Underground Passage I, 1975. Oil on wood-fibre, 241 x 170 cm. © László Fehér.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Subway, 1976. Oil on wood-fibre, 82,5 x 158 cm. © László Fehér.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Subway, 1976. Oil on wood-fibre, 82,5 x 158 cm. © László Fehér.

The second period began in 1981 with a trip to Switzerland. I might add that at the time you could go abroad as a tourist only every three years, and even then, you were subject to strict restrictions. Anyway, in Basel for the first time I came face to face with the outstanding accomplishments of modern art – the works of Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, which I saw at exhibitions. Their art veritably knocked me over and I felt I had to review the situation. I had to decide whether I should continue in the sociology based photorealist vein or change directions and attempt to find answers to the questions posed by art by going deeper and using a new vernacular or form. When I came home, I painted the Jewish holidays series, the Eight Days, Diaspora, and Holiday I and II. The paintings conjured up the Jewish holidays, Yop Kippur, Passover, and so on. With these paintings I began orienting myself toward a new direction, which not much later led to the appearance of the so-called redrawn figures. This was in 1985. In my studio outside of Budapest I painted a large 2.5 x 2.5 meter realistic painting depicting my mother, my grandmother, and a lady, and they’re holding me in my swaddling clothes next to a column. When I finished the painting, I was terribly unhappy with it, and taking a rag, with a sweeping gesture I wiped off the figures. Their outlines remained, I added the surrounding landscape and emphasized the outlines of the figures with white. At that moment I knew that something had been decided. The figures were suffused with light and also the woods, and thanks to their silhouettes, the characters wrote themselves into the surrounding landscape as if they were signs made of light. I could also describe how the yellow and black period and the following periods came about, but it would take too long.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Diaspora, 1982. Oil on canvas, 200 x 140 cm. © László Fehér.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Diaspora, 1982. Oil on canvas, 200 x 140 cm. © László Fehér.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Untitled (Mementos from Dég Series), 1985. Oil on wood-fibre, 250 x 250 cm. © László Fehér.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Untitled (Mementos from Dég Series), 1985. Oil on wood-fibre, 250 x 250 cm. © László Fehér.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Sun, River, Man; 1991. Oil on canvas, 120 × 170 cm. Private Collection. © László Fehér.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Sun, River, Man; 1991. Oil on canvas, 120 × 170 cm. Private Collection. © László Fehér.

IRA: The noted art historian, Donald Kuspit*, connects some of this sensibility, particularly a keen sense of alienation in your work, to be reflective of the Jewish experience. What are your thoughts regarding this?

IRA: What  inspires and informs your work?

LF: I’d like to answer these two questions by relating the circumstance of the birth of a painting. The painting bears the title, Before the Wall…

My first trip to Israel was in 2000. We had been looking forward to this visit for a long time. In life, nothing happens by chance. Some artists spend years waiting, because they know full well that there is a moment that will bring about something extraordinary, when ordinary, tangible reality transcends into another sphere.

We left for Israel just prior to Pessah of 2000. We wanted to celebrate my son’s Bar Mitzvah there in the company of our relatives – our present to him. We boarded the El Al plane loaded down with film, cameras, a video. Our arrival was profoundly touching. As we got off the plane, we were surrounded by an aura of excitement. I’m in the land of Israel! How often have a dreamed of this in the seventies, how often have I imagined this meeting as I was painting desolate, abandoned Jewish cemeteries in my studio at Tác. I had a lump in my throat, a feeling I cannot describe. I’d felt this way just once before. In the early nineties my son David and I went to hear an Israeli chorus at Kápolnásnyék. They sang about their homeland with deep feeling. I sat on the synagogue bench and cried, overwhelmed, and when I threw a sideways glance at my son, just seven at the time, I saw that he was crying too. The songs were in Hebrew. He couldn’t have understood the words yet, but he could feel them. This is the special feeling that has you in its grip as you arrive in Israel – the love of the homeland, which radiates from every pore. “I love you, beautiful Israel,” I heard myself exclaim. Then, having passed through narrow alleys, having pushed through crowds, we suddenly found ourselves in front of the Wall, where men in black kaftans and spodik were swaying back and forth, immersed in prayer. The crevices in the Wall were stuffed with small slips of paper bearing requests. My son went up to the wall. “I want to touch it,” he said. Wrapped in his tallit, he began to pray as I stood by, clutching my own request in my palm.

There it was, around me, in front of me, the history of thousands of years – there stood before me the Wall. Many have painted it before, countless post cards and posters have depicted it, rendering it practically banal. But our lives, too, are a series of banalities. Just then, the towering figure of a man with a big black spodik stepped into my field of vision, David was bowing and praying in front of him, and behind him my relative Chista, then another man in a tallit. The last member of this group was a man with sidelocks and a black hat, also immersed in prayer. The world around me ceased and I found myself expelled from time, with only the white of the tallit burning bright and the thicket of black clothing circumscribing everything. “Shema Yisroel,” I heard myself say, then I placed the small slip in a crevice in the Wall, touched my fingers to it, kissed it, and said, “Let there be Peace!”

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Before the Wall, 2000. Oil on canvas, 180 x 250 cm. © László Fehér.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Before the Wall, 2000. Oil on canvas, 180 x 250 cm. © László Fehér.

IRA: The sensitive paintings of your daughter, Judit, are remarkable. How much of your work is autobiographical?

LF: The great majority of my paintings were inspired by my own life. After all, I am always relating my own story. I can speak most accurately and authentically about my own private world because, as I mentioned in the beginning of the interview, truth and freedom form the basis of my thinking.

 

IRA: Can you tell us about your process? How is your work influenced by photography?

LF: Before I start working on a painting, I plan every square centimeter in advance. I know everything down to the smallest detail. I often sacrifice painterly solutions for the sake of what I wish to say. Although I paint fast, I often let a theme mature for years, even decades before I launch into realizing it on canvas. I take a lot of photographs and then I use these photographs like notes. Sometimes I use photos from our old family albums as well and incorporate these into my work. This is what happened when I made the recent series of graphic works.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Light Giver II, 2014. Pencil and ink on paper, 75 x 105 cm. © László Fehér.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Light Giver II, 2014. Pencil and ink on paper, 75 x 105 cm. © László Fehér.

IRA: What’s the most engaging aspect of your new graphic series at the Platán Gallery in Budapest?

LF: My wife’s uncle invited us to a family gathering and during a conversation someone related a story that they’d kept secret for decades, they considered such things taboo and never talked about it. But now to our surprise we learned that Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor, had experimented on our host’s mother in the concentration camp in Auschwitz back in the forties. Then in 1945, and this was something of a miracle, barely thirty kilos and tormented, she managed to come back to Hungary, and she was convinced that after the inhuman experiments and other tortures she’d suffered she could never have a child. Meanwhile, my wife’s grandfather, József Kardos, had come back from forced labor to learn that his wife had died in a concentration camp, and he found himself alone with his daughter, who was eight at the time. Kardos met and subsequently married Júlianna Kerényi, who accepted, among other things, because thanks to the little girl, their marriage would not be childless. Then a couple of years later a miracle occurred. Júlianna Kerényi became pregnant and gave birth to a beautiful, healthy boy, Jancsi. Having heard the story, I asked Jancsi if he could show me pictures of his mother, himself, and his childhood years. That’s when I was given a couple of photographs from the fifties. These photographs carried a special aura because they were idyllic; they were taken a couple of years after the war and you couldn’t help but think that time was attempting to heal incurable wounds.

I drew these situations with pencil and the backgrounds of the figures with black India ink, thus indicating the intangible black void that contains suffering and mortality, but also the will to live. I chose an HB pencil to draw the pictures because its hardness produces the same effect as when you enlarge a picture and the image first appears in the developer. At that point the image is much sharper than in real life. It was my way of depicting the process of remembering. This is how the pictures of my recent exhibition at the Platán Gallery were born.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Julianna and Jancsi (Mother and her Son), 2014. Pencil and ink on paper, 105 x 75 cm. © László Fehér.

László Fehér (Hungarian, b. 1953): Julianna and Jancsi (Mother and her Son), 2014. Pencil and ink on paper, 105 x 75 cm. © László Fehér.

IRA: Where can viewers experience your work? Will your work be available to viewers in the US, Canada in the foreseeable future?

LF: I will have a one-man show here in Hungary in June, and in September I will have my own exhibition in Vienna. My works will also be on display at an exhibition of Nancy Goodman Brinker’s collection at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Several private collections also contain my works, from Los Angeles to New York, and two of my paintings are on deposit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada, thanks to Andrew Sarlós.

 

IRA: Is there anything that you would like the viewers to know?

LF: I spoke repeatedly of the past and remembering. I wrote a poem about this in 2012 for an exhibition catalog. Here it is:

 

Remember

Remember the silent, sullen landscape?

The prayers in the ghetto, remember?

Éva Kardos, remember her

dashing across the street

to escape certain death?

Remember your bar mitzvah and the tallit,

the yellow star hidden underneath?

I remember because I am a circle,

the elusive infinite.

As long as I exist You too shall exist,

as long as you remember – so long shall you live.

(© László Fehér. Translated from Hungarian by: Judith Sollosy)

 

— Jules Cavanaugh

* Donald Kuspit, László Fehér: Memory and Abandonment, 1997. Full text, artwork, at László Fehér website: www.feherlaszlo.hu

This is the first of more artist Q&A interviews we will be presenting. We welcome and encourage your comments.


© 2016 I Require Art Studios, LLC. All Rights Reserved.