Inhaling Darkness Exhaling Galaxies
Adam Saks in conversation with Christian Malycha
CM: To start with the title, what’s it about?
AS: In a way, the title is a transcription of an idea or state of mind. It alludes to an atmosphere that is visible in the paintings. Of course, it’s not that I am painting galaxies in a narrative sense but I transform a certain substance into a new realm or into a new world. That is the reason for the title being »Inhaling Darkness, Exhaling Galaxies« because a lot of the issues and objects that I am using – be it the devil’s head or the arms reaching out – tend to have a darker touch. Other themes are derived from the still-life. For me it was very clear that on the one side the title signalises this darkness or an element of ›vanitas‹ as well as it refers to me painting and reassembling all the different parts within a new setting. That’s how the transgression from the darkness to new galaxies came about.
CM: The title evokes an atmosphere that catches your painterly process. And it even seems to sum up your last four to five years of painting still-lifes. Was it necessary to take in all those things and find the appropriate form for them?
AS: I have always been interested in sub or parallel worlds, hidden ones like, let’s say, the opium eaters. And thus, it only was natural to gravitate towards the still-life. The paintings now are probably most related to the paintings of rocks I did in 2008–9 in which most diverse elements were being adjusted upon the plane. In a very clear and almost graphical sense, I stamped the different elements into the paintings.
CM: As if you were assembling a world from these parts?
AS: Exactly. In the new works, however, the still-life aspect is still very present but the course has changed, it has been integrated into a painterly environment. And I think that is a big jump from the former still-lifes. In the things that you see now, the painterly plane has been woven together in a completely altered form than earlier. And that is something which is crucial for this exhibition.
CM: So, you inhaled the world in order to exhale it again anew.
AS: Maybe it’s like a snake shedding its old skin. Somehow you know when you enter new territory.
CM: Have you already arrived or are you still in the middle of getting there?
AS: You never get there … There is no finish line. As a painter it’s incredibly important to be a scientist, you have to do your »research«. It’s not about cranking out painting after painting to fill a space, it is about how you can accentuate whatever pictorial means you have. And I am pretty much aware of which elements I take out and discard or maintain accordingly and strengthen, otherwise you don’t win any new territories.
CM: Going back to your earlier paintings, around 2005 they were clearly more separated into individual approaches: the black and white paintings function on a mental or graphic level which is then brought over into the massive and very thickly painted canvases with their monolithic motives, and all of a sudden you move on to the watercolours. The watercolours in turn present lots of motives and huge dynamics. They are by no means as static as the oil paintings before. About 2011–12 you transport these abundant swirls into a more painterly medium, acrylic. From there on you move back to oil in 2013–14. At first with a rather graphic imagery – that’s the first still-lifes – which eventually becomes more fluid in the most recent ones. To cut that short, it’s a constant movement, one massive transformation.
AS: I have been painting throughout every period and each of them has been a reaction to the previous one. The big watercolours, for example, were a reaction to the more static oil paintings and so on. In order to achieve something new I had to set off from what had come before. That was very important for me. The crucial question in search of a new painting was always: how to infuse the spontaneity and the dynamics of a drawing or watercolour with the robustness of an oil painting? How to accelerate the oil paint as in a big drawing while maintaining the qualities and substance of an oil painting, the plane and its depth? The acrylic paintings were light. I still painted them but used the colour very graphically and direct. The first oil paintings afterwards did have this drawing-like character, too. And even the new paintings I have made for Reutlingen possess the same quality. The oil has been infused with the same directness you will find in my drawings or dry-points. It is a constant search maximising your painterly possibilities, your own freedom.
CM: Fusing the light and transparency of watercolour with the monumentality of an oil painting brings together contradictory things. If you take the earlier works you could say, there is one statement and the next painting is the answer to it. But for some years something else has been going on because the new works are both statement and reaction, at the same time. Both sides are entwined with each other and that is quite astounding. It is an open process.
AS: Indeed, the more graphic strand and the oil painting strand interweave, painterly speaking, they are sort of biting their own tails in the new paintings. They mutually benefit from each other and that’s an achievement in some form.
CM: It is. Beforehand one could say, you were painting thick, painting thin, painting transparent,
painting abstract, all different methods. Anyhow, looking back now, one clearly has to say it is not about applying different methods but it is one interrelated endeavour of combining all the different possibilities of painting.
AS: Talking about that … an artist that interests me is Malcolm Morley, for example, or Richard Prince, for that matter. Even though, they are quite different. Still, both do have the ability to jump over their own shadows to be able to see the world from outside and to change directions and evaluate their own pictorial achievements or constructions.
CM: Be it Richard Prince or Malcolm Morley, both are ›method-painters‹. They share a similar conception or methodological approach but it is not about painting itself. Thus, I would say your case is different because you are more painterly, in the most classical sense.
AS: Of course there’s some ›glue‹ binding the whole thing, I am intrigued by the process and intrigued how the construction of a painting works.
CM: Richard Prince, being very aware of contemporary techniques of image production, is not at all trying to fuse things within one painting. He’s actually reproducing the scattered mess of the reality we are living in.
AS: He’s like an image scavenger. He grabs things and puts them back together. I basically do the same that’s why I mentioned him. I have a completely different idea of painting than he has but searching for appropriate imagery and spitting it out again, I guess, we have in common.
CM: I am not so sure, to me he appears to be more interested in a day to day depiction of the contemporary image making.
AS: Possibly, but when in the mid-90ies I was studying at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen, I came across the American »Picture Generation« and immediately was intrigued by the way they appropriated, slightly altered, and re-used images. This concept of using found imagery to construct a painterly universe I have adopted in my own painting. However, I gather my images from high and low culture and not necessarily from media generated sources. I am pretty aware to keep a certain temporal distance from my source material. The Picture Generation was focused on its immediate contemporary media surroundings as material basis for their appropriation whereas I deliberately have chosen to alter the found imagery heavily and establish new connotations through the juxtaposition or overlayering of colour and gesture. Most of all because I do not want to tab in into our current stream of media generated images. What looks contemporary today will definitely look old-fashioned tomorrow.
CM: Painting is something we can relate to and we can recognise – the experiences that went into it –, although we have not seen that particular image before. But with Richard Prince you have seen everything, even before you see the actual painting.
AS: It’s very important to be aware of the imagery you are using, be it old, be it new, I think it is only a catalyst for making a painting. You have to be seduced by the painting itself whatever it is and then you can get into the subject matter afterwards.
CM: Is there a possibility for a painter to know too much?
AS: You have to be intelligent in some form, I would say. But if you know too much it can also be a barrier because you can’t do anything without referring to a lot of other things and then you out-smart yourself. And I think that‘s a bad thing. You need to be highly learned and keep things still direct and with a certain kind of naïvety.
CM: Take the Reutlingen exhibition, you enter the space, behold the paintings and you are immediately caught or appalled by what you are seeing. The atmosphere of the space translates itself towards you and only then you start to look at the paintings more clearly.
AS: That is what painting is about. Painting is definitely a matter of creating something that fulfils itself in its own but still opens up a little to let you in like a riddle you’re not able to decipher at once because if you were able to do so it would be a mere illustration of something you already knew. And that’s pretty boring, isn’t it. That’s why the etchings are very important to me. They form a sort of alphabet for the paintings. They are the ›letters‹ from which the painterly ›words‹ are made. Drawings or etchings have an intimacy I want to bring up on canvases, too. For me it is always kind of a quest to achieve this very refined kind of mark-making, the same nervous intensity in my paintings. They linger between roughness and smoothness, they exist on many levels.
CM: Or on different layers, with different textures, different realities. Some things are rough and impenetrable, others are very delicate and light, nearly transparent. There is a sense of an overall ornamental composition bringing everything together and holding it together.
AS: Being a Danish artist I grew up with Munch or Jorn and their ornamental ways of building a picture. How you integrate the individual parts into an ornament. This ornamental element in painting, also found in Japanese woodcuts, for example, is still very present on my mind.
CM: You never wanted to be a ›Nordic painter‹!
AS: No, not at all … Actually, I was much more interested in American painting. I have always been drawn to Warhol and his graphic techniques, to the repetition of imagery he did. But still, there is an obvious side in my handwriting which comes from the Nordic tradition.
CM: Is it in your painterly DNA?
AS: I guess so …
CM: You can’t get rid of it, although at the same time, it gives you far greater freedom than someone who is only able to use a western idiom. You enter from the outside.
AS: Today, drawing has become such a strong part or column of my work which gives me the ability to construct a painting in a more fluent manner. It is a decision about what is positive and what is negative, what is in and what is out. Even though, I do not think my paintings are expressionist. I carefully control the application of paint and therefore the individual objects are shaped in a controlled manner. It is a very concise way of painting.
CM: But the sense of something expressive or of an expression which is human and hand-made, somehow enriched with experiences, is something quite important.
AS: An important aspect of it is resistance. You need to create your own resistance or something to overcome in your painting. Otherwise, it becomes shallow or virtuous. You really need to have these obstacles whatever they might be, drawing, paint, whatever. You need to overcome certain elements in your painting in order to create something new. Just as Francis Bacon said, ›there are no bad painters there are only painters with a better critical sense than others‹ … You need to have this ability to step aside yourself to take a critical view on what you have been doing or you immerse yourself in the work in the wrong sense and don’t know how to progress because you don’t see it from afar.
CM: This even holds true for your paintings in Reutlingen. It is quite interesting that they appear to be figurative and the longer you look at them they reveal themselves as being not figurative at all or not in the first place.
AS: They are on the brink of figure and non-figuration. But this argument has no more relevance for me. I can start with a figure and dissolve it in the process. What brings us back to the necessity to destroy in order to move forward but whatever comes from that, be it figurative or not, is spatial and that’s important.
CM: That’s something 20th century tried to stress but was actually not fruitful.
AS: It’s just not relevant. Seeing Monet’s »Water Lilies « at the Orangerie in Paris, they are basically abstract painting, only with some water lilies in between. But you never question if it’s the one or the other, it is both. What you see is the immense potential of painting. Any figure or whatever the object is dissolves upon the plane. And then it doesn’t matter anymore. I have always had in mind how to dissolve those pre-existing images. That was always an issue for me, how to break up the image, make it more multi-faceted amidst abstraction and figuration. That’s the origin of the mark-making I’m interested in. Like Christopher Wool who stamps the same thing over and over on his canvases, only to erase it again. This sort of mark-making blurs the line between the figurative and non-figurative.
CM: Not just the gesture itself but the re-caption of a gesture.
AS: That is what I’m after in the way I do my paintings.
CM: Of course paintings playing with this are treacherous for one’s perception. Still, your paintings appear to be sincere.
AS: But that‘s completely what they are. They are sincere. I am not fooling around with any kind of theories or discourses which will be outdated in two and a half years.
CM: Are they not very present-day, too?
AS: To be honest, I think they are very modern but they are not necessarily trying to emulate our time. I would rather call them universal. And even the older ones, from 15 years ago, still have a strong presence in the now. I want to convey pictorial images which are as close to my nervous system as possible.
Inhaling Darkness, Exhaling Darkness
Exhibition catalogue Kunstverein Reutlingen
Edited by Christian Malycha
Verlag für modern Kunst