Adam Saks is making his way towards a new beauty beyond the ugly in his hybrid pictures. He belongs to the young generation of artists who have discovered the countless astonishing possibilities presented by painting and graphic art, and who paint pictures that everyone can relate to. As applies to many of his contemporary colleagues both in Denmark and abroad, his art is in a "postmedial" phase, where painting has displaced the new media. However, in no way does Saks turn the clock back to the state of innocence of abstract expressive painting, where the artist simply paints on the basis of feeling and intuition; on the contrary, he integrates his experiences from installation art, video art and computer art on the surface while inviting the surrounding world inside and disrespectfully making use of mass-media images, including children's book illustrations, tattooing and the narrative universes of the strip cartoon. The following is a conversation between the author of this article, Lisbeth Bonde, and Adam Saks in Berlin.
We approach the gigantic oval of the runway like an eagle in flight, hovering above the roofs of the city. The Danish painter and graphic artist Adam Saks (b. 1974) is waiting for me in the warm morning mist in the oldest airport in the world, Tempelhof, "the mother of all airports" as the British architect Norman Foster has called it. An airport in the midst of southern central Berlin and a building that immediately makes arriving travellers think of the city's national socialist past. Together, we take a taxi to the Schöneberg district a couple of kilometres away. Saks's studio is – true to tradition – in a former factory building, but this is a bit more splendid than all the others. It is in the functionalistic style, and you can glimpse the colourful, tiled façade in those places where the deluge of bombs during the war did not destroy it. Adam Saks lives on the third floor, as he has done for a number of years to his great satisfaction, for "Berlin continues to be amazingly exciting with lots of possibilities, and it's still cheap here," he comments. He has scattered his very colourful new watercolours around on the floor. They are exotic landscape motifs, but on its way into the depths of the picture the eye is disturbed by words such as "Chasseurs d'hommes", "Cavalerie", "Etrangers" and "Body Crawling Insects". Adam Saks has travelled widely. He most recently spent six weeks as a hermit on an atoll off Madagascar. He tries to get away from civilisation and "all that wallowing in art" and seeks to "recharge in foreign parts". So he "subscribes" to other forms of culture in his pictures. "Here, I've made use of old French tattoos from the bodies of old Foreign Legion troops, so there they are absorbed into a bit of French colonial history in watercolours. Introducing foreign elements of that kind produces an exotic effect and establishes a certain distance," he declares.
Watercolours often act as a kind of preliminary sketch for paintings – as fresh new beginnings. Is that also the case with you?
"Yes, watercolours have immediacy and spontaneity because you apply the colour intuitively and with effortless ease. I have often thought of transferring the method to my painting, but I've had to give it up again because painting acts best with a certain compactness, volume and finality. The watercolours are more open."
The watercolours contain mountain landscapes with cacti and desolate and lonely expanses that are disturbed by these "tattooed" and often ominous pictorial messages: There are death's heads or night creatures such as owls. This is a transgressor – someone who crosses boundaries. It is someone who is his own master and breaks all rules and regulations, for instance in a prison. But there are several layers of meaning in the word, which for instance can easily refer to the owl, which lives at night when the rest of us are asleep, and thus it transgresses the daily rhythm. "In the watercolours I combine a more contemplative landscape in the background with the aggressive messages in the foreground. There is a motif of inner tension; we are quite a long way from the "pretty-pretty", from things in which there is no risk. I try to accentuate the surface and create contrasts. This also applies to my paintings. On the one hand I paint pictures as beautiful as picture postcards, that is to say peaceful, decorative motifs, and then on the other hand I constantly burst in on the charm and give the pictures a different and more dramatic content.
Don't you ever feel a desire simply to paint beautiful pictures and like another Matisse concentrate on abundance, calm and pleasure?
"Yes, it might well be that I would like to, but I can't carry it through. I'm forced to break with the beautiful, otherwise the painting doesn't come to life for me. My paintings have a special energy level. I try to disturb the surface by rejecting its perfection and introducing shifts of scale and various different visual levels that gather on the surface. But still I don't use signs in my new oil paintings. And although many of my works have "ugly" or "dirty" themes, I work with the help of both my compositional principles and my palette towards creating a beauty beyond the ugly."
With Saks we are on our way towards a new kind of aesthetic order and so a new form of sensibility. He aims to leap between figuration and abstraction and generates some lesser forms in one painting that he blows up and turns into the principal motif in another. He zooms in and out – works with large things in a small format and small things in a large format.
There are new paintings hanging on the walls. Colourful interiors in synthetic, deliberately artificial colours, of hotel rooms, bathrooms and various other rooms. Like many of his colleagues – also from the famous Leipzig school with names that by now are fiendishly expensive such as Matthias Weischer and Tilo Baumgärtel – he expresses himself in interiors that integrate experiences from areas such as installation art. Adam Saks paints these spatial perceptions into his colourful and signal-laden paintings with the fluidum of oil paint. Here and there he interrupts our view with large, lush green plants that bring the picture to life. The paintings as a whole give the impression of being constructions, familiar constructions or dreamt scenes, although we recognise elements from for instance interior design journals. Saks's paintings consist of empty rooms or landscapes devoid of human figures, which are imbued with unspoken meanings and unfulfilled actions. The surfaces are crossed and recrossed by signs, fragments of nature and architectonic elements taken out of their normal contexts, and like some DJ sampler, Adam Saks put them together to form a fragmentary but harmonious whole, so one can talk of a visual collage technique with many allusions. In the pictures the light seems to shine from within, out towards the viewer. Occasionally, the objects seem to be slightly frayed at the edges, as though this were a computer collage. This is an entirely new idiom.
As far as I can see, you decompose your paintings. You create some rules, which you constantly break, and in this way you are constantly moving into new areas – at the same time as you tempt the viewer into the picture by making use of familiar objects. It is a subtle seduction strategy.
"I must all the time exceed my own limitations and also seduce myself into moving into new places. Let me give you an example: Last year, I made four covers for the Danish art periodical "Billedkunst", which at that time was still edited by the historian of ideas, Lars Morell. Here, I set myself a special task: I wanted to make use of four different techniques or media in order to force myself to go on. There was no reason to make a "series series" because three months elapsed between the separate issues. Each cover was act 3-2-1, that is to say first you see it on the bookseller's shelf, where the front cover is intended to act as an eye catcher. When you have read the magazine and put it down again, the back cover must also be interesting, while it must also be possible to put it down open, for instance if the phone rings. I used the water colour, the computer drawing – which I often take into use when producing sketches for the paintings – and also "Buntstift", as it's called down here, that's to say a coloured pencil, and finally the etching. All these approaches were to have a frayed look. The etching is done with a drill and hammer that leaves tiny pricks in the copper plate – it's primitive and rough, and you have to hold the drill very firmly so it doesn't slip. The result is a quite special quality that can't be produced by hand. It looks a bit like a scar or a tattoo or something that's sewn on with a sewing machine. As for the computer drawing, I used the simplest programme – Paint – which produces a naïve and straightforward result. Afterwards I "collaged" the computer drawing – that is to say printed the individual bits out and put them together like a collage. As for the coloured pencil drawings, I have here clearly mimicked a tattoo. That is to say four widely different techniques, four different idioms that talk to each other."
Why are you so interested in tattoos?
"I'm mainly interested in the 'old school' tattoos from the turn of the last century that were used by marginalised groups. They people were often anomalous figures without a permanent job, for instance soldiers, sailors, prostitutes and generally speaking without material possessions. The tattoos, these drawings that they quite literally carried around on their bodies, were the only evidence of the life they lived, and so their life stories were imprinted on their skin, as were the values they stood for, and that's something I find extremely interesting. Many of them were done in prison, and they have a primitive directness and contain a combination of images that have something of the quality of a rebus. In reality, those wearing these tattoos were a kind of walking Rauschenberg paintings with their many layers and combinations. I start out from a special series of themes that the French Foreign Legionnaires and the penal colonies in French Guyana went in for. Tattoos today have become quite presentable and accepted, but the modern tattoos are of no interest to me whatever."
Adam Saks grew up in Klampenborg north of Copenhagen. He drew a great deal even as a child – it was a natural occupation for him and far preferable to football. After Adam had finished at grammar school, his architect father fixed him up as a pupil of Svend Wiig Hansen at Elsinore, where he "got ready for" the Academy. It was the time when Wiig was wrestling with the great sculpture "Generation Succeeds Generation" for the Ministry of Culture on Gammel Strand. Adam Saks entered the Academy at the age of 19 after an instructive year with Svend Wiig Hansen: "Svend was emotionally extremely generous and when he set about painting, he did so with a directness that appealed to me. His expressiveness, determination and speed impressed me even though I myself work differently – at greater length and with more constructed and mediated imagery than he did. But from Svend I derived the courage to attack the canvas without hesitation," says Saks. In the Academy he first had the painter Elmer and the sculptor Øivind Nygård as his teachers, "and they were two totally different but inspiring role models". After this, he was persuaded by some visiting German teachers, including Troels Wörsel and Jutta Koether, to come to Germany. Here he made contact with Bernd Koberling in Berlin, studying under him for a year before returning to the School of Graphics in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, something that was of inestimable value for his artistic training. "These were paradisiacal conditions, an Eldorado of exciting, graphic possibilities. I learned all the techniques: computer printing, serigraphy, lithography, woodcuts, etching – you name it. It was possible to switch from one to the other as quickly as you wanted. I mainly made serigraphs – silk prints – and experimented wildly with all the possibilities. I finished off by painting in Claus Carstensen's school of painting, and he was absolutely marvellous. His vision was legendary, and his lectures were simply unsurpassed. But the time I spent in the School of Graphics has meant a great deal to me," says Saks.
What artistic affinities do you have?
"The American-British painter Malcolm Morley has influenced me a great deal. For instance, he paints from a watercolour by squaring it off on the canvas. In doing so he achieves the spontaneity of the watercolour in the larger format while at the same time each of the individual squares constitutes an independent painting. So he extends between a microcosm and a macrocosm, and the small squares turn into pure Monet paintings. The picture only emerges when you take four steps back. At the same time he goes in for an exciting exotic range of motifs and builds up his pictorial space in an interesting way. He was a pioneer in American neo-expressionism in the 1970s, and he was a pioneer in photorealism rather earlier, so he has an enormous range – and he's really very exciting indeed. Also the Los Angeles artist Larry Pittman – especially his picture compositions, which are very graphic – has meant a great deal for my own work, although his range of homosexual motifs doesn't interest me."
We can clearly see what your paintings represent, but on the one hand there are no human figures in your landscapes and rooms – they are often rooms through which one passes, anonymous public or semi-public rooms – and on the other hand several planes of reality come together on your surfaces. Why will you not go in for total fiction?
"I work with hybrid paintings and break the fiction down. I paint things so they emerge immediately, at random and constructed on the surface. Among other things I paint large palm leaves that act as abstract elements. If you look, there's a white border that I've painted to make it look like a computer drawing. I use various methods of paintings – some of the elements are painted with great accuracy and very smoothly, while others are more abstract. I try to step up the tension in the pictorial space and alternate between the more expressive and the more precise and detailed. If you use the same "handwriting" everywhere then I think it will just die."
And do you have anything emotional hidden away in your paintings?
"Yes, I do, in fact. I paint a lot of biographical touches into the paintings, things that mean something quite special to me. But I do it indirectly and discreetly. For instance, when I paint a bed it's because it is particularly significant to me: this is where I can be inactive and contemplative; here all the hierarchies of waking life are suspended; here life merges into my thoughts, and here I'm taken out of the social context and am extra vulnerable – and naked. But I purge my interiors and make the time in them as indeterminate as possible, just as I mix several styles from several decades together to take them out of the specific time in which the picture is painted."
Why do you never paint people?
"I can't work so openly as I do now when I paint people, because then I feel it's all devoted to and fixed on an unambiguous narrative. If I wanted to portray people, it would have to be in a film."
Why do you have to paint? What does painting really mean to you, and where do you dream it's leading you?
"Painting to me is like keeping an expanded diary. My motifs are familiar and yet suitably alien, and viewers can interpret them on many levels. There's a simplicity and straightforwardness to painting. I can just go round the corner and buy 500 kroner's worth of materials and get going with the white canvas. It's freedom, and I love to create a new room and provide a space for a new drama. I have gradually constructed my own alphabet. But to answer your last question, I hardly have any dreams any more. The most important thing for me is to have a quite ordinary day in my studio. Another day in the office, alternation between the slow oil paintings and the rapid paper works and my art books."
Adam Saks shows me his art books. They are made on many different kinds of paper, and they constitute a small, portable exhibition in book form.
"I mix computer drawings, monotypes, hand drawings, paper clip ornaments and body tattoos in the books. It's a catalogue of ideas containing my "alphabet". The books are the lowest part of the visual food chain that ends in the paintings. The various techniques mimic each other and nourish each other."
Lisbeth Bonde holds the degree of MA in Art History and writes on art in the weekly newspaper Weekendavisen. She has written the books Artists in Conversation (2002), Studio – the Artist's Workshop (2003), Solo – a Monograph on Peter Martensen (2006), and together with Mette Sandby she will in September 2006 also be publishing a book entitled Manual to Contemporary Danish Art.