Pictures come from within

You can paint something huge on the back of a matchbox, and you can paint something huge without saying anything at all, says the 41-year-old painter, Adam Saks.

Adam Saks has transformed Kunsthal NORD into a pictorial total installation. This internationally acclaimed painter has previously had solo exhibitions in a number of prominent museums and exhibition venues both in Denmark and abroad, but Setting sail in a teardrop of fear and desire is the largest-ever exhibition of his paintings in Denmark. All the works are new and created specifically for Kunsthal NORD. It is also the first time in his career that he has painted directly on walls.

“The fundamental idea is to show a diversity in the works and to show a variety of artistic statements. The idiosyncratic architecture of Kunsthal NORD prompts one to create a different spatial arrangement than in a mere clean, white cube gallery exhibition, where usually you only hang the 10-12 best paintings. The Kunsthal is almost like a maze, which you have to edge your way through, and every room is so expressive and so full of all sorts of ‘artistic’ details that it deserves its own profile and its own group of works,” says Adam Saks.

So the 41-year-old painter, who lives and works in Berlin, has tailored his exhibition especially for the Kunsthal’s spaces. This applies particularly to the large black-and-white murals, the artist’s largest painting to date and the Monte Verità suite, which comprises six large paintings (190x190 cm) with the same basic subject, but with a variety of colour spectra and installed like a large block or giant kaleidoscope.

“I have taken into account the various spatial options so, in many ways, it has really become a site-specific, multi-faceted exhibition. In terms of surface area, counting the total number of centimetres, this is my largest exhibition of paintings to date. But size is not everything. It’s more about being precise in what one does. You can paint something huge on the back of a matchbox, and you can paint something huge without saying anything at all,” says Adam Saks, who nonetheless manages to paint large paintings with great expressiveness.

Accelerating the surface

For the exhibition, Adam Saks has painted We are the Night, a huge still life, which measures 2.40 x 5.40 metres, and whose title indicates that you are moving into a nocturnal zone and an open space where anything can happen.

“Over the years I have worked a lot on classic themes such as Memento Mori and Vanitas motifs, mainly inspired by Dutch Baroque art. With a transparent background and a highly defined graphic expression, We are the Night stands out from the earlier still life works. It comes across as much simpler than the earlier oil paintings. I have given pride of place to the drawn element and isolated the process, making it a distillate of my other still life paintings.”

As a painter, Adam Saks has always aimed to unite the immediacy of the drawing and the graphic with the pictorial expression, preserving the freshness in the oil paint, without the painting coming across as a sketch.  

“It’s a challenge, at least for me, to get the painting and the drawing to meet. I also wanted to transfer the spontaneity and immediacy of water colour to the paintings,” says Adam Saks.

A few years ago he came up with a method, which allowed him to work in a more fluid way with oil paint, giving it the lightness of water colour. The new painting, We are the Night possesses the solidity of oil painting and the lightness of water colour. The same merging of the two different elements is also evident in Claw, his latest painting. On the whole, Adam Saks tends to experiment and unite the various methods, which he has at his disposal. 

“In some of the paintings I have used large linoleum cuts. In others, I draw on a glazed water-colour background. Elsewhere I have put an oil pastel in a drill as a drawing element, which works in a completely different way. I am interested in accelerating the surface of the painting: part is thinly painted; part is thickly painted; part is printed; and part is drawn. This also applies to the way, in which I look for my subjects. The various motifs and elements I juxtapose lead to this collage quality,” says Adam Saks.

Death’s heads and opium haze

Adam Saks works in the narrow margin between figuration and abstraction, more often than not with an ambiguous realm of understanding. He uses a special kind of motif and image sampling. By detaching pictorial elements from their original context and reinstating them in a variety of constellations, he creates a series of new narratives.

In the past, he picked his pictorial elements from both high and low culture. Most frequently he was inspired by mankind’s transgression of mental limits. This might be the demonic nature of the opium den or a tattooed body, which, with images under the skin, is a testament to living life and the basic condition of existence. He was particularly inspired by the tattoos that embellished the bodies of French convicts and Foreign Legionnaires and his dramatic, melancholy paintings abound with images of sailors, women of easy virtue, ferocious animals, death’s heads and desolate, discordant landscapes.

But for several of the new works, around which the exhibition will be constructed, Adam Saks has not drawn inspiration from opium haze or body images, but from the utopian Monte Verità – the Mountain of Truth. This is where, in the early 20th century, a group of young pioneers started the first alternative society in the world. They fought on behalf of cooperative systems, the emancipation of women, new forms of education, free love and a desire for the fusion of soul, spirit and body.

Living on

Adam Saks has created a huge mural, something totally new in his artistic practice. He does not find this surprising. Instead, he considers it a subtle extension of the techniques he uses elsewhere: primarily the woodcut, with which he has worked a lot. 

“In earlier paintings I have created both positive and negative spaces. This mural, which spans an entire room, is actually really one small, intimate woodcut, which has been magnified. I have painted black-and-white paintings before, so it wasn’t such an enormous leap. It’s all part of my practice. Also because it is a strange anti-hierarchical space, when you enter it,” says Adam Saks.

What do you feel about your painting being painted over, when the exhibition closes?

“I have no problem about that. Destruction is a concept that I explore a lot in my paintings. Even though it will disappear, it’s like a palimpsest. I have created the work and, once it’s been documented, it will live on,” he says. 

What do you think painting is capable of, since you continue to work with it as a medium?

“Painting can create new imagery. I also like the simplicity and the direct approach. With DKK 500 you can get started and create a totally new space, which no one has seen before. I can also make a cold-needle etching on a drainpipe with a nail. I don’t need a computer or any other technical intervention in order to express myself. As far as I’m concerned, it’s about creating a sounding board or resonance in terms of how we view the world. Painting works best for me,” says Adam Saks.

Who inspires you?

“It’s not like I have a book that I pinch everything from. But, in terms of painting, one of my sources of inspiration is the Swedish artist, Carl Frederik Hill. In the late 19th century he moved to Paris to try his luck. Somehow or other, he became disillusioned and schizophrenic and went on to live in his parents’ house, creating these drawings like a madman. This world – the art of schizophrenia – has always been a source of fascination, but Art Brut is not the only thing that fascinates me. There’s one particular American artist I find very exciting. Richard Prince. He created what is known as ‘appropriation art’. He was a bit like Marcel Duchamp, taking things that already existed in art or popular culture and putting his own spin on them. I also work partly with found images, to which I give a new twist,” he says.

Art comes from within

But Adam Saks rarely makes immediate use of the here and now in his works. He likes there to be an echo or a delay in the elements he uses in his paintings. 

“If an artist sets out to create something, which has another, unusual resonance, I believe he has to sit outside and avoid using things that are totally of the minute. It is impossible to decipher the cacophony, of which we are a part. 
It certainly isn’t my intention to illustrate just anything from our present age. Art is a search for something new and comes from within. Pictures come from within,” he says.

When you use elements and symbols from people in disadvantaged positions or from different subcultures, is your commitment generated by social consciousness?

“It’s more about being fascinated by the imagery and the expression inherent in disadvantaged groups or subcultures, when they haven’t had any artistic education or acquired a refined aesthetic point of view. That’s what is fascinating. So it’s a way of creating an artistic context for the things you have to say. Of course, some of my acquaintances and friends belong to these groups, but I am absolutely not some kind of social missionary,” says Adam Saks.

Henrik Broch-Lips

Translation: Culturebites