Art-Rated’s Jonathan Beer interviewed Leipzig-based painter Jochen Plogsties in his studio.
Art-Rated:Could you describe your background a little – what got you into the arts, and in particular painting?
Jochen Plogsties: I was painting when I was very young, and always did it. My artistic background (in my family) didn’t extend very far, so my mother always let me paint but I didn’t have many influences so I grew up looking at Van Gogh and things like that. It took a while to understand what it is to be an artist. When I finished school, I thought the next step would be getting a job, where I could paint on the side. I thought it would be good to become an art teacher. For high school.
I started studying in Meines, a small city close to Frankfurt. It was ok, it was the closest town. Being there widened my horizons, and I started to realize I needed a lot of time to get my work done and I decided not to become a high school teacher.
After a while I started to think about who I wanted to learn from and to choose a city by the teacher, but it took a while to think like that. After some years, it became more and more obvious that Meines was too small and not best place to be, and I decided to go to Berlin. I decided to spend 2 years there, to work and have a studio, and then I was trying to get into the art schools there but I wasn’t making the right contacts.
For example, I showed my work to Georg Baselitz, and he was pretty bureaucratic about it. He said ‘Well, you’ve studied already for a few years, if I were to work with you, you’d have to do your diploma right now’ and I was thinking that I wasn’t ready and that I should have some time to develop.
And after that I saw a show of young painters from Leipzig who called themselves LIGA and I was really touched by their work. At the time my work was a mix of painting and installation. It was painting on canvas, but always with found objects and sculptural things, to try and open up the room.
Seeing the show of these Leipzig artists I was amazed to see all that done within the frame of the painting. My girlfriend at the time wanted to study photography at the time, and I mentioned I had seen this show of Leipzig artists, and I thought maybe I’ll go visit the school, too. The day we were there Arno Rink was there, and I decided to ask if I could show him some work. He was pretty open, he gave me his private number and said ‘Call me and we can make a date.’ Totally different than Baselitz.
I showed him some paintings and he said ‘I can see something here,” and he decided that I should be in his class. He told the secretary to place me in the seventh semester, halfway through the program, with two more years to work towards the diploma. So, I came to Leipzig and after two years I did my diploma with both Arno Rink and Neo Rauch, who was taking his place. Then I did my master class for 2 years with Neo Rauch. I had a very special experience of working with two generations of Leipzig painters, because Arno Rink was Neo Rauch’s teacher.
And in Leipzig, I decided to only pursue painting.
AR: In the States we have a very limited view of the Leipziger Schule (Leipzig School), of painters like Arno Rink and Neo Rauch and Matthias Weischer. We only see a fraction of this world and so they become like legends outside of Germany, with this untouchable aura surrounding them. What was it like to study with them?
JP: I think there is an interesting difference between the two. Arno Rink is not that famous for his own work, but a lot of his pupils have become famous. I think he has a very generous manner, and perhaps his strength is to teach. He can really see what your ‘thing’ might be, he asks the right questions, and this helped me a lot. Neo Rauch was a little different, he comes more from his own horizons. The ideas he put into our work were more his ideas, which is a little difficult. I think it’s an interesting fact that a lot of good, famous artists do not have a lot of good pupils. So perhaps there is more of a difference of profession there, either you are the good artist or the good teacher.
It was interesting to have both sides – Neo Rauch, is a very powerful, very awake, eloquent guy, and meeting him was definitely an intense experience. I knew him before from his work and the newspapers, and then, he was stepping into my studio. On one hand, he knows a lot about painting, so he has a good eye to discover your intentions in just a stroke. With composition and ideas he comes a little from his own horizons, so perhaps it was better to have had Arno Rink before.
AR: Your early work is quite different from what you’ve been making for the past few years – what led you from the more self-directed, painterly vision to the conceptual territory of your current work?
JP: I think an interesting fact is that we are very good at seeing differences, and not so good at seeing what is the same. Although there is more similarity than it might seem. For example a pig has 99.5% identical genetic material to a human, which is a lot of similarity. So, sometimes a small difference makes a big difference.
Although it’s obvious that something changed in my work, not SO much changed. The one big thing that changed was my decision to not make my own compositions anymore. For years I’ve worked with found materials, and earlier I was looking for my own style and technique that involved layering and reduction. I would repeatedly go over things I had already done. Sometimes I would look at a painting and think to myself ‘this has to be something’ and I would get angry and take a lot of things away that I was working on before. Huge parts of the canvas would become monotone and more abstract in a way. I always interested to know what would survive if I made a big destructive gesture.
AR: Francis Bacon would do something similar – he kept this cashmere sweater in the studio and when a painting was stuck, he would dip it in paint and throw it at the canvas, and start there. Or sometimes that would be it and the painting would be finished. One of the big similarities I did notice between what you’re doing now the work from five or six years ago is your handling; you’re still painting in the same way. You’re very conscious of the surface and color, and when you look at some of your painted ‘reproductions’ you see a richness of paint and material not found in the original.
JP: And the destructive aspect of the earlier work has stayed also, although now it’s not so obvious. For example, this painting of the man with the blue chaperon, there is a totally different scene underneath that I was working on for a while. I realized that the painting wasn’t good enough to continue, so I decided to make another motif on the same canvas. And now there are interactions from the paint underneath that you can’t really see anymore, but you can feel in the paint. There are still these movements of change even though I stick to the original compositions.
It’s interesting that when you look at different printed reproductions of the original work the color changes a lot, and the composition stays the same. Somehow, the drawing and the lines of a work stay and the color changes, which philosophically is kind of interesting. Why is one easier to reproduce than the other?
AR: It gives a weight to the structure of the image, and the color becomes a more ethereal thing. That makes me think about the different schools of painting in Italy, when Venice was more about colore and Florence was focused on disegno. It’s interesting to see that history bubble up through your work again. That leads me to the question, are you altering the images at all? Someone without a background in art history might say they look old, but would be unsure if they were actually copies. Are you staying pretty close to the original source?
JP: I stay pretty close to the compositions. I usually look, and then do and then check how close I am. I go between being more gestural and more accurate. At one point I used a grid, but I didn’t like it because it was too even. So I start to just paint freely from a source, and then I look. I’m always painting on my own. After working with these medieval masterpieces from the 15-1600’s so much, I started to see how much of the work was planned out. I think one of the skills a good painter needs is efficiency – to know how to make a face with five marks. But I think also, the marks that you miss an also give you something interesting.
When I was first starting these paintings, I would work for a month and get more and more detailed and then realized that the head was a centimeter off. It was an interesting process to the head, but it led me to start measuring while I worked. And eventually I started to notice my own strange habits, of making the neck too long or something like that. As I would get closer to the form of the original I would notice even more of these small differences.
AR: Maybe as you start to get closer and closer to the original you actually get farther away.
JP: And so, the more I want to make an accurate copy, the more I see my individuality. The closer I get, the farther away I feel. Before I started making this work, I had a pretty clear definition of what a copy was. But the more I do now, I become more and more unsure. Is it even possible to make a copy of a painting? Everyone talks as if that is a possibility but I think it really isn’t possible. You could never really figure out the layering or the materials. There are so many ways to get close to the original, and if ten different people can do it differently, the question arises of whether there might be way to actually copy something.
AR: That gets into a lot of different things I think about when I look at your work. The discussion surrounding reinterpretation, appropriation, authorship comes up when the image becomes a commodity. It happens when the image, the original, is given a value. It’s ultimately a philosophical debate about where you draw the line on originality. For example, is it impossible to copy a Rembrandt because you can’t get an identical panel to what the original painted was on. But when you purchase an original Rembrandt and find out it’s actually a copy, the difference between an original and a copy is very clear.
There is also this idea, which I’d like your take on, when looking at your work there is obviously a conscious choice to work with one image over another. Would you agree that this choice makes your content more about the motif and bringing that back out of history so it can be seen again?
And, are you more interested in having a discussion about the subject of your painting rather than the fact that it’s a copy of an older work?
JP: Yes, and that’s a good point. It is also interesting to ask, how many motifs do we have, and do we need? Are they more or less circling around the same ideas? For example, you might have this painting of Madonna with baby Jesus on her lap, and she is showing him a book, and he looks through as a good pupil and respecting the book like an adult. There is another painting, done a little later where baby Jesus is looking through the book but really tearing the pages. You might read it that Christ is against the Old Testament, or it’s just a child not being kind to a book. So with small changes within two similar situations you can make a totally different point.
I notice these things after looking at the work very intensely, and spending weeks and months with it. It’s pretty interesting for me to think about how these motifs change for me, although I’m not sure how much of my development you would see after looking intensely at the same thing. There are a lot of parts in that process that cannot be put into words, things that happen between the lines and between the paintings. It creates a conversation about context and combination, asking about how those things change the images? It also asks, can motif from the 1500’s can be interesting today? Or how much of the motif is necessary at all?
When I look at a painting I always think about how it was made, what are the materials, what is the surface like – that is my way of looking at paintings. And after a while I’ve also come to think about motif and what is said there.
AR: Do you think that after a certain point of making this work, of uncovering or extracting information and interest in certain motifs, certain materials, and working processes throughout history, do you ever see your work becoming more self-directed again but working with the same techniques?
JP: That’s definitely a question I get asked a lot. Even a lot of friends and colleagues ask me; don’t you think you will want to do your own stuff? As I said before, I don’t think this is so different from the other work. And because of that I don’t feel the need to change something. One the one hand, there are millions and millions of possibilities for working with different motifs, which exceeds the number of artworks and images that surround me. I will never be able to do as many images as I would like to, and because making a painting takes so long I know that before I finish one I will want to make ten others. I will never be able to make all the possibilities so you are left to make choices and keep on going.
AR: There is optimism in that, an optimism that is tied to the choice to not just look at images, but to see them. It is a choice to see an image and then re-present for everyone else to see now, you take advantage of painting’s ability and art’s ability to slow people down. There is an interesting paradox in that these are your versions of images produced 500 years ago, but the question really is, are you doing these images a service by bringing them back and letting other people really look at them? That is a question in the discussion of authenticity and authorship that is maybe more difficult to answer. If the answer to that question is ‘Yes,’ it fights strongly against the tide of throwaway images that we live with, that we can access with the click of a mouse.
JP: There are lots of discussions about authorship a lot right now because we have a lot of people stealing images from the internet, some people say that is OK and necessary, and other say ‘I did that and I have no money,’ and of course every side has their opinions. I believe that if something is good, it should be for everyone. If something isn’t so good, not everyone wants it or needs it.
When you have stories being told from father to son, from generation to generation, it’s an amazing ability that mankind has, to give something to the next generation.
When I was submitting my first portfolio in Meines, the work was 80% copies, and I don’t think it was a bad idea that if I want to be an artist I should copy something to learn about craft, and technique and then start to build my own images after. When they reviewed my portfolio they said ‘There is so much we already know here, what about you?’
It seemed strange that at 20 years old I should be asked to reinvent the wheel. I don’t like the idea of everyone having to find a new wheel when they are much too young. I’m not very old fashioned, but I feel we should care about what has done before, and we should understand these things before changing them.
AR: How can you hope to reinvent the wheel if you don’t know what a good wheel is yet?
JP: And so for 10 or 12 years I tried to find my own style, and I got a little famous in Leipzig for my work, but I was happy to change and go back to something that I felt was necessary. So, right now I’m still figuring out what is there in the old compositions that can last a while. Right now, there is enough to express and place into these paintings when I re-paint them. I’m not familiar with most of the original paintings I work from, so I approach them with my own understanding of what comes from the two-dimensional reproduction. You can put so much style in that process alone. I think there are enough possibilities to express myself through this alone. Painting takes time, and perhaps in 20, 30, or 40 years I will make my own opera.
AR: I’m curious, as you prepare for this museum exhibition in Stuttgart, do you have any special kind of installation in mind for these works? Because outside of the studio you have to return to the conversation of originality and authorship – will you show the original sources next to the paintings? And, if you had the option, would you show your works next to the actual original paintings?
JP: It’s something I have to think about. I make it pretty obvious what my process is in the catalog. I don’t want to steal, because these works are quotes. In a way, it’s also about the filter of reproduction, about how it changes. But showing the original alongside my versions would put you into this comparative mode, which I think is an experience that is too easy. It’s too dangerous to just have it be a comparison, it should be its own experience.
AR: You want the viewer to experience the importance of your decision and your quote, and to recognize the value in your decision and in the original image. With the ability to compare, you lose that possibility.
JP: I think it would be interesting to have pieces of different origins next to each other, where you don’t know where it’s from to see how they interact. What happens when you look at a combination of different images? The combination is more like music, like sounds combining.
AR: If you could put your work in dialog, in an exhibition or a catalog, with other peoples work, who would you choose?
JP: That’s a difficult question. I think that things are more interesting when they happen accidentally than when they are chosen. Of course, it would be nice to show in a gallery with my heroes, but I’m not sure. I don’t know that I have a clear answer to that now. I think I like the surprise more, than getting to choose. I’ve chosen some strange combinations even for myself in the studio, I have a Cindy Sherman next to a Van Eyck next to a Vermeer I go through 500 years with each step. But even then it wasn’t a conscious choice – there was an image of her on the studio floor and she just entered by chance.
AR: So maybe perhaps the answer is that the job of the artist is just to make the work and that conversation should be decided by a curator. Because we don’t always know what’s best for our work outside the studio, because we have to spend so much time know what’s best for our work in the studio.
JP: Yes, exactly. I agree with that. In the end, I think I do the best for my profession in the studio.
Jochen Plogsties lives and works in Leipzig, Germany and is represented by ASPN Gallery in Leipzig.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Jonathan Beer is a New York-based artist and writer. He began to write critically in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for his MFA in Painting. His paintings have been exhibited at Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts, Flowers Gallery, Boltax Gallery and Sotheby’s in New York. Jon is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail, ArtWrit and for Art Observed.
Lily Koto Olive is a New York-based artist, writer and musician. She began to write critically about art in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for her MFA in Painting. She has exhibited her paintings at the Dumbo Arts Center in Brooklyn, NY, HERE Arts Center, Sloan Fine Arts and ISE Cultural Foundation in NYC and Marketplace Gallery in Albany, NY. Lily is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail.