AR: What is your background? Are you from Leipzig originally? Did you know always that you would pursue painting?
DS: The idea to study art came quite late, when I was 22 or 23. Before then I was somewhat interested in art; I was riding BMX and skateboarding and things like that. I started making drawings and little things for music fanzines, and designed album covers for my friends’ bands. In the beginning I wasn’t sure if I should study painting or graphic design, and after I finished school I took a lot of courses – for example, an etching workshop and one on drawing. I realized that I liked doing these traditional things, so I thought then that I should study in Dusseldorf I am originally from Cologne, and Dusseldorf was the largest school nearby. After two years of not being accepted, I thought I should research and find out the specialties of the other art schools. There was a famous German art magazine that put out an article about all the German art schools, and I read that in Leipzig there was very good figurative painting and printmaking courses. I started to study in Leipzig in 1995 at the HGB. In the first two years the studies were very traditional, we learned about drawing, perspective, putting the figure in space, etc. After the first two years I found it difficult to move past these traditional things and find a way to make contemporary paintings.
I started to paint landscapes with comic characters running through them. I was interested in landscape painting and wanted to combine it with something that was closer to my background. Mixing art history with skateboarding and BMX riding and music. And over time the landscape paintings themselves became so strange – the colors were very strange and almost abstract – and I realized I didn’t need the comic characters. So I started doing just landscape from there.
AR: What is a day in your studio like?
DS: I start around 10 or 11. As I mentioned, I live here, and so I’ll have breakfast and then come into the studio and just sit a while and start. I work on one painting, until I don’t know what to do, and then I’ll take another painting and work on it. Or I’ll walk around and work on something that strikes me. I don’t actually paint all the time; I’m the kind of artist that has to think a lot about what I’m doing. Putting color on the canvas is not the main thing for me, I think a lot about perspective. And a lot of looking through books and waiting.
AR: When we talked before you said that your paintings take a long time – nearly a year to complete. Your process seems to involve a lot of evolution – how do you know that they are finished?
DS: There is this amazing moment when a click happens. In almost every painting there is this moment when something little happens and you say ‘Ok, that’s it!’ Perhaps there are a few small things after that, but that’s mostly it. I cannot describe how or when this happens, but, sometimes I think that I have to do a lot of things and then a little thing does it. In the last few years, things changed a lot. I used to have much clearer ideas about how the painting should look but now, in the last two or three years, things are just developing out of the painting process itself, drops and drips. It’s difficult to say…it’s magic! [Laughs] Sometimes I equate painting to physics or mathematics…there are many possibilities but in the end there is only one way to find a particular painting. The funny thing is that I’ll have a studio visit, and other people will realize when the painting is finished. They notice the same little thing I do that finishes the painting. One thing I love about painting is that it’s not very describable. In German we say Gesetzmäßigkeit, it’s so open but also very fixed.
AR: It would be very easy for an artist to fall into the trap of utilizing such a strong and characteristic style – how do you avoid that? Your work, even though it has such a characteristic style, also has an amazing variety to it. Do you think that problem is simply about the amount of time you spend in the studio to try and push these languages as far as they will go? Is it about discipline?
DS: After I finish an exhibition or a body of paintings I always have these thoughts about what to do next…and I have these little things that help me. For example, I’ll start with colors I don’t understand, or; using a kind of perspective that I have no relationship with also helps. I’m able to realize when I’m repeating myself, and then I get bored with myself and I destroy what I’m working on. It’s a good moment to have, it helps me move forward.
AR: Are there moments when you completely obscure a painting that you’re working on with one large gesture?
DS: Yes and that actually happens quite often. Out of these large gestures often new ideas develop. It’s very important to know that I can take my time to develop these paintings. Not having the pressure to do a lot of exhibitions really helps me to really understand how much time the paintings require. But yes, sometimes I’ll even cut up the painting. [Laughs]
AR: That would be the largest gesture possibly. [Laughs]
In your early work the sensation of space was just as real, yet more of an architectural space, along with a concern about depiction and storytelling . It seems like over time the architecture slowly disappeared, or transformed into something more natural. Can you talk about where those pictures started, and where you are now? In the States we know your work about the barns, and the ceilings with the walls missing, etc. This new work is quite different from our original impression.
DS: Perhaps there was a natural development from an image or idea to simply painting. In the very beginning I was thinking about the idea of over-civilized landscapes, and removing gravity and letting architecture fly and float. There were also juxtapositions of taking a mountain landscape for example, and putting it in an urban environment. Also, I would take elements from a real landscape and combine it with a computer graphic or a landscape from a computer game. All of these ideas have gone from the work in the past two or three years. Of course I still use some of these elements, but now it’s just about painting. Now there is almost no idea in the beginning…I will start with simply a color and then take an element from somewhere and begin to respond to how the image changes. It goes through a process of articulation and over painting, and goes from being more abstract to more representational. It’s a process of response.
AR: I think that everyone is curious when they look at your work, as to whether these places are real or imagined? Or perhaps they are more from sensation?
DS: I think that walking around is still the most important thing for me. Even though these are more abstract, there are small things that I have associations with, which in the end, don’t have to be the focus of the painting because they still hold it together. I’m interested in suggesting things also, finding the line between real and abstract painting.
AR: I see an interesting connection in your work to the American painter Charles Burchfield. He also painted his home, and his country – often accessing the almost supernatural quality of nature – his version of the Sublime. I also see a connection between how that sublime quality is somehow conveyed through your technical process – your work exists at the moment of fusion between mark making and storytelling that lets you you open up the inborn story of the landscape. In that same vein I also see a connection to David Hockney’s paintings; he has a similar interest in perception and sensation, one connected to searching for the proper kind of shorthand to abbreviate the world with. Is he someone who has influenced you?
DS: Not really, but his work in the last 10 years has really interested me. I saw a number of his exhibitions, and I’m fascinated by how he uses color and how he abstracts the landscape he lives in, especially the English landscape. He was in my studio once, back when I was painting the barns. He was really excited about how I used central perspective. He liked that work very much and we had a really interesting conversation about perspective and the history of perspective. I started to get really interested in his work after working with landscape for several years, but I don’t used special colors or anything because of him. I knew his work form the 60’s and 70’s and then when he started painting landscape I thought, well if Hockney’s painting landscape perhaps it isn’t so stupid.
AR: He’s quite famous for someone who has painted landscape outdoors, from life. Is that something you’ve done?
DS: No, only when I was in art school. I never had the urge to paint outside. I don’t even do drawings outside anymore. I do love to walk through landscape; it’s my favorite hobby, to walk or bike through landscape and take some photos, which I almost never use. But my work is not about painting in the landscape. I’m not only fascinated by how Hockney paints in the landscape and but also how he abstracts it right there, with strange colors and forms. Even though he is in the landscape, he doesn’t try to copy it, which is very difficult; to find your own form even though the real form is in front of you. For me, it would be much easier to do a drawing and then develop my forms in the studio. To do it in front of the real world is very difficult.
AR: Maybe Hockney has more of a connection to the Impressionists or Fauvists, in the way that he pushes color beyond what it appears, or perhaps picks up something he sees and develops it further. I guess he would have more of a connection to that past, to Modern painting than Contemporary painting, even though he’s still alive. And even though he did those paintings on the Ipad this year. I wasn’t crazy about them.
DS: Me neither. I saw an exhibition when he was just starting them and they just weren’t good.
AR: Maybe he just doesn’t exist in that kind of place. But then you think of Albert Oehlen, who has such a strong connection to Modern painting, and yet he did all of his computer paintings and they were somehow different. They worked for him. Perhaps he was more Postmodern.
DS: I think they are from a generation that now feels they have to do something with the computer. Yet when you grow up with it, I think there is less pressure to use technology in painting. For us, the computer is so normal. I don’t really have the idea anymore that I’ve got to bring it into my paintings, even though I tried to bring a certain computer aesthetic into them some years ago. Although I didn’t even really try, it came mostly on its own.
AR: And now I think we struggle with an opposite problem, trying to see and learn to see without that framework. It’s amazing to think that the two pre and post-computer generations have coexisted for a while now. We now have people who know this time before, and others who know nothing of that time. It must’ve been the same with photography, black and white to color, photography to film, radio to photography. It’s hard to imagine those changes, to imagine them as an artist at the time and feel the world shaking.
DS: The people who do not accept it fascinate me; they want to know why they should accept it. These are often people who are against it, and think it’s bad and dangerous. But that’s a bit too philosophical.
AR: So, are all these works finished?
DS: Mostly. I have an exhibition in September, and so they are still going.
AR: Trying to find the click?
DS: [Laughs] Yes.
AR: Will you be showing the large and small paintings?
DS: Yes, and some etchings.
AR: How long have you been doing print work?
DS: Since the beginning. I was more interested in coming to Leipzig to study printmaking, and at first was more interested in etching and woodcut than painting. But then I found a way to paint. In the early paintings you could see a lot of graphic and drawn elements that I left. If you know it, you can see I’m very interested in printing techniques. Perhaps it’s still a little bit this way. I do mainly aquatints, and often a lot of accidents happen that lead to interesting things.
AR: I think it’s very important for painters to find those kinds of shocks, through accidents. In an interview at the Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen Anselm Kiefer talked about how his practice is based on finding those shocks.
DS: It’s important, and especially in printmaking. It’s important that you don’t just copy your paintings; it’s more about experimentation. It’s just as important as painting to me, to feel good and to feel down about it in the same way that you would about painting. It’s important to know how to deal with those shocks. After all these years, I know how to deal with it. And now I’ve realized that those shocks are the best things that can happen.
AR: Many of the works utilize a mirroring effect; this must have some special significance. Are you creating reflections of multiple horizons in your pictures? Did this come from the printmaking process?
DS: I’m not sure, but I suppose it might come from cutting films for making silkscreens. And from overlaying the layers to see what happens. It’s mostly a compositional thing that gives the idea of another layer coming in from outside the painting.
AR: It’s hard to say if your paintings are totally abstract right now, but could you imagine pushing them to the point when they do become totally non atmospheric and abstract?
DS: To lose the moment of perspective? I don’t think so. I think creating the spaces is one thing I’m interested in. For example, when I do silkscreen and my other prints, I just play with forms and not space, and I realize that there is more of an abstract potential there than in my paintings. Perhaps one day I’ll make paintings of landscape but without perspective somehow.
AR: All artists get stuck and frustrated at certain points, and there are usually things they return to, that they carry as part of their work. Are there certain motifs that you return to when you feel stuck? What do you do?
DS: Sometimes I do nothing. I wouldn’t say that I’m not working, but sometimes I don’t go into the studio for a few weeks. Sometimes I just start with something I’ve painted before, I’ll start a few like that and then just put them away. And then I’ll find a new idea and grab the paintings I had started without any idea and work on top of them. It’s always different, there is no special rite. Sometimes it’s more a walk through the landscape, or traveling, or I’ll watch a lot of movies. After each series of paintings or exhibition I do this kind of happens. So after this show, I’m happy that I’ll be going to Rome for a residency for one year.
AR: Which residency?
DS: It’s called Villa Massimo, run through the German art embassy. It’s for established artists, and for that reason I’m very happy to do it.
AR: Any thoughts on what you’ll do there? Have you been to Rome?
DS: I’ve been a few times. It’s the same residency that Matthias Weischer did.
AR: It was the same one that changed his work dramatically?
DS: Yes, where he did drawings from the park and courtyards. I don’t think I’ll do this. [Laughs] I will not go outside.
AR: For one year! [Laughs]
DS: They have beautiful studios there! [Laughs] With the perfect northern light!
AR: I can imagine it’s difficult to work in such a small space like this! [Laughs] And so you have that for a year, is there anything else you’re working on?
DS: I’m working with a theater director to design the stage sets for an opera. I did a stage design for an opera two years ago, and I think it was a very important thing for me. It was the first step of working with real space and in the end it was almost like an art installation. At the same time I started to do wall paintings and wall drawings. I’m very keen to be doing the stage design for this reason, especially because in the residency there are not only painters but also writers musicians and architects. I hope that something will develop with these other people there also.
AR: And do you see yourself pursuing things other than painting – like installation – in the future, or just painting?
DS: I don’t know, at the moment I think only painting. It would be great for my paintings to do something different, to work with real space. When I did the stage design two years ago, it was very interesting to actually have people in my installation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
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.