Helge Baumgarten, born in 1975, is an expert on and collector of young contemporary art. After periods of working in the book trade and publishing, he has been a student of art history at TU Berlin since 2011. He also works freelance at Galerie Egbert Baqué Contemporary Art.
“Something is left behind - namely, a painting”
Wolfgang Neumann in conversation
with Helge Baumgarten, Berlin, April 2014
Flashlight & Blackout is already your 33rd solo show. In a nutshell: what is the theme of your exhibition?
Wolfgang Neumann: Oh, I had not realised that it’s that many, although of course I know the list. Yes, the title refers to the old quotation by Goethe: “Wherever there is a lot of light, there is also strong shadow.” That is a persistent theme from real life, it refers to the way I work with strong contrasts, and on a political level it applies to Berlin, with the quick re-evaluation of people like the former German President Wulff and the former defence minister Guttenberg. First there is the flurry of flashlights, then a black hole. This is why the wall painting with the reeling boxers fits into my concept, at the moment when the lights go out. A very interesting, classic sport.
HB: Not just an interesting and classic sport, but also an inexhaustible topic with reference to art! That is a topic I’d like to delve into more deeply later. But first of all let’s try to connect this exhibition to your other paintings. When you look back on your oeuvre so far, what kind of changes do you see in your work?
WN: It’s remarkable that you raise this question just now. Because after I moved into a new studio last year, I saw many of my old paintings that I hadn’t seen in years. They went back to the end of the 1990s. And some of them, for example also Blumerant in this exhibition, I took up again and, with the exception of a few places that remain as a bridge to the old time, I completely reworked them. This of course confronted me with my mode of working all that time ago. I don’t see the stylistic differences as much as somebody with an outsider perspective would; for me, it is mainly the working process that has changed and expanded. One the one hand through the material or media: a broad range from works on canvas, where I can build up from spray varnish, acrylic paint and oils, to drawings, and most recently to sculptural works. And then the fact that I like to take my time to make a painting. When I’m working on a painting, I make quite fast progress, but those times when the picture needs to be looked at, and needs to stand up to scrutiny. So these in-between times, they get longer.
That sounds as if you enter literally into an exchange with your works, a mutual one: a maturing on the part of the work, and a clarification on your part.
Sometimes it can take years until I reach a final point. There are quite consciously different work phases. For example, when I work for a few weeks stringently on drawings in
ink, then over time I might make ten such drawings. But can work simultaneously on several works for weeks. The concentration levels are so high when I work that I need some distance, which I get
by working in one sitting on two works, either in a parallel fashion or on one after the other. Each has its own theme.
That is a difference from which each individual work benefits in the end. By having a greater distance to the work, I’m can better obliterate or at least check the false presents, effects, and niceties that sometimes appear during the process. However, a drawing on the other hand, which for me is not a complement or sketch for a painting, must succeed at once, I can’t work in layers or correct anything there. It’s a completely different process. The variety adds spice.
How strongly is your work informed by your biography?
Every artistic articulation, especially if it is made by hand, is of course closely linked to the author. And that happens also quite unconsciously. Beholders often see self-portraits in my figures, even if that wasn’t my intention. But I think this reading shouldn’t be rejected out of hand. I think it’s quite alright when that happens. Indeed, I very much welcome the hybrid characteristics of my figures.
The use of such hybrid figures represents a pictorial strategy on which many of your paintings are based.
An advantage of the painted picture is that unlike a photograph, it does not have to depict somebody in particular. Rather, abstraction and illusion alienate and change the object. What I see in the world sometimes also finds its way into my repertoire of motifs. Just as the painting depict objects, it is a composed picture, abstracted in many gradations. The content also influences the expression and the degree of the technical execution. That is why there are many differences in terms of the treatment and the temperature of a painting. We can talk a lot about content, but the maniera, aspects of composition, and the process that is inscribed into the painting are often a little overlooked because of the loud pictorial narrative. But these are just as important. I want both. Right now, painting completely abstract works would seem too escapist to me.
Are there landmarks on your life that have left their mark in any special way in your art, that have maybe given it a new direction?
Of course the stories that I experience feed into my work. In 2007, a year where not just I was in hospital, but others around me as well, a few motifs of being bedridden emerged, also post-operation scars. I allow that, but it happens in a sublimated way for the painting. But I don’t really want to become the chronicler of my own history, which is after all in many respects rather banal, in the sense that many expressionist, including Beckmann or even more directly Dix, frequently painted themselves, their family and friends. I like what they did, but it isn’t for me. At least in art; it’s different in literature. I also want to avoid the sentimentality of the private. The topic of the self-portrait is always present, at least latently, because you can take yourself ruthlessly as a role model in one figuration or another. I’ve been doing that right from the start, from time to time at least.
Through all epochs, the classic mainsprings of artistic creativity have been love, emotions, and sexuality. None of these are present in your works, at least not to a degree that we might see a motivation for artistic work. Why do you paint, what drives you, and what drives you to art?
Our notion of fulfilment and happiness through love is relatively new. But the field of tension between men and women in terms of power, representation, war, survival strategies,
and myths has always been broad. Networks of relationships are represented sometimes, also familial links, ties, and teams. Some paintings are based on fairytales, which often have a direct
psychological component on the level of relationships. Perhaps it is because I’m not so much in pursuit of an ideal, which people seek in the one great love, great happiness, huge success. The
ideal, complete, and perfect seems suspect to me. I’m a really great fan of masterworks in art history that manage, in an unbeatable way, to depict these primal themes. In earlier times this was
easier, because it could be done without irony.
But when from the perspective of the market economy, happiness and love are pictured more as a clichéd key stimulus of advertising, until they are actually devoid of meaning, and sexuality functions as a “currency,” I wouldn’t know how to treat this in an unfiltered way.
The opposite would be terms like anger, aggression, conflict…
On the one hand, yes, quite, but Thanatos, that is to say death, as the counterpart of Eros, also resonates here. The catastrophe of one’s own finiteness and thus the high value
of the limited time we have in which we can create, give me cause to play with relish with subjects and materials, to enjoy the beauty of the process and of artistic motifs, and to depict the
vitality on a purely formal level. In a way that electrifies me, surprises me, gives me a kick, and gets me addicted.
That is also the answer why one, as you say, is and stays driven to art: it is also the indulgent dissatisfaction and fulfilment in failure. The small creator has to keep working on the seventh day, because he saw that it was not good. That´s why I like the second version of the Resurrection by Max Beckmann so much, an unfinished huge painting that leaves so many things open, and seems so vulnerable.
I’m especially interested in the artistic process in your work, you’ve used this term several times now. In Reflex, a self-portrait from 2006, you sniff the reality of the day from a huge barrel through a straw, while your eyes, deprived of their function, are torn out and fly around your head. Your (presumably empty) eye sockets are hidden by dark sunglasses; in Twiterritor, these empty eye sockets suck the Coca-Cola directly through the straws into the brain. How does your perception, your input, work?
I get my input all the time, through all channels. Like a baleen whale, I swim through a stream of information, and a lot of food and analogue food gets caught. I collect cut-outs and jpegs as well as my own snapshots. Sometimes there are already titles or small scribbles. Usually things that are – consciously or unconsciously – ambiguous, a bit dubious, odd. Some reports as well as some images already have a spark of a metaphor that just needs a bit of refinement or a different twist. For me it is important that it points beyond the situation and that it jives with my visual experience. That is to say, a simple visual joke or pun would not be sufficient as a subject. I want a big element of zeitgeist, a signifier of the times.
To stay with the really very graphic image of the baleen whale, what is, metaphorically speaking, the plankton that gets caught in the baleens and then later gets fed into the organism?
Of course I have various filters, and I as a subject need an occasion to process that. It is a process of visual digestion, really, of thinking, condensing and then also destroying/décollaging in the process. It is a free play and at the same time catharsis. It is a contradiction, but when things remain unclear and ambiguous, there is a lot more truth and potential than when things are one-dimensional or simple. The resonating cavity of things that are unclear or out of focus makes new perspectives possible. That’s why I chose the exhibition title Ballaststoffe [dietary fibers] in 2009, because for me “creating art” also means an optical-intellectual metabolism: intake, utilization, and excretion, including the production of fermentation gas. Just as coarsely ground grain hulls are excreted, in my pictorial personell there are also these worthless hulls, they are targeted and placed next to the full corn, as it were. So that now the hulls in the painting are placed next to the condensed sublimated full value results, ideally, in a complex painting that, in its own way, depicts reality.
“Intellectual metabolism” – that is a wonderful transition. Let’s turn to your output strategies: your paintings „ Leaker, Ratist, Klekker show people who paint canvases. There are no brushes or other instruments for painting. The paint squirts directly from their hands and heads onto the canvas. Projektor (2004), a work on paper, is even more direct, because in the place where we expect a head, a projector with a real sense of mission projects images into the world. What path do your motifs take before they manifest themselves on canvas?
There is even a painted version of Projektor now.
Which I have not seen yet – but it is only consistent that this motif now also exists on canvas!
You can’t know it, because it hasn’t been reproduced anywhere and was only shown once or twice years ago. Yes, the appearance of the picture, its generation, recording or, in this case, its direct projection is a recurrent motif. If the world itself is already that absurd and art looks at it through a burning glass, processes it, and mirrors it, then we take the absurdity one step further, and that of course is reflected in the art one makes. It is an interplay of objective, subjective, and pseudo-objective. The Chewseum paintings also have this. Art for art between decoration, entertainment, and fake. The generation of pictures does not float high above everything, but can find direct expression even without large vehicles. The Leaker in fact belongs to the Chewseum variants; here, Pollock with a blue hat poses as a “passionate” painter whose stigmata drip used as well as fresh blood onto the canvas. In the back of my mind, I had a painting by Mark Rothko, who killed himself in his studio by cutting his wrists – a final, absolutely heart-breaking and in the end coherent pictorial creation.
Though your pictorial world is very ramified and varied, there are certain motifs that have been recurring for years now, and that is also true for the paintings in your current exhibition. All kinds of masks, of which we can’t quite tell whether they shield the beholder from the protagonist’s gaze, or vice versa, guys with play-station consoles who play their fictive game, crash test dummies that are vicariously subjected to all sorts of torture and manipulations and that sometimes seem strangely engrossed. Heroes from childhood, figures from current events, and politicians, fairytale characters and circus artistes, again and again chewing gum bubbles and balloons, as well as animals, mainly dolphins, bears, and birds, furthermore meat kebabs and mainly animal-derived foods: have some of your pictorial elements developed a life of their own over the course of time, and what are the meanings of these recurrent motifs? What is your pool of inspiration?
The word inspiration is more something for artist geniuses, for me it’s a bit too sacred. I always encounter reasons to paint. There are objects that beg for painterly treatments, in some cases with a long tradition. For example meat and incarnate, from Rembrandt to Freud. That is simply an existential pictorial subject and a matter that as such poses representational challenges. The other pictorial personnel you mentioned are always in a certain way symbolically or metaphorically charged, and I like to use that charge. And sometimes a motif that needs to be worked on drags through my paintings. And until I have really finished with it, it may keep reappearing.
You don’t want to say anything about this symbolic or metaphorical charge?
No! (laughs) Well, allegorical figures with various cross-references keep coming up. Let’s take the dolphins you mentioned. In a series I made a few years ago, there is not just the recurring motif of dolphins, but there are also people wearing dolphin and killer whale costumes. They represent for me in a certain way the super intelligent animal as a better, more natural, yearning human being who would like to return to Adam and Eve in paradise, but gets stuck half way as a merely silly, well-medicated jesters in Euro-Disneyland. Partly because he misunderstands himself. As representatives, they’ve done all sorts of things, but in terms of meaning they are ruptured and treated with irony. That is just one example. Then there are always direct or indirect links to art history, in the sense of remixes or déjà-vus. A direct example would be the two versions of Schlapp der Vernunft that are based on a motif of Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters from his engraving cycle Los Caprichos. But that happens here just on the level of the sleeping figure at the centre and in the title. Most of the things in the paintings are quite different. But I like the idea that Goya lies beneath it as hypertext and iconic layer.
Let’s take an excursion into current political affairs. Spring 2014. Putin has annexed Crimea, chaos in Ukraine, the EU struggles how to react appropriately, Obama – weakened by the NSA affair – tries to display strength, but doesn’t quite know how to do it. Parallel to this, a little excursion to your past and current pictorial worlds:
Content, 2007, we see Putin on a shooting range, coolly wearing his noise protection the wrong way round – his sleeve is the barrel of his gun, smoking dangerously, ready to shoot again, the target clearly focussed.
Shooting Star (You), 2009, Barack Obama bursting with strength, which he wastes, turned away from world events and doing impressive pull-ups on a bar.
Neujahrsansprache II, 2014, Skeletor, in front of a Reichstag in the dark, prepares the German people for the new year.
Abklinger and Subterranean Homesick Toast, both 2014, Stalin is still peacefully asleep on his grave, but at the same time sends out confusing birthday and resurrection greetings.
Earlier on, you introduced the term maniera, and Tilman Osterwold also refers to it when he describes your painting as “more a factual-realistic maniera than an expressively impressive peinture.“[WW3] In reference to the sequence of paintings I have just sketched out, I would like to add to the term “factual –realistic” the attribute “prophetic” or “seeing.” In the painting Prognostata (2010) you addressed this look into the future – does your hand sense (and realize) more than your head may know or realize?
The way I understand it, it is a play with externalized factors that are often stalled. Thus human skin remains incarnate and does not show green manikins or red buildings. A connection to the real world is maintained, because the dichotomies of these apparitions or occurrences interest and occupy me. A dialectical thought. It is true that I keep producing paintings or whole series that appear to be prophetic when one pictorial category floods the media. Early in 2008, more than half a year before the Lehmann crash, I showed drawings depicting gambling joints where angry masked figures kick in casino shop-windows. Or young people camping in tents and so on, which may remind people of the later occupy movement. But of course it’s not clairvoyance. Things like that are simply in the air, they don’t come out of nowhere. At G8 summits there were dead people beforehand, and the photographs to go with it.
I did the painting of Obama in the gym in January 2009, shortly after the official results were published. He is only seen from behind, only the flag points to him, and that could hang anywhere in the US. But it seems to be clear to everybody that this coarsely painted figure could be Obama, even though the title provides no clue here. At that point it seemed pretty clear that one man cannot do all that much in such a position. After all, even with the backing of the Nobel Prize behind him, he still can’t even close one damn prison.
So it is more the artist’s practiced eye for details that – put together and visually processed – offer the beholder insights into a future level of potentiality: and even if it is just a battle against windmills like the example Obama versus Guantanamo Bay. So you could agree with Tilman Osterwold when he writes about you that “the artist [i.e., you] thinks politically and is motivated politically”?
Of course it is fine by me if the work creates a “keynote” through the content and the maniera, and that this keynote enables statements about the time. The difference between aim and effect of human activities. Through a cacophony of colour pitches, overabundance, cohesion in chaos, and wit in despair, but also comfort in the artistic action.
“Comfort in the artistic action”: that is an extremely strong statement, you must explain that further.
The activity of painting gives you support, it liberates and leaves traces. It gives meaning and fulfilment in the face of the eternally imperfect. You can also draw something productive from things that go down the drain or that are gone with the wind. Because something remains: a painting.
In addition to political scenarios like the ones we have discussed just now, we find in your oeuvre repeatedly a critical look at the media landscape, its reporting and excesses, as for example in Talg Show, which is also part of the current show. In Germany, the media are considered the fourth estate. I think the idea that art – with the possibility of visualizing and uncovering that which is not communicable – could represent something like a fifth estate is very much applicable to your work. How do you see your role as an artist in the context of social responsibility?
Ever since they are no longer obliged to make state art or sacred art, artists are free to do what they wants – or what the market demands from them. That raises completely different questions about freedom. Responsibility is for me too strong a term, because I like the anarchic and actionist keynote of artistic action. I’m not qualified as an educator of humanity, my messages, if you will, are too diffuse and ambiguous for that. It’s like in Plato’s cave allegory: shadows and projections direct the attention of the person sitting deep in the cave and staring at the wall. I can’t unravel that. But I do reserve the right to bring in the political, in the sense of play mentioned before, as a question and answer game. Sometimes as a statement, and that may sometimes be politically incorrect. The great admonishers are after all also people who don’t have eyes on the back of their heads. The word “critical” is therefore not the right one, I’d rather call it “sceptical.”
Let me interrupt here briefly. I chose the term “critical” partly because I wanted to avoid the term “irony.” Especially in reference to your play between title and motif, I think this term is rather hackneyed.
“Critical” means pointing with a finger from a firm, correct standpoint?
Not in the sense of pointing a critical finger, rather in the sense of questioning. And above all I meant something more constructive, something that in my view irony can’t do.
Irony by itself is of course an inflationary instrument, because every cheap stand-up comedian works with it. You get on a high horse and distance yourself from others. I’m more interested in the parallel levels above and below, also in their structure and entanglement. A pointedly ironic approach would be like a straw fire as far as the content of a painting is concerned. Sometimes quotations, combinations and small shifts are sufficient to open up certain facts or circumstances. Almost 100 years ago, Tucholsky called the satirist an “insulted idealist.” Knowing that the ideal is in the end also a bit boring, satire has a direction of thought and not just crude jokes.
Do you use such satirical elements especially in reference to the media, so that they get a critical character through that?
Well, I find it remarkable how apocalyptic reporting leads to ever larger excesses and short-term flashes in the pan. How debates degenerate as blitzkriegs into comprehensive salvoes of opinions, which however quickly ossify unproductively, and cool down, at ever shorter intervals. Such hysteria blocks everything else that at this moment doesn’t necessarily have to pause, or doesn’t even seem to happen. That is almost a kind of collective psychosis or a social autoimmune disorder of perception. But I’m probably not an exception here. Even if I, as I’ve said, don’t deny that I think politically when I paint – but there is no political influence to speak of, because as an artist I can’t really reach all that many people. And otherwise you have to do it in a very simple-minded, unsophisticated manner, like those with whom art eventually becomes a ring tone. After Christoph Schlingensief did his Ausländer raus [foreigners get out] action with containers in Vienna in 2000, which included quite crass extreme right-wing slogans and the deportation of illegal immigrants via Internet voting, he spoke about his motives. He said he was only interested in images that result from “disturbances” or disruptions when different systems dance together. If art could improve the world, politics would have participated long ago, painting amazing pictures, hanging them up publicly, and all problems would be solved. His “dirt sculpture” (this is what Sloterdijk called the action) pushed itself like a yeast cake among people and everybody had to assume a stand in this small world theatre, to act vis-à-vis all of this, and that creates a lasting picture, That means something to me. Actually, I think much less about the recipient than people may think, and if I do, then certainly not with an attitude of “what does the artist want to tell us here” or the idea that I could post valuable messages via copy& paste into the beholder’s brain.
Just now you said that your messages are in some cases too diffuse or ambiguous.
Ambiguity is a good thing, but hollow randomness is bad. In this field of tension, a painting must prove itself. But I don’t want to take the liberty of playing with attitudes and statements; in the theatre, a figure in a play can do and claim things that do not reflect the private opinion of the playwright. Usually I don’t know how the painting will look after the process of painting, and can act I accordance to Francis Picabia’s famous statement: “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.” With this head, I can see everything that lands as media flotsam and jetsam, and either nod or shake my head. In the ideal case, the painting will become a complex construct that records in a seismographic manner and on a technically high level intellectual content as well as physical moods, without platitudes or sentiment. That is the attempt to create pictures by hand, in this traditional and anachronistic manner, which nonetheless have a strange relevance for their time of creation.
I have been observing for a while how in your work the relationship of text and image is changing. Your lyrics and your music are becoming more present; after all, during the opening you played for almost an hour with the band Art Attack, and recited texts. And these seem to me to take on the function that was before reserved to the titles of your paintings.
That did start with the titles of paintings, where I use similar strategies as with the composition of the painting. Every work gets a title. It is linked linguistically and semantically. With terms like tonality, tone colour, and pitch, we have almost pictorial terms. So I say the title out loud and in different dialects, and it becomes a kind of Dada Esperanto. With diffusing versions. It is not so much the job of a title to clarify something, rather, it is to create and open up a resonating cavity. The result is an interplay with the painting, a refinement. Not an explanation, but a destructplanation. And the longer texts actually were simply borne of necessity: a few years ago I was supposed to write a text for a painting, and it became more a kind of associative text that supplemented the painting. That showed some potential, and I started writing more. The lyrics have a completely different structure. But in the end, everything goes back to an uncomfortable core.
Let’s turn back for a moment to the starting point of our conversation and your motivation to make art. If you only had 24 hours to live: which picture would you paint?
Perhaps I would do a few other things than paint, but I might well invest two or three hours in painting. At that moment I might perhaps look in the mirror and do a small and simple self-portrait as a nice self-observation in this world. As a self-exposure and document. The format would be a little like the Roman mummy portraits. That would be it for the time being.
Those are fitting closing words. Thank you so much for this most informative chat, Wolfgang! Now we can lean back and turn, “off the record”, as it were, to boxing. (Turns off the recording device.)
Ballaststoffe. Wolfgang Neumann, published by Kunstzentrum Karlskaserne, exhibition catalogue, Kunstzentrum Karlskaserne Ludwigsburg 2009, Ludwigsburg 2009.
Mittelbemindert. Wolfgang Neumann, Colmar Schultze-Goltz (ed.), exhibition catalogue Städtische Galerie Ostfildern 2008, Bielefeld / Leipzig 2008.
Neumann, Wolfgang: Kugelsicher,Ludwigsburg 2004.
Sürpression. Wolfgang Neumann, published by Kunstverein Worms, exhibition catalogue Kunstverein Worms 2010, Marbach 2010.
Wanwiz. Wolfgang Neumann, published by von fine arts 2219. Galerie für Kunst der Gegenwart, exhibition catalogue fine arts 2219. Galerie für Kunst der Gegenwart, Stuttgart 2006, Bielefeld / Leipzig 2006.
Wolfgang Neumann. Peak Flow, published by Landkreis Esslingen, exhibition catalogue Abschlußausstellung Stipendium des Landkreises Esslingen 2010-2013, Kulturpark Dettinger, Plochingen 2013, Esslingen 2013.
Wolfgang Neumann. Viva Navi Naiv, Irmgard Sedler (ed.), exhibition catalogue Museum im Kleihues-Bau, Kornwestheim 2011, Kornwestheim 2011.
 Wanwiz 2006, p. 17.
 Ibid., p. 94.
Ibid., p. 56 f.
 Ibid., p .52.
 Ibid., p. 88.
 Neumann 2004, p. 59.
 Viva Navi Naiv 2011, p.. 66 ff.
 Mittelbemindert 2008, p. 66.
 Tilman Osterwold, „Meine Kontur…“, in: Peak Flow 2013, p. 5.
 Cf. Sürpression 2010.
 Osterwold, in: Peak Flow 2013, p. 7.
 According to the German Wikipedia, the metaphor “the fifth estate” is also associated with lobbyism.
 Cf. Ausländer raus. Schlingensiefs Container, directed by Paul Poet, Austria 2001.
 Translator’s note: The German Zerklärung is a neologism, a mix of Erklärung (explanation) and the prefix zer, which usually points to destruction. Hence my neologism destructplanation.
“Zerklärungsbedürftig” was the title of a solo exhibition at Kunstverein Trier, 2008.