Painting

A Promise of Madness: A Conversation with Friedrich Kunath

May 28, 2018

As we announced previously, Friedrich Kunath (one of our favorite artists in Juxtapoz x Superflat) opened his latest solo show with Tim Van Laere Gallery in Antwerp, Belgium on May 17th. Where is the Madness That You Promised Me is the LA-based artist's milestone exhibition, as it marks his big comeback to painting after a long period of airbrush based works.

Upon entering the gallery space, the sweet scent of oil embraces one's nostrils as vibrant and textured canvases start their rich and complex narratives. We quickly learned that the artist puts an additional scent to all of his shows, making sure the sensory overload gets that much stronger and more impactful. Created as unmediated, personal journals, the new paintings are heavily layered, both technically and conceptually, holding countless indications of the artist's feelings and observations, portrayed through citations, collages, recycling and references to various sources. Intertwined with quirky sculptural installations that blow up some of the recurring elements to a larger scale, the entire show sucks the observer inside Kunath's universe, allowing you to enjoy the works from multiple perspectives and angles of viewing.

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We had the great opportunity to meet with Kunath right before the opening, and hear firsthand about the actual importance of this show for him, as well as learn about both his personal and artistic journey he is currently exploring. 

Sasha Bogojev: Where is the title of the show coming from?
Friedrich Kunath: It's from a song by The Magnetic Fields. As you know I always use titles. First of all is unconscious - I just see it and I just know it fits, so it's not something constructive right away. It reveals itself almost always later. There are 2 notions about it that I like - it's a good observation on a relationship that is going on for a long time but there is a moment when it hit a climax. I feel like it holds the truth that I'm interested in but can't explain it. But also it has to do with my practice. Going from airbrushed motifs back into painting again.

Yeah, this one is proper painting show.
You could argue that shoving paint around at the level that I do is a bit more chaotic, but I was looking for some madness in there. Cause with the implied distance of airbrush, at times I felt a bit disconnected. So I was looking for reconnection to painting again. So that was a bit of change in my work.

When did that change take place?
 I think last year. I mean, I still do both but it all came when I started coming to America. It was a very conceptual approach as I didn't necessarily feel like painting when I got there. It seemed such a different culture and such a critical move at the time in my life, that I just couldn't continue painting the same I was doing when I was living in Germany. So I looked at a lot of Hudson River School, which was Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Moore, and the collective that primarily painted landscape scenes and it was pioneer painting was discovering the undiscovered. I could not have painted it but I was drawn to it, so I decided to take the D-tour through the aesthetic of Venice beach towel. So I decided to spray these images and therefore explain my own distance to this country but also get familiar with it at the same time. So that is where this whole background of sunsets and landscapes started. But then as with everything - you do it too much and you create too much distance. And then I was ready to paint again, something I was suppressing for a lot of years.

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Was this the style of painting you were doing back in Germany?
No, being in Germany in the 1990s, going to university, painting the way I do now, you would get shot dead! Stoned to death! Everybody was cooking and doing workshops and performances. Growing up with Kirkeby, Penck, Lüpertz, Baselitz, all these post-war expressionist painters, I never allowed myself into that. But being so far away now in the kind of desert of culture, I'm allowing myself everything. I'm basically free now so that lead me to these new paintings.

I remember reading an interview you did with Hammer museum where you mentioned that when moved to America, the colors got brighter...
 ..and the topics got darker. Like I was saying - it became a full circle when I arrived at the West Coast. Cause I had my baggage of doubt, the art history, and the burden of art history, or I had that in masses. But I never had all the silliness and stupidity that West Coast culture provides. I think that created a counterpoint that I was desperately looking for. Everything in my work is based on a counterpoint - it's happy, sad, east, west, always contraries of where I'm feeling right at home. It's always that question of homelessness. What does it mean to be home or not. The very sentence "I want to go home but I am home" defines my work very much. There is this energy of homelessness permeating through everything.

Would you consider going back to Germany?
No. I'm done. (laughs) I would prefer not to. I don't think I'd go back east and the only thing more west is Hawaii and I'm ok with that.

Oh yes, I can imagine that. It's an unreal place.
But it's also so spiritual. There is something at play that I never understood in terms of why all these people go there to take the last breaths of their life. So I might move west but not east.

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The political situation in the US changed significantly since you moved there. Did you notice that this influenced your work?
Not at all, no. There is one part of me that cares about that, but that person I leave out of the studio. This is something that will never touch me. It will touch me as a person but not my work. It's bullshit and I don't believe in it. It's not my duty to comment on these things. It's like preaching to the choir. There are relevant political artists, and I think when it's their daily practice and complete dedication, there is some value to it. But what am I gonna do? What am I gonna report? What am I gonna benefit from it other than my vanity? It's completely not my duty. My work is political, absolutely. Cause I react to certain things, but it's not political in the sense that I have to comment on day to day politics. That's naive and stupid.

I've asked cause a lot of artists I've been talking to have been influenced by all these shifts happening.
I mean, what can I do? You can always argue that we're all obviously influenced by it, but unconsciously. But I'm the last person who would make a political statement of the current state of things. Politics is now, art is future. So my comment would be about yesterday. That's the nature of art, you can't dominate it with this bullshit.

Were the paintings in this show done as a whole body of work?
No, not much. I have a lot of work in my studio and once it's clear which direction it goes, I select few groups but giving them too much-controlled thought or conception early on, would ruin everything. Maybe in last 2 weeks of selection, it becomes a bit more clear but I'm the dark pretty much all the time.

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And are they in any way connecting to Antwerp?
Yeah, the connection is there. I always thought Belgium is a study in grey. It's also in Belgian art history, it's such an important color. So I painted the walls grey to give it a background, and that's my contribution. Also, being on the black floor, as we've mentioned - the topics get darker. So yeah, I was really investigating some greys.

And in contrast to that, you have a lot of these rainbow-like spectrums. Is there a certain meaning behind those or personal connection?
It goes back to work I did around 2010, back in Germany, I was pressing out tubes on an unprimed canvas, which I called "New Jerusalem", and it had this effect that the oil of the paint was fading in unbleached canvas. So there is this painting that I always loved where with a gradient of colors. So mostly it is a gradient, and not a rainbow, but also rainbow. So I saw this painting and I wanted to more of that, straight from the tube to give it that 3D effect. Once I did this it created even more depth, here to the flatness of airbrush, and it became a part of my practice. It's so nice, almost like pushing bugger out of your nose.

And then you enlarged it to these sculptural pieces?
Yes, the thought was "you could be IN the painting," so it's even more 3D. So all these are remainings of a painting, and the room could be the painting. But these are really just fun little moments in the studio.

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I'm somehow drawn to them so I keep noticing them everywhere in different shape and size.
I've been doing them a lot lately. I like the chroma and I'm really drawn to have childlike quality and naivety.

How much of your work is pre-sketched?
Nothing. I do studies, but normally is this smaller size canvas, and I'm so ADD that every time I'm trying to do it again, it becomes something else. Almost always, for my taste, better. But if I'm trying out something odd, it's more in that range.

And how often do you trash the ones that didn't get anywhere?
No, I don't trash. I work until it's done. I mean, that's a whole other topic - when it's done. But you can always paint over. And the nice thing about oil is that it is BEYOND repairable. Meaning you can repair it at any time. It's like if you betray someone and every time they forgive you.

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Ok, and since you've mentioned it, how do you decide when it's done?
Well, I don't know. They might be not done but they need to leave the studio. There is no mystery really. I mean, they're never really done cause they can do their part right now, in this room, which is beyond my control. They are like children that you send to school - ok, now you go out in the world. And then you have some fuckups and some that great A students. But that's not my job anymore. I'm generally good at letting go. If there is something that I feel touches something that I never experienced, then I keep it.

Do you get attached to work?
Yeah, if they explain something that I didn't know before, and that is inside of me, something very personal, then I won't give it away.

Do you have a favorite piece in this show? Or maybe one that was closest to being kept?
Yeah, that's a better way to ask. There are 2 pieces actually which both have this disconnection that is deeply consoling me. They have this longing that is hard to create, and when you see it, it feels like "Wow! I wasn't really part of this" The best paintings are the ones that you're not really aware of them while you're doing them. They happen when you're a little bit more the observer rather than the one whos making them. And these are always, I feel like, the best in terms that they created themselves, rather than me. Who am I? Like these new ones, I'm doing like really fast scribbles, really unconscious, Tourette drawings. They are both really minimal, there is something empty about them, but there is a lot of details and things that aren't supposed to be together. These are the things I don't fully understand and therefore I think—yeah, that's it! You really try to make meaning with your work, but in the end, you love the ones that don't mean anything.

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Where are all these images you're using in your work coming from? How often do you repeat them?
I collect images and in my studio, I have folders with what I call "my actors". So I have a cast. And I have thousands of them. Once a character gets used 3-4 times, it becomes a regular in the cast. In the end is full on movie. So everything comes from music and movies. I use art history, but as a vehicle, but all this is a cast, a neverending story. I freed them from where they were arrested and bring them together, although they shouldn't be together.

Could such approach be a result of the Hollywood influence?
In terms of narrative, probably. I live in the city where global narrative gets manufactured, so I'm very close to that machinery. The idea of telling stories, commercial or not, it doesn't matter. A story is a story. People are writing stories, screenplays, everywhere you go. I think it's a great city to live in. I mean, it's disgusting at times, no question, but I have more in common with these guys than with a banker in Frankfurt.

What about these page lines that keep appearing in the works? Where did they come from?
They are an echo of an older work and now they keep appearing as a distant melody. I was doing these notepad works on a canvas, always empty before, with blue and red lines. I started doing these cause I was trying to trick myself into the idea "this is not a canvas, this is just a notepad", so there is this immediate, non-hierarchy of images. You can do anything, total democracy. But it was also playing with the idea that is just a promise, I was being very conscious that is still a canvas. So it had this inbetweenism built in. Then I started doing images on top, and they became the message behind the notepad lines, something you couldn't see, a letter without words. Something you couldn't articulate into words, but the image can. I was always interested where does language ends and image begin? Where does that inexplainable start? When does the image do the job that words can't do? This threshold I'm very interested in.

So when did you start incorporating text into your work?
Always! That's my absolute fixation to music. I research just music 2-3 hours a day. That's basically what I do. And everything that I know about it goes into the painting. Not into music, cause I can't make music. I tried to write a song but I couldn't do it, so I painted it. I always paint the song. I always thought that's maybe the only thing I can do. Cause what I get from music is so much bigger than what I am, my attempts are just helpless tries to simulate something.

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Then I have to ask—what kind of music do you enjoy?
Everything but heavy metal!

Oh, that's pretty precise. Why is heavy metal excluded?
I hate heavy metal. (laughs) I don't listen to it, I don't like the culture. Ok, it's not that I hate it, cause hate would mean that I think it's important. I just don't listen to it. I noticed one day that I listen to pretty much anything, but heavy metal.

Maybe it's because it's quite big in Germany?
Maybe, yeah, but I was never into the anger of it all. I mean there is anger in hip-hop and I love that but is so much better than four long-haired guys screaming over the microphone. It has its place, but I'm not into it. I think it's idiotic. 

This show will be followed by a more intimate showcase with Rental Gallery in New Hampton, a big solo exhibition with Blum & Poe and major monograph book release from Rizzoli later this year.