Painting as Claim and Imposition

Georg Frauenschuh in conversation with Christa Benzer

CB: I thought we could start by saying that this will be a conversation very much centered on painting, in the sense that we will not speak about the state of the world or your political stance. Does it have to do with the medium of painting that you, a very political person, are clearly preoccupied with very different topics here?

GF: It also has to do with the temporality of the medium. After all, painting has the claim to last a bit longer. I find different channels for my outrage about day-to-day politics. But I do not consider my paintings apolitical because my attitude inevitably has an impact on my work.

Elements from disparate image worlds collide in your work: One is the painterly world, which is already rather heterogenous in itself. Another derives from so-called cliparts, which refer to the Internet, and then there are these spaces that serve as “containers” for these contents. Are they based on photographs? How must these spaces or places be constituted for you to take a picture of them?

That depends on how I even arrived at these supposedly narrative spaces. Until 2015 it was primarily abstract spaces of painting within which I placed foreign elements, mainly clipart-like fragments. For me, it was about the idea of whether one can actually claim an abstract space, while having prescribed a narrative beforehand. The eternal dilemma in the history of painting of the twentieth century. At first, I used generic places that resulted from a formal analysis, so a quite a distanced approach: images from the Internet, real estate adverts, etc. It was only logical to also take photographs of these places with my smartphone when I came across them. It was not written in stone that these images must be generic and cannot have anything to do with me.

Why did these places catch your interest?

It was often triggered by language: I had words floating around in my head, like basement hobby room, rooftop apartment, or . I suppose there was also a personal, perhaps biographical impulse. Then my interest shifted more and more from private spaces to public or semi-public spaces.

Why do you even need a space?

It all began with a test of sorts. There was a phase when there was no white space left on my paintings at all, where the canvas was virtually “full” of painting. In this light, it was “liberating” to leave parts of the picture white. But in fact, this led to a perspectival suggestion, which opened up a space. Then things intensified and apparently made way for narration. Now I’ve landed right in the middle of figurative painting.

There are still white or rather omitted spots in your paintings.

This was an important accomplishment. Up to 2015 I worked toward a dead point: I mean, the white canvas was completely covered with formulations, which, however, were intended to be everything else but expressive. Smears and scribbles were predominant, along with the insight that there is no difference between a subversive and an affirmative gesture.

Why not?

For me, Jasper Johns represented a type of painting, which has already reflected and filtered the gesture as a gesture. As opposed to Robert Rauschenberg, whose gestures were very impulsive. They are gestures one would connote with power, sincerity, and even truth—talent at any rate; values I wanted to emancipate from early on. And yet, I cannot escape the “force” of these gestures, which renders my observer position unresolved and lively. In comparison, both dispositions of the “gesture” I just described seem to be present in Amy Sillman’s work. But she neither relies on the universality and charisma of the gesture (like Rauschenberg) nor let’s it degenerate into a formula or empty phrase. She personally refers to it a gendered gesture, I believe.

Does all of this knowledge about gestures have an effect on the act of painting?

Not anymore. But I do remember feeling reluctant about making a painterly gesture, out of the fear of not actually “meaning” it, and, on the other hand, being overly emotive.

When did the figures join in?

The figure is particularly fateful. Their introduction is actually the result of a process that initially did not take place at all. I had no figures, and I had no space because I found both problematic. Then the figure turned up, moreover the naked figure, which is an ancient topos in art history. Departing from my original skepticism toward the figure, I have now arrived at this hyper-present figure.

The figures are clipart—common-use, symbolic illustrations of people, but also animals or patterns, circulating the Internet. Can you describe what you found interesting about them?

At first it was a very casual game with language. I tried to translate states like “despair”, but also “process” into painting and began to look for illustrations. At some point the results no longer corresponded to my search queries at all, but that was part of the game. The world of clipart intrigued me because of the discrepancy between the formal genesis of these cliparts, with their somewhat inflationary appearances, and their inherent abstract quality, despite their expediency in whatever political, religious, or commercial contexts. My quest for spaces was very similar to this search, but the actual trigger was once again language.

And yet, your paintings are not that tangible on the level of language. In my eyes, you rather assert a pictorial quality, which is not so easy to put into words.

I try to keep the scope of painting as broad as possible. After the painterly treatment of a word, previously visualized by a third party, there is no longer any language, which could describe what happens in the picture.

And you are also a writer—you have penned two plays. Are there similarities in your approach to writing texts?

These are two different things for me, but perhaps there are similarities in the construction. I wrote a text about universal human questions and artistic production, which are treated in a contradictory, theatrical form. But true enough, I feel more like a guest in the realm of language, whereas I’m far more immersed in painting.

While we are on the subject of language, perhaps we can also speak about the titles of your works. Most are quite sober, descriptive. You call them “Untitled” followed by the place or an object written in brackets. But there is one painting appended with “unloved girl”, which is narrative and quite “engaging”, as you would say. Why does this work have this title?

This is a good example of a formal process that transforms into content. Initially, the painting featured a female figure, which I painted over and only left a vague impression of. So “unloved girl” just describes this step or decision while painting to remove the figure. But of course, I play with the fact that the title could be interpreted as the content.

Do you actually like these figures? Can you relate to them?

Not really, actually, but it surprises me that they—intentionally or not—involve me. I like the young man in the painting Untitled (view). He turns the image, which features the view from my studio in the background, into a romantic one, while the woman with the bare breasts on the work Untitled (sports bar) represents a true obstacle.

Why does the young man wearing a Venetian mask and string thong make the picture romantic?

Romantic in the sense of the epoch: a figure in front of a landscape, like Caspar David Friedrich. I only noticed the figure’s attractiveness in the painting process. It might very well be that he’s the first clipart figure ever, and therewith the first naked figure that appeared in my paintings. He was the breakthrough, so to say. It was this man who introduced the naked figure into my work.

The spaces and the cliparts are not just vessels. They also tell stories, convey an atmosphere?

They trigger associations, but there is no passion in my approach. It has more to do with the momentum of dissolution. I don’t want to invoke nostalgia, but that’s the dilemma with clipart. Our rapid technological progress also manifests on a formal level. So the material I use quickly becomes historical, even though I apply the cliparts as contemporary elements. But to return to the question about their allure: There is a clipart collection called Alegria. The figures should allow everyone to identify with them, regardless of gender or skin color.

Right, your cliparts are white…

… they are mostly white, and also the gender is imposing as they are naked. I am well aware that this is very problematic, especially with the female body. There is a clipart in one painting whose abstraction can also be read as the body of a girl. It immediately triggers a strong sense of discomfort, even though the figure itself doesn’t actually possess this power to represent something physical or sexual. But you cannot dismiss it: Despite an impartial attitude, it’s impossible to distance yourself from the message that such a body transports. The naked female torso in the work Untitled (sports bar) remains an imposition—it’s an obstacle that prevents you from getting into the groove of the rest of the image.

The cliparts are abstracted, like comics. But, indeed, a naked female body remains a naked female body. The question is, where is the difference here?

In 2015 I made a series with a pointed focus on the question of how to represent something so engaging or definitive as sexuality, without affectively involving the viewers. They are drawings of sex scenes contrasted with the hands of clocks in an attempt to shift their message.

Are there other painters who, in your opinion, accomplish this shift in an image?

Yes, Carroll Dunham, for example. He paints pornographic motifs, but with a strong focus on the pictorial space of painting. He works with this dilemma between narration and an abstract image space, too. If you look at the original paintings, many things turn out to be references to the history of painting, to Cy Twombly, for instance. He also breaks with heteronormativity; one of his latest exhibitions only featured homoerotic representations. Dunham plays with the notion that something initially present as a message in the content can quickly go in a completely different direction.

And which painters do you appreciate even though they challenge you on an emotional level?

Munch, for example, and many other painters who address psychic states. The potential to capture psychic conditions in painting obviously interests me.

In the work Untitled (sports bar), which we spoke about earlier, a part of the woman’s head is covered by a yellow ellipsoid shape. Would that be an example of such a shift?

Right, it’s comparable with the attempt to shift the message by inserting the clocks. I wanted to disrupt the figure spatially a bit more. She still seemed too present in the painting without this “break”. I wanted her to remain present, but she still formed too much of an obstacle. These are measures taken in the painting process, which have to be continuously negotiated and decided anew.

Does coincidence play a role?

Yes, take these adhesive strips, which resulted from masking off certain areas. I decided to paint them as well, and in the meanwhile it’s become hard to mask off a surface without already anticipating to paint it afterwards. Then there are impressionist elements, like those in Untitled (view): It shows the view from my studio window, so it’s quite a direct approach. The decision to place this figure into the picture was made in a second step, in a different mood. What’s interesting, as we already discussed, is that the result is an almost romantic image, from an intention that actually aimed to be distanced.

Speaking of distance: The title of your artist book is Pain’ing. Here you introduce something that I presumed you wanted to reduce as much as possible.

You mean the reduction of pathos and subjectivity? Or in other words, the emotional assumption or fact that painting has something to do with pain?

Yes, or does the title mean something else to you?

Sure, it was intentional. But I also wanted to leave it open for myself whether pathos and subjectivity are reduced or if the pathos is even elevated.

In your works there are also concrete objects: an ashtray, a cloth bag from the Walther König bookstore, etc. What meaning do they have?

Actually, they don’t have a symbolic value, but I play with the idea that they could be metaphors. This has only climaxed lately. In more recent paintings there’s essentially just coincidental abstractions and the naked figure and the space. Earlier, I included insignia of painting, like the palette or the brush. Sometimes there were cliparts with political contents. The more spatial the pictures became, the more furnishings I added, such as an ashtray or objects that bored me and fascinated me at the same time.

Sometimes ornamental patterns appear, as in the painting Untitled (sports bar).

These are cliparts, too, incidental, very fast abstractions of patterns. With early computer programs you could make shapes and color them in. It is an abstract formal language, which might be loosely based on feats of the classical modern period, but it took on a more general, inflationary character with software.

In the work Untitled (hotel lobby) a picture of a sunset hangs on the wall. Did you find this scenery on site?

Yes, it was there on the wall. A picture like one you can buy in a furniture store. I want to blur the borders between popular imagery and painting, and not question aesthetic qualities in the first place. My approach is to juxtapose elements and, at first, take a personal distance. The elements I use should not spark much in myself, rather just serve as material for the paintings.

You interweave real spaces with digital elements in your works. Which role do details of the “real“ play?

Reality leaves traces in my work. Not just in the virtual realm, but also when you move through urban space, a spectrum of different realities mingle in your visual focus. They contradict each another and, in a photographic sense, merge into one image. Actually, I see what I do as realism. Depictions of reality. Including the reality of the virtual, which also intervenes into physical reality and vice versa. The experience of ephemerality is part of this, too—that a reality can quickly arise yet is forgotten just as fast.

Do your works criticize the digital or rather deal with the experience of the Post-Internet condition?

My works are not critique of the digital per se, although I degrade and expose certain forms of visual language, simply by choosing and reproducing them. I know a bit about the Post-Internet discourse. The term itself is a bit presumptuous because a “post” state of something is proclaimed before the consequences of the initial phenomenon could even be fathomed. At the same time, the term inadvertently incorporates a figurative and analog type of neoconservatism—at least from the perspective of progressive thinking in the twentieth century—which was not intended as such but slipped in with the contextual framework. But it is liberating to prefix something with “post”.

That’s true, but in this case, I understand Post-Internet more as a make-shift term for no longer conceiving the digital as the opposite of the “real” but as a given part of our empirical world. These elements of different worlds are juxtaposed in your work, too. There is no partiality, am I right?

Yes, there should not be any preference. But I perhaps have to acknowledge that my selection process, which ultimately exposes certain images and visual languages, could be read in its sociological dimension, too. However, I also conjure personal memories, including personal taste and tastelessness. I try to generalize these memories and transfer them into new formal and temporal contexts.

I recognize your aim to omit the subjective in your works, but still: Could someone who knows you well enough identify you in your paintings?

Perhaps. But I don’t fully dismiss the subjective, either. This makes me think of a text by Sarah Waring in my last publication. There is a passage in which she describes how she spends some time in a café while waiting for the bus. In this moment, with the slot machine, the coffee cup, and the smoke of a cigarette, in this randomness and her own transitory state as someone waiting, she had to think of my paintings. This was her impulse for the story in the book. In that sense, there is indeed a likelihood to identify me, to trace my experience.

Do you initially arrange these different image elements on the computer?

Yes, I begin with hasty computer sketches. At some point I choose one as a departure point for a painting. Sometimes the sketches just serve as an initial impetus, and the actual painting takes me somewhere else altogether. What’s very important to me is the act of translation: For instance, the transfer to a larger format, or the time I spend meticulously elaborating a quick idea into something else. Sometimes I cut up the computer sketches or scan certain details and reuse them again. Jana Euler, by the way, is an excellent example of this imbalance and the resulting tension between fleeting mental impulses and the somehow “diligent” realization process.

Why is it important to you to mention this young painter in your system of references?

Her formal solutions surprise me. Many of her paintings pursue different paths, yet the works seem to complement one another in the in-between space—both in the mind and on the exhibition wall. I’ve already dropped a number of names now, and you might get the impression that I constantly inscribe my acts into this system of reference. But the “exchange” with these artists is, of course, a quiet and, above all, imagined one. Moreover, these processes typically do not take place in the studio, , rather before and afterwards.

Perhaps this is a good point to talk about some of the art historical citations in your works: For example, the horses from Giorgio Chirico’s late work appear quite often. Why are they important to you?

The connection between my works and his likely resulted from another attempt to contradict my conventional working methods. But right now it stresses me a bit to describe this method. In any case, I wanted to compensate this distanced approach we spoke about earlier, to bring something I like into play. The idea of processing art history in an eclectic way makes me feel uncomfortable. But that’s exactly what I did. Naturally, I appreciate Chirico and his iconographic approach. His later oeuvre is very autonomous and in a certain sense detached. Also with Martial Raysse, departing from a similar avant-garde position, there is this motion and a certain penchant for formulations from amateur painting, as he said it himself. Or think of the soft porn inspired paintings of Picabia… Perhaps I should revoke the “neoconservatism” mentioned before in connection with Post-Internet and rather explain it by how the more “relaxed” late works break with progress.

Hence, the horses represent a disengagement of self-imposed constrictions?

Both the horses and antique columns represent a challenge for informed viewers who are expecting something else, but also for the artist himself: The avant-garde experience or, let’s say, turning to the historical has a somewhat liberating, defiant effect. The taboo of painting horses in such a manner is, to a certain extent, still present today. So I cite the motifs but also the breach of a taboo.

These different elements from painting, art history, or from the initial photographs, are assembled in the style of a collage.

In my paintings? Yes. What’s most important to me, however, is the painted image plane, which naturally builds upon the notion of collage. But also here, it has less to do with the illusionism inherent to the collage, but rather the abstract moment of collaging, where the working process becomes just as visible as the illusion.

But isn’t collage essentially about dissecting the illusion and pointing out that the world/reality can only be perceived in fragments?

The painter Hannah Höch, for instance, combines an oversized eye with feet to instantly generate the illusion of a figure. Even though the design indicates it is constructed, the achieved illusion is still very effective.

You spoke of “dissolution” before, and I have the impression that it also takes place through a certain lack of clarity. Or how do you see it?

I’m not sure. What you call a lack of clarity is for me more like stumbling blocks or a hindrance, which I use like a tool to move forward. Once the painting is finished, I would prefer to have these stumbling blocks out of the way, even though I like having contradictions collide in my paintings.

With a lack of clarity I mean that there is not just one center in your paintings.

Perhaps this is similar to the question about the gesture. I have always been careful as I was not certain if I really meant it. It’s also alleviating to not just have this one idea of an image, which needs to be sufficiently legitimate in order to implement it. I’d rather go for several settings in a mutual tension.

This decentralized gaze also reveals how perception, including the visual overload of the media, works?

Of course, I explicitly draw upon the potentials of perception and representation. But when I’m finished, I calm down. There is no total control over the image contents, but I need the calm.

Your skepticism toward subjectivity or authenticity claims is undeniable. In this context it crosses my mind that you want to print a part of your paintings in this publication in black and white. Does this “moment of relativization”, as you call it, also have to do with subverting these claims of authenticity or the original?

The impulse was actually a historical one, speaking of nostalgia. I have seen art books and heard from an older artist colleague that his entire generation first got to know classical modern art, which was coming from Paris at the time, via black-and-white catalogs. I found that interesting, back then one used to learn the history of classical modern painting on the basis of black-and-white prints. This was one thought, but I am also curious to find out what remains of my paintings when they are black and white.

What is so interesting about it?

It can be the fact that a Photoshop filter quickly eliminates all that which preoccupied you for a long time.

Meaning color makes things more complicated?

Presumably, and the feeling of being redeemed from this complexity, which also sets in at the end of the painting process, is in itself already an exciting moment. Basically, it is just a Photoshop filter that converts the image, but nevertheless there are countless ways to render it black and white. Naturally, the question arises of what should be visible through this transformation. Planes with strong color contrasts can become quite similar or blend together in gray-scale mode—you can steer against that.

Which meaning do colors take on in your paintings?

I use a lot of industrial colors. Toolbox colors or colors of other materials that surround me in my studio—perhaps it’s again about this realism, the foreign in the vested color spectrum. Also the colors derived from the printed sketches are quite specific colors, in the sense that they are mixed for the canvas to exactly match the color of the print-outs.

We have yet to speak about your more abstract works. What relationship do they have with the more figurative ones?

When I made something more realistic, I had to balance it with something abstract. While this used to depend a lot on my day-to-day mood, now I can live longer with a plausible trajectory and don’t need to compensate it immediately. The realization that not everything has to be expressed in one image but can be spread out was a great relief for me. This means a work cannot be loud and calm at the same time—it has to decide.

Are they created parallel?

No, more one after the other, but they enable each other. These are back-and-forth motions. I feel quite comfortable in a misunderstanding or dilemma, until the motion heads in a different direction once again. Basically, the process of making and repeating also makes the question whether an abstract space can be claimed within a figurative one irrelevant at some point.

That means the practice itself is the solution for the dilemma between the figurative and the abstract?