An Interview with Julia Schmidt by Clemens Krümmel
To put it concisely, you are one of the few painters educated in Leipzig who do not view this background purely affirmatively. Before we come to your artistic work in the strict sense, I’d like to ask you a question about the exhibition you curated in Leipzig. Although the catalog for the show differed in terms of both the form and the content from your catalogs as an artist, I liked it a lot because it didn’t depict only one context, but in a limited space provided a great deal of background information about the second place you studied, Glasgow, and about its history… To what extent was this exhibition project a result of your B.A. program in Glasgow?
It was not directly related. I organized the exhibition “Synth: 10 Artists from Glasgow” in 2004 together with Mark Hamilton in Kunstraum B2, which at the time was the only non-commercial exhibition space, as well as the only exhibition space organized by artists and art historians, in Leipzig. I was also a founding member. I wanted to put on this exhibition because I thought it would be interesting for the Leipzig context to show works that I had seen there and had found good. It was the completely different way of working and the much more conceptual approach to art that interested and influenced me in Glasgow. And I wanted to bring it back to Leipzig. I attended the Glasgow School of Art because after my basic studies I was at a loss about what to do and dissatisfied.
When I talk to artists, I always wonder how such decisive steps arise. Whether the artist can see a clear direction or whether the steps simply follow one another. Why did you choose Glasgow?
There was really no particular reason that it was Glasgow. I simply needed a change of scene. At the time, I didn’t really know much about the art scene in Glasgow, but I liked the city, and I liked the fact that Glasgow was on the periphery of Europe, that it wasn’t London. Apart from that, when I inquired about studying there, the school was immediately open and interested. And the methodology also displayed this kind of openness.
What did you think of the differences in the teaching methods there?
Compared to Leipzig, there was less emphasis on hierarchies; people treated each other more like colleagues. You weren’t in a “specialized course” with a professor, but rather you had different tutors from all kinds of different areas who visited you at your studio. But above all, there was not a preconceived notion of what art is; there was a lot more discussion about this. Instead of the motto being “Let’s paint now,” the first question was why should art be made to begin with, why should you struggle with all this material, which possibilities of presentation are there and what do they mean… When I think back on who infl uenced me most there, I’d say it was probably Richard Wright, simply because he represented the absolute antithesis of a modern, “heroic” conception of painting, operating instead with extreme reserve and stringency.
And what, would you say, was the relationship between theory and practice there?
In Glasgow, there was much more emphasis on theory from the very beginning, which was refl ected by the many requirements. I had to write essays from the very start, to read authors like Jean Baudrillard, Michael Fried, and Clement Greenberg. Before then, no one had ever told me anything about a text like “Art and Objecthood” by Fried! And people like Wright didn’t come to you to quiz you about what you knew, but you talked about a recent concert or a problem in Photoshop. You obtained most of your “knowledge“ outside school, on the side, perhaps in a bar at three in the morning…
Let’s return to the effect of your experiences there on your work. To what extent was the Glasgow style important to you as a painter?
I noticed that people were much more interested in things “outside of art.” The boundary between art and non-art was more seamless. Pop culture, music, and fashion played a much bigger role, as well as research and historical and cultural references, which you then incorporated in your work. There was an Environmental Art Department; you worked in a much more context-related way. In painting, there was a much stronger link to language and text, a higher sensitivity to the material, and more attention was paid to beginnings, overpainting, and corrections. In addition, many artists from Glasgow dealt strongly with the materials — which was apparent above all in installations. With a unique post-punk aesthetics, they stressed the ephemeral, the short term, the unstable. I liked that.
This punk and trash aspect connected with Glasgow goes quite well, in a way, with the theoreticians you mentioned. Not least because the ephemeral art produced there has had considerable success on the international art market. In this engagement with the ephemeral, was there something like a discussion about economy? When trash becomes the main working material, then it’s not just a question of an authentic punk statement, but also of an inner-artistic commentary on the process of forming values… Did the market enter into your education in some way, and if so, did this have an impact on your particular kind of painting?
The market really didn’t enter into my education at all. During that period in Glasgow, there wasn’t even an established commercial gallery scene. Everything was much more grass roots. There were many kinds of selforganization, and everything took place more or less in the environment of Transmission. Contact with the market was made outside Glasgow — with the Transmission people travelling to art fairs and with the founding of the Modern Institute. It may be for this reason that in the works from Glasgow there was a very high awareness of certain exhibition structures and contexts. Through the use of profane, everyday materials or due to a preference for wall painting as a difficult-to-move medium, as in the case of Richard Wright, for example, a barrier was always created. Wright’s wall paintings are just one example of a working attitude in which terms like value and profitability are examined. With this kind of attitude you don’t elude the market, of course, as on another time level it helps increase value and simply entails different kinds of planning and work. But in general I liked the fact that you repeatedly looked for ways of questioning or impeding the prevailing mechanisms of the culture industry.
I also meant the influence on the materials you use… for example, did you paint on MDF board from the very beginning?
No, in the beginning in Leipzig I painted on canvas. But I didn’t want the materials to be too much of a focus. So it had to do with an economy of means. Also, I felt that MDF could be combined much better with other ways of working.
I must confess that while you were discussing your method, a certain idea pushed to the fore, namely, that in many of your paintings you really file on the general constitutive conditions of painting, that you practice a kind of “painting against painting,” and very successfully in my opinion. It is usually apparent, I believe, from which pool of representation-related iconographies you develop your “themes.” Not so much because of your idea of figuration, but mainly because of your notion of pop-cultural images, which are strongly oriented to mediality. In the beginning, particularly with your “Versace” series, you seemed to choose your themes on the basis of a cultural-critical perspective on images from television, film, and news papers, at the same time hinting at a criticism of painting using the medium of painting.
I’m not sure whether the expression “painting against painting” is really accurate. At any rate, it is a critical approach to painting. I like to call into question established painting languages and play with their basic assumptions. But I would say that my relationship to painting is ambivalent. Dualisms seem to be a constant in my work. I want to make something and at the same time nullify it. Often, the negations result in something “positive.” Or I try to derive a strength out of something that most would consider a weakness… With the Versace paintings I alluded to the Steven Meisel photo series for Versace that he made in the Playboy mansion. At the time, I used a great deal of pictorial sources that had to do with the “fetish of power” and began to encounter “objecthood,” as it were, in my painting very reflexively. I tried to create a relationship between high-end advertising and painting. I was interested in the analogy between the fetish of the fashion world and that of the picture. The way in which Meisel brings out a subtle racism from the fashion photo show aesthetic — the Mexican gardener between the models dressed in Versace attire who fishes flies out of the swimming pool, the maid from Sri Lanka at the house door — this very directly stressed the relationship of fashion photography to power and hierarchy. But now I find my way of addressing this too direct. In my more recent works, power structures or specific content is depicted much more implicitly; a problem-free interpretation of catchy subject-matter is less possible. Instead, the viewer moves into the foreground and the potential of painting as such is dealt with. And the sources I use now more often come from amateur photography, the reservoir of images on the Internet offered by Google or Flickr… It is not so much a matter of the “authenticity” of visualization as of processing existing images, of difference and repetition, and of the filter I use, in which some things get caught and others don’t.
Can you describe this filter in its current form in more detail?
My interests have become more abstract — I have certain ideas and areas of interest which have to do with value attributions, with the economic logic of work, with implicit and explicit power structures, with the idea of coveting and its commodity form, or fetishization, but also more and more with role attributions. Naturally, it’s also a matter of the “image” per se, of stylistic issues, the question of the “right” form, of the “right” measure between representation and abstraction… A wealth of other criteria have supplemented the iconographic filter in my pictorial production — for example, how I envision a series, how I conceive of an exhibition context, questions of presentation. I am less concerned with the individual image than with the network, the relationship between the works, the space that opens up between them. I try to avoid the strained, heavy aspect that figurative painting involving “themes” can have. For me, the idea has to be interesting, and much less so on a formal level than on a content level. After my time in Glasgow, there emerged for me a bridge to an attitude toward painting found, in historical terms, more in Cologne than in Leipzig. For example, I like it when someone like Michael Krebber speaks of painting as a “conceptual sport.”
I like finding refusal, denial in your paintings, painting as picturing. The way you deal with failures and successes.
The awareness that different styles are available to me plays an important role. I try to avoid giving my work a certain signature, a “branding.” You can quickly get stuck in a certain form, and you suspect that this form perhaps only admits a limited number of ideas and possibilities. I always wonder how you can maintain a certain distance, a dynamic. I try to do so working with different styles and systems of representation. While I do refer to established genres such as portrait or landscape painting, I incorporate different barbs in each work.
Let’s move on to perhaps my favorite painting of yours right now — “Untitled (Crotch)” — a work from the Versace series that will be on view in the Guggenheim exhibition. The painted detail from a Meisel photo on which you now see, virtually embedded in the frame of a baroque chair, the darkly clad crotch of a person. You might not see it immediately because it is initially only something like the “empty center” of the pictorial composition. You drove the formal reduction of your selection in a direction that emphasizes typical painterly play with the worked surfaces —somehow the viewer begins immediately to derive from the traces of paint clues as to the gender of the person portrayed — to put it somewhat elaborately. But the brush strokes remain such that no really “clear” creases can be recognized in this crotch.
That’s the good thing about this archival visualization, so to speak, that I and many others create. You can zoom in on the thematic focal point in the picture, give it a new context not only in the painting, but also in the context of an exhibition. “Crotch” is one of many examples of works in which I put something specific from the original picture at the center and then build and layer the surface so that an analytical element emerges.
My access to the painting was facilitated by the fact that a mutual friend recently showed me a legendary episode of the TV series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Larry, the protagonist, an aging screenplay writer who is helplessly at the mercy of his neuroses, oversensitivity, and irresistible impulses yet also extremely successful, is sitting on the sofa. He looks down at himself and suddenly sees a crease of surprising dimensions in the crotch of his corduroy trousers, which he finds exceedingly embarrassing because it looks like an erection. As is typical of this series, he then becomes entangled in a chain of unbearably embarrassing situations with this crease — the potential for “misinterpretation” of the crease is fully exploited. In any case, that made it clear to me that a work of yours in this vein does not really concern some debate on painting related to the Leipzig School, when you analytically isolate and process such details of media images so that inevitably viewers become conscious of the more memorable symbolic painterly repertoire. In the case mentioned this is perhaps particularly obvious, because here the sexual and the artistic model of “creation” are brought together, collide in a very still way, giving concrete form to misunderstandings and misinterpretations around painting.
Yes, that’s a nice parallel… I like most of all to bring in things that seemingly have nothing to do with painting. There are certain images for me that react in a special way when I correlate them with my idea of painting. On one level, “Crotch” is about a surface that is overpainted thirty times. But in a second step this reworking, the hint and concealment of traces of paint in this crotch, is primarily linked with a content-related interest in the comical and embarrassing potential of painting. The traces of paint in my work do not produce a curvature, but are, along the lines of the television episode, even more embarrassing because they remain fl at. The question of whether it is a male or female crotch is not posed, but the fact that this question can arise opens up a dimension of misinterpretation that goes quite well with my interest in painting as metaphor. To my mind, “Crotch” is one of my more direct, unpolished paintings. My aim was to simply reverse stereotypical sexualized manners of representation and to counteract the cliché macho pose that was present in the photographic model with something, to produce a kind of “reverse sexism.” There is also an older version of the motif in which I reduced the ornamental frame even more and extended the surface of the crotch much further. Without a knowledge of the model, but in comparison with the version in the exhibition, that which interests me beyond the anecdotal in painting comes out even more.
This interview was first published in the exhibition catalogue "Freisteller" in the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin. (c) The authors and Deutsche Bank. Frankfurt am Main 2009.