CMP: The objects in your paintings communicate private and public histories. Can you elaborate on your interest in reconciling the two?
SK: Your second question actually also touches the first. In a way, I do consider a painting by Theodore Gericault as public history. It becomes private, because after I saw it, it's now stored forever in my memory, ready to be processed. In everyday life I am flooded with multiple cultures, younger and older art, art which has moved into our everyday life items, such as Playmobil toys (my son's) which mimic knights and castles from 500 years ago, or tea towels which display comic cats (a gift from a friend). In my work, I am investigating those border/threshold/overlapping situations. In my recent paintings I started to add architecture to my vocabulary. It is not any architecture, but from old paintings by Bastiano Mainardi or Filippo Lippi.
CMP: I'm glad you offered up the comic-cat tea towel. Now that it has become a character actor in your visual plays, has it grown in importance as a possession? What would losing it mean?
SK: Yes, the tea towel has gained many meanings. One is a personal meaning: it is one of my everyday life items and I enjoy the absurdity of the pattern. In the painting Rosa Street I actually make a portrait of a tea towel. The mouse, which is deep-fried in the cat's dish, has become my protagonist. I do not want to interpret this, but I want to dispose the story and open a discussion. Finally, I am interested in the cartoon language of the tea towel. It juxtaposes the other painterly languages of the painting. The tea towel is a weight in the overall balance of the painting-losing it or its potentials would make the painting meaningless.
CMP: It's interesting to hear that cross-pollinating architecture into your work has become an urge. Can you talk about pattern and decoration and its relationship for you to architecture and to painting?
SK: In earlier paintings nature/ landscape has dominated my work. While investigating the characteristics of different landscapes, I have become aware of the many thresholds which exist in nature. Usually those thresholds are borderlines of wild nature and urbanism. I like those areas because they offer friction and space for new thoughts and developments.
In many paintings I use fabrics with specific pattern-window (architecture) with a view into wild nature is surrounded by heavy curtains with a flower pattern of the 1960s (Melanie Behind the Curtain). Through using certain patterns, I place the action and architecture of the painting into space and time. I have also played with a Japanese kimono pattern as a cultural reference. The Japanese pattern can offer the observer a hint to read landscape as a journey through life with its different stages.
CMP: If buildings are social devices, they seem to yearn for interpretation. They provide us with a place to consider imaginary content as a collection of independent histories. Andre Malraux is reported to have said, "I keep inside myself, in my private museum, everything I have seen and loved in my life.'" Can you respond to this idea?
SK: Yes, I do, because it speaks of an honesty, which I think is very important in creating a work of art. To admit things one has seen into the "private museum" also means to give them the importance of a masterpiece, or to consciously/unconsciously define if something is important or less important. This "private museum" actually gives space to find a different order of independent histories, something very personal and unique. The private museum is almost like a theater stage where the backdrop is moved around until it finds its right place and meaning in the painterly universe.
CMP: Aren't you describing another series of thresholds, the mind and reality—are we still Freudian? How about the tactile (the surface of painting) and the ephemeral (the space of interpretation)? Walk us into your studio, as the ultimate threshold.
SK: I define thresholds in many different ways. And yes, the reality which I perceive and process in my paintings obtains a new quality, but I am not interested in a Freudian interpretation. I rather see Freud as one of many different ways to access a painting as the observer. Furthermore, when it comes to the concept and development of an idea, and later to the actual process of painting, I would like to be free of any psychological way of thinking. In search for my own artistic voice, I find it distracting to use a psychological way of thinking as a vehicle of my own ideas. In my latest paintings I have tried to get closer to this particular threshold in using the theme of "Melancholia.''
The surface of the painting plays an important role in the whole balance of the painting. On the one hand, the tactile is a product of the process of painting and on the other hand a way of defining a threshold. For instance, in the diptych Katja- Melancholy, I used a white monotonous matte surface for the architecture where Katja is sitting, whereas the landscape undergoes a change from almost watercolor-wash-like trees on the left to green paper-cut trees in the middle to children's book-like illustration of trees on the right. In the lower left hand corner of the painting, the shelf is a three-dimensional object and at the same time an abstract play of color and geometric shapes. I really enjoy this as a painter. The painterly vocabulary is endless: broad brush strokes with fine lines, shiny surfaces of paint or small dots, matte and translucent, etc. In a way, the combination of conflicting elements such as the different surfaces of paint, or reality and personal processing, reveals a new space of interpretation. If this stage is reached I usually know that a painting is finished.
CMP: Your work is not cynical. The information in your painting has been described in various reviews as partially drawing (responding, commenting-what is the right word?) from Disneyland. Does exploring a world of wishes, i.e., Disneyland, hold interest for you? It seems kind of obvious to point to your gestures and the fantastic, but what is behind that search?
SK: I think I use or imitate cartoon elements in my paintings. I do this for many reasons: one is to break a certain atmosphere or to create an antagonism. But I also bring cartoon elements into my paintings because they refer to the culture which surrounds us daily. If I paint a forest and there is no trace of any culture, I have the urge to place it into our time or to give it a historic reference.
I am also interested in the stereotypical character of many fairy tales or, e.g., characters in Disneyland. I believe that using certain stereotypical characters can trigger an interesting reaction in the observer. It can also lead the observer into the reading of the painting. I am not so much interested in a world of wishes or fairy tales, but I am rather clueless how to read or understand the visual world of today and painting offers me a chance to ask questions and draft my own way of thinking.
CMP: Disney promotes caricatures of archetypes, while fairytales are fantastic archetypes. Disneyland drains archetypes of their power and turns them into popular culture. In relationship to your painting, these are very different propositions—where do you align your images?
SK: I do use a condensed version of the caricature and fantastic archetype, but I actually try to recharge them with new meaning.
CMP: Can you also comment on the placement of critical dialogue surrounding your work into this context as representing a new generation of German artist?
SK: My work has always been placed in Europe/Germany. Lately, since the Leipzig school has become internationally recognized, my work has been connected to this movement. Partly, this is a correct assumption, because I was born in Leipzig and until I finished my studies at the Hochschule fur Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig in 1995 never left the place. When I left Leipzig in 1995 to live in the US for seven years, I started to realize that my artistic horizon was very small compared to the broad variety of artistic expressions I met in the US. Today, I am drawn to an international, cultural, and artistic platform rather than to a new German artistic identity.
CMP: Great. I was trying to point you towards not so much a discussion about the discourse about Leipzig, which I also see as critical, but a conversation about gender. Are you interested? I find this a complicated subject because you are either in or out of the debate, as far as the art world and mainstream American culture. I'm interested in complicated subjects and what people assume they connote.
SK: It is a complicated issue. In general I think a good painting is convincing because it is in dependent from the maker. Independent also means that one cannot read if it was done by a female or male artist. Yet I think that certain subject matters might be more used by female artists than by male. It is not a coincidence that I used tea towels in my paintings, and I believe that they radiate a sublime female aura. So far I have only painted women (but other male artists have done that too), and a recent attempt to include a man in a painting ended in an over-painted area where he was standing. I have yet to find a way of creating a space for a man. I am not interested in an open gender debate in my work, but I reflect on my personal environment: my husband, two children, being a mother with a working-mother guilt complex, my place as a female artist in the art market.
CMP: To clarify my question about Freud, I was thinking about the two books that illustrate different ends of Freud from a Western perspective. Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein, which compares psychoanalysis with Buddhism. Epstein aligns Western and Eastern thought in his investigation. Is this part of why you are drawn to certain objects, that they become the evidence of civilization's cross-mutations, yet they really are simply universal, encoded with information that we already accept?
SK: Yes. That's it.
CMP: In The Pyrotechnic lnsanitarium: American Culture on the Brink , which discusses the timing of Coney Island with that of Freud, Mark Dery writes, "Arthur Kroker [...] opines that 'our panic culture' is a floating reality in which the actual world seems increasingly like a 'dream world, where we live on the edge of ecstasy and dread' [...] the ecstatic implosion of postmodern culture into excess, waste and disaccumulation." Dery also writes, "Camp sublime [...] is the postmodern equivalent, for [Fredric] Jameson, of what Edmund Burke called 'the Sublime'—the vertiginous loss of self in the presence of nature's awful grandeur." Does this influence your response?
SK: No, as a passionate creator of paintings and drawings I do believe in progress. In a way, it is my responsibility as an artist to offer a reflection of our time.
CMP: In this month's Art in America, the art historian Robert Storr states, "It's time for post postmodern generations to make up vocabularies and metaphors of their own." What is your response? Even in this interview, which is postmodern—long distance, via e-mail—how could we challenge our conventions for this type of conversation? The deeper clues about an artist's intent come from my conversations in their studios. Is it possible to create a new vocabulary?
SK: I totally agree and feel the challenge to create a vocabulary of my own. One can get depressed by "our panic culture,'' but I feel inspired and urged to create a new world in my paintings. My work is the place where I discuss and reflect those issues, where I try to make sense of what I cannot understand in reality.
For my part, I love e-mail. I simply feel challenged by the fact that we have never met the only connecting pieces are digital images of my paintings and your project to exhibit my work in Denver. I think our conversation is full of ways to create a new vocabulary. Perhaps we cannot replace a studio visit, but is it really needed right now? Aren't you looking for something else in the studio than what we discuss right now? Something which you cannot put into words?
CMP: Yes. Can we achieve nuance? The studio is a time-based encounter that can be about nothing-like a third space for the mind's eye. We are talking about seeing without being able to have that experience together. When you describe your own work in effect that captures the studio as opposed to a critical reading by the interviewer.
SK: True, that is indeed not replaceable—we will have to wait to meet here in Freiburg in my studio.
All you mention below is very inspiring: Colorado, your concept, the architecture by David Adjaye. Painting and drawing: two very different and independent artistic expressions for me, yet in the end they belong together. All your exhibits sound really interesting, I would point at Takashi Murakami, whom I admire for his work and vision. Contemporary photography from China, too.
CMP: There is so much more to talk about.
Originally published in the exhibition catalog Susanne Kuhn, edited by Heraugegeben von Kunstverein Freiburg