Skip to main content

Interview with Erik Schmidt

S.C.: The new series of works depicts scenes from the Occupy movement in New York. What attracted you to this topic? 

E.S.: What originally sparked my interest was the fact that this was an experience unfolding in my immediate vicinity. I had a few formal ideas in mind and wanted to make a series of works in New York. I wanted to return to the city and to the figurative, and this topic seemed to fit into that. It was a very exciting moment in New York, which was experienced entirely differently here. There was a much more pronounced emotionality in New York. It was all very present, as I was living close to Wall Street. I could hear the helicopters flying over, the demonstrators marched past close to the house and there was always a police presence. 

Were you struck by particular motifs or certain manifestations of this?

In formal terms I was particularly struck by the way in which Zuccotti Park, which is largely concreted, was overlaid with colours and fabrics, with sleeping bags, cloths and cardboard signs. People would paint their signs on the square and lay them out. There was a certain aesthetic appeal in that. 

What kind of process is involved in creating the paintings? 

The paintings are based on photos I’ve taken. I’ve been working like this for ten years now. When I’m taking the photos I’m already thinking fairly carefully about how I want to the composition to look. I haven’t always worked like that and my approach is actually just in the throes of changing again 

The colours break up and dissolve to a much greater extent than in your previous work. What led you to change the way in which you paint? 

I intended to start painting more figuratively once again and wanted to develop a more open way of painting. That has a great deal to do with the motifs. Previously I have often painted landscapes, which was more about a process of applying layer upon layer, and about paint in material terms. For the motifs in the Downtown series, the coloured surfaces and plastic sheets, I started to work much more with brushstrokes again rather than with dots of paint. Nevertheless my working method is not entirely new; there is still something plastic about the paint in these works. I over-painted the surfaces time and time again to evoke the weight and materiality of a fabric.   

In addition to the large-format paintings you have also created new drawings and filmic portraits. Is there a connection between the drawings and your early works or overpaintings? 

The new drawings reference early works, but they are different in a number of ways. I used to paint over fashion motifs from glossy magazines, moving on later to large landscape wallpapers. The focus was always on observing and reinforcing forms. I worked with overpainting until mid-2006, after which that chapter was closed for me. This time I wanted to work with newspapers and I felt that paint markers were not really suitable. Working with oil crayons was new, and something of an experiment, which worked out well. They seem to correspond to the roughness of the news and of the paper.

Could you say a little more about your intentions in the new drawings? 

They are about showing and concealing, not so much about the subject-matter as such, although that is important too. The idea is to place forms upon the page, taking a newspaper page, which is actually made up of columns and individual images, and making a complete sheet out of it. A particular aesthetic comes into being as a result, yet with the news still legible. Sometimes contradictory pieces of information become visible alongside each other in the pieces I have created in double-page format, which can be very bizarre.   

In the three films shown in parallel you appear in the role of a demonstrator. Does this perhaps reflect something of your role as a contemporary artist? 

It is an attempt to slip into different roles, although I am aware that I cannot actually re-enact these. In New York I had a chance to shoot for a day and felt it fitted with the topic. Although the focus is on the role of the artist, I do nonetheless play different roles in each case. The emphasis is always on who I actually am. 

Many people told me after seeing Gatecrasher (2010) that it’s my most personal film, although it’s pure fiction. Of course, it does say something about me; it would be absurd to deny that. Nonetheless what interests me more about the Downtown films is that I don’t entirely fit into the role that I have chosen. Because I come from Germany, because I am older than the demonstrators in New York and because it is not my struggle. That says less about me, and more about a certain failure, perhaps no longer being capable of being like that. I feel that also has a lot to do with growing older and with youth. 

In the film you see me wearing a suit, just as many younger demonstrators put on suits that were much too big for them and disguised themselves as bankers. But in my case, of course, the large suit fits me and I look like a banker myself. 

Out of all my films, these works have the most in common with a performance, whereas my other films had more to do with acting.  

In your work you move in different, constantly changing milieus. What role does each different environment play in the genesis of new works?

I wasn’t directly involved in the Occupy movement, and experienced it instead as an outsider. I immersed myself much more in a particular milieu for other works. However, that is not a conceptual method, but is something that just happens. I like to experience a new environment intensively and get to grips with it. I also have a very strong emotional link to that kind of image. 

With the plantation worker motif (in the series of paintings Working the Landscape, 2008/09, note: S.C.), the emphasis was not so much on these workers, as they were not the most significant facet for me, but instead I focussed on an engagement with Israel as a country that I wanted to get to know and understand. It was fascinating to live near a winery, staying with a winegrower’s friend who rented out rooms. It is a very different environment from the art world. 

Although you work with various media, painting is a central focus of your oeuvre. What led you to this engagement with painting? 

I started to paint and draw early on and liked the craftsmanship involved in that. I chose my studies in Hamburg and Berlin in the light of that. My exploration of new media developed in parallel to this interest. I am interested first and foremost in creating and shaping something, and my works reflect that stance. I believe that is a positive quality if you can see in the works that someone has worked on them and enjoyed the process rather than simply producing another product. That played a role at times in 1990s pop culture when the emphasis was on “design as art”. It’s not that I’m an advocate of handicrafts, but instead it’s important to me that the works can have something incomplete or dirty about them, in other words, with a sense of all those things that are not permitted or not possible otherwise. 

After the Stadt und Park series, your paintings switch to the realm of landscape and hunting scenes, which are striking for their colour palette and the way in which the surface is structured. How did you come to choose this subject-matter? 

It developed gradually. I come from the city and that made it obvious for me to paint buildings and architecture. Then I added people, at first just individual figures. That was when I began to develop my painting. After that I painted people in outdoor settings, in parks, until I felt the need to add something new and began to paint landscapes and subsequently hunting scenes. Until at some point I wanted to dissolve that entirely, with painting that fragmented into coloured dots. 

In all of this I wasn’t focusing on modern landscape painting. Instead I travelled to Israel, because I was looking for that particular backdrop of a landscape charged with significance. I do not see myself as a Romantic painter either. Many contemporary painters reference traditional painting in their work, but that is not my intention. 

In the mid 2000s I felt that the topic of the hunt chimed with the zeitgeist. Art-market activity peaked around then; there was a lot of money about, everyone wanted to buy art as a trophy, everyone wanted to be part of it. It was also a real boom phase for German artists. I feel all of that is contained in this topic. And back then, in 2008 or 2009, after I had already completed the series, hunting fashion suddenly appeared on Karstadt bags... You track down the topic and at some point it becomes mundane and commonplace. 

Does that mean you allude to the art context in your works? 

Yes, all the time. Many of my paintings convey an ironic commentary or a reaction to what is currently happening in art. That made it difficult for me to get started when I turned to the topic of Occupy. It had actually already been examined to death and many people advised me against making further images about it. However, picking up on the topic proved to be the right decision after all; it was the right time to comment on something. I could see from viewers’ reactions that it had indeed hit a nerve. 

This reflection was also present in the Israel paintings (2008/09). I was criticised because I travelled to the country at a time when many artists were there and were addressing the political situation. Painting generally has a hard time there as everyone works with media art. Painting landscapes is virtually impossible in a country that has such pronounced political connotations and is viewed first and foremost as a war zone. And that was of course a commentary in my works. They pretty much elude what people want them to do. Many people found it incomprehensible that anyone would travel to this country and paint olive trees. As if I should have painted burqas, and then I would have understood the country. 

Your images often draw the gaze to places that seem marginal, something of a sideshow.

In Israel the landscape is a symbol of something. I find that so charged in and of itself that I don’t need to paint the Wall running through it. The title of the series, Working the Landscape, should also be read as a reference to the subject-matter, alluding to farm labour. Working with your hands to make the land productive is a deeply typical Israeli notion, even if that type of work naturally no longer really exists, as society there has become highly technologized by now. There is also a reason why I paint vineyards. Vine-growing in Israel is one last visible manifestation of how people try to make the land fertile, and to occupy it by doing this.  

Are you influenced by contemporary painting? 

I am mainly influenced by artists who work with new media. On the other hand, it is also important to me that the paintings are objects that awaken desire and which can be collected. I like beautiful things. I like to make the places where I spend time attractive and I can also take pleasure in a beautiful coffee cup or tea cup on a lovely tray. That is very directly material, and that is also true of the paintings, just as it should be. Being part of a series makes the paintings even more desirable. When I say that I am influenced by pop culture, many people ask me – what on earth do you mean? What I mean is not so much a particular technique but more the type of mise en scène in my work. 

A later series of paintings shows views of cages in a zoo. I found the physical presence and the wild growth of plants in the animal enclosures particularly striking. Could you say something about your intentions in this series? 

What was important to me here was returning to landscape paintings, but also to space and architecture. In contrast to the landscapes, I was interested here not in broad expanses of space, but in spatial limitations. The paintings describe breaking out of this space and out of this artificiality or limitation. These works are not based on snapshots, but instead I was very precise in selecting a particular perspective for my photographs. Nevertheless they depict a visitor’s view onto the cage and enclosures in Berlin’s zoo, which, incidentally, no longer exist. They were demolished shortly after this and completely re-developed. 

In the films (i.e. the trilogy Hunting GroundsBogged Down and Gatecrasher, 2006/2010) the camera records the interior decoration in a castle or the rituals around an elegant soirée – how important are aesthetic forms and rituals in your works?  

In the hunting films, in particular Bogged Down, I developed the film through the space, in other words, I considered all the aspects of this place that I wished to show. I asked myself what it all said about me and which figure I would represent there. In the third film I focused more on the elegant dinner party. I believe that everything tells some kind of story. Associations come into being when you see a figure in the film followed by the end of a plastic tube with a liquid running out of it. That is also related to a collective visual memory. Many people claim that I quote from other films, but that is not the case. We have all of course seen so many films that we think we recognise something.  

Can you say something more about the intention in the films and about the connection with earlier films? 

The connection lies in playing with social roles. It is about the pleasure of playing with the camera. I wanted to create a media image of myself projected into the public realm – which is again an idea that stems from pop culture. At the time I also worked with journalist Corinna Weidner, shooting a film with her in the Hotel Adlon. I give an interview in that film presenting myself as both an artist and a pop star. The template for this was an interview with Pulp’s singer and Damien Hirst in Vogue. I was photographed in both roles and talked about my life. It was all about popularity and showing how readily that can all be manipulated. In the late 1990s we had a show at Kunstraum Bethanien as Einzelgruppe Berlin. That was a fictitious artists’ group made up of just the two of us. We had ourselves photographed with various expressions and wigs, and then created a montage in the form of a giant poster. The fusion of self-image and staging, which can be found in the later films, was already articulated there. 

How important was it for you to develop a narration in your films?

I don’t use a pre-established storyboard for my film works, but instead I develop the action while shooting. Many images and scenes are subsequently discarded during editing. The films hint at a narrative structure, but actually that kind of structure is not present. That is an important aspect of all my work. The paintings also lure the viewer in with a topic or a surface, but a whole series of questions always remain unresolved. It is not in the first instance about saying “Occupy is great”, but instead about a particular way of dealing with art and with the art context. 

The films are always created in cooperation with a team. Do you prefer this form of joint work in contrast to the process of creating a series of paintings?  

I would actually like to do more collaborative work. I do work together with other people on the films, although they are usually not artists, but come from other fields, such as advertising experts or stylists. They lend me their creativity and we engage with each other as we work on a shared project. In the case of the Occupy films, for example working with the editor or with the cinematographer, who is a video artist herself, was important to me. It is however erroneous to imagine that I am always alone when I am painting. Since 2005 I have repeatedly employed assistants in the studio. There is also always an element of experimentation about his: looking at how other people react, considering how you can put more of an emphasis in your work on moving in a particular direction, rather than working alone in your own cosmos. 

What are you working on at the moment? What new works or projects are you currently developing? 

At the moment I’m working on more motifs from the Downtown series, based on media images of crowds and of arrests. I could also imagine travelling to New York again. I would like to know what is happening now against the same backdrop. Are there images that pick up on that and take as their subject this space and this city? Often you can’t see that when you’re right in the thick of things. I think I would spot that now. 


Sonja Claser interviewed Erik Schmidt on 6th February 2013 in connection with the exhibition Erik Schmidt – Downtownat Haus am Waldsee, Berlin (5.10.-30.12.2012), and at the Leopold-Hoesch-Museum, Düren (10.3.-19.5.2013). The interview was recorded in the artist’s studio in Berlin.