Jürgen Schilling in Conversation with Matthias Meyer

Jürgen Schilling: Matthias, you were a student of Gerhard Richter at the Düsseldorf Academy in the early 1990s. To what extent did Richter’s work – his parallel co-opting of the figurative and the abstract as elements of equal worth, for example – affect your own painting?

Matthias Meyer: I think it all had a different background for Richter. His approach was more conceptual: he drew a distinction between the abstract and the figurative but then made his theme the lack of any real difference between the two. This much is now known. So when I talk of abstraction or figuration, what I mean are all the various painterly forms of expression whose relative importance is liable to change at any time. As a painter, I’ve always welcomed opportunities to take a figurative model and then alienate it to such an extent that it is no more than a shadow of what it was originally, or even something completely different. Richter himself didn’t always approve of this method and was clearly more interested in teaching me the basics of painting in general.

JS: Richter is reputed to be a teacher who, being a perfectionist himself, expects his students to spend hours and hours acquiring drawing and painting skills, but who at the same time takes a keen interest in their careers after they have left the academy. After a spell in London at Chelsea College of Art and Design you went back to Düsseldorf and there continued your studies under Dieter Krieg, who of course has since passed away. How did his teaching methods differ from Richter’s and what was the effect on your own practice?

MM: When we started at the academy, Richter had us build ourselves mobile palettes to make painting easier for us. He also helped me with a still-life drawing and even corrected it himself. Unfortunately I don’t have any of these drawings anymore and certainly none that are signed. Yet a classical training in painting was not a must for him; he tended to critically engage only with whatever works his students put in front of him, irrespective of subject-matter and genre. All in all, I felt I was in good hands with Richter and could profit from his teaching of principles. But my experience of Chelsea College in London was also exciting; the education system there is completely different – less academic and less dependent on close student-teacher relationships. I actually had a chance to present my work to several different guest lecturers, each of whom gave me an opinion – sometimes a highly controversial one. On returning to Germany, I found it difficult to readjust to the classical teaching model practiced at the Düsseldorf Academy, even though Dieter Krieg was very open with his students. What’s interesting though is that in comparison with Richter’s class there was more of an overlap between what the students were doing and what their teacher was doing. Being close to graduation by that time, I perhaps had less of an incentive to become fully integrated into this class, and before long was looking for a studio of my own. But I certainly learned a lot from the impressive formats and profligate handling of glazes in Krieg’s class.

JS: Leafing through your first exhibition catalogues, I’m struck by certain motifs – most of them cityscapes – which, as the painter and writer Sven Drühl wrote in 1999, ‘are a frequent topic of discussion these days, being in some cases dismissed as anachronistic or polemicized as dubious.’ How did you arrive at these motifs and what did you hope to gain by selecting and then reworking photographs of unspectacular buildings and views of nature snapped in passing in the Netherlands, Asia and the USA?

MM: Well I used to travel a lot, especially in my early days at the academy; and then I took to scouring my immediate vicinity for motifs as well. I always carried a sketchbook around with me and made rough sketches of all kinds of objects from switching cabinets to petrol pumps and tram doors. But even then I was less interested in producing realistic sketches of these objects than in investing them with an individual ‘life’ of their own. By putting a steamroller right in the middle of my composition, for example, I made it look almost like a confessional. The banality of the motifs didn’t matter to me at all. In my later works, I began using video stills instead of sketches as models. Here, too, it didn’t really matter what was on the individual stills or whether they were ‘weighty’ enough. All that I cared about were the formal properties of the motif. That was where my main interest lay. But I still enjoyed travelling to other countries, for the impression made by a Dutch landscape, for example, is bound to be completely different from the colourful natural world of Asia, which in turn is completely different again from the homey charm of America’s dilapidated suburbs.

JS: In your works, you change what for the viewer are familiar topographies by deliberately undermining them, whether by drawing out certain light effects, or by blurring and then reworking them with flecks of colour and trickles of paint to create as yet unseen scenarios. How much weight to you attach to these alienating interventions in the painting process?

MM: What interests me in a painting is above all its function as a reminder. Every time I recall something, I have a picture in my head. This picture has little to do with photography because although the image is a clear one, I couldn’t possibly convert it into a single photograph. It’s more likely to be a composite of several different pictures. The trickles of paint or the dissolution that sometimes takes place in my works represent just such visual fragments of memory. Having said that, I naturally have no interest in creating a painting that has nothing whatsoever to do with the original motif. It would therefore be difficult for me to begin by intermingling blocks of colour and lines without having any figurative model at all, at least in my head.

JS: Your paintings feature architectural and topographical motifs from all over the world, which suggests that you discover most of your material when travelling. How should we imagine the process by which a painting of yours comes into being?

MM: On my travels I generally look out for motifs relating to a specific theme which happens to be of interest to me – such as display windows or wooden staircases – and then take lots of photos of them. Funnily enough, though, the photos that tend to captivate me are those taken in between. So I can control my choice of motif only up to a point and certainly allow myself to be surprised and inspired by unknown surroundings. The choice of which images to use always takes place after I’ve returned home and have the photos stacked up in front of me.

JS: The new millennium has seen a sudden surge of interest in figurative painting. Young artists from Leipzig, Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin and Düsseldorf have begun creating new pictorial worlds of their own and, although their themes are distinctive, almost all of them share a keen interest in narrative. Where do you stand in relation to this scene and how do you engage with other exponents of contemporary painting?

MM: Naturally I know what’s going on around me. But I’m not sufficiently immersed in the work of my fellow artists to be able to engage critically with what they’re doing. Perhaps being somewhat out on a limb here in the Ruhr Valley and rarely visiting other studios has allowed me to remain by and large independent of the figurative currents round about me. I basically live out in the provinces, and whenever I do get to visit large studio complexes in Dresden or Berlin and watch the artists at work there, I find it almost off-putting. The formative influence on me, I think, was the situation immediately prior to the turn of the millennium, in the early 1990s, when the art world – or rather the world of figurative painting – was smaller. I feel I have more in common with older painters, some of whom I knew at the academy or have met in the course of projects abroad.

JS: Can you name those painters ancient or modern who have made a special impression on you, or who perhaps have even influenced you?

MM: That’s an interesting question. Maybe I should just give you a list of my favourites: William Turner, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens, Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, Peter Doig, Ilya Repin, Neo Rauch, David Hockney and, of course, Gerhard Richter. Then there are the sketches of Camille Corot. I also appreciate the work of Jim Harris, a British painter I once painted with on the streets of Amsterdam, and the paintings of Robert Klümpen, too.

JS: Like most painters of your generation, you use photography to prepare your works but only after modifying your photographs on the computer. Can you explain how you go about producing a finished painting?

MM: I modify my photographs only to the extent that I sometimes integrate them in somewhat larger drawings or group them together in a kind of collage. Most of the time I simply take a photo or part of a photo and use it to make acrylic sketches of the motif. Sometimes that alone is enough to show me whether this is a theme worth pursuing. After these preliminaries, I start work on the painting proper, painting directly onto the canvas without drawing first and without a grid. The allure of this method is its immediacy and sketchy spontaneity, although it’s liable to go badly wrong as well.

JS: Most of your paintings seem to belong to series – I’m thinking here of Waterplants, Forests, Waterfalls or Interieurs – but are not necessarily produced consecutively. Instead, you seem to revisit certain themes from time to time, sometimes applying a different stylistic approach after an absence of several years. How do you explain this fidelity? Is it borne of a deliberate policy of using known subjects to put your own development to the test, or does your fascination with certain natural forms simply move you to return to them from time to time?

MM: But is that really true? Do I really paint the same things over and over again? Perhaps my works can be grouped into distinct pictorial spaces which repeatedly rouse my interest. The forest, for example, is one such pictorial space; another would be interiors or expanses of water. What is important to me is the pattern underlying the series. In the case of the forest, the pattern is one of parallel lines, whereas in my paintings of water or swamps the gaze is automatically directed downwards. My interiors and street views, on the other hand, typically use just a few lines to define a perspective view of space. That’s why these compositional patterns recur so often in my paintings. And even if I like the way they drift further and further away from realistic depictions of the original motif, I don’t set any goals here since I let myself be guided by my pictures.

JS: Every image of a real or fictive landscape is the outcome of an individual process of appropriation. Subjective impressions ranging from unease to enthusiasm invariably leave their stamp on your works, whether explicitly or only implicitly. Your paintings fix the obvious with both objectivity and reined-in emotions. What makes your landscapes so special in your view?

MM: What’s special about them is that they have a life of their own. For me they are an autonomous slice of nature – chance compositions of shapes and colours such as are familiar to us from the natural world. That doesn’t mean that the composition itself is arbitrary, only that I allow the painting to influence its own evolution through chance intermingling of colour. The viewer of my landscapes, as opposed to Romantic and Impressionist renderings of nature, does not have any fixed standpoint in relation to the imagined landscape. This, too, underscores the autonomy of the painting. Metaphorically speaking, my pictures are situated somewhere ‘between’ the viewer and the painted motif – very much like memory.

JS: Your technique has occasionally been compared to watercolour technique. You paint in oils but dilute them so much that each new layer of paint remains transparent; this enables you to ‘veil’ your motif, as it were. Like your practice of blurring parts of your paintings, this veiling draws attention to the materiality of your paints, their fluidity coupled with a certain gravity, and has the effect of casting doubt on the harmony of your composition without jeopardising its equilibrium. How do you decide when to apply these special effects?

MM: That goes back a long way. Perhaps I found it easier to work with more liquid paints after those earlier works of mine done in acrylics heavily diluted in water. At some point I simply sloshed some paint onto a piece of paper lying on the table and left it to run its course – just like in classical watercolour painting. I later went over to hanging my pictures on the wall and allowing the paint to flow freely there, which was a way of making the process more dynamic. Since I’d always had the feeling that a ‘moving’ painting is more exciting on canvas, I then took the technique a stage further; I was simply enthralled with the inherent dynamism of these works. There were moments when the picture in front of me seemed better than what I’d originally painted. Perhaps it has to do with the innate beauty of all natural forms.

JS: The atmosphere of the colours certainly influences the mood of the pictures. So whenever you occasionally dispense with colour altogether and confine yourself to a range of grey tones instead, you invariably succeed in turning what at first glance seems an utterly trivial scene into something mysterious or even timeless and fantastical. Some paintings with their reflections and views from underwater transport us into realms that we didn’t even know existed or which may even alienate us as unreal or romantic. Is this perception of your works intentional, or is it more the result of chance constellations that emerge as the painting takes shape?

MM: The choice of underwater motifs was deliberate as I know that not many viewers will be familiar with them, and this allows more scope for interpretation. The underwater world is a relatively undefined world of imagery. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that my pictures look romantic or unreal; what’s important is rather the way the compositional elements come to the fore. A motif that is overburdened with meaning is likely to prove distracting. In recent years I’ve taken up more and more motifs from the world of nature simply because they offer greater interpretative scope than do man-made objects. By comparison, not even such banal objects as shopping bags or thermostats are ever truly value-free and, in comparison with depictions of the natural world, are much too fixed in one particular direction to be of interest to me.

JS: The depiction of people, one of the dominant themes in figurative painting ever since the 1960s, plays but a minor role in your oeuvre. The silhouette-like figures in your cityscapes, for example, have only a peripheral role to play. Where they are indispensable in terms of content is in your large canvases such as the Maha-Kumbh-Mela cycle. Yet there you dispensed with all detail, reducing your figures to mere sketchy notations worked into the flow of paint.

MM: My figures are often rather tall, thin, Giacometti-like shadows gliding across the canvas. That’s how I want them to be, because what interests me about them is never their individuality, but rather the human being as a living element of the composition. That’s why in my cityscapes I collect them together in vibrant, organic formations which then make for a sharp contrast with the rigid, linear structures of the architecture surrounding them. But now I’ve succeeded in producing exactly the same effect by combining plants with architecture, as in the Crystal Palace series of 2002. Yet all that you see in the Maha-Kumbh-Mela paintings are the people. The opposite pole of architecture has disappeared altogether. Here, it is no longer enough to regard people as a cipher for organic life. It is the crowd that accrues meaning, eventually becoming the central theme of the work.

JS: The Maha-Kumbh-Mela cycle was also an opportunity to create some very fluid scenarios; this marks a clear departure from your earlier works, which owed the restraint of their inner dynamism largely to your painterly interventions. How did you arrive at this theme and what is the concept behind it?

MM: Upon first hearing of the Maha-Kumbh-Mela Festival of 2001, I was instantly fascinated by the idea of a seemingly endless landscape formed entirely out of the human bodies of five million pilgrims. That’s something I have to paint, I thought to myself – except that I was working on something completely different at the time. So I carried Maha Kumbh Mela around with me in my head right up to 2007, never really knowing how I should tackle it as a theme. What I was lacking was the technical wherewithal. Only after painting the Water Plants did I feel up to painting rivers of people. But since these were people, not plants, the comparison worked only up to a point. What fascinated me was what made millions of people come to the same place at the same time in order to purify their souls, enduring all kinds of hardships in the process. As a European, I’m not of course anchored in the same tradition as this Hindu festival; yet the pictures I saw of the crowds reminded me very much of old battlefield paintings in the European tradition.

JS: In a certain sense, the paintings you produced following the Indian cycle pushed the abstraction boundary still further; I’m thinking here of your Water Paintings and Lakes, both of them series in which you grapple with water as an element that shapes the landscape and leaves its stamp on it. Formal reduction here goes hand in hand with the activation of colour, or in some cases with a resolute reining-in of colour. Even the choice of frame has the effect of enhancing the degree of abstraction.

MM: It’s true that the object in the Water Paintings is often all but imperceptible. But I’m not sure whether this is really because of formal reduction, as restraint in one area opens up new possibilities in another. In the Water Paintings in particular, removing and then overpainting realistic pictorial space several times over gave rise to surfaces which seem to afford us a glimpse into the unending deeps.

JS: The interaction of ciphers which, although cursory, are positioned with a fine feeling for nuance gives rise to abstract, impressionistic illusions which are at once both sensual and clearly structured – what Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, talking about his own very different works, described as ‘autonomous organisms of lines, areas and colours, which contain natural forms only to the extent that they are needed for understanding’. Can it be supposed that in future works, deliberately placed accents such as these will continue to develop a life of their own, becoming autonomous formations which then go on to eclipse the realistic content of your canvases?

MM: It’s not as if I had no wish to paint something specific when I start work on a painting. No matter how abstract and how far removed from the original motif the end result may be, I still have the feeling that I’ve painted something realistic. I’m simply not interested in doing it any other way, for example by allowing the paints to run right at the start. It’s probably quite difficult to predict where art will go from here, but it’s certainly interesting to speculate. Distinguishing between the abstract and the realistic is ultimately very difficult. I’m not even sure that abstract paintings exist at all. Abstraction is always reduction. Every picture has an object even if it’s only light or the time of year. I can only second what Kirchner said; the only question, of course, is how far the reduction of natural forms can go within a given work, because it’s possible to make out a landscape even in a painting by Mark Rothko.