Rising to prominence in the early 2000s after training at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in the East German city of Leipzig, Matthias Weischer is one of several members of the Neue Leipziger Schule, which also includes German star artists Neo Rauch, Tim Eitel and Tilo Baumgärtel. They were the YBA's of Germany, who captivated the contemporary art market at the time, and continue to do so today.
Weischer gained renown for his illusory paintings, experimenting with perception, perspective and dimension to challenge the norms of time and space. They shift between representation and abstraction, flattening space into two-dimension. His detailed painted interiors are almost like theatre sets, with the viewer looking into the space from the fourth wall perspective of the audience. The surface of the paintings adds to the sense of tension and disorder that we sense lies beneath. Objects are painted over and repainted; paint is built up into layers; masking tape is left on the canvas; drips, pencil markings, and mistakes create a composite-like effect, evocative of a Dada-esque collage.
Corroded, dilapidated, and abandoned rooms filled with furniture and objects are depicted; rooms that seem to have been rapidly vacated in the wake of a disaster. Through illusory play and surrealist manipulation of space and form, the harmony and order of these spaces are disrupted, creating an unsettling environment. In German, the word ‘unheimlich’ comes to mind: a tension created between that we perceive to be familiar, and the uncanny. The scenes depicted are slightly eerie and alienating, littered with objects but with no clue as to the time and place they depict. They exist beyond time and place as psychological interior spaces, projecting disillusionment, disenchantment, loneliness, and abandonment.
Traces to nowhere at Lehmann Maupin gallery, is the artist’s first solo exhibition in Asia, and the works signal a decisive shift in Weischer’s work. Gone are the flat planes, and the forced perspectives. Interior spaces make way for nature and new figurative forms—animals and humans—now make an appearance in his spaces. A freer and more spontaneous approach is demonstrated by loose gestural sweeps that erupt into chaos on canvases that explode with thick layers of colour and appear almost sculptural.
At Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong, Weischer takes us through his work processes and discusses his new approach to painting.
The show features a range of very different works to the ones we’ve come to associate with you.
The shift was initiated long before this show here. I was working for a while on the interiors that had these psychological moments—you have this clear space and all the objects standing around, and you could derive a meaning from them, or not. There were strong connotations to the objects. I was playing for a long time with these possibilities of the interior and these relationships of the objects to each other. Around 2008 I started to think about this, because I felt like I was reaching an end of these ideas. I felt very defined … so I started to make these garden drawings for one year when I was in Rome. I spent a long time drawing and that was a turning point for me because I felt like I had to discover a new field and expand my vocabulary—it was like stepping into a new room. It was a very important point for me. At first I started making these studies of the garden and doing plein air drawings—mostly charcoal and watercolours. And from that I reached this landscape. These are all recent works finished this year. The idea was to reach a point of freedom, which I already had with the interiors, to play around with forms and objects. So I tried to see a tree as an object, an animal as an object, and to furnish these landscapes like I furnished the interiors before. But with a different meaning … less psychological maybe.
Matthias Weischer: Traces to nowhere. Exhibition view, Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong. September 8 – October 3, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong Photo: Kitmin Lee
The subject matter and the approach are totally different. Was this part of your breaking away and finding freedom?
Yes, it’s totally different. It’s a new way of painting. It needs to be well prepared in that I have to go to the landscapes and travel. I have to come from the landscape and transform it. It’s still very artificial. It’s not naturalistic, but I’m taking many elements from nature and putting them into these spaces I create.
They are still spaces that exist beyond time and rationality though.
Yes, they are still very spatial, I kept that similar to the interiors. I tried to maintain that sense of deep space and having some objects that are related to each other and define the space. Like this painting here [Sand, 2015] feels very infinite, like you’re in the middle of a sandstorm, and then you have these two objects (the zebra and the antler animal) and they lead you into the background.
Matthias Weischer, Sand (Sand), 2015. Oil on canvas, 12.6 x 16.54 x 1.18 inches; 32 x 42 x 3 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong
How do you approach a blank canvas? Do you have an idea of what the work will be, or is it spontaneous?
It’s largely spontaneous. It’s very abstract, an abstract mess at the beginning. The painting emerges from chaos and then I find order from that. What is it going to be? Is it going to be a landscape, an interior? And then the chaos becomes a sort of atmosphere. Then the atmosphere leads me to the object. It’s coming from the background into the foreground. The objects are really coming at the absolute end. They are the end point.
So creating a mood and atmosphere is your priority, not just for you to work through as an artist, but for your viewer?
I hope so, that the viewer can sense that. This is my way of working. Sometimes you can see parts of the beginning, so the chaos is always visible in a way when you look at the surface.
Matthias Weischer, Fries (Frieze), 2015. Oil on canvas, 53.15 x 49.61 x 1.57 inches; 135 x 126 x 4 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong
The surface is very sculptural compared to your earlier works.
[Laughs] Yeah. It’s very physical work. I like it. At the same time it has many different qualities and different fields to it. There’s the abstract part, the patterns, the physical, photorealistic. It’s very open and a game I am playing, while always trying to keep control.
Did you feel you needed to move on from the work that you became known for, from the association with the Leipzig school, and find new direction?
Maybe a bit. People who were looking at it from the outside were probably thinking it was an escape, or me not fulfilling my expectations, but for me it really was a … I always try to develop and for this reason it was necessary to go back to drawing and the source, to nature, to really feed the development. This was crucial. In one way, nobody was expecting that, but on the other hand it was necessary to take further steps and move forward. This was very important for me.
Matthias Weischer, Tal (Valley), 2015. Oil on canvas, 19.69 x 25.98 x 1.18 inches; 50 x 66 x 3 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong
Can we talk a little about this work, Lauer (Look-Out)? It’s unusual to see humanoid figures in your work.
[Laughing] It’s new to me too.
I was quite inspired by Roman frescoes. I’m always thinking about the human figure and trying to find a way to introduce it into my paintings. I feel very much disturbed when I try to introduce a figure—it’s always disappearing or I make it sculptural. In this case I had the feeling that I can treat the figure in a similar way to the way I treat a tree—it’s an object. Of course, if you see a figure it becomes a centre for the painting for the viewer. That’s unavoidable. But that’s why I wanted to look at these Roman frescoes where you have all these figures running around scenery, but I have the feeling they are not so important. They are merely one detail of the whole scene, but I am absolutely aware that we have here [pointing to painting] a little drama because we have two figures. When you have two figures in one painting you immediately have a drama. Something is going on It’s different to having two trees. So I’m really aware of this dimension of it becoming something different. This is a careful approach to this theme … it’s just one element; it’s an approach. I’m still always thinking about the figure—it’s always there in my mind—but I am circling around it.
Yes, in your interior paintings you seem more comfortable in creating spaces that are devoid of the personal and of the human figure. There is ambivalence, yet also a desire to tackle the human figure.
Yes, the desire is very strong because as a painter … my idea of a painter is to be complete one day. But I think this is a … this might be the next big theme for me. After doing the interior, and now the landscape, this might be the next thing. I’m quite open to it. I’m still doing portraits and figures but maybe it will take some more years to be ready to show them.
Matthias Weischer, Seestück (Seascape), 2015. Oil on canvas, 19.69 x 19.69 x 1.18 inches; 50 x 50 x 3 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong
It’s interesting listening to you talk about frescoes and these little patches peeling away. It seems the physicality of a fresco has been brought literally into your work. Was that subconscious?
Yes, I’m always playing with the surface. Maybe it was the joy of imitating something you can realise. This is one of the things you can do with painting. You can photograph a fresco and know that it’s a fresco, but with painting it’s really interesting that you can imitate this feeling and you can transport this quality into it. You always feel that it can be somewhere else. I really like, from the frescoes and Chinese paintings also, that they are playing with these prototypes of a figure or prototype of a tree. They have this kind of vocabulary. People who did this kind of work in Roman times were decorators and they had these kind of different forms and they put them together to create a scenery. And this is what interests me, the bringing together of all these different forms to create a certain scenery. If you put them together in different ways you have a totally new scenery and new landscape.
Like a director on stage?
Yes, like a director on stage. It’s a very artificial world. I’m not the one who is trying to depict the world one to one. I’m doing my plein air drawings and paintings as a study and then I bring them into the studio and bring them together in a synthesis and make a scenery of it. This is my way of working.
This work, Carré 1, (2015), is a nice contrast to Lauer.
Yeah, this refers more to my older works. It’s from a series of small works and interiors, which I started to work on again. After deciding to do gardens and open a new field, it doesn’t mean that I’m closing other doors and no longer doing interiors anymore. It’s a recent piece. For me it’s nice to come back to this way of painting. For a certain time I was avoiding painting in this style, but after a longer break it’s really joyful to come back to this kind of work. Carré was inspired by a photograph of a fresco from Pompeii. I was really fascinated by the colours; this was my initial point of interest. And then there was this spatial situation, and the fact that the space is not very deep. The back wall is coming closer to the viewer. The focus is more on the wall.
I’m focusing more on … it’s not so full of stuff. It’s more reduced—three walls, a ceiling and a floor, and two objects left and right. It’s complete. I’m really interested in the pure space and the empty quality of the walls. My pleasure is imagining that you can walk through the door, through the space.
Matthias Weischer, Carreé 1, 2015. Oil on canvas, 16.54 x 19.69 x 1.18 inches; 42 x 50 x 3 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong
They are more habitable spaces, less intimidating and alienating than your previous works …
Yeah, you can breathe in them, and respond to these paintings differently than the ones that were full of stuff, symbolism and meaning. This is a kind of freedom that I found, I just wanted to leave these ones as they are, as pure space. There are not too many obstacles in the way. —[O]