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The online editorial and curatorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Interview with Michaela Zimmer by Laurence Noga and Kerstin Mey

April 2016

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

LN/KM   Looking at your work, Michaela, it has a reductive /sculptural edge in its construction and materiality. Can you tell me about your artistic roots?


MZ    My artistic roots can be found as much in contemporary dance as in visual arts. From early childhood until my teenage years, I received a dance education, covering ballet as well as contemporary dance. This is an amazing source of energy for me, and the issue in art that I am dealing with is a translation of this energy.


If you want to draw parallels here to reductive art, I certainly value the clarity of it, both in form and thought, when it is at its best. And indeed, I studied sculpture at Chelsea College of Arts (UAL), and developing my performance-based work at that time is certainly still proving strongly influential in my paintings nowadays.


LN/KM    Can you say what prompted your return to painting, and what were the challenges that you set yourself in this context? Are there any rules or systems that underpin your practice?


MZ   I worked in photography for many years before I returned to painting. Both media focus on ‘still’ images, and that’s what challenges me: still images that transport movement.


Dance performances, transmitting high levels of energy, are volatile and fleeting experiences. I aim for my work to act as a sort of vessel for this concentrated energy.

When getting back to painting, all I knew was that illustration or narration clearly couldn’t act as an equivalent to the ‘frozen moment’ in a long-exposure photograph.


So I had to develop a different type of technique. Speaking of rules, I am lucky to be able to recall simple physical exercise steps that enable me to get into a physical and mental state in which movements can be done almost automatically, to support the transformation process of energy into materiality.

160201 2016 Acrylic, lacquer, spray paint, and PE film on canvas 137 x 185 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Fold Gallery.

CYMK 2016: Installation shot. Courtesy of the artist and Fold Gallery.

LN/KM   Your work fits into an expanded field of painting. Can you explain your approach to painting within the culture of new media and digital technology?


MZ  The digital context is certainly an important issue when talking about contemporary painting. Simultaneously, there seems to be a growing attentiveness towards the theme of the body in new media (as in ‘virtual bodies’ at NRW Forum, Düsseldorf).


Finding myself working with and looking at screens with increasing frequency, I am glad that painting involves a different materiality and the use of my whole body.

Nevertheless there is an aspect to the PE film in my work that refers to the shiny surface of a lit screen, including its characteristic reflection.


The popularity of selfies can be seen as a longing for physical reassurance in our daily use of screens. They also indicate a heightened narcissism that is part and parcel of a highly individualized society. The PE film parts of the painting provide the opportunity for a continuous selfie, but it is a self-image that changes when the viewer’s ‘real’ body moves.

160106 2016 Acrylic, lacquer, spray paint, and PE film on canvas 185 x 130 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Fold Gallery.

LN/KM    That’s an interesting idea; how does it affect the way you decide how the works are distributed and staged in the space?


MZ   An important focus of my work has always been to explore the different possibilities of the spatial conditions we move within, and the images we create of these conditions. It is in that context that I think about the significance of the installation of objects and paintings within a space. Although each work needs breathing space, it also needs to be placed in a way that opens up surprises, by acting jointly with its surroundings and the other objects.


In the exhibition CMYK at Fold I worked closely with Kim Savage, the director of the gallery, who has a great understanding of space. Our aim was to take the audience on a journey that opened, for example, with two very different paintings next to each other: the oldest in the show (from 2013) and one of the newest ones. They were an odd pair to me, and I was very sceptical in the beginning. But Kim’s choice really convinced me in the end. Further into the gallery space we built a kind of gateway with two black ‘guards’ that led to a very light and airy space of magenta, yellow and white.


I regard the placing works of art in an environment as an installation, and as such it is a similar process to making art in any other medium.

CYMK 2016: Installation shot. Courtesy of the artist and Fold Gallery.

LN/KM  Your work has a painterly sense of humour. What underpins the choices that you make? How do you develop your ideas and concepts?


MZ   Humour does indeed come into the work at times, especially when I come to cross the borders of ‘no-go areas’ within a medium. When certain rules apply - for instance, in abstract painting, concerning the flat surface - I enjoy introducing ‘light’ that can be read either simply, as a lighter colour, or as opening the painterly plane to perspective.


LN/KM    Can you talk about the formal devices in your practice, and say something concerning the temporal/temporary aspects that exist within your work?


MZ   The use of plastics in art has become ambivalent. Once, the material triggered a notion of modernity, whereas now it might be seen as indicating something cheap or ordinary. I am interested in the latter impression, as a provocative contradiction to plastic’s seductive shiny surface. The concept of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art that emerged from Arte Povera, and which has also been significant in Provisional Painting, informs my work.

A phrase recently caught my attention. This was “the importance of actually making the nothingness”* in the context of a discussion about nihilism and shaping a (sculptural) anti-form. In my work it is not so much the nothingness, it is more the transitory that I am interested in.


(*Dr Helmut Draxler, Professor of Art Theory at The University of Applied Arts, Vienna, in conversation with Alexi Kukuljevic at Tanya Leighton Gallery, March 2016)

150403 2015 Acrylic, lacquer, spray paint, and PE film on canvas 190 x 130 cm Courtesy of the artist and Fold Gallery.


LN/KM   That concept of the transitory (everything in flux) does indeed seem critical to your approach. Can you clarify how this has had an impact upon you?


MZ   If you look at art as a constant process of construction and deconstruction, the tendency of the more interesting works of art in the recent past was certainly to deconstruct, and to form an antithesis to a socially and politically defined reality. Unfortunately, every single ‘no’ quickly turned into a ‘yes’; even worse, it became fashionable.


Recent approaches in physics and philosophy are looking (again) at non-linear models of time: Karen Barad, for example, when she talks about ‘space-time-matter’, and the re-discovery of George Kubler’s The Shape of Time from 1962.


It is within this discussion that the transitory provides a convincing alternative to the ‘black and white’. Instead of ‘all or nothing’ there is a ‘something that constantly changes’. Nature is the best example, really.


My latest group show, jurassiccontemporary, which I worked on with Alexandra Hopf, was based on the idea of time shifts and interchanging models of past, present and future.

151204, 2015. Acrylic, lacquer, spray paint, and PE film on canvas 190 x 130 cm. Courtesy of the Aatist and Fold Gallery.

LN/KM    Works such as 160105 and 160106 have a certain speed and tension about their surface, compared to 150404, where tonal shifts glide under the surface. What role does this opacity/transparency play, through the use of PE plastic and its relationship with the layered surface facture?


MZ   It is interesting that the word ‘speed’ always evokes the notion of ‘fast speed’ first. Focusing on both, fast and slow motion, and situations where they blend into each other, has always been an aspect of my work.


Mind you, even when a line appears to be ‘fast’, this might have resulted from a slow movement which accelerated from a certain intensity that wasn’t fast at all.


As for gesture, there are different approaches in my paintings.

The lines that originate from a concentrated single movement are mostly applied to white canvas that is only primed. They take a long time in their (mainly physical) preparation, but are than executed quickly. Even with the best preparation, a lot of them end up unresolved and get destroyed, since they can’t be corrected.


In the multi-layered paintings all sorts of mark-making takes place. These resemble walls in the street where you can see left-overs from many signs and tags over a long period of time. The longer you look at them, the more traces you discover.


The paintings are based on numerous layers of paint, which are applied and then often taken away, again and again.  This process is time-consuming and very difficult to control, since the aim is not a spectacular composition, but a rather quiet one that unfolds only slowly. A similar ‘gradualness in the investigation process’ is also required from the viewer, if he or she is to be rewarded.


It is the topic of time and speed that I am focusing on here.

LN/KM    What is your relationship to contemporary painting? Can you talk about your connections to conceptual and traditional abstraction?


MZ   As much as my approach to painting is conceptual, it is based on a deep love of the painterly. This proves of course to be a fine line, but again, it is the crossing-over that I am interested in.

Over the last few years there has been a strong focus on conceptual painting, at least in the art scene I’ve been involved with. Only recently has there been a shift towards the painterly again.


Of course there have always been artists around, who have combined both approaches. Judy Millar is a great example; her grand gestural paintings are at the same time clearly conceptual. Her paintings are full of light and depth with a profound affinity to the painterly, and at the same time clearly conceptual in their references to print-making, repetition, and recently also to cinema and film.


Henning Strassburger is another artist with strong painterly qualities, as is Florian Schmidt.

There are many more artists whose work I consider important, on the verge of these different approaches, and with whom I have been lucky enough to work and show over the last few years.


LN/KM    Given that you have worked and exhibited as an artist in Germany and in the UK, how do you perceive the contemporary art scene in each country? Have you noticed this hybridity between a more rational/ conceptual approach and something more intuitive?


MZ   While there is a strong affiliation to the narrative in the UK, German painters have the burden of Kippenberger and co. looking constantly over their shoulders. We keep burying painting and digging it out again.


British painters seem to have an approach more in common with gardening - pruning and training rather than completely uprooting.


LN/KM    What are your plans for the future in your practice; where do you see it moving towards?


MZ   Pursuing my issue, as described before, will keep me happily occupied.

150404 2015 Acrylic, lacquer, spray paint, and PE film on canvas 200 x 130 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Fold Gallery.

(L)130601 2013. Acrylic, lacquer, spray paint, and PE film on canvas 185 x 130 cm.  (R) 151001 2015 Acrylic, lacquer, spray paint, and PE film on canvas,185 x 135 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Fold Gallery.