artist with artwork
portrait of a man in front of artwork

Photograph by David Taggart

Jeff Koons is the world’s most expensive living artist, creating works that reflect modern life in their interplay with kitsch, materials and art history. Koons chats to Millie Walton about communication, how art brings the sublime into the everyday and pink inflatable rabbits

Jeff Koons is making me sweat. He’s ten minutes late to our Zoom meeting, and at this stage, I’m unsure whether he’s forgotten, or I’m unwittingly engaged in some kind of power play.

Something I realised in preparing for this interview is that almost everyone has something to say about either Jeff Koons as a person or his work. One of my favourite anecdotes goes something like this: “My friend went to a house party and had sex beneath a Jeff Koons, and said it was the way they’d like to die someday.” When I heard it, I thought that’s probably exactly the type of story an artist who is famed for making explicit artworks of himself and his ex-wife Ilona Staller (who was also a porn star known as La Cicciolina) and shiny balloon sculptures would love to retell to fawning art collectors at swanky gallery openings in New York. It’s hard not to make assumptions about one of the world’s most famous and controversial artists.

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red balloon dog sculpture

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Red) (1994–2000). © Jeff Koons, photo: Mike Bruce, Gate Studios, London/Courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts, London

A young, attractive woman (one of Koons’s studio assistants, perhaps) enters the screen to test the audio and camera, before he finally sits down, checks his ‘earpods’ are in place and gives me a Hollywood smile. At 66 years old, with gleaming white teeth, a full head of hair, barely any visible wrinkles and the glow of health, Koons could pass for early forties. He speaks precisely and slowly, maintaining eye contact and frequently dropping my name into the conversation, which has the destabilising effect of making everything he says seem both deeply profound and strangely orchestrated. “Millie,” he says mysteriously at one point. “What’s really interesting and beautiful about art is that what’s relevant and new is really quite ancient.”

porcelain sculpture

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988). © Jeff Koons. Photo Tom Powel Imaging

Rising to prominence in the mid-1980s in New York, alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Prince and Keith Haring, Koons has long advocated the idea of ‘accessible’ art. He takes everyday objects and pop icons as his subjects, often rendering them at a huge scale to disrupt cultural hierarchies and unsettle the viewer’s sense of perception. Of the making of Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), for example, a white and gold porcelain sculpture of the musician and his monkey, the artist says, “I was really trying to make a connection with Renaissance sculpture and to show that something we can acquire in a gift shop can have this important meaning to us in life, and as much relevance to excite and stimulate us as the Pietà.”

Read more: Sophie Neuendorf on new wave collecting

Over the years, critics haven’t been so open-minded. His work has been variously labelled as “vacuous”, “crude” and “lazy”, but this has only increased his popularity. In 2019, Rabbit (1986), a metre-tall stainless-steel copy of a plastic inflatable bunny, sold for more than $91 million at Christie’s, breaking the record for a work by a living artist sold at auction set in 2018 by David Hockney’s 1972 painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), a record previously held by Koons himself. That might seem like an eye-watering price, but his work is highly technical and expensive to produce, which has, in the past, led to delays in completion and major lawsuits. In 2018, billionaire financier Steven Tananbaum sued Gagosian over the delayed delivery of three of the artist’s sculptures. Then, earlier this year, the artist shocked the art world by announcing his decision to drop both Gagosian and David Zwirner and to be represented worldwide exclusively by Pace Gallery, stating, “The most important thing to me is the production of my work and to see these artworks realised”.

silver sculpture of a rabbit

Jeff Koons, Rabbit (1986). © Jeff Koons. Photo Tom Powel Imaging

The desirability of his work comes not just from the promise of drama and luxury. There’s also an appealing sense of playfulness, nostalgia and recognition to be found in his vibrant colours and simple visual language that recalls a childlike innocence. “When we’re young, we’re more curious. We absorb tremendous amounts of information very quickly because we’re open,” he says. “Eventually, people start shutting down and making all of these judgements. I try to open myself up to everything.”

Koons is a ‘conceptual’ artist: a visionary, rather than a maker. He has multiple studios and a team of more than fifty people producing the ideas that he dreams up. It’s an approach to art-making that allows him to “have feelings and sensations, but not to be dependent on the hand”. It also allows him to pursue “Duchampian ideas” by taking a more “objective” viewpoint. Whether one can truly detach oneself from one’s own thoughts is debatable, but what’s important is the intention behind the work and, for Koons, that often comes from a personal experience or encounter with a material, colour or form. As a younger artist, for example, he recalls buying a pink inflatable rabbit and a yellow and green inflatable flower which he placed on mirrors propped up against the wall. “The colour, the reflection and this association was so intense, I had to go have a couple of beers to really come down from the excitement,” he says.

artist with artwork

Koons photographed in his Manhattan studio in 2021 with a work in progress. Photograph by David Taggart

His focus now is more on being in dialogue with the viewer than himself. “There’s joy in sharing the human potential with others, instead of just with the self,” he says. This idea of exchange is perhaps most evident in the artist’s ‘Gazing Ball’ series (2012–) in which he places a blue, mirrored, hand-blown glass gazing ball within a classical piece of art, such as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The ball reflects the surroundings and the viewer, literally drawing them into the work of art. For Koons, the object relates to his childhood in York, Pennsylvania where he recalls seeing gazing balls in people’s gardens. “I’ve always loved the generosity of [the gazing ball], but also that it’s a lawn ornament. It’s something that can be looked at in a very profound way and at the same time it’s frivolous,” he says.

Read more: How Durjoy Rahman’s art foundation supports cultural collaboration

painting with sculpture

Gazing Ball (da Vinci Mona Lisa) (2015). © Jeff Koons. Photo Tom Powel Imaging

The same could be said for many of Koons’s sculptures, which, at the very least, teach us that outward appearances can both charm and deceive. The reason he so often works with stainless steel is that it’s both highly durable – “A kind of a proletarian material; if people wanted to melt [the works] down to make spoons, forks, pots and pans, they could,” he says – and shiny in appearance. One of the artist’s most iconic pieces, Balloon Dog, explicitly plays with these material qualities by suggesting the bulging soft surface and lightness of a balloon while harnessing the sculptural strength of the metal. “Only the surface has a visual luxury, and when I say a visual luxury, I’m speaking about the excitement of stimulation, reflection, abstraction and change,” he explains. “That’s the type of luxury that my works are interested in.”

public sculpture of a ballerina

Jeff Koons, Seated Ballerina (2017) at the Rockefeller Center, New York. © Jeff Koons. Photo Tom Powel Imaging

Has the material worth of his work changed the way he feels about his practice, and art in general? “I love art, I love the idea of how it can really better the lives of people as an educational tool. It informs us, not only of our history, but of all the human disciplines, how we can incorporate them, fit them into our lives. It’s always a dialogue about becoming,” he says. “If the market, at some point, became interested in me, I’d like to believe it was because I was able to communicate some of those ideas to people, and that they found relevance in the belief of this type of transcendence.”

Find out more: jeffkoons.com

This article was originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue.

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graphic painting of glasses
graphic painting of glasses

© The artist, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Photo Mike Bruce.

man and woman in front of artworkIn the mid 1960s, Michael Craig Martin emerged as a key figure in early British conceptual art, later becoming the teacher of many of the YBAs such as Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. Today, he is one of the world’s most prominent artists, known for his brightly coloured paintings and sculptures of everyday objects. Millie Walton speaks with him about colour, style and listening to his own advice

1. By focusing on everyday objects, are you searching for a kind of universality?

Everyday objects do seem to me to offer a path to understanding the universal. By making drawings of as many objects as I can, one by one, I have tried to implicitly account for everything. I have discounted all the hierarchies by which we normally categorise things: size, use, materials, social importance, aesthetic quality, monetary value, moral worth, etc. I draw everything the same way, each with equal care and attention – a democracy of images.

2. Do you recreate the objects from memory or are they drawn from life?

I never draw from memory, only from the observation of an individual object.

3. Are the objects you use as subjects artworks in themselves?

With a few exceptions, such as Duchamp’s urinal or Magritte’s pipe, the objects I draw are not artworks. My drawings of them are.

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4. You’ve said before that incorporating colour into your work was a breakthrough moment. How so?

I discovered that I could unsettle the familiarity of the drawing of an object by introducing non-naturalistic, wayward, intense colour. The drawing is logical, general, bland, familiar; the colour instinctive, specific, vivid, unexpected. This confrontation gave my work a new visual impact and emotional intensity.

5. In aiming for what you’ve termed ‘no style’, you have created a style that is now widely recognised as yours. Has this changed your attitude towards what style means?

Yes. I used to look on style as a kind of self-conscious ‘arty’ signature. Now, I see that it can be the manifestation of the essential characteristics of one’s visual language.

6. Did teaching art at Goldsmiths College affect your own practice?

Yes, because, at best, I saw my teaching as virtually an extension of my practice. One thing I discovered was to always listen to the advice I was giving my students, as it was often the advice I wished to hear myself, but couldn’t do so directly.

digital artwork

Michael Craig Martin, Oxford Street Installation. © The artist, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Photo Mike Bruce.

7. How do you decide what to create next?

My work is a continuum. I work on many things at the same time. One thing leads to another. Work comes from work.

8. Is it important for you to be surrounded by your own artworks?

It’s not important, but I am happy, these days, to have some works hanging in my own apartment. In general, I quickly lose interest in a work I’ve just completed because I’m working on something else. I don’t like having much finished work in the studio, but I often do. Unexpectedly coming across something you did years ago, and have forgotten, can be very rewarding.

9. Are you interested in exploring more digital tools within your practice?

I have done quite a lot of digital work over the years, the first in 2000, I think. I develop all my work on a computer and what I do is well suited to digital productions. There are things one can do digitally involving change and movement that other mediums don’t allow.

red bulb sculpture

Michael Craig Martin, Bulb (red), 2011 © The artist, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Photo Mike Bruce.

10. Do you create commissioned work?

I always consider commissions. Some I accept, some I don’t. It’s interesting to consider something you wouldn’t have thought of yourself.

11. What led you to transform your drawings into transparent sculptures?

Two-dimensional images normally need a material ‘ground’ (paper, canvas, screen and so on) to exist at all. Making my drawings out of steel means they can be self-supporting and therefore dispense with the need for a ‘ground’, thus appearing transparent.

12. Are your works intended to provoke a particular reaction in the viewer?

I try to make work that catches the eye and the imagination of as many viewers as possible. I never seek a particular reaction, but try to provide the provocation for individual, personal speculation.

This article was originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue.

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artist portrait

artist in her studio

In our ongoing online series, renowned art consultant Maria-Theresia Mathisen profiles rising contemporary artists to watch in 2021. Here, she speaks to British artist Antonia Showering about her inspirations, technique and the London art scene

As is so often the case these days, I first discovered Antonia Showering’s work on Instagram. It was serendipitous to meet her in person not long after, at a lunch at Timothy Taylor gallery. We sat right across from each other and found out that we happen to be neighbours in North London.

Antonia’s paintings are contemporary yet classical – Les Nabis, a group of young French painters working in the late 19th century who played a key role in transitioning from Impressionism to Symbolism and later, to Abstraction, are one of her key sources of inspiration.

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To me, Antonia’s work feels symbolist in the way she expresses emotion rather than representing specific events. At the same time, her paintings tend to be based on lived experiences and real encounters while her abstract use of colour is sometimes reminiscent of Etel Adnan.

Ahead of a solo exhibition with Timothy Taylor gallery next year, I visited her East London studio (which is, coincidentally, opposite Sofia Mitsola’s studio whom I interviewed earlier this year) to view her latest works and discuss her process.

LUX: To me, your work feels like it’s embedded in classical painting as your subjects are quite traditional: landscapes, people and sometimes, dogs. What period of art history is most inspiring to you?
Antonia Showering: From a young age I have repeatedly painted significant figures inhabiting personal landscapes, but I can see what you mean about there being a classical element to the chosen imagery in my work, especially with the recurring motif of water and people bathing although this is perhaps more closely linked to how I feel adults behave when they are in water: they bob and splash around in a playful, clumsy, almost childlike way. It feels as if lakes, ponds and rivers are spaces where we are allowed to become infants again, even if just for a moment. Les Nabis are a group from the late 1800s who depict people bathing beautifully. I really enjoy the way these artists handled colour and how the human figure was simplified.

abstract painting

Antonia Showering, We Stray, 2020. Photo © White Cube (Ollie Hammick)

LUX: Who are your favourite artists?
Antonia Showering: There are so many! Piero della Francesca for his depiction of the face; Edward Munch for his timeless, transcending handling of emotion; Leonor Fini for her exploration of fantasy; Andrew Wyeth for his narratives; and Alice Neel for how she captured relationships between sitters as well as more contemporary painters like Hurvin Anderson, Tracey Emin, Tim Stoner, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Celia Paul and Chantal Joffe.

Read more: In conversation with the world’s most expensive living artist Jeff Koons

LUX: Let’s talk about your own cultural heritage. What’s your background?
Antonia Showering: The majority of my childhood was spent in Somerset where my father’s family are from, while my mother’s parents lived in London – they played a huge role in my discovery of art. My Swiss grandmother was a history of art teacher for many years and she married my grandfather, who’s Chinese, in the 1960s. He was an architect and a phenomenal draughtsman who taught me how to draw. I have many memories visiting them as a child – their house was very minimal with no clutter and definitely no toys, so I would occupy myself by drawing families, cutting them out and playing with them. I really enjoyed creating these new worlds where the possibilities within them were endless.

artist studio

Antonia’s studio in East London

LUX: What do you want to express through your work?
Antonia Showering: I want my paintings to capture the mood of transitory moments where trauma, worries and hopeful possibilities can coexist in one moment or image. I see the canvas as a physical space where feelings of belonging or displacement, love or loneliness, intergenerational memory, superstitions and regrets can be turned into something visual and shared with the viewer. Giving exact details of who the characters in my paintings are and what the objects included mean is something I try to avoid because it prevents ambiguity and often the meaning of the painting can shift and adopt new connotations over time. I also find other people’s interpretations of my work interesting and important. It reminds me of when several people recall an event and how much they all differ from one another; this slippage of memory is fascinating and a big part of my work.

figurative painting

Antonia Showering, Je t’aime, 2018

LUX: Who are the people in your paintings?
Antonia Showering: They are almost always people I know. Sometimes I only learn who the characters in my paintings are months after making the work. However, as mentioned in my previous answer, I think it is important for me to not to be too direct in saying “This is a painting of my younger brother holding his daughter” because it closes off the image to the viewer. A parent holding a child is a universal motif and one at some point in our lives we may have observed and taken away something from a comparable moment. Although my works are dealing with significant personal recollections, fears or imaginings once the painting begins to develop it becomes its own entity and holds a new meaning for both me and the person viewing the work.

Read more: Sophie Neuendorf on New Wave Collecting

LUX: Can you tell me a bit about your painting process?
Antonia Showering: My paintings go through quite a few different stages. After I stretch the canvas, I lay it flat on the floor and add a layer of distemper (sizer with white pigment). This is poured, dripped and applied very automatically and once this dries I used these initial marks to direct me to the first of many compositions. The paintings often begin as abstract images where I am solely focusing on colour relationships and marks. It isn’t until later that I focus on the figures that populate these spaces and their own relationships. I want to try to build atmospheres within the landscapes or domestic settings.

artist studio

LUX: How do you decide when a painting is finished?
Antonia Showering: I wish I was someone who confidently daubs their final mark and stands back and says, “Yes, that’s finished” but in reality, I am a lot more hesitant. As the painting draws to an end, I have noticed the speed at which marks are added dramatically slows down. I know a painting is finished because the feeling I wanted to make visual is there in front of me, but I will still spend hours debating whether a thin, barely noticeable mark needs to stay or go. I think this is because a part of me enjoyed the journey and challenges of making the work so much that when I finally arrive at the finishing point there is a small feeling of attachment as well as relief.

LUX: Do you listen to music or podcasts while you paint?
Antonia Showering: I almost always listen to music – I find podcasts a little distracting. A song I have been binging on recently is called ‘Dance With Me’ by Deux.

abstract art

Antonia Showering, Be You, 2019. Photo © Choi and Lager

LUX: Who is your London peer group? You mentioned to me before that you have critiquing sessions?
Antonia Showering: I studied art in London for seven years and over that time, I have built lots of special friendships with other artists and people in the art world. Before the pandemic a few of us had a crit group where we would visit each other’s studios and talk about new work. The group included Sofia Mitsola, Emma Fineman, Patrick Jones, Alvin Ong and Kostas Sklaventis. It is important to have a space to discuss our practices in that way because it can be very isolating spending all day and night in the studio!

I have also been in a couple of shows put on by Max Prus with Jack Killick and Hannah Bays. There are a lot of exciting people making work in London right now and I’m glad to be a part of it. Katy Hessel has become a close friend of mine and she organised a residency in Italy at Palazzo Monti in 2018 with Flora Yukhnovich and Kate Dunn whose paintings I admire. I also love the work of Diane Chappalley, Ben Jamie, Laurence Owen and too many others to mention.

Find out more: antoniashowering.co.uk

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Rashid Johnson in the studio with a work from his series Anxious Red Paintings. Photograph by Sheree Hovsepian

Rashid Johnson is a cult superstar among contemporary artists, inexorably leading the cultural narrative. His wife Sheree Hovsepian, herself an acclaimed artist, photographs him for LUX at their New York home, while Millie Walton speaks with him about culture, identity and the future

Chicago-born artist Rashid Johnson is on his ‘daily constitutional’ around his neighbourhood in Long Island, New York where he lives with his wife Sheree Hovsepian (also an artist), and his son Julius. We’re speaking on the phone and occasionally, the whoosh of passing cars, birdsong and the artist’s breathing filter down through the speaker. As for many of us during lockdown, walking has become a vital addition to the artist’s daily routine that normally involves him being in the studio from 9am until 3pm.

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During those hours, Johnson says he is not always actively making art, but it is the time he commits to “laying [his] creativity bare… you can’t just wait for it to happen, you have to show up and work. I get a lot of joy from making art, and I say joy specifically because I don’t really know how to participate with happiness or what that is, but I also experience a lot of frustration and disappointment. All of those things feed into my project and why I’m doing it.”

artist portrait

Portrait of Rashid Johnson by Sheree Hovsepian

I wonder how this period of prolonged confinement, reduced travel and fewer physical exhibitions has affected him. “I feel like I’ve been crazy busy,” he says, “in both making artworks and doing a lot of talks and community engagement projects, but I’ve also spent a lot of time with family. I feel like I’ve learnt a lot from watching them so closely.”

Johnson is one of the most influential of contemporary American artists. He is a cult figure, in fact, among many collectors and others in the art world who see him as the voice of a generation and a commentator on the issues of race and social upheaval.

paintings and installation

From right to left: Untitled Anxious Audience (2016) detail; Fatherhood (2015) by Rashid Johnson. © Rashid Johnson and courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Johnson found early success following his inclusion at the age of 24 in the celebrated group exhibition ‘Freestyle’, at the Studio Museum in Harlem. His intimate portraits of homeless black men taken with a large-format camera immediately grabbed the attention of both the art world and the wider public. Since then, the 44-year-old artist has racked up an impressive list of solo museum shows and commissions, including a major project for the atrium at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow and, most recently, an installation at MoMA PS1 in New York entitled Stage (on view until autumn 2021), which comprises five microphones standing at different heights on a raised platform. There are references to protest and public oratory in this work, and also to hip-hop culture (a recurring influence on Johnson’s practice). The microphones are available for anyone to use; their words will be recorded, archived and, occasionally, broadcast via the museum’s website. The use of everyday objects is familiar Johnson territory, but the installation’s straightforward simplicity and direct call to action mark a new direction.

Read more: Artists to watch in 2021 – Arghavan Khosravi

As a black male artist, Johnson’s work is inevitably being seen in the context of the protests following the killing of George Floyd. This might risk an over-simplified or less nuanced interpretation of his work. When asked about this, he’s patient, self-analytical, and explains carefully his way of thinking. “[My work] is about how I identify and how I’ve grown in that identification – both realising when I should consider the collective nature of being a man, a black man, an American and a man in his forties, and also getting really granular with it: what are my obstacles? Which aspects of my life am I most interested in talking about? What are my character defects, and how do I start the process of unpacking some of those?”

mosaic and installation works

From right to left: Falling Man (2015); and Standing Broken Men (2020) by Rashid Johnson. © Rashid Johnson and courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Has he ever felt under pressure to make a certain type of art? “No, but I knew that when I made decisions they were going to be interpreted in a certain way,” he says. “Oftentimes, as an artist of colour, in particular a Black American artist, people imagine that the effects of racism and slavery and other oppressive aspects of our history reflect on me and my project in specific ways, but what I’m really interested in is how those more monolithic racial concerns are filtered through someone like me. I’m searching for autonomy, which I think, in some ways, is what every artist is searching for.”

artist portrait

Portrait by Sheree Hovsepian

This process of self-reflection has, for Johnson, largely been through various forms of abstraction – a build-up of spontaneous gesture, vibrant colour and embedded layers of symbolism – which, as Megan O’Grady points out in a recent article in The New York Times, aligns his practice with a new generation of black abstract painters such as Mark Bradford and Shinique Smith who are also making non-representational work in ‘defiance’ against traditionally narrow expectations of how their work should express black identity. “None of us want to be the representative of any kind of idea or concern,” Johnson continues, “and that’s not to suggest that I see the purpose of an artist as being an individual genius – I don’t subscribe to that concept at all – but I do see the artist as an individual living in the world and interpreting that world from a very specific location.”

Read more: How will the art industry change post-pandemic?

Inevitably, that location changes over time, and Johnson’s initial interest in the art world was that it might be “really exciting to be a filmmaker”. Arriving at Columbia College in Chicago, however, he found he had registered too late and all of the film classes were full. He ended up graduating with a BA in photography in 2000, and later, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he took up painting, sculpture, installation and film. His directorial debut, Native Son, released on HBO in 2019.

man standing inside sculpture

Photograph by Sheree Hovsepian

He has become known for his distinct visual language, which comprises specific, non-art materials that reflect his own experience as well as referencing history, literature and philosophy – subjects he was taught to deeply respect by his mother who was a poet and lecturer in African history. One of his most frequently recurring materials is shea butter, which he sometimes carves into dense, golden, bust-like forms that appear amongst leafy plants in his large-scale steel structures. “One day, I was putting it on whilst listening to the Tavis Smiley Show on the radio and I just thought to myself: this is it, the honest space,” he recalls. “It’s a material that I’m actually using in my life and on my body and it talks about Africanness, and displacement and healing and moisturising and utility.” Interestingly, the more recent additions to his ongoing Anxious Men series see the artist returning to more traditional materials (oil and linen) and consciously placing himself “within the discourse of art historical engagement”.

man on the beach at sunset

Photograph by Sheree Hovsepian

Ever since his Anxious Men made their first public appearance, coinciding with the initial rumblings of Donald Trump running for president, the wild, boxy characters, rendered in a scratchy, urgent style, have become the symbolic protagonists of the artist’s practice. But it is the Broken Men series (2020) that leave an even deeper impact. Monumental to the point of being intimidating in their scale, the works in this latest series comprise fractured mosaics of cartoon-like figures assembled from cracked ceramic and glass, scribbled over with paint, melted black soap and wax. Standing before them at Johnson’s solo exhibition ‘Waves’ at Hauser & Wirth in London at the end of 2020, I found myself struck by an allusion to the end of one era and the uncertain beginnings of the next. “We are now deconstructed, we will never be exactly the same,” Johnson agrees. “I’m not suggesting that the world wasn’t tragic and problematic prior to all of this, which of course it was, but this is my relationship to it now. We’re putting [the world] together again through a piecemeal process.”

With thanks to Maryam Eisler
For more information, visit: hauserwirth.com

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue alongside Rashid Johnson’s logo takeover.

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artist in the studio

Afshin Naghouni in his studio. Photograph by Maryam Eisler

Born in Iran, visual artist Afshin Naghouni immigrated to London in his mid-twenties where he began to establish a reputation for his imaginative and dynamic artworks that blur the lines between figurative and abstract. Ahead of his upcoming exhibition in January 2021, LUX contributing editor Maryam Eisler visits and photographs the artist in his London studio

Maryam Eisler: So right now, I’m looking at your self-portrait. It’s complex…
Afshin Naghouni: When you do a self-portrait, or any focus on configuration, you tend to go towards the physical features, making sure that it looks like it should do. The moment you go towards abstraction, it becomes about focusing on other things rather than the obvious. A lot of it is conscious or self-conscious. I think a self-portrait needs to be more accurate than straightforward representation.

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Maryam Eisler: Yes, I see very few cues about you in the physical sense. Is it difficult to define oneself?
Afshin Naghouni: It is if you think about it; I don’t think about it much. When I was doing it I just thought: this is me painting my inner being. I just splattered myself all over the canvas trying to think about what I am and most importantly what I am not!

Maryam Eisler: Yes, it looks like you splattered your guts! Talk to me about the reality of the last five months for you; this period of confinement and self-isolation. How have ‘Covidian times’ affected your mind, and your psyche ?
Afshin Naghouni: For me, the only direct consequence is that I have not been able to paint. Of course, I’ve doodled around at home, but nothing can replace the air in this place [the studio]. I just love it. Sometimes I don’t even paint; I just sit around, I listen to music and I breathe the air. So not being able to come to the studio for me was difficult. So what did I do instead? Well, I painted in my head, cut off from the outside world!

studio painting

Photograph by Maryam Eisler

Maryam Eisler: What do you mean by ‘painting in your head’?
Afshin Naghouni: It becomes a race between what I can bring into my head and what goes onto the canvas. My mind is always way ahead of me, and I am constantly trying to catch up. When it happens, it is exciting. because you can’t stop and it becomes more physical, the application and all that. The other thing that can happen, of course, is that you haven’t figured anything out and you just want to paint. It becomes a slur because you can be ahead of your thoughts on the canvas, and you need to come back, have a cigarette, have a coffee, and try to figure out what you are trying to do. They are both equally exciting and challenging. Well, not challenging; painting is not hard. The hardest thing is just trying to keep working, and stay motivated.

abstract painting

Untitled #6  (2017), mixed media on canvas 150×120 cm from Afshin Naghouni’s Nostalgia & Reminiscence series

Maryam Eisler: Have you managed to remain motivated during the last few months?
Afshin Naghouni: During this whole period, I have been desperate to work. I only went out for essentials for four months. My issue is that I like people. I am a social creature. I need to have human contact and connection, and a lot of it. So, not having been able to come here [into the studio], to work and see friends, has been very difficult.

Maryam Eisler: But has it also afforded you the gift of time?
Afshin Naghouni: I have had the time to slow down. To kind of bring together all my thoughts and to reflect on the things that are moving me forward. My struggles are more conceptual in nature. For example, I have never been a great fan of abstract painting and that is primarily because I have fundamental problems with modernism, and what it stands for in its essence.

Read more: Why do we act the worst with those we love the most?

Maryam Eisler: What are those problems?
Afshin Naghouni: I find modernism just like [Clement] Greenberg did: elitist, sexist, inaccessible. I am not saying that art has to be accessible, but today, I am personally focused on form, movement, rhythm and the attempt to breathe emotion into the canvas. In the past, I would start with abstract forms on the canvas and I would gradually work my way to make it representational. I think I am going backwards now. I find that reverse process interesting and exciting. I want to create overall compositions filled with life and energy, paintings that are visually engaging, playful and experimental.

I don’t care if it’s done before one way or another. We are at a point where not much is left undone. I pinch, borrow and steal from those before me, to make things work, to empty my guts on the canvas, and then I use my knowledge to polish it. I really don’t know if it’s any good and to be honest I’m too old to overthink it.

Maryam Eisler: Is that not part of the artist’s journey?
Afshin Naghouni: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and about why I’m doing what I’m doing – trying to make sense of it in my own head. The truth (whatever that is) is that I am sick and tired of identity-centred, self-obsessed art; art that sacrifices a great deal in order to cement the artist’s place as Middle Eastern, African, female, LGBTQ etc; art that identifies the person with everything under the sun, except for being an artist; art focused on addressing something seemingly so profound that it ceases to be art – all that self-obsessed, self-indulgent, pretentious pile of shit that crawls up gallery walls!

paintings in artist studio

Photograph by Maryam Eisler

Maryam Eisler: How about art-driven identity instead of identity-driven art?
Afshin Naghouni: Ah! The art market is such a precarious thing and it has been for such a long time. I do not pander to it much. You have to, first and foremost, please yourself, present yourself I guess. It takes courage to move in different directions and it takes conviction. The truth is that I get bored! I cannot sit down and do the same thing for years on end even if I know my collector base likes certain types of my paintings. I don’t want to leave any what ifs… So I am experimenting all the time.

Maryam Eisler: How many paintings do you trash?
Afshin Naghouni: [Laughs] I do not trash. I do not burn. I just put aside.

Maryam Eisler: Who amongst art historical figures has affected you the most?
Afshin Naghouni: Picasso.

Read more: Artnet’s Sophie Neuendorf’s guide to shopping for art online

Maryam Eisler: What is it about Picasso‘s work that appeals to you?
Afshin Naghouni: His carefreeness, I think.

Maryam Eisler: Is there one of his paintings in particular that comes to mind?
Afshin Naghouni: I will always be in love of his analytic period, but I am also very much enjoying the paintings he did of his lover Marie Therese around 1932-33. I love the freedom of application and the loose strokes, childish, free and sensuous at the same time.

Maryam Eisler: Who else inspires you?
Afshin Naghouni: [Anselm] Kiefer, Cecily Brown, Caravaggio.

Maryam Eisler: What is it about Kiefer’s work?
Afshin Naghouni: The sheer scale, and his ability to achieve such amazing compositions within that scale. He is one of those few artists who has found the perfect balance between form and concept.

abstract earthy painting

Nostalgia (2017), mixed media on canvas 160×200 cm from Afshin Naghouni’s Nostalgia & Reminiscence series

Maryam Eisler: Is that something you are striving for?
Afshin Naghouni: I am still trying to find that balance. Now I do not pay that much attention to concept any more; I focus on form instead. I find it exciting, it gives me energy to think about the things I want to do.

Maryam Eisler: What are you reading right now?
Afshin Naghouni: I am reading The Art of Creative Thinking by Rod Judkins. The author is a Central St Martins graduate. You do not have to be an artist to be creative. Everybody is born with creative genes. They just get suppressed by life events. I’m also reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, but it kind of depresses me.

Maryam Eisler: Why does it depress you?
Afshin Naghouni: The future that Hariri describes is not the kind of society I want to live in.

Maryam Eisler: Do you mean that you like humanity with all its flaws?
Afshin Naghouni: Yes, absolutely. I had this deep and heated conversation with a friend recently, who insisted that art and artists are going to become irrelevant, and that AI is going to create the very best art that art can ever be. But how is that possible? Until AI can get angry, can cry, can fall in love the way that we, as humans, can, it will surely never be able to surpass art created by human hands. Frankly, I would rather not be around when or if AI is ruling the world. It is often our human flaws that add greatness to any artwork.

abstract painting

Untitled #3 (2017), mixed media on canvas 160×200 cm from Afshin Naghouni’s Nostalgia & Reminiscence series

Maryam Eisler: Do you have an overall concept for your upcoming show in January?
Afshin Naghouni: I just want to paint between now and then the way I want to paint, free, without overthinking the process. If I only have five paintings by then, then that will be it.

Maryam Eisler: Talk to me about the courageous choice of colours in your paintings and the energy they exude.
Afshin Naghouni: Those who are familiar with my work know well that it never used to be this colourful. That’s why I say, I feel I have really rediscovered colour. I like and want to play, and if colour is the exciting dimension in the game, then let’s put it to work. I’m also a city boy. I like big cities with all the people that inhabit them. I am in love with London. It is a melting pot of cultures and that in itself is pure colour. The energy in this place is unique. I equally love the countryside, but after two weeks away, I need to return to urban colour.

Maryam Eisler: Finally, I want to talk to you about place. You mentioned that you love London, and urban life. What about the location of this particular studio [in Ladbroke Grove], and the connections that you’ve made with your local community?
Afshin Naghouni: It is amazing. First of all, in this line of arches here, there are mechanics, fashion designers, recording studios, different kinds of professionals working together, next to one another. I know them and they know me. It feels good. I like the walk from here to home and back. I never get tired of the route; everything about it offers me a colourful visual canvas of life in London. When I am going down the road, I just listen to the sounds that accompany me all along, and I feel the energy. I love everything about it. The community around here is also very strong; we try to make things work together all the time. We rely on one another. I really miss that interconnectivity.

Discover more of Afshin Naghouni’s artworks: afshinnaghouni.com
For more information on the artist’s upcoming show at HJ gallery in January 2021 visit: hjartgallery.com

Note: this interview was conducted prior to the UK lockdown in November 2020.

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Reading time: 10 min
artist studio
abstract artwork

Untitled drawing by Hugo Wilson made with charcoal, black chalk, sandpaper and a sanding machine, paper mounted on aluminium. Photograph by Maryam Eisler

London-based artist Hugo Wilson works with drawing, painting and sculpture, combining images and techniques from Old Masters with contemporary references to create dynamic, layered artworks. LUX contributing editor Maryam Eisler visits his studio to photograph him and discuss refining his practice, creativity in lockdown and finding artistic freedom
colour portrait of Maryam Eisler photographer and contributing LUX editor

Maryam Eisler

Maryam Eisler: Let’s talk about your surfaces.
Hugo Wilson: I think a lot of my work has been very clean in the sense that the surface is quite finished, and quite considered. Whilst I wasn’t particularly aiming for that, that is just how I work. People have said to me over the last few years, ‘You should be leaving thin bits… you should have thick bits…’ and that is fine, but there needs to be a good reason for it all. Just creating surface texture to please makes no sense to me. I am quite bloody minded. I am certainly not going to do something unless I think it is the right thing to do. But slowly, after five or six years, rubbing away has become a part of my practice. Re-painting has also become a part of it. In the case of these particular drawings, I have also pulled things out of seven or eight dark layers which are muddied or clashed to the point of a problem. Suddenly, a sanding machine seemed like the only option. What I realised is that textures were beginning to appear, but they appeared out of clean, conceptual ideas. That required intuition, that required pulling something out of a chaotic situation.

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Maryam Eisler: There is also great physicality and dynamism involved in your process. Would you agree that the paintings possibly represent a stamping of your own collective energy?
Hugo Wilson: Not consciously, but I think that any great work of art that I love has an honesty of intention, and an honesty of process to reach that intention. In the case of these works, I have, maybe, in a way, understood that my intention is less fixed than I had previously wanted it to be. In the past, I had a plan which I delivered, one way or another, but in this case what I’ve realised is that having a plan is almost pointless. So, creating works that are borne out of an obstacle course make perfect sense. These works also refer to many things, without ever holding a single position. Obviously, collective consciousness then has to come into play.

Man on chair

abstract drawing

Hugo Wilson (top), and one of the artist’s works in progress (below). Photographs by Maryam Eisler

Maryam Eisler: To me, it seems like you are referencing freedom?
Hugo Wilson: I feel freer today than I ever have felt. That is for sure. I think moving towards more confidence is what I’m doing do. I also think that a heart punch is far more powerful than a head punch.

Maryam Eisler: Less agonising over process?
Hugo Wilson: I think all artists have this immense problem when they walk into an empty room with an empty canvas or a piece of clay or a block of wood. So, we sort of have to have a strategy in order to start, but also, we need to remember to break the rules that we have imposed on ourselves and to trust in that process. It is hard because it requires dropping things that have worked whether that is making a successful work of art, or selling it, or being liked by curators. Just because you are an artist you are not immune from all that; I wish I was. This last year was really hard because I had success for the first time in my career, and then decided to suddenly throw a hand grenade into my own practice, but it got to the point that I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do it.

Read more: Diango Hernández’s disruptive Instagram art project

Maryam Eisler: Speaking of bombs, how has this COVID period affected your work?
Hugo Wilson: The last six months have been the best period of work that I have ever had, for two or three reasons. One, the imagined pressure of the art world sort of disappeared for a bit, which I liked. I also realised that I’m terribly untrendy. I think that what is going on in the art world may be a great thing, but the fact that I am not involved in it, is not something that I am bitter about. In a way, I have had to look at that and question ‘well, what does that mean?’ In my case it meant freedom, the freedom to truly know what you care about and want from this. And I think that the answer is to create something, that goes well beyond my own limits, consistently. It can be exhausting though.

sculpture and drawings

A collection of Wilson’s charcoal works and sculptures. Photograph by Maryam Eisler

Maryam Eisler: Would you say it’s also about personal evolution and revolution?
Hugo Wilson: I think last year was particularly difficult because I had given myself a year to change my practice. I thought, okay I shall only do one show, which was the Berlin show I did earlier this year, which actually ended up feeling and going much better than I thought it would. I also had to have my right lung removed. I have been sober for many years since my mid 20s, for a good reason! And suddenly I was on morphine… It was tough, much tougher than I thought it was going to be, because I am one of those lucky people who nearly crashed and burned young, but didn’t. Most of my adult life, however, I have felt pretty happy, no more or less unstable than most other people. And then suddenly, I was right back in the darkness again, mentally. It was very frightening. At the same time, I was sitting in an empty studio. You know, I sound posh. I sound like I have had advantages that actually I didn’t. I was on big scholarships and so on, but actually, I set myself against the world quite early on. I have always been very intolerant of the “hippy artist” and the idea of self-indulgence. As an artist, it’s natural that you experience bleak periods where you don’t like your own work, but you are going to have to keep going into the studio to make it happen. I had one of those periods, quite a long one, and I can tell you, it is hell.

abstract sculpture

An untitled glazed ceramic sculpture. Photograph by Maryam Eisler.

Maryam Eisler: Now you have come out of that darkness with these wonders, and you’ve almost cut out all the noise …
Hugo Wilson: I am using a 300-gram paper on aluminium. This stuff can take a real beating. I am also using sanding machines and spikes, maybe even fire one day.

Maryam Eisler: And yet, you are classically trained.
Hugo Wilson: I am very classically trained, within an inch of my life!

Read more: Loquet’s Sheherazade Goldsmith on sustainable jewellery design

Maryam Eisler: Can you tell me about your early days in Florence?
Hugo Wilson: I remember going on a school trip to Venice when I was fourteen. I was sitting in front of a Tintoretto and I nearly cried. Now, I understand that I was completely moved by the power of the image, but not one part of me thought I was going to become Catholic. I think, in a way, that the sort of silly, ambitious, quite stupid, young man just thought, ‘I am just going to fucking learn how to do that. He did it, why not me!’ The classical training was, by the way, extraordinary. It was a seventeenth century atelier. There was the master, and everyone who had been there longer than they could teach you, and it was amazing; we drew from plaster casts for a year, before we could draw a naked person, and only two years later, could we actually paint. I do not regret the training at all, but it was a very difficult thing to unpick. It was very addictive. The point is: I was interested in that language, and I learnt it.

artist studio

abstract sculpture

Hugo Wilson in his studio with charcoal works in progress (above) and an untitled bronze sculpture. Photographs by Maryam Eisler

Maryam Eisler: So, that old world story is in your DNA?
Hugo Wilson: I am an English man. The works I have seen throughout my life are from this tradition. Slowly, slowly I am getting far more interested in other traditions actually, like Japanese woodblocks for example. I have also always loved those medieval bronzes and the historical anomalies where you look at a bronze from the fourth century and then you look at a Japanese incense holder, and you realise that they are identical, and that idea is at the very core of my practice. That we don’t change. It doesn’t matter what colour you are, or what time in history you are from, we will create idols which speak to us viscerally. I am not really doing anything different. The advantage I have is the internet, two thousand years of art history available at my finger tips and the ability to compare and contrast, and initiate dialogues. Also, 200 years of psychology and human psychoanalysis, and the realisation that actually the human need to create is far more important to understand than what is actually being done.

Maryam Eisler: What inspires you today?
Hugo Wilson: I am far more interested in process than I have been for years. I’m also looking at artists like Auerbach and Kossoff. Lovely Bacon… sexy Francis! Physical Freud…I have equally realised that these intuitive works take a really long time to create. I know that sounds odd, but, in my case, it’s been twenty years of me in the making, from being classically trained to using a sanding machine!

Maryam Eisler: Why so long?
Hugo Wilson: The process is the reason why it took so long. I think I rather stupidly assumed and felt that these were big physical gestures done in a week, but no. I suppose growing older makes you relaxed. But did I trust the process even last year? No. And it was my wonderful panel maker, that called me and he said, ‘Hugo you have ordered ten panels last week, and I came into your studio and every single one of them has been painted on and then painted over. Are you okay?’ To which I said ‘I am not, actually!’  All of that feeds into what is happening now and the weird joy that I am experiencing. I am not often this joyful, trust me!

art studio

Artworks by Hugo Wilson. Photograph by Maryam Eisler.

Maryam Eisler: You seem able to seamlessly move across mediums. Your sculpture works in particular appear to be an extension of your paint brush, with a few ‘sculptural’ interventions.
Hugo Wilson: Yes, that is what I want. I think that, with these new sculptures particularly, I can be “brave” in a way that I would find trite if they were to be paintings. In a way, given that I have not had a formal training in sculpture, I feel I can be braver with it. I am taking an object and in a way re-contextualising it. Just like a scholar rock, but even a scholar rock is a ready-made. I think it talks about what I am interested in, which is the human need to make systemic ideology. Three thousand years of non-monotheistic history has been placed on these rocks. But, it’s a fucking rock! It is bonkers. These things are going in Christie’s for millions!

Even though I had classical training, I then did a very conceptual master’s degree at City & Guilds [of London Art School] and I had a brilliant tutor called Reece Jones. He was an absolutely wonderful man and a good artist. He was also an angry young man; he would punch me for saying that. Most importantly, he made me ask these questions before starting any artwork: Should this be an artwork? Should it be an artwork made by me? And if it should be an artwork made by me, what is the delivery? And in the case of these bronzes, they are far better than anything I could ever draw. I also like the surface which you really notice. I don’t want to talk about the history of sculpture at all. Hence, my choice of sand casted bronze with its non-finish look, like stone or wood. It is a finish which doesn’t hold any historical position, and that suits me.

Find out more: hugowilson.com
Follow Hugo Wilson on Instagram: @hugowilsonstudio

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Reading time: 11 min
Abstract painting in bleached colours
Portrait painting of a woman's face

‘Twenty Seventeen’ (2017), by Luc Tuymans, Pinault Collection

Favouring themes of conflict, violence and death, renowned Belgian painter Luc Tuymans fulfils the brief of brooding artist, yet his work is deeply layered and complex. With two major retrospectives on his work being held in Europe this year, Millie Walton meets the man behind the canvas
Painter Luc Tuymans in his studio

The artist in his Antwerp studio

Through a garage door and down a wide passageway: a man’s bleached face stares blankly ahead with large, piercing eyes. To the right, there are two more enormous pale faces. “These are dead people,” Luc Tuymans says of the series of three portraits hanging in his studio in Antwerp. They will soon be shipped off to form part of his upcoming show at De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art in the Netherlands, one of two major retrospectives this year. We sit on two sagging armchairs; there’s a small table between us with a cup of cold black coffee and in front of us, another much smaller painting of a ghostly, hooded figure tacked onto the wall with masking tape. It’s a present for the director of De Pont, Tuymans tells me, lighting up the first of many cigarettes. Apart from the paintings and a table stacked with paper and dried-up paint mounds, the studio is stark, almost blindingly white in the sunshine. A former laundrette, Tuymans bought it over ten years ago, having previously worked in a much smaller apartment, which looked “more like Francis Bacon’s studio”. This place, he says, is, “antiseptic, but it works well”.

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The Belgian artist famously completes most of his works in one day, giving the impression of a feverish outpouring of creativity, but really the works have been brewing for some time, often for months, before Tuymans applies paint to canvas. For him, the process begins with a careful curation of pre-existing imagery, drawings, Polaroids and photos he takes on his iPhone, or things he encounters online. He selects his source material according to its relevance and paintability, by which he means, “what kind of kick I can get out of it”. Considering that much of his subject matter is violent, morbid or at the very least, deeply cynical, we might consider these ‘kicks’ to be somewhat sadistic.

Painting of a target with blue centre

‘Disenchantment’ (1990), by Luc Tuymans, private collection

Right from the start of his 40-year career, Tuymans has been depicted by the media as the brooding artist, in part due to his intimidatingly large physical presence and flickering eyes, but also because of his ongoing fascination with the darker corners of European history and reluctant approach to beauty. Speaking of his current retrospective exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, he laughs growlingly at the idea that people might consider his paintings beautiful. In the press video for the show, he is depicted as a stereotypical villain lurking in dark alleyways and brandishing his paintbrushes as weapons. It says a lot that Tuymans himself made the short film.

Collage painting of a man wearing sunglasses

‘Die Zeit (pt 4/4)’ (1988), by Luc Tuymans, private collection

And yet, something in Tuymans tells you not to trust appearances. Just as his paintings may appear prosaic in their imagery, their significance is deeply layered. To view his work is to enter into a game in which you neither know the rules nor the aim. “You could actually see my work as the deep web, or the precursor of it,” says Tuymans with a slight smile, making it hard to gauge how seriously to take such statements. Nevertheless, his practice is certainly preoccupied with peripheries, hidden objects and meanings, things the ordinary eye would ignore or miss. There is a tension in his paintings between uncovering and disguising, remembering and disremembering. As with the series of cadaver portraits, his subjects often seem to be disappearing, fading from memory and simultaneously, clinging desperately to life.

Read more: The new age of Chinese ink art

Abstract painting in bleached colours

‘Allo! I’ (2012), by Luc Tuymans, private collection

“From very early on, my work was born out of an insane and very profound distrust of imagery,” he says, which is now especially relevant in the age of the digital image and mass reproduction – where the lines between originality and forgery are increasingly blurred. This distrust, in fact, was the reason Tuymans started painting as a teenager in the late 1970s, seeking a deliberate ‘regression’ by creating a work that had the appearance of another era and thus, developing a practice of so-called ‘authentic forgery’. However, this seems somewhat reductive to Tuymans’ intentionality, which is one of total disillusionment. Take, for example, the mosaic of pine trees that covers the floor in the entrance hall of Palazzo Grassi. Visitors might be forgiven for assuming it to be part of the Palazzo’s grand decoration rather than an act of wilful deception by Belgium’s most famous contemporary painter, who worked with an Italian firm to perfectly match the green marble to the existing floor colouring. Then there’s the fact that the mosaic is based on Tuymans’ iconic 1986 painting Schwarzheide, named after a Nazi labour camp where many inmates were worked to death. This seemingly picturesque cluster of pine trees represents the evergreens planted along the border of the camp to hide it from public view.

Abstract painting of flowers in a vase

‘Technicolor’ (2012), by Luc Tuymans, private collection

Portrait of a priest in bleached paints

‘München’ (2012), by Luc Tuymans, Pinault Collection

Encountering works such as these for the first time, how can we know or begin to understand their embedded contexts? “I am a big believer in not overestimating or underestimating the public,” says Tuymans. “I don’t believe in wall texts. You’re given a reader, which you can choose to look at whenever you like, but there is a point I’m trying to make in the experience through which you have a feeling of not just oblivion, but utter ignorance.” This comes from the fact that the exhibition at Palazzo Grassi, titled La Pelle after Curzio Malaparte’s book of the same name, is a retrospective show in one of the world’s most visited cities, so the audience being addressed is the wider public rather than art experts. Tuymans notes that many viewers may be drawn not by the art, but by a “certain kind of voyeurism to get into spaces such as the Palazzo”. He relishes the idea that the exhibition may disrupt their expectations, functioning as “a strong confrontation with the space”.

Read more: Photographer Viviane Sassen’s ‘Venus and Mercury’ at Frieze London

Installation shot of a painting in a grand gallery space

Installation from ‘La Pelle’, ‘Turtle’ (2007), by Luc Tuymans, private collection

Does he think of himself as a political painter, then? “No artist can be political because you can’t load up an artwork from the start, if you do, you’re just making propaganda,” says Tuymans. “But that doesn’t mean the work cannot have a political stance at a certain given moment.” Whether his paintings work or not, in his opinion, has a lot to do with the images that surround him. “I need an extreme tension when I paint,” he claims, also referring to the anxiety that he feels each time he approaches the blank canvas. There are conditions for his creative process: Thursdays and Fridays only (“because it’s the end of the week”), a clear head (“no drinking the night before”) and a sense of risk. “I think that fear of failure is very necessary,” he says. “Otherwise I may as well do a 9-to-5 job.” Of course, failure is a less painful prospect when you’re one of the world’s most respected painters. Now, Tuymans has the luxury of “throwing away” a painting when it’s not working, and by that he means literally into the bin. Antwerp residents, take note.

Abstract painting of a clown

‘Ballone’ (2017), by Luc Tuymans, private collection.

“Whenever I’m asked the question: why do you still paint?,” muses Tuymans, “the answer is always: because I’m not f*cking naive. Painting is a medium that works within its own proposition with time and it’s always had this inheritance of being an anachronism within that time, which has an appalling impact on your brain.” The impact he speaks of relates again to the multilayered aspect of his work, to the way in which he both draws from and mimics the past, while simultaneously and inevitably applying his contemporary, subjective perspective. It is this perspective, combined with the cultural context in which the work is viewed, that creates its relevance. So the significance of Tuymans’ paintings – as perhaps with all artworks – is continuously reforming. “I’m currently working on a two-year project with three scientists,” he says. “We’re going to put [my] work into algorithms. Not to make a painting with a computer, because that’s stupid, but to see what the signifiers mean in terms of language. Language is something that is always changing and the aim is to compare that to the anachronism of painting and to see what the outcome would be.” Admirers of his work will anticipate this next incarnation with interest.

This article was originally published in the Autumn 19 Issue.

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Reading time: 7 min
mixed medium ink painting with beige and black ink
Abstract figure painting in pink and black

‘Autumn’ (2019), Chloe Ho
.
Chinese ink and acrylic on cloth

Hong Kong-based artist Chloe Ho revives ancient techniques of Chinese ink painting with a contemporary perspective. Following the opening of her solo exhibition at 3812 Gallery London, we spoke to the artist about her creative environment, blending mediums and artistic dialogues

Woman standing in front of an abstract artwork

Artist Chloe Ho

1. Tell us about the concept for your current show Unconfined Illumination?

Unconfined Illumination really is reflective in many ways. The show speaks to my art that expresses deeper truths about ourselves, culture, nature and the human condition. It refers to my unencumbered expression that serves to both engage, entice and create a dialogue with the viewer. It also is a personal illumination of my inspirations, artistic influences and the id. It illuminates my connection both with East and West, ancient and contemporary. It celebrates the light of artistic freedom and observation.

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2. What’s it like exhibiting to a London-based audience?

To me art is universal and inclusive, a sort of common language that transcends time and place. I create my art based on our place in the universe drawing on common connections, identities, experiences and the natural world. London viewers, like all true art lovers, have certainly been wonderfully receptive, engaged, communicative, knowledgable and insightful. I have greatly enjoyed exhibiting here.

3. Do you need a particular environment to create?

I primarily paint in Hong Kong where I have my studio. It’s the most wonderful space for me because it holds the shadows of work competed and promise of work to come. I have also painted in many places around the world from Beijing to California. I really believe the creative environment is an extension of the artist – the energy, the sensibility, the light, colours, chaos or order. Like a blank canvas, no matter where, it quickly fills with every aspect of the painting life and facilitates the art.

mixed medium ink painting with beige and black ink

‘Lion Fish’, Chloe Ho. Chinese ink, coffee and acrylic ink on paper.

4. What made you decide to combine mediums such as ink and coffee?

To me, the combining of mediums better allows for unconfined expression. I am more able to create and express what I want to show in my images.

Of course, I always preserve the tradition of ink painting, but it is important to make my art a personal and contemporary expression of my aesthetic. For example, I chose coffee because it lent a certain modern energy and earthiness to my paintings, recalling in a modern way the elements of Shan Shui as in Lion Fish. While my ink flows, spray paint and acrylics gave me a more complex level of image such as In the Current. Even expression through technological manipulation of dimension from two dimensional paintings to sculptural pieces and VR are an interesting way to extend my images.

Read more: Richard Mille’s Alpine athletes Alexis Pinturault & Ester Ledecká

5. Some of your works seem to be directly responding to other artists, such as Tracey Emin and Pablo Picasso. Do you see your practice as a form of dialogue?

Yes, absolutely I think art is a dialogue between the viewers and the artist, the present and the past, the artist’s idea and reality. This is what makes art familiar yet new, inclusive, challenging, connected and connecting. The dialogue between art, artists and viewers is much like quasars – they bombard us – they emit massive amounts of energy and are integral to the expansion and merging of galaxies – of art. I am bombarded by the blues of Yves Klein, Picasso’s remarkable placement of line, the sheer bold and demanding quality of Tracy Emin, the abstract power and rolling colours of Pollock, the brilliant ink brush of Zhang Daqain to name a few.

Ink painting showing a figure in blue and black

‘In the Current I’, Chloe Ho. Chinese ink, coffee, spray paint, acrylic ink on paper.

6. What inspires you to start a new series?

I actually see my work as an ongoing image even within any series of paintings. Each of my works connects and continues my visual story in some way. As the subjects or presentation changes, it reflects my newly realised truths about life, about beauty, about art.

Unconfined Illumination includes two of my most recent Four Seasons Series on fabric: Summer and Autumn. I was inspired by the long tradition of painting on fabric, not only in ink, but throughout the history of art. Fabric is both painterly and sculptural. Its movement creates new angles and dimensions and adds a tactile dimension to the art. It flows visually and envelops the viewer because of its very nature. The women’s figures and colour choices were part of my continuing artistic dialogue about changing psychology, physiology and nature. The transitions of the seasons reflect the blooming and fading on a macro and personal level.

‘Unconfined Illumination’ by Chloe Ho runs until 15 November 2019 at 3812 Gallery London. For more information visit: 3812gallery.com

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Reading time: 4 min
Coloured paper cutouts scattered on a wooden floor
Coloured paper cutouts scattered on a wooden floor

‘Atelier’ (2014). Thomas Demand.

German photographer Thomas Demand has become celebrated for his compelling, sometimes shocking, abstract recreations of the everyday. He talks to Anna Wallace-Thompson about the homogenization of our worlds, finding power in the banal, and Saddam Hussein’s kitchen.
Portrait photograph of a man wearing a white shirt and glasses

Thomas Demand

There’s a particular moment of calm – let’s call it suspended time – when things have settled down while still retaining the memory of the movement that filled them a split second before. Think of the moment when that last dust mote finally settled after drifting down a shaft of light, or the ghostly echoes of the last flutter of a piece of paper as it relaxes into place. Or when you don’t know if the door just slammed shut or is about to burst open. Or sensing the presence of people only through their absence. That’s the moment German photographer Thomas Demand is interested in.

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In fact, at first glance, Demand’s photographs appear simply to be snaps of ordinary places, unremarkable for their sameness, from half-empty supermarket shelves to a bath awaiting its occupant. (This is something that struck him about modern urban spaces, particularly when he first arrived in the US.) Yet, these seemingly humble snaps of everyday situations have earned him a place in the collections of international institutions such as the Guggenheim and MoMA. At auction, his works have sold for more than $100,000 at Christie’s, and he was included in the sale of Mario Testino’s personal collection at Sotheby’s, alongside luminaries such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman.

Close up photograph of pale pink blossom against a blue sky

‘Hanami’ (2014). Thomas Demand

So what is it about these seemingly everyday snaps that has everybody so hooked? Well, further examination reveals each portrait to be a meticulously built paper recreation. Yes, paper. Working in often quite large dimensions, Demand reconstructs the most complex real- life scenarios out of the humblest of materials. They are perfect – or rather, perfectly imperfect, for at the heart of Demand’s work is an interest in the world as a filtered rendering – that is, the paradox of examining past moments through the lens of the present – and even then, through a canny reconstruction of that original moment. “Perfection and beauty are very often seen as interchangeable,” says Demand. “However, if something is too perfect, then it becomes sterile.” And so, working from found photographs of banal scenes (be they supermarket aisles, hotel rooms or office interiors), Demand meticulously reconstructs these tableaux out of paper – warts and all. It is these sculptural paper sets – often quite large in scale – that he then photographs, imbuing the finished image with such an uncanny realism that the eye is often fooled into believing it is looking at the ‘real deal’.

Stacks of folders photographed against a red and white background

‘Folders’ (2017)

“What I have been doing over the years is replacing the time frame of the [original] photograph with another time frame, which is no less a point in time,” explains Demand when we speak. “The original scenario in the media photograph may no longer be there to look at – although it may be from an event that is still in our short or long-term memory, depending on when it was taken. What I suppose you can see in my work is a paradox of time standing still that is both my own fragile paper construction (complete with all the little imperfections and details of ‘reality’) as much as it is a memory of the moment captured in the original photograph.” The sense of transience in Demand’s work is further compounded by the fact that he often discards the sculpture itself (and, in fact, originally began photographing them purely for the purposes of documentation).

Photograph of abstract bright geometric colours

‘Rainbow’ (2018)

In person, Demand is more tidy professor than wild-child artist, his neatly trimmed hair and beard perfectly in sync with his nifty vest and jacket. Get him talking, however, and you can almost hear the thoughts galloping inside his head. When he gets going, he talks a mile a minute, as if the thoughts inside him were moving faster than his ability to articulate them. They tumble out almost in a stream of consciousness, except just when you think he might be going off on a tangent, like a master conductor, Demand deftly brings all the threads together, eloquently and precisely articulating his point.His powers of observation, too, are key to the vision behind the work. Growing up in Munich in the 1960s and 70s, it was when Demand visited the GDR that he first began to pay attention to the power of mass production (or, in the case of the GDR, the lack thereof), and Warhol’s Brillo boxes, for example, remain a key influence: “I grew up in Munich, which is in West Germany, which had plenty of everything.”

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As a young artist, travels and study followed – Düsseldorf, Paris, and Goldsmiths in London – as well as the US (he is now based in both LA and Berlin). During this time he began to notice what he refers to as global “homogenization” – a hospital ward in one part of the world looks very much like it does anywhere else, for example, and, with our mass-produced products – be they Nike trainers or even the Tupperware found in Saddam Hussein’s kitchen – we are more united than we think. “When they found Saddam, and showed the photographs, there were so many remarkably recognisable objects,” says Demand. “In one way, it’s the devil’s lair, but in another, it’s possible to see it in parts as your own kitchen. Maybe it’s a little dirtier, but he had the same objects as you and me.” The resulting work – Küche/Kitchen (2004) – could truly be a picture of a kitchen anywhere. “It’s funny how far objects circulate worldwide: you look at photographs of upheavals in Africa and people are wearing the T-shirts of a local bank in Texas, or plastic sandals made in China and marketed in California can end up in Ethiopia. I am fascinated by how the everyday links us to other cultures, from the pervasive blue computer screens that illuminate of office buildings out of hours, or the industrial slickness of an airport.”

Photograph of a small silver gas cooker and kitchen

‘Küche/ Kitchen’ (2004)

Window blind photographed

‘Daily #16’ (2011)

As well as the tableaux of media images that he is known for, Demand has experimented with more intimate scenes familiar to social media. The ongoing ‘Dailies’ series begun in 2008 features an ashtray, a plastic cup shoved into a chain link fence, or even a leaf about to fall through a sewer grate. “I was looking at doing something shorter and easier,” he says. “We all have cell phones in our pockets, and the images being circulated are now private photos – subjective little notes that might not make the news, but are still a form of communication and a culture in itself.”

Read more: In conversation with Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson

These ‘smaller’ works also offer a welcome break from larger and more ambitious set- ups. “In a good year I can make five works, but in a bad one just one,” sighs Demand. “Also, working occasionally with a team of 30 people means that if you’re two months into a particular set up, it’s too late to stop, so you keep going until it works, there’s no way around it.” For example, the work Lichtung/ Clearing Demand created for the 2003 edition of the Venice Biennale took months to get just right due to it being displayed en plein air, and therefore needed to be in some harmony with its verdant surroundings, the challenge being that the Venetian foliage kept changing with the seasons while the image was being built.

Coffee cup wedged in a wire fence

‘Daily #15’ (2011)

They leave things open – can you imagine how they might they be reused for something else?” This is particularly evident in pieces such as Rainbow (2018), part of ‘Model Studies’, in which abstract circular shapes in a range of yellows, oranges and reds hint at the full potential of the building they might perhaps one day have been, yet also present themselves as abstract colourscapes.

Most recently, Demand has had a major monograph published. The Complete Papers presents a survey of his work over three decades, and proved to be both a challenge as well as something of an eye opener, as he was able to see an evolution in his work that he had never noticed before. “I thought I was pretty organised, but it turns out there were so many pieces I’d forgotten about – and now that the book is out, there are so many more pieces I realise I would still need to add,” he laughs. “I can see that my work, since the beginning, has been moving slowly towards abstraction, though photography and abstraction can be a bit of a bad marriage in that photography, by its very nature, is figurative.” So what’s the endgame? “If my work were to become too abstract then it would all become a pointless exercise. To be something, the image has to stay on the very edge of nearly becoming something.”

Find out more: thomasdemand.info

This article was originally published in the Summer 19 Issue.

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Reading time: 8 min
Large horizontal drawing of hybrid characters dancing on a table
Large horizontal drawing of hybrid characters dancing on a table

ruby onyinyechi amanze’s ‘Without a Care in the Galaxy, we Danced on Galaxies (or Red Sand with that Different Kind of Sky) with Ghosts of your Fatherland Keeping Watch’ (2015). Deutsche Bank Collection

Nigerian-born, US-based ruby onyinyechi amanze, the official artist of 2019’s Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounge at Frieze New York, is exploring new realms of drawing, as she explains to Clint McLean

DEUTSCHE BANK WEALTH MANAGEMENT x LUX

Monochrome portrait of contemporary artist ruby onyinyechi amanze

The artist ruby onyinyechi amanze

Picture a landscape without earth, sky or horizon and then dance a motley crew of aliens across the naked expanse. Arrange things such as birds, motorcycles and fragments of architecture around the figures as though musical notes on a staff. If this can be done with a light enough touch, the resulting image may be something like the drawings of ruby onyinyechi amanze.

The 36-year-old Nigerian-born artist, whose output is primarily drawings and works on paper, has become best known for a body of work she refers to as ‘aliens, hybrids and ghosts’. These sometimes large-scale pencil drawings, enhanced with ink, acrylic and photo transfers, depict strange hybrid creatures, often part-human and part-creature, in unexplained narratives.

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Before moving to the US in the mid- 1990s, amanze (who prefers to have her name all in lowercase) spent her childhood in the UK, but she prefers to avoid geographical and national identifiers. “None of them feel quite right,” she tells me from her home in Philadelphia. “Too vague? Too simple? Missing the nuance?” This post- national thinking is central to the direction her work took in 2012 while she was living in Nigeria, thanks in part to a Fulbright Scholarship. That was when amanze developed the cast of characters that helped her explore how she felt alien in a place that was both familiar and foreign. “I was going between those two extremes and wanted to look at that through the lens of these other beings and not as a self-portrait,” she explains. Her first character, Ada, was an electric-yellow doppelganger; she was followed by Audre, a leopard-headed figure presenting as male. Others – Pigeon, Twin and Merman – appeared over the following months.

These characters have continued from that 2012–13 body of work into the dream worlds of amanze’s recent drawings, which she says are now more about space. On smooth, heavy cotton paper, the characters are enveloped by white expanses, yet this absence has a presence. Her alien characters help sculpt and define that space, but are now subordinate to it.

Large scale hanging drawing of magical creatures by ruby onyinyechi amanze

‘The Gap [and the beams of sun, special ordered on our behalf]’ (2017). Image courtesy of the artist and the Goodman Gallery

LUX: Where is home for you?
ruby onyinyechi amanze: Home can be many different places and not just geographical ones with borders and points on a map. There can be mental, emotional and spiritual kinds of places that you can go back and forth between very easily. All of them can collide and you can live in all spaces at once. But geographically I call Philadelphia home, I call Brooklyn home, and though I haven’t actually lived in London, I call London home, and I call Lagos home.

LUX: Do you still feel alien in these places?
ruby onyinyechi amanze: Yes, definitely, and that’s why I connect more with other people who move between worlds in a way that feels similar to me. I identify with those people and that energy and view those in- between worlds as their own country and space. So yes, I do feel like an alien in many places I find myself. I meet other aliens who identify in similar ways and there’s a shared connection there for people who have this sort of relationship to place.

Read more: Curator Zoe Whitley on the art of collaboration

LUX: Your work seems to have four ‘characters’: the aliens, space, paper and drawing.
ruby onyinyechi amanze: I think that’s accurate. If I was to put them into hierarchical order, then the figures would be the least important. They were once, but now they’re not and may drop out of future drawings altogether. There are some current smaller drawings that do not have these figures and in fact the chapter of drawings before this body of work were all abstract.

Drawing of an abstract swimmer crouched over in a diving position

‘Don’t Stay’ (2018). Image courtesy of the artist and the Goodman Gallery

LUX: Will you be exploring this new approach to drawing in your work at Frieze?
ruby onyinyechi amanze: When I started this particular body of work, the development of the hybrid nature of some of the beings that inhabit the space was certainly much more central to what I was thinking about. But I think at this point my interest is much more in the space itself and in playing – that’s very important to me. There’s something magical in the drawing process and in the larger context of how one can move through space. Also, on the paper plane, to be able to move and push and pull and create entrances and windows and alleyways and all of these things that suggest the space, is the meat of the work and less an issue about a mix of cultures – although that stays as a founding root of it. I had a show in 2018 with Goodman Gallery in Cape Town entitled ‘there are even moonbeams we can unfold’. There were some new pieces that were shown there for the first time and a few pieces that came off the wall or interacted with the architecture. I’m interested now in works that are sculptural in some way, so that is a part of the work at the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounge. I want the works in one way or another to have weight to them.

Read more: Sarah Morris’ architectural explorations at the White Cube, London

LUX: What was the catalyst for moving into sculptural paper?
ruby onyinyechi amanze: It’s the point in the work and my studio practice that feels like the most ‘alive’ part of the process right now – discovering ways that paper can hold physical weight and have a presence in the space it’s in and can physically engage with the viewer and/or with the architecture. That comes from what happens inside the drawings: moving through spaces and spaces colliding and planes and all of those things, and to allow the drawn world to become three-dimensional. The two-dimensional space of the paper has never emotionally or spiritually felt flat to me. I enter it in some weird way and am approaching it from that perspective.

ruby onyinyechi amanze's drawing of an abstract figure crouched in a diving pose against a pale pink background

‘I was never really there’ (2018). Image courtesy of the artist and the Goodman Gallery

Abstract drawing by contemporary artist ruby onyinyechi amanze

‘Canopies, Lungs and Effervescence’ (2018). Image courtesy of the artist and the Goodman Gallery

LUX: Tell us about your love of paper?
ruby onyinyechi amanze: I find it to be very beautiful as a material. It’s so rich in its history and in its simplicity. To think about the process and history of paper as a whole, the history of this specific piece of paper – and I can now embed additional narratives and marks in it. Yet it came to me with so much embedded subtly into the fibers already. I appreciate subtlety and think it’s poetic. There’s a lot of raw potential in what you can do to further manipulate this material. It can take many forms and all of those things excite me.

LUX: You lie on top of your drawings when you are creating them and leave marks on them. Do these add to the artwork?
ruby onyinyechi amanze: Yes, always. Paper is already imperfect when it comes to me. It’s already scarred in some way. So additional scars are part of its story and part of its history. Paper is like skin. It holds the memory of these things whether they are visible or not.

A selection of new works by ruby onyinyechi amanze will be on display in the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounge at Frieze New York on May 1–5, 2019, presented in collaboration with Deutsche Bank’s Art, Culture & Sports division.

This article first appeared in the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management x LUX supplement inside the Summer 19 Issue

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Reading time: 7 min