Henning Strassburger

Henning Strassburger Interview - By Steven Cox

Steven Cox: Let’s open up our interview by discussing your past and when you first got into making art. Would you say you had a creative childhood? When did you decide that you wanted to make ‘art’ and attend art school?

Henning Strassburger: You know, I don’t believe in the ‘becoming an artist discovery’ stories. They are all a lie, or somehow all the same. Some artists were talented as children, some weren’t. I could tell a story about my so-called ‘creative talent’ as a child and how attractive it was to get credits for it. But hey, I wasn’t born as an artist. I just didn’t give up. That’s the point!

SC: I don’t necessarily believe in such stories either, though it would be interesting to hear what sparked a keen interest to pursue art related subjects more seriously than others…

HS: Ok, I could always draw pretty well, so I was a ‘talented’ kid. I wanted to be a comic drawer and started selling my drawings and little zines in school from early on. I lost interest in school at a certain point and it was nicer to hang with the punks in the back row of math classes and watch them tattooing themselves with some ink and the needle of a compass. I wasn’t part of it, though it attracted me. One day when I was about 15, I was called to the school director because teachers thought that I had plans to publish mean caricatures of them in the yearbook, which I wasn’t intending to do. Crazy, the power of a drawing.

At this time, a person who was really important to me was the father of a classmate who was a painting professor at the university. I begged him to have me work for him. I loved the smell of paint, his dark studio, nude-photographs of his wife (my friends mother!) lying around and how he let me into this art-world. It was not my friend’s mother anymore, she was a nude model! How exciting, how art changes things into its own context. That caught me.

SC: Going back a little, I am curious to know about your early works. Whilst studying at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, what were your paintings like during these years of studying? Did you explore figuration or were you mainly interested in abstraction? Similarly, were you exploring video work at the time?

HS: I hadn’t done video at all whilst I was a student. And I still wouldn’t say that I make ‘videos’. Yes, I am filming once in a while, but video art is something different I guess. And well, I had a great time at the Kunstakademie and the other art schools I attended before. I painted figures and painted abstract, some were good, and most were bad. Maybe really bad – or let’s say brilliant!

SC: Can you tell me about your first screened video work?

HS: I think my first screened video was a recording from an off space opening in Berlin 2008, that was packed as hell – and I had entered with a complete marching band on top. I was dressed up as a captain in a white uniform. There was really no space for playing instruments, but we did, no matter what, and my gestures as the conductor looked like painting gestures. It turned into a wild party.

I displayed this together with paintings in my MFA show later. But I’m not sure if I should call it video-work either…more so documentation.

SC: I am also really curious about the early ‘emo-paintings’ you created, can you tell me about these works and how they formed or developed your approach to painting?

HS: Holy shit, you are asking questions! That’s a while ago!

I think I was seeking for certain youth cultures by questioning their radical attitude. I found images against emos, which was funny, because they are the least aggressive movement of all and how people hate them for that. I am not sure if some of the paintings have survived.

SC: Tell me a little bit about your current studio and working routine. What is your studio like? Do you try to have set hours of being in your studio? Do you live close by your studio?

HS: My studios are always too small and unattractive. I am so super lazy in searching; I always take the first offer. I just rented a new one last summer, which is across the street from my apartment building. It’s a former apartment and on the 3rd floor. Shippers hate me - it is hell to get the large paintings down the staircase!

I try to be in the studio everyday by 10ish, I listen to music, prepare useless things and make phone calls and hope for people to ask me out for lunch or coffee. I stay till 6 afterwards. Somehow I manage to paint in this time frame.

SC: Your more recent approach to painting explores the CMYK palette, which simultaneously comments on the translation and viewing of painting in the digital realm, via smartphones, touchpads and laptops etc. I find this interesting, for the conscious digitalization of artwork plays a key role in the physical making of your works. Are you consciously thinking about which colours will be most vibrant and ‘punchy’ when viewed through a computer or phone screen? I find that this is perhaps an approach to managing colours that designers take when creating graphic work?

HS: The fun thing is, it appears like such thing, but the reality is, my paintings look really bad on screen. So I guess once you start fighting the digital space with it’s own weapons, it can’t follow. I like that. I have no deeper interest in certain colour modes, nor am I really interested in digitalism. I am just aware of the conditions for a painting. I guess I am at the lower end of painters who deal with such digitalism. I just don’t ignore it. In the end, I truly believe that a painting needs dirt. Real physical dirt.

SC: Let’s discuss some of your past titles, for I am aware that works have taken their titles through the adoption of quotes or tag lines found in trash magazines, such as ‘1€Oops’. Do you aim to build connections between your works and phrases found in such magazines solely to create accessible entry points into your works?  Tell me a little about your thinking process when titling your works.

HS: Mhhh a painting is only as good as its title – that’s not true haha but there’s some truth in it. You know, I try to be very precise with my titles; I collect them from different sources as magazines or conversations. I mix them up possibly and let them grow. Sometimes in the same tempo as the painting itself, sometimes slower, sometimes faster. But a painting needs the perfect title.

You mentioned the “1€Oops” painting: I had just finished one that looked exactly the way I was searching for. I had to cut and destroy maybe 10 other paintings afterwards, because that one was the most precise one. I thought it was like the front page of a magazine. And by coincidence I just had bought the French magazine “Oops” for 1€ at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. It was lying on the floor, the pairing was unavoidable.

SC: You have a painting titled “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal”, which interestingly shares it’s title with a literary publication that explores the governing of industrial and global corporate food systems. The publication itself highlights, comments upon and opens the eyes of the reader to the issues surrounding mass food systems, which effectively breaks down and slowly destroys locally produced food systems. The reason why I bring this up is because of your performance / live reading of an excerpt from your novel ‘High’, where you repeat “THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY”. What is your positioning on this subject, and to what extent do you find this concept relational to the art world?

HS: Yes I love this title! It sounds super personal, but in the end, it just covers a gesture, which is not deeper than a nicely composed Vice-Magazine-Blog-pic: Sounds rough, but couldn’t care less. In this way it is pretty interesting that it seems to be connected to this food industry critique that you are talking about. I wrote some passages in my novel “HIGH” about it too – not that I am a food activist or something, but it is just interesting to see, how little we all think about how the world goes, as long as we have our small satisfying lives.

I have an example: We all enjoy the food in the airplane and pretend not to know how much waste we produce with one lap-lunch up in the sky. But then, we actually are aware! We try to hide all the trash by folding it, pushing it all into one of the plastic glasses, staple it, making innocent faces and are relieved when the flight stewardess happily takes our trash and just throws it into one big bag. “Thank god, she wasn’t angry about all the fucking trash I had given her! Life is great, let’s go on like this!”

The reading-performance dealt with a part of the book, where a father (actually the father of a friend of mine, who is an art writer) gives his son some advice while sitting in a hot tub. He says: “Think locally, act globally” but the son answers: “Think globally, act globally”. He wants it better, faster, higher and even more globally! But it’s meaningless in the end. That’s why I tried to shout it as angrily as I could during the performance. I threw the megaphone on the floor and the cheap plastic made it smash instantly, but I had thrown it in front of the feet of the cities mayor. I could call it by accident, but well, maybe…

SC: Was there much of a discussion after this reading-performance? Particularly, how did the mayor respond?

HS: There was not much of a discussion – people were entertained and finished their glass of wine, went home and fell asleep being happy about an opening, where they didn’t have to only look at paintings. This is how it goes; it’s like watching TV. The mayor was happy too, because he was the ‘cool’ guy having a connection to the art world afterwards. My friends and I ended up dancing all night long in a lesbian bar in this picturesque little city in northern Germany, that was fun!

SC: Furthermore, can you tell me more about your novel High?

HS: The whole novel is basically a road trip. Two rich kids, boy and girl, just leave home with a stolen car, drive through the country, fuck with each other, tell their stories, meet others and know that their lives are meaningless, a projection of society, and that their souls are pretty empty, the style is like a mix of both The Catcher In The Rye and Less Than Zero.

They finally kill someone on a yacht – this chapter is just a description of the real crime that actor Christopher Walken is entangled to. I described it as a Gerhard Richter painting. And not to forget: all the turns in the story always happen at a poolside.

SC: Your recent exhibition Pool at Sies + Hoeke Galerie, Düsseldorf was a mix of paintings, ladder sculptures, video work and a large-scale magazine like spread.  Let’s begin by discussing this series of large abstract paintings, for it is interesting that these works were perhaps the most complex and technically diverse works that you had created to that date. Would you say that these works were breakthrough for you?

HS: The idea for the show was so interesting painterly wise, that it turned into some really nice works. You know, when you give a body of abstract painting an overall theme, they change their behavior. They push really hard into the realm of representation, and that’s lots of fun, working with or against the flow. This flow pushed me towards the sculptures, or let’s call them objects, and also the pool video. I shot it in Miami Beach during the art fair last year, it was rad having lots of friends in town and asking them to be part of the film. I had no clue what to do, it all happened, a pool, one had a drone, some sexy girls… and the film was done.

But I wouldn’t say it was a breakthrough, I always work in this way. The gallery was just big enough to make it complex and to show it all on three floors.

SC: Your video/performance work ‘I Like My Style’ comments upon the embracement of ones own style, though interestingly there was a magazine called I Like My Style Quarterly which was a user-generated fashion magazine which simultaneously branded itself as a social-network. Were you conscious of this magazine at the time?

HS: No I wasn’t. Or at least it wasn’t inspiring for the video. But now that you mention it, I think I remember this magazine-blog from 2011 maybe. Does it still exist? But interesting to see, how in the end the right cross-connections make their way...

I had just finished a trilogy of music videos that I had started in 2009, the final video was the “I like my style” video. The whole song and video is just a big pose. The text is nonsense. Later, it turned out that I had lost all the music rights for my own songs after my ‘producer’ had copyrighted them for himself to use it as DJ kicks or something. But I have made these super nice videos for it that were kind of popular for some time. I took them off YouTube to avoid a lawsuit, but people still ask me about them. It’s more a rumor now that they’ve ever existed. You can only find one live video from the Art Cologne After show-Party of 2012 where I was super drunk and the whole performing thing was an angry pose. I guess it was a good statement.

SC: Your works are a collage of painterly techniques, featuring rollers, stencils, splashing’s, spray paint, charcoal, drips, gestural marks, scratches, smears and loose illustrative drawings. Through the combination of such varied effects, a visual energy is created that physically pushes and pulls the viewer into and around the surfaces of your works. The variety of contrasting makes a work successful, can you tell me about what you feel makes a successful work, and what makes a failed work?

HS: I personally have no real criteria what a successful painting is, I can just describe it in a way, that when a voice in my head tells me “Take your goddamn hands off that painting” the painting is ready. It turns into something else; it’s not mine anymore. In my case, the good paintings usually happen faster.

SC: What do you like and dislike about your own work?

HS: Well I guess I have no catchy-trendy-trademark-thing in my work. I like and dislike that equally. Makes it more complicated without.

SC: What role does music play within your studio?

HS: Frankly I just turn on the radio. Nothing specific most of the time. Recently I sometimes listen to Michael Jackson, whom I’ve never liked before…but it’s great for stupid dance moves in front of the canvas.

SC: Are you at a stage where you would consider assistants? What are your thoughts on having assistants in the studio?

HS: Having an assistant would mean to follow the hungry market structures – remember the globally globally, faster faster, bigger bigger thing? Fuck studio assistants, they are the fashion items of our generation! “Shines bright like a diamond”!

SC: Are there any specific artists that you would say have been inspirational to you?

HS: In museums I am always searching for “The Bonnard”. There’s always one, mostly hidden somewhere in the dark corner to not disturb the big Matisse. But the Bonnard is the candy. His paintings are beautiful, dirty and ugly at the same time.   I also love seeing the work of Robert Rauschenberg. I’m not sure if that’s cool.

SC: To what extent does research play within the making and planning of new work?

HS: Research is the biggest part. The better the research was, the better and faster the paintings. I am kind of lazy as a painter, I don’t wan to spend hours and hours sitting in front of a canvas and not knowing what to do. I literally want to open the studio door, change clothes, turn on the music, paint the painting and then leave for a cocktail.

SC: You have an up-coming exhibition at Annarumma Gallery, Naples in May. Can you tell me about what you will be presenting?

HS: I guess six midsize paintings. The title of the show is “Biographical paintings of Love and Hate”. I want it to be a silent show, no performances and no installations. The plan is to head over with my crew in nicely tailored suits, enjoy the Naples Mafia vibes, present beautiful paintings and then leave for some days off in Capri.

SC: Are there any projects that you have in mind that you would like to produce, though have not had the opportunity to do so yet?

HS: I don’t want to think this way. If I want to do something, I get it done. I don’t have to wait for the future. The future is always the next second.


Images courtesy of Henning Strassburger, Sies + HökeSoy Capitán and Oldenburger-Kunstverein

Henning Strassburger - Reading of HIGH 

Henning Strassbuger