Tom Anholt

Tom Anholt in dialogue with Steven Cox

Steven Cox: Can you tell me a little about yourself and your background? Are you working full-time in your studio?

Tom Anholt: Hi Steven. I was born in 1987 in the UK; I grew up in Dorset and moved to London to study. After finishing I moved to Berlin where I have lived ever since. I come from a family of artists; both my Mum and Dad painted but made their living from writing children’s books. More recently my mum is back painting and my dad has just had his first novel published.

Yes, I’m very happy to be working full time in my studio. I had side jobs for many years. When I first moved to Berlin I was mostly doing house renovations to fund my habit.

SC: I am curious if you have a daily working routine? Do you have any morning rituals or habits that contribute towards a productive day within the studio?

TA: I’ve stopped taking photographs of my paintings in progress. When I first see what I’m working on in the morning, I have a split second of absolute objective clarity before it gets too muddled and emotional. I walk in first thing, take off my jacket, make a coffee, do whatever I need to do, all the time not looking at the painting. When I’m absolutely ready, I put my painting on the looking wall and lift my head. That split second defines what I’ll to do for the morning. Same process after lunch.

I work 9-5 give or take. Lunch at 12.

SC: I am aware you currently live in Berlin, to what extent do you consider Berlin as being an influential factor in the shaping of your work? Do you feel that your surroundings have influenced you in one way or another?

TA: I always say that for me painting is like chasing a ball. This ball is made up of all my desires, my fears, my influences, what’s happening in the world and so on. As I move through the world things are added and taken away and the ball keeps rolling. You never quite reach it. For me, the city I live in is just another factor in this web. I can’t quite say how it affects me but it certainly does.

SC: What works are currently in progress in your studio?

TA: The last show I did at EIGEN+ART gallery and Kunstverein Ulm was 8 paintings all the same size with a connecting theme. I thought of it as like 8 chapters making up a novel. The current series is more like a collection of short stories or poems. They are designed to sing as a group but can be separated. I’m working on these right now.

I work on one painting at a time, and for the last few years I have been constantly making works towards shows. So I am always thinking of the installation of the show and how the paintings will work as a group.

SC: Can you please tell me about your studio set up? Would you say that your current studio is ideal, or are you seeking a larger/better space? 

TA: The father of a guy in my football team owned the building I live in. The ground floor space came available, it used to be a bakery. We converted it into a great space and obviously the location is ideal! I commute down the stairs in the morning! It has a little office and kitchen in the back and a good sized painting space. I paint on one wall and keep one (relatively) clean for examining works. The rest of the space I surround myself with the other paintings for the show I’m working on.

It’s a great space but I’m definitely eyeing up something bigger. My girlfriend and I are also working on a little project for a future space in Sicily. I dream of working between Berlin and the countryside of Sicily. Lets see if we can pull it off!

SC: I am interested to know how you plan your works. Do you begin with preparatory sketches of some form, or do you prefer to work in an improvised manner?

TA: For a long time I would completely freestyle it. Allowing the painting to evolve as I worked. For the last series and this one, I have made small watercolour sketches before starting. It is so simple but feels like a huge breakthrough. It allows me to push the colours further and focus more on the surface rather than worrying about all these different elements. With constraint comes creation as old Pablo said.

SC: I am interested in the notion of preciousness and at what stage a painting becomes discarded in the studio. Do you have a tendency to destroy failed paintings? Or, do you aim to be as efficient as possible when planning a work so to avoid destroying anything?

TA: I see no reason to truly abandon a painting. Linen and wood is tough stuff. Sometimes I’ll leave things if its really not working. I have one or two paintings that have been knocking around my studio for years, and occasionally I’ll have a look or add something. Actually in the future this is how I’d like to work more; to have more and more time between exhibitions and just have things bubbling around that I pull out and play around with. I’ve always hugely admired the paintings of Merlin James, whom I feel probably works in this way.

I went through a period of cutting up a load of old paintings and using them as collage elements to new works. It became difficult when it came to dating them as some these elements where started 10 years before.

SC: You are currently exhibiting at the Kunstverein Ulm, presenting your solo exhibition ‘Time Machine’. This series of paintings explore the delineation of time and the creolisation of culture. Historical figures appear alongside elements referencing current day life, closing the temporal gap between the past and present. Not only does this concept intrigue me, it reminds me of Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto on Altermodernism…

TA: Spot on. Its funny, that exhibition was on next door to my studio when I was studying at Chelsea College of Art. At the time it was talked about a lot and I was probably a bit snarky about it to be honest! In hindsight, that manifesto kind of sums up precisely what interests me about being a contemporary artist.

We have an obscene wealth of international culture at our fingertips; we can take a budget flight, visit a museum or Google a terrific array of staggering images. This feeds and floods into my work, and the barriers between different influences break down. As I mentioned earlier, these all become part of the rich tapestry of the ball I’m chasing.

Time Machine was exactly that. I love the idea of a gallery space being a time machine that can transport you through cultures and times in history. Into the past but also into the future. It’s all spun together into a complex web.

SC: You said earlier that you consider your 8 paintings within Time Machine a collection of chapters that make up a novel. Could you tell me about why you chose to explore this concept, and how the 8 individual narratives coalesce?

TA: Initially this show was a response to the first space it was shown in, EIGEN+ART Gallery in Berlin (before it moved to Kunstverein Ulm); more and more the paintings I make are made specifically for an exhibition and therefore for a particular space. More and more I think of a group of paintings as an installation piece.

I know the space well in Berlin and I wanted to express, in a very simple way, the experience of visiting the gallery. In Time Machine there are 8 paintings, all the same size with the same elements. There is a central figure that walks from left to right, forming a kind of parade clockwise around the room and back out again. The viewer mimics this parade as he or she walks around the exhibition.

I talk about chapters, because the series is very much a group of works that ideally should be shown together. They are elements, which make up a whole.

SC: The titles of your paintings within ‘Time Machine’ don’t seem to give much away, though one particular painting is more specific than others. ‘Time Machine II (Haji Bektash Veli)’ refers to the Alevi Muslim and Sufi philosopher who lived in the 13th century. Could you discuss this particular painting, and why you chose to explore this figure within the context of Time Machine?

TA: My girlfriend is from a Turkish family, from the Alevi branch of Islam. When I was talking to her about this series of paintings, she told me the story of Haji Bektash Veli. In each of the paintings there is a figure, two animals and two pots. Haji Bektach Veli is always pictured with a lion and a dear as a sign of bringing peace. I thought this was too beautiful to ignore the coincidence, and I constructed that painting.

It is very rare, you’re right, to be so specific with the figure but in the group I felt this was an important element.

The painting itself is very dark, it reveals itself as you look at it, like when you step out on dark night and your eyes adjust to the light. I love to paint night paintings.

SC: Within Time Machine, you gave yourself some constraints to work by. Most specifically, I can see that you have chosen a restricted colour palette for each painting. I am interested; did you correlate each narrative with a specific colour palette?

TA: We talked earlier about the idea of the show as a novel. Perhaps you could also think of it as a music album. Each painting needs to work as an individual piece, but they also need to contribute to the whole. If all 8 paintings were too similar or the moods where the same, it would be dull. Alternatively if it were too wildly different, they would've jarred each other. When I listen to a truly great album I listen to it in order, from start to finish and when I get to the end all I can do is start it again.

The colours in the paintings were designed to work as an installation. Time Machine VIII (Hot Shot) breaks all the rules for a constrained palette, but within the group it is essential as a kind of spark to lift the room.

The colours are affected by the narrative and vice versa, but this is something that just evolves naturally. I try not to think too consciously about colour; to react instinctively.

SC: The German children’s illustration books known as ‘wimmelbilderbuch’, or more literally, hidden object books, come to mind when I view your paintings. The characteristics of the wimmelbilderbuch involve the richly detailed fantastical scenes of humans, animals, landscape and objects. These illustrations have a historical connection to the works of Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel and the modern illustrations of Hans Jurgen Press. To what extent would you say that the format of the wimmelbilderbuch has influenced you? Do you champion any specific artist related to this genre?

TA: Yes, as I mentioned earlier I grew up with beautiful children’s books. I have always loved pictures that reveal themselves over time that reward being looked at over and over again. I’m looking for a kind of complex simplicity; a painting that at first sight is a relatively simple composition, but once you look further is made up of a complex weave of marks and images.

Bruegel, especially the elder, is a big influence. But you can find this sort of pictorial complexity all over art history; Persian miniature painting, book of Kells, the Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries, Goya etchings…I could go on!

SC: What future exhibitions do you have scheduled?

TA: Josh Lilley in London opening April 12th and then Josh and I are doing a solo presentation in Frieze New York opening in May. Before that there is a group show at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

SC: In relation to social media and more specifically Instagram, what are your thoughts on this as a platform to engage with new audiences? Do you have a love/hate relationship with Instagram or other online social media platforms?

TA: Yes love hate. My Facebook is out of control; a snowball of random people that I have no idea who they are but I can’t delete it because its my only connection to some of my oldest friends. Instagram is interesting; I’m only relatively recently on it and it’s a fantastic way of keeping up to date with what’s happening. I do feel however that it is breeding a certain type of painting that looks good on an iPhone and not in reality.

SC: What do you feel are the pros and cons of Instagram, and do you consider Instagram important for artists working today?

TA: Its great for people who don’t have another platform yet. As I told you my mum, Catherine Anholt is back painting and is making incredible beautiful work, but tucked away in the English countryside. She’s recently joined and some really great people are seeing her work now. For that it’s fantastic.

The other good thing is it allows friends of mine who are not necessarily in the art world who I know from football or wherever to see what I’m up to in my painting without having to always travel to shows.

I don’t know if it’s important. I know great artists on it and great artists, not so that suggests it’s pretty irrelevant. I never look at it while I’m working. I may get off it soon, but I’ll need someone to send me the best memes.

SC: Any last points or thoughts you would like to share?

TA: Wenger Out, Trump Out, Europe in.

Thank you to all the incredible people in my life (you know who you are) that have supported me and helped me. It is a hard business and impossible to do without the love, belief and support of friends and family. 

Tom Anholt

Images courtesy of Tom Anholt, Eigen +Art, Galerie Mikael Andersen.