September 10, 2014 Bernhard Buhmann – “The Pretenders”
15th of September – 28th of October, 2014
Changing faces like changing clothing, how often do the queens and kings of selfies on social media change their profile pictures?
“They are screaming grotesque figures with masks which they don’t dare to take off (maybe they even don’t know that they could) but always ready to switch.” –Bernhard Buhmann
There is a certain amount of freedom in being able to alter the way you are perceived, but the question is how long can any of us keep this up for, and at what cost?
Carbon 12 is proud to present Buhmann’s second solo show, The Pretenders, characters of his creation as they perform their lives for all to see.
The inhabitants of the paintings tell an abstract story as they cavort across the canvas. Who are they and what makes them what they are? Each painting has its own fiction, but when seen together they allude to a much larger issue. Surrealist in Style, Buhmann’s technique is defined by color hues, subject illusion, and precarious perspectives. Using his background in sociology and painting from the University of Applied Arts and the University of Vienna, Buhmann explores issues of how to find ones self in social and individual life in times of uncertainty and rapids change.
The atmosphere is light hearted with color and the child like construction of his characters, yet there is something deeper Buhmann is hinting at. His creatures are unique in their imagined personalities and garb, yet each shares an appearance of constant flux; they are struggling to control shape.
Within social systems and maintaining personal identities we are asked to fulfill the greater demands of public life. We must play every role that is expected of us, and all at the same time. The characters are an entertaining to tragic fallout of the rigors of our contemporary society on the individual.
Everyone is pretending. Parallel worlds are orchestrated to depict odd, contradictory creations. Take for example the painting, Elvis, consisting of an anthropomorphized bird with two legs, and a pompadour to mirror, the American singer, Elvis’s famous hair. What logic can one use to draw a purpose for this creatures’ unfortunate anatomical make up? There is irony at work here. The creatures are trying desperately to show only their assumed glamor’s and exiting personalities. Their biggest fear is not the personal taxation of social upkeep but commonality. Consequently in their daily struggle for uniqueness they lose touch with their authentic individuality and ability to emphasize with others. Masked and clown-esque the creatures parade in their outfits, bidding for our attention.
Bernhard Buhmann, born 1979 in Bregenz, Austria, currently lives and works in Vienna. He studied at the University of Applied Arts with Adolf Frohner 2003-2005 and 2005 – 2010 with Johanna Kandl, he received his diploma in 2010. In addition he received a Masters in Sociology, and Communication Science, University of Vienna, 2006. As is our continual evolving relationship with the international artist, Carbon 12 is proud to announce the publication of Buhmann’s first monograph in Fall 2014.
Interview: A Conversation With Bernhard Buhmann by Katrina Kufer
Tell me about your practice in a few sentences.
On one hand there’s a certain unrest to it, goading me on a continuous search and giving meaning to my work on the level of the actual act of creating it; a constant that can be remotely described – if you like – as “process.” Yet, throughout the phases of my practice up until now, questions reoccur which address the construction of identities and their integration into, or conversely, their exclusion from, social contexts. There are methods I use that offer innumerable points of reference and provide the main impetus for my observations: opening up the space and the “rogue motif”, making demands of “insiders”, their relationships to one another, promises of individual self-conception and the retroactive effect on the reality of life in all its paradox. But ruptures and discrepancies in the context of critical response swill new questions to the surface and guarantee a stringency within the different periods.
How would you describe the atmosphere in your works?
This varies a great deal but it isn’t necessarily crucial to be consistent. It’s far more important that an atmosphere is present, an aura as a force with the possibility of resonating outside the frame – so, regardless of whether that be light-hearted or gloomy. It is the simultaneity of dark, destructive elements against colourful, garish ones that galvanises the works beyond just aesthetics. Peculiarities emerge that enrich the conceptual content and interpretation, charged with the potential to disrupt expectations and provide pockets of surprise, in turn determining whether a work maintains its place on the wall. It ultimately depends on whether the observer is compelled to continue the interaction, both intellectually and emotionally.
Would you say that your persona is embodied in the artworks?
The self acts as a point of reference for all conceivable outcomes, which means that the personality always has its place. Much that lands on the canvas stems from the illusive unconscious with its complex intricacies, much like the model of a black box. However, there are constants, patterns and characteristic properties present in the way I think and act; they define limits and create blind spots… you might say that these lacunae are what lends a work its authentic character.
How much does your background in sociology play a role in your creation? What about the “sociological eye”, is this of any relevance to you?
An essential feature of art is its capacity to bring together and then recontextualize diverse references by filtering them through one’s own constructive worldview, an amalgamation of subjective experiences. Basically, a whole stock of experience is at one’s disposal but the influence of unconscious motives is not unimportant either. I assign the incorporation of certain sociological issues to the conscious level.
The “sociological eye” addresses perceiving one’s social environment and then oneself in a discerning way, paying attention to nuances and grey values, which act as tools to handle the apparatus of perception when looking at social themes. It helps us comprehend and communicate societal issues with appropriate methods and a corresponding vocabulary. It has to do with science. Strictly speaking, the approach described has no relevance to my activity. My work targets another result, in part because I lack in-depth scientific experience, but knowing something of the fundamental points of sociology has a focusing and inspiring effect. The theme that preoccupies me, that keeps cropping up as thoughts and feelings in my life, are the fundamental questions of where am I, who am I, and what am I doing here?
So why choose painting?
The long tradition of the medium and its innate capability to reveal how historical, social and artistic developments have influenced one another has interested me from the beginning. It is its own cosmos that opens and offers so much context and perspective that I had, and still have, the feeling it might be a fascinating and rewarding task to give my in-depth attention to the medium of painting.
What about your individual painting technique?
You can’t really choose this, up to a certain point. I’ve failed miserably often enough at the attempt to paint “differently”. You can’t escape so easily from yourself and your idiosyncrasies. The expansion of personal limits needs great endurance and perseverance. It’s important to make a leap of faith and tirelessly seek new possibilities. Art has something to do with the constant quest for something bigger, something more universal, a process of trial and error. Failures reveal blind spots, routines can be disrupted and reality can be re-thought once again in all its complexity.
So failure is constructive for you.
Failure, a lack of fulfilment keeps the process of one’s own artistic activities alive with the promise of encountering something profound and true. Incompleteness and lack of perfection create space and is the impetus for something new. You really can gain a sense of your own actions through this.
Looking at your work, different phases are discernable. A figurative phase, a series with buildings and constructions, a cycle devoted to flying machines…
Different phases but on a conceptual level they have a lot in common – except the very beginning, when I was still very much preoccupied with art history and technical aspects of painting. In the group portraits based on self-staged photographs the focus had already shifted towards the relationships within the portrayed social units, diverting the central issue to the formation of identity and the expectations of the associated roles. This naturally happens in a setting showing artificial elements, it evokes theatrical performance. The strong light contrast transports the protagonists out of their everyday contexts and intensifies the urgency and hopelessness of the situation, which is counteracted by the theatricality and the more or less implicit reference to play-acting. This continues in subsequent works and is furthered by incorporating specific spatial elements. Spaces evolve in how the characters position themselves, seek their places and form constellations, a development from my experimentation with the reciprocal relationships of my first works. At the same time, the tangible environment of the stage heightens the expressive potential. The curtains, niches, hiding places, mysterious exits and entries are thematic motifs evoking the other side of the footlights, pointing to what’s left out. While backstage offers space for retreat, recovery and mystery, it’s show time on-stage. This where success or failure happens, acknowledgement or rejection, fame or flop. A place where you have to live up to your social role – or not.
In the pieces containing numerous figures, they don’t interact with one another even though they are gathered in a very close space, yet the protagonists also do not seek eye contact with the observer either. The impression is one of being together but disconnected.
You can feel this very strongly in the early group portraits where the sightlines are frequently multi-directional, as well as in the later works which return to realistic figures. These address the type and quality of social relationships, individual feelings and sensibilities, especially in regard to the immediate environment. Looking past one another not only becomes one’s own insecure gesture, a chance to dodge, but also an all-embracing ignorance.
There are hidden niches that end abruptly in several works. Where are you leading us?
On one hand, hiding places offer an opportunity for retreat and protection. On the other, hidden recesses can also be a source of uncertainty and thus become threatning. This ambiguity runs through many of my works. The need for protection demands transparency, making the rest of the world an unknown. The behavioural reflexes in handling this uncertainty remains the same at all times and encourages the development of stereotypes, mistrust and exclusion. Linked to this is the question of the predictability of events, which has always been of great economic interest. Perspectives and forecasts can no longer be ignored. The contradictions are obvious, which yet again spreads uncertainty. This gives an almost existential significance to the elusive fantasy of control.
Then you eschewed protagonists entirely.
The niches and hiding places of the preceding phases expand across the canvas and transform the entire scenery into a landscape of windowless architecture, reminiscent of fortresses. The buildings act as human artefacts and the absence of protagonists makes their presence behind the walls all the more palpable. The works convey immobility, rigidity, possibly the antithesis of what I did before. Relationships are cut off, the presence of others understood only as justification for one’s own retreat into the ivory tower. Direct communication seems impossible under these circumstances, thus the possibility of terminating the individual isolation. Questions arise about the reasons and nature of the threat, the need for protection from it and the price one pays for it. This theme is not only frequently discussed in major social contexts, but also visible in everyday life. It has a strong formative influence on one’s life orientation.
And from there you went airborne.
This step was practically imperative to move on from works with the strict and self-enclosed architectural elements. However, not everything is fine and dandy here either. Against all appearances, the flying machines in my pictures show a dubious functionality and the figures – returning once again into the paintings – lack control of the situation. The supposed departure, a flight from confinement, proves to be without any goal, the vehicle is a mirage of the intention. Any apparent functionality blinds the machine’s occupants, literally making them passive passengers misguided by phantasm.
How about your most recent?
My latest works arc back to my early paintings. However, the theatre of action is incomparably larger. Freakish characters in intense colours are depicted life-size on the canvas. The single protagonist stands with partial bizarreness in the centre of the action and confronts the observer eye-to-eye, more direct, immediate and merciless. The possibility of illusion now lies in the figure; it becomes the stage itself.
With the conceptual development, what’s your feeling now about your earlier works?
Some paths have proven dead ends, but less successful works are the ones that contribute to the shaping of a leitmotif and support my productive process. In the majority of my works I can sift out what interested me at the time and understand why these steps were necessary. In retrospect, most of the works from the different phases are justified in the big picture.
Do you have the feeling that there are artists who express something similar?
This depends somewhat on the phases and to a great extent, my interpretation. During the work on the different cycles I repeatedly turned to diverse artists whose approaches interested me. At the start these were the Old Masters – painters like Balthus, whose rhapsodic figures strongly influenced me, and later Elizabeth Peyton, Peter Doig or Paul Klee, and so on.
Do you have a favourite artwork?
That’s hard to say because I’m constantly confronted with an abundance of artworks and look at them very selectively according to momentary interests. Often, parts of some works are fascinating and provide motivation for my own, yet there are of course works that linger in my mind – Norbert Schwontkowski’s Kafka Reloaded, for example.
You work in a building populated with artist studios, what effect does this have?
For many years I was part of a communal studio-sharing group until I moved. I needed more space, but still in the same building. It was an ideal solution; I could maintain contact with other artists and yet have my own four walls. I really appreciate the fact that other creative people work in the building; there is the daily opportunity for communication, whether about art or everyday things.
Can we get a glimpse into your daily routine, if any?
A certain regularity is very important for my work, especially when things are not going so well. Usually I paint during the day. The idea that most people also work during the day gives me a feeling of being part of a natural order of things and therefore a certain measure of security in a way.
Is there anything that helps to artistically “put you in the mood”? A specific set-up in your studio?
Rituals change with the time. Earlier, loud music used to help me to get into gear; today it tends to be the opposite. A must is a big cup of coffee or tea at the start of the day, the prelude to a brief period for reflecting on the work of the previous day. Should things simply not function at all I will usually read or play my guitar. This gives the necessary distance to accept and welcome new perspectives for struggled-with paintings.
I’ve tried out a number of things because I’m convinced the environment you create has multiple effects: on your work morale, your creativity and the clarity with which you encounter things. For instance, the walls of my studio were wallpapered with material during the period of my earlier works; this inspired me at the time. I greatly value a clearly structured work situation. There are always several stretched and primed canvases standing around ready so that I can follow up on several ideas simultaneously, should it be necessary.
What’s the most difficult part of being an artist?
On one hand this profession is accompanied by many different aspects of freedom, on the other you have to throw certain concepts of security overboard. However, the secure, linear models lived by previous generations ensuring stability generally no longer exist anyway, so we shrug our shoulders and face the uncertainties of the artist’s existence. When preparing an exhibition, which often lasts months, you are sometimes plagued with thoughts about how the public will respond to the works. It’s occasionally difficult to free yourself of this. If you don’t succeed there’s a danger of censoring yourself, and if you succeed you risk the danger of euphoria, which leads yet again to a lack of critical distance and towards excessive expectations. At such moments you tend to talk a lot about your own work, which can have a negative effect on your social compatibility.
Do you enjoy watching people look at your paintings?
No, that’s hard to bear. During openings I generally tend towards thoughts of escape, but instead stay so as not to annoy the gallerists… I am aware of all the work that goes into an exhibition. It wouldn’t be fair just to disappear.
Do you ever wonder what you might do if you weren’t an artist?
This question crops up here and there, and it’s useful because it brings alternatives to mind and can keep me cool in difficult situations. It often suffices to put things into perspective and think about professions, the difficulties associated with other occupations; this helps summon energy and motivation for your own activities. I have never taken any concrete steps into another field of work and don’t intend to.
Are your gallerists aware?
No, you shouldn’t confide in the gallery any possible thoughts about changing your job. But I talk a lot about problems, and in this way a gallery is always a great support.
Do you think that working with a gallery has influenced your work?
Decisions about the work’s form and content are untouched, but a gallery can offer a professional context that allows you to think in different dimensions. Through the gallery you also get to know many interesting people in the art scene, from other walks of life… you can learn a great deal from their experience and develop ideas about art and making art.
How do you feel moments before the opening of one of your exhibitions?
Still as nervous as ever. An exhibition opening means what you’ve been working on for months almost in isolation is exhibited all at once to a large crowd of people and exposed to a great variety of opinions. Exhibition openings are therefore extremely intense events; it would really be odd if you weren’t nervous.
And where are your new works leading you?
I don’t know exactly and that’s probably a good thing!
The exhibition is supported by Austrian Embassy, Abu Dhabi