OLAF KÜHNEMANN: Turpentine Dreams

Photographed by Ami Erlich


Curated by Yham Hameiri

16.1.2014 – 15.2.2014

A dialogue with Olaf Kühnemann – the gallery’s artist, who for the past several years has been living and working in Berlin, currently as a part of the prestigious residence program, Künstlerhaus Bethanien.

This is your first solo show at the gallery. I know that you have worked on it intensively over the past year, and we have also visited you in your studio in Berlin, as well through lengthy conversations over Skype.  In your opinion, what is the theme of the present body of work?

This body of work has no theme or method; it has a different sort of anchor. These are fluctuating paintings. At one moment it would seem that the painting is closed and complete, and at other moments not. There is no photographic reference, I construct paintings from different visual sources that I am unsure of what they are; a sort of horizon is created.  Each painting has layers of painting beneath it. I work on sixty paintings simultaneously, in a circular fashion. There is an unintentional feeling that I permit to exist, which takes place on the canvas. This is an object that at first glance you meet without any notion of what it is. What is it? It’s a painting. Which is two dimensional square, in a gallery.  It is really a painting. I use the simple tools of paints, a two dimensional surface, and layers of paint, manual gestures that intermingle with each other to create a sense of vital, urgent, warm movement. There is no cessation.  There is no narrative that ends.

How does the painting process look?

I arrive at the studio and begin to look for music on YouTube. When I find the right station for that day, the music activates me, it is the main source of inspiration. In the space, sixty paintings wait in line. I mix paints, set them aside. There is no single painting that I worked on yesterday that I continue with today.  To work on a particular painting rather than another is a nearly random decision, I mess it up and put on another layer of paint, play with the idea of harming myself and natural tendencies; To harm things which are perceptible, such as my language. To stammer in a language that is unfamiliar to me.

I aim to arrive from the end and my “conclusions” about painting, to the beginning: during twenty years of painting, painting has not accumulated but has rather fallen apart and disappeared. It is a choice to become naïve again, a choice dependent on that same experience. Movements that are bare artistic impulse are obtained.

Nevertheless, are there images?

There is a balance between images that are an illustration of something concrete and artistic impulses, the meaning of which I am uncertain. I move between control and lack of control, between aggression and compassion. Within the work process I enable an image or a semi-image to remain, or I bury it.  Attempt to perform the act of painting out of the constant self-destruction of “expertise.”

What does the framing mean?

I cover the studio up with brown wrapping paper, simply to prevent damage to the walls. This enables freedom of action without considering the results. This is the origin of the brown framing, which re-encloses what had been free, in its initial metamorphosis. The frame is made of cardboard which I construct myself. It’s important to me to bring this energy, of inexpensive, simple material. The frame delimits and contains, on the one hand, and on the other is delicate, changes color, oxidizes, and is perishable.  Framing is a part of low tech ideology. I improvise and play with materials, love improvised technical solutions. Try to create a balance between decisions and improvisation. The framework is inexpensive, “homemade”, creates closeness instead of remoteness, and doesn’t make the painting into an ornament or a museum piece. It’s a frame that makes the painting approachable and not pompous.  When a painting is exhibited and has an audience, it acquires a cultural context, it’s talked about; it becomes important immediately. I try things within the studio, but understand that outside it suddenly exists independently. The framing attempts to bridge between the two.

Okay, we’ve come out of the studio to the gallery. What does the title of the exhibition reflect?

The title describes the process that I undergo. I work in the studio for eight or nine hours a day, with a lot of turpentine; the work becomes part of a hallucination, the turpentine makes you high, it’s a poison that has a physical effect.

The title represents an encounter between something simple, earthy, the paints and the turpentine, with a less delineated place: the paintings are not based on a story; they are a kind of dream or hallucination.  What triggers them is hard to remember. You awake from a dream, to a feeling or snippet of a memory, and it’s difficult to reconstruct what was there.

Even so, it’s impossible not to identify the sunset.

I really didn’t plan to paint sunsets, without intending to, they just broke through at the end of the process.  Before there were sunsets, there were many other things. When they appeared, I accepted that there was an image here, and that it’s okay. I accepted them specifically out of all the images that had appeared and disappeared. Why did I let the sunsets be in particular? I want the painting to contain burning.

The sun is dominant in the Israeli experience, even in winter. In Berlin, on the other hand, I am closed up for five months in the studio, five months without sun, with turpentine. The sun in Berlin’s winter, even when it bursts forth, is very low and can’t be seen. In Berlin, the weather is an actual topic of conversation. It has a dramatic, physical influence on people. It becomes an emotional climate. I make little sunsets for myself in the studio.

Is the sun a yearning?

Yes, absolutely. I am a non-Jewish German Israeli, identity is integral to creation, part of what I am works from within. This fact, that I am myself German, seems baseless to me, like a tag in a clothing store. I have a German passport, and my parents are German; Pure Aryan blood.  But that is only a bureaucratic situation.

Israel was always home, in Berlin I feel like an immigrant. The decision to live in Berlin at the moment is because in Israel they’re marking the boundaries for you all the time, and in Berlin far less so, things are less centralized. There is no mainstream and periphery, but rather a broader range where things occur simultaneously on many levels, and there is no single center. No external agenda is imposed on you.  But I don’t feel altogether at home in Berlin.

Despite your German roots?

Yes. I was born in Switzerland, and at the age of four I moved to live in Montreal. I wasn’t in Germany, but I spoke German until I was eight. When I came to Israel, I began to learn Hebrew, and for quite a few years I alienated myself from German. In Israel, to say you are German arouses very specific associations, so I quickly adopted Hebrew and Israeli identity. I grew up in Herzliyah, but I didn’t serve in the army. I attended Wizo Tzarfat, and then in England at an anthroposophic school, and later I studied at the Open School in Hadera, and all I did was to paint.  Right after that I went to New York, where I studied at the Studio School, and then for a masters degree at Parsons, without having an undergraduate degree, out of my sweeping motivation to paint. I think that my motivation is not worn thin, because this passion to paint always draws me forward.

Yham Hameiri, January 2014