In the studio with Wendelin Wohlgemuth: Painting the chaos and indifference of the natural world

Ghostly figures hover above dark color fields in German-American artist Wendelin Wohlgemuth’s work. Painted from old medial archival records or color film stills, the figures in Wendelin’s paintings appear caught as if by mistake in the picture frame, in the process of slowly fading away. Like old spoiled negatives, blotches and blurs of painterly marks scour the surface of the figurative works, compromising the photographic illusion and reminding the viewer of the materiality of the medium.

Working from found footage, the figures in Wendelin’s paintings are anonymous, like scientific specimens. The lifelike rendering of the figures however creates an uncomfortable sense of familiarity, like looking at a stranger’s family photo album where we recognise scenes and faces but remain excluded from the memories.

Living and working in the Pacific Northwast, Wendelin received his BA from Western Washington University in Fine Art and Philosophy in 2013. He views much of his work as a challenge to theistic philosophy. We caught up with Wendelin ahead of his solo exhibition at Galleri Torekov in Torekov, Sweden to find out more about his work. Enjoy!

AMM: You have an upcoming solo show in Torekov, Sweden. How did this opportunity come about?

WW: I participated in a group exhibition there over a year ago, and Gustav Sundin, the gallery owner and director, has been following my work since then. He approached me in February about a solo show this summer.

AMM: Can you tell us what the Living Room body of work is about?

WW: When Gustav approached me about the show, I had just wrapped up eighteen new paintings for my first solo show in Seattle, so I had nothing in my studio and had to start from scratch. I wanted to continue with similar reference material—mainly black and white medical photos from online archives. With these paintings I wanted to focus on full figures and emphasize a restrained, oppressive, muted aesthetic. Several of the paintings are very simple compositionally: just isolated figures, sometimes blurred, in flat color fields behind subtle textures and marks. They feel to me almost like scientific specimens. Like much of my work, many of these recent paintings focus on human identity, specifically the conflicting pictures of humanity brought to us by religion and science.

AMM: What are some of the recurring themes and ideas in your work?

WW: Much of my work explores a visual paradox: I paint meticulously-rendered, photographic figures alongside flat, textural applications of paint. So paint functions both as an illusionistic ‘transparent’ medium that allows you to view another object, like a window or a mirror, but on the same surface we are confronted with paint as a pure material substance. Unlike many figurative painters, these two visual modes do not interact and are on distinct visual planes. So, the photographic part is rendered with little interruptions and then the abstract, materialistic elements are layered on top. These abstract elements dispel the illusionism in the layers below. I also employ the blur effect where I erase my brush strokes using a dry brush over wet paint. I view the blur itself as a visual metaphor. It makes the figures seem unimportant or merely secondary.

My work tends to be fairly objective and non-narrative. I’m not really interested in telling stories or imbuing the work with much personal reflection. I don’t think my personal experience of the world is very important. So most of my work (until very recently) has focused on found medical photography of subtly impaired figures. These references are interesting to me because they visualize our connection to the chaos and indifference of the natural world in a very visceral way. They force us to reconsider the view passed on to us from theistic traditions that we are somehow non-animals, or non-material. I view much of my work as a challenge to theistic philosophy.

AMM: What appeals to you about the medium of oil paint? Is there any correlation between the medium and the subject matter of your work?

WW: It’s the perfect medium for the visual language I seek to engage. It lends itself extremely well to photographic rendering with all its soft gradients and blurs. But you can also use it to preserve these fluid and fast gestural marks. It is endlessly fascinating.

AMM: Has your style of painting changed over time? What has influenced you stylistically?

WW: I was initially drawn to the more painterly and textured approach to realism where things are rendered via a process of creating and destroying forms on top of one another. I’ve always found such paintings arresting. But there are many contemporary painters who do this so well (e.g. Adrian Ghenie, Justin Mortimer, Alex Kanevsky) that I have trouble finding the motivation to pretend I could do what they do.

But I view myself still very much at the start of my development. I started oil painting about five years ago and still hate nearly everything I make after a few months, which is important. Because my work relies heavily on photography, my aesthetic is driven largely by my reference material. I’ve recently shifted from found black-and-white photography to film stills from online video archives. They’re in color and extremely low-res, so it forces me to adopt a looser rendering approach. I’ve been really pushing the blur effect to a point where the reference image is nearly lost and approaches pure abstraction, while still keeping the distinct visual planes I mentioned earlier. The result is approaching something closer to what I’ve been yearning for. This may all change, of course. But for now I feel there is plenty for me to explore here.

AMM: What are your daily art rituals?

WW: After I wake up I walk my dog, make coffee, then scour the internet for reference material and generate ideas before getting to work in the studio. I usually paint for about five to nine hours a day depending on the stage the work is in. Sometimes the painting just needs a quick layer that should be allowed to dry completely before touching it again. Other times I need to destroy and rebuild from the ground up. I work on up to six paintings at once.

AMM: Are you influenced by your surroundings? What does your studio look and feel like?

WW: I’d say I’m more influenced by my life-context than my physical surroundings. I’m a fairly insular painter, simply because I haven’t lived in cities with much of a figurative painting community for me to network with. That’s all online now. If I have some sort of studio space and an engaging project, I pretty much just keep my head down and paint. My studio is nothing remarkable. It’s an empty bedroom in the house I’m currently in here in Atlanta. It has fake plastic wood floors, one large window, and a ceiling fan. But it’s the coldest room in the house so that’s a plus. I look forward to getting a proper studio away from home at some point.

AMM: What do you measure failure and success by?

WW: If I make a painting and I can say, “I haven’t seen anything really like it before, and understand why it should exist as a reference point,” I’m satisfied. As far as failure and success in life goes, I’m probably too young to offer an informed opinion.

AMM: What are you watching, reading and listening to right now?

WW: I listen to the podcast Waking Up With Sam Harris really often. Music is really important to me. Recurring favorites while I paint include John Luther Adams, Steve Reich, Nico Muhly, Ian William Craig, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Chihei Hatakeyama, Tim Hecker, and Fennesz as well as some heavier stuff like Prurient and Indian. Also, I really like the new Vince Staples album. I’m currently reading a book about the 9/11 hijackers called Perfect Soldiers. It’s fascinating.

AMM: When you’re not in studio where are we likely to find you?

WW: Any good vegan restaurant or coffee shop.

Find out more about the artist via his website: www.wendelinw.com

Text written and interview conducted by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.