Oliver Dorfer and Martin Hochleitner; a conversation.
Martin. Exactly five years ago, you made what was for me a very surprising contribution to the “ONE-NIGHT-STAND” exhibition project in the Landesgalerie Linz. As a “painter” and “draughtsman”, you produced unrealised pictures using a computer and beamer. Could you briefly reiterate the concept used then from a current perspective?
Oliver. At that time, I was somehow hooked on the idea that something approaching an artistic counter-world must exist. In other words a project that incorporates everything, or at least a large percentage of what cannot come to fruition in an artwork. In the final analysis, the creative process is always a matter of acceptance and rejection, of swimming against a tide of images, ideas and influences. In combination, a wealth of inputs creates a patchwork of designs including many, which quite possibly are un- or only partially successful. This is clearly evident and it is at this point that technology comes into play. Because owing to the fact that a sizeable number of these initial steps are compiled and sampled on a computer, even in the case of the less propitious designs, the working process is documented and logged. Therefore, the idea was to create a compendium of images that demonstrate weaknesses. At the time, I named the project default-composit, failed connections, and presented this pot-pourri in the form of an art video projection, which as you remarked was relatively unusual for a painter who otherwise does not employ this medium. This was in 2009, when we worked together on the “ONE-NIGHT-STAND” project and exhibited failed or less than successful works during a single evening.
Martin. I was already aware then that in a classic sense your ideas are not “merely” formed on a pictorial surface in a painterly act or by drawing, but rather in a complex process as images preceding images, which also involves the use of various media. Moreover, it would seem that this conceptual phase is nearly as important as the actual formulation of the picture. How can I best envisage these individual steps?
Oliver. The conceptual phase consists of the fusion of image-producing components that, to use a musical term, derive from sampling. This involves an analogue input, which is then sampled in the computer in a mixing process that provides the correct density, or in a musical sense, the appropriate pitch. My work functions in a similar manner, as I collect, sketch and work continuously on visual data that is then fed into a computer, scanned, adopted as an image and assembled to form a final composition. This preliminary conceptual process is essentially the more important stage of the work.
The translation of the completed digital image, its analogisation, which involves a return to reality in the physical world as a picture, constitutes a totally different type of creative process because I must then carry out the mixing and application of colour, the painting or cutting process as a “humanising factor”. At this point, occurrences such as variations in layer thickness when paint is applied, brushstrokes, errors, etc. take place naturally and this is desirable. However, as you said before, the conceptual phase actually carries the greater weight.
Martin. Our conversation today is intended for a publication that will document your work from the past six years. And alone the latest pictures in front of us now are characterised by a plethora of extremely precisely placed quotations and interwoven mismatches from diverse contexts. I would be interested to discover how these citations come about and what sources you find interesting.
Oliver. To an increasing extent the sources lie in fields that do not belong to the nucleus of contemporary art production, but instead are located on the periphery. In the broadest sense they comprise the areas of graphics, design, literature, theatre, stage design, comics, graphic novels, street art and the character culture of Japanese youth culture. I find all these things, which in the broadest sense orbit the artistic world and are thus not directly located at its epicentre, extremely exciting and basically they provide me with far greater inspiration than would be the case if I were to react to the works of my contemporaries, or take recourse to art historical references, although this naturally can happen. Such an exception is manifested by one of my recent works, dystopia 2, which quotes the visual oeuvre of a colleague. A figure in this piece represents an homage to my French colleague Jean Charles Blais, who for some perhaps no longer has such a presence, but who is nonetheless a person who exerted a major influence upon me as a young man when I set out to work in the field of fine arts. Such manifestations of clumsy giants or huge figures totally lacking proportions and possessing small heads on vast bodies are widely represented in his imagery and therefore, this gestalt represents just one example of a reference. However, such quotes are a seldom occurrence and mostly the images relate to other areas.
Many years ago, the musician Falco said something that pleased me greatly. Asked in an interview what aspects of music he still found intriguing, he replied that basically it was not music that interested him, as he was making that himself. Instead, it was related areas such as painting or the Viennese school of poetry that provided him with far greater inspiration. If one knows Falco’s work, it is evident that the latter was particularly influential, as the puns that he delivers in rap-like manner were clearly developed in the texts from Jandl and other writers. Their onomatopoetic pieces certainly shaped his thinking and served to stimulate his working methodology before subsequently emerging in the idiosyncratic form of Falco word-rap.
Martin. When you quote, do formal or contentual criteria represent the decisive factor?
Oliver. The two must be combined. The problematic aspect of the conceptual process of finding an image is the creation of a possibility for self-surprise and the filtration from the stockpile of ideas that one has assembled for a current piece of exactly those elements that are consistent with both the composition and the content. This can be an extremely protracted and also highly intuitive process. In addition, it may well be that certain sections of the picture are perfectly coherent with regard to form due to their ability to quasi distort and obscure the content and thus partly reduce its conspicuousness. There actually are elements in my pictures that are deliberately kept largely devoid of meaning. And although these sections do not make a statement, their raison d’être lies in the fact that other parts of the picture are thus accentuated, thereby forming nodes and centres of gravity. These can only crystallise because of the areas that retreat into the background, or fail to supply any information owing to chaos.
Martin. As I am aware of how your pictures are created, it always seems to me that they only allow a selective glimpse into your archive. What significance does this possess in your work to date?
Oliver. It is certainly true that the archive is of major importance to my work because over a long period it enables the retention and repeated examination of the validity of the graphic notes that I collate on a daily basis, as all these jottings, scribbles, doodles, telephone drawings and scrawls constantly constitute an attempt to evolve form and content. However, this does not always find immediate implementation in the work in progress and therefore it is archived instead. This is precisely analogous to our memory process, which retains many things regardless of the fact that in the majority of cases it is highly uncertain that they will ever recover any meaning. Memory of this type both through and related to the archive and with its help is important because as a result, irrespective of the extent to which it alters, the work constantly finds a basic rhythm. Things reappear continually in a type of circular motion, which for me is most significant. For even if the materials change and the technique alters partially, something approaching an arrow of time must exist. These circulatory movements, which mean the way in which my work develops over the years, may not enter a stationary orbit but must develop further via the arrow of time, or a temporal axis. This conscious pushing ahead of my own work is of critical importance to me because when graphic elements are recognised, the brain emanates rewarding substances. However, as a final consequence this recognition and addiction to rewards would mean that the work would cease to evolve because one would continually indemnify oneself and thus lapse into reiteration. It may be meaningful that something approaching recognisable motifs, which to a degree are representative of my work, repeatedly appear, just as cinema directors frequently employ the same actors, who they see as being of significance to their films and supportive of their creative intentions. Nevertheless, there must also be a type of forward movement via an arrow of time and it is the archive that always forms the “shaft” of this arrow and thus furnishes the basic vehicle for such progress.
Martin. The appearance of your works is determined to a considerable extent by a specific technique. You employ acrylic colours on acrylic glass and use a “classic” process reminiscent of verre églomisé.
During the past ten years, the painterly effects of photography have been the subject of frequent discussion and when I saw the initial pictures from your latest series, it appeared to me that you are engaged in quite the reverse; namely the photographic effects of painting. In your self-image are you consciously analysing the media, or is this aspect to be understood rather more as a marginal area?
Oliver. The medial aspects, or their reflection, are an important feature of my work, for as you have already pointed out, since 2008 my pictures create the impression that I am actually using a photographic technique and either something resembling a screen or monitor exists, or the complete image could have been processed in the manner of a C-print. It is as if everything relating to the application of colour and haptics actually occurs behind a screen and on the reverse side of the acrylic glass. This is precisely the reason why I wished to create a link between highly traditional working methods, which are related to woodcuts, painting with acrylic and vinyl pigments, and this inference to reproductive technology. Anyone working in this area is compelled to face the question as to what in view of its long history can painting still be and achieve, what strengths it can purport to possess, and from what inputs it benefits. Some of these image-determining techniques that I allow to flow into my pieces have already been lost to the modern media owing to ongoing technical innovation, as exemplified by the grain in photography and film. Many parts of my latest pictures are composed of a multitude of tiny dots, which reflect the graininess that we not longer employ. Virtually no classic film or photographic material is used any longer, as everything takes place in the digital domain where grain returns to confront us in the shape of the pixel. The graininess introduced into my pictures is vaguely reminiscent of a newspaper raster or conventional printing methods and is not only an element within the pictorial structure, but also part of the question regarding the possibilities of painting. The picture formation takes place behind the glass and is deliberately handled in this manner because owing to the growing confrontation with screens, whether in the form of iPhones, iPads, monitors, billboards and televisions, our current sense of perception has resulted in a repositioning of the term “picture”. Today, this is understood increasingly as a synonym for an image transportation medium, which in reality is a screen and is treated as exactly such in my work.
Martin. I would like to stay briefly with the medium aspect. I believe your earliest works were produced in the second half of the 1980s. At that time, in the Austrian art scene you were initially perceived mainly as a draughtsman and it was no accident that during this period you won the Römerquelle Art Competition, which had a primary focus on drawing. How must drawing is still involved in your current work and do you continue to regard it as important?
Oliver. Drawing is omnipresent and represents both the foundation of my work and something that occurs constantly. Surprisingly enough, I generally regard drawing as being something so private that I frequently do not even wish to display it. In other words, for me drawing is virtually identical with keeping a diary; a personal activity that should remain mine and not enter the domain of the exhibition or sales process. The very small sketches that continually happen are part of the archive that we discussed previously and are in fact more important for this treasure trove than for the exhibition process itself. Nonetheless, I occasionally put some of them on show in order that people can grasp that the working process is based on myriads of perpetual drawing procedures.
One example of the translation of this drawing work into a finished project was the twenty-part nordic print series from 2009 and since then, there has barely been a single picture in which drawing, either as a preliminary sketch or a main element within the finished image, has not played a central role.
Martin. For me drawing has provided a thread that has run through your work since the 1980s. I also see a second recurring theme in the phenomenon that despite media changes your
pictures are always recognisable as “Dorfers”. What is the reason?
Oliver. Undoubtedly this has a very great deal to do with the iconography. When I come across earlier works in my depot, at a collector’s, or as was recently the case following an inventory at a gallery in Cologne, then I am surprised by the fact that some aspects of my current thinking are identical with those of the past. I would no longer implement them as I did then because over the years the thought process becomes increasingly intricate, or more complicated, and perhaps one is less reluctant to produce things that do not trigger the cerebral reward process that we talked about previously. For me, certain pictorial solutions today possess the same validity as in 1989 or afterwards. This is all the more astonishing because I had assumed that during the evolution of the work over so many years, some things would have been jetisoned entirely. I think the skill lies in creating a link between these two story chapters. Between the narrative of what once existed and that which is currently swirling around in my visual imagination. To use your phraseology, the young Dorfer certainly made poetic statements in his early work and not socio-philosophical or political comments. Due precisely to my sociology studies I had the feeling that I was quite simply unable to do justice to multifaceted socio-political questions through artistic transcription. Therefore, out of respect I tended to distance myself from material that I regarded as excessively complex. Today, I see things from a slightly more relaxed perspective and especially since 2008 have created works that at the very least mirror my confusion at the disastrous political developments of the recent past. The wasteland, oceania and dystopia series were created as a result of these impressions.
Martin. In the early 1990s you were in Canada for quite some time and as far as I remember, it was there that you discovered carborundum printing. In the retrospective do you see your involvement with this technique as a type of initial catharsis that led to a desire to become deeply involved with image-making methodology? The sculptures dating from this period would also seem to indicate that you were already grappling with production processes.
Oliver. The carborundum printing process was allegedly developed in France at the beginning of the last century and owing to the close links between Paris and Canada’s French-speaking province of Quebec, was exported to North America. The artists belonging to the “Atelier Circulaire” in Montreal used this special form of printing and in 1993 during my working visit, I was requested by my Canadian gallerist, Eric Devlin, to look at it more closely. My inquisitiveness regarding unusual materials and working methods provides an undertone that runs through all my activities and I have constantly attempted to develop techniques that lead away from the canvas. I was never satisfied with the floppiness and general applicability that canvas offers. This was not what I was seeking and then as now, I needed a painterly ground that functioned differently, was more problematic, offered greater brittleness, was unusual and in this spirit, would come closer to my personal preferences. Accordingly, the development of my own painting utensils, surfaces and production processes has always been a critical element in the artistic realisation of my work. In the early days around 1989 this assumed the form of charcoal crayons that I mixed and dried from a paste, and which lay in my land in large clumps. The first drawings were created using these self-made materials. Subsequently, gypsum followed as a pictorial ground and this was difficult and time-consuming to produce, as well as complicated and strength sapping. Then came synthetic surfaces mounted on aluminium frames and the mechanical requirements emanating from the bonding of metal with plastic were of decisive importance. From a technical standpoint, the current works on acrylic glass are even more demanding. However, all this effort is justified because then as now, I personally regard it as essential that something like a link exists between the material and that which fills this substance in an additive capacity. For me, this connection is first established when I am able to invest these working processes and time in the material.
Incidentally, this not only applies to gypsum grounds, which in fact already virtually constituted objects, but in particular to the sculptures that I realised in the second half of the 1990s as several groups of bronze castings. Today, I am attracted to sculptures in other materials, especially new and intelligent plastics. We shall see …
Martin. Despite their differing sizes, your current pictures always consist of fixed modules and you recently completed a particularly large piece on this basis for the new Music Theatre in Linz. You yourself talk about the process of image creation with regard to your work and alone a look inside your studio shows that this takes place in a highly disciplined manner. Is organisation important for you?
Oliver. My structured working approach derives from the fact that pieces using what you previously described as a verre églomisé technique have to be completed in reverse. Paint is applied to the back of the acrylic glass and therefore this demands a completely controlled painting process. Thinking, reversed thought, is difficult to accomplish, which means that something approaching clear decisions have be made in advance and in detail. On the one hand, this is a very disciplined and controlled procedure, and on the other, the methods needed to bond glass with metal or respectively various composites are also highly systematic and are likely to involve a certain degree of humdrum routine, or craftsmanship if one will, although this is very compatible with my way of working.
The modules that you mentioned assume the form of a few standardised dimensions and mostly come in one-metre squares, which can be combined to form multi-element pictures. These can consist of six or eight sections, or in the case of the Music Theatre, eighteen parts. Handling is thus easier and from a technical standpoint it is simpler to assemble pictures in sections. This is certainly the case with regard to transportation, although this does not represent the prime motivation for working with modules. The main reason relates to the period when I was employing gypsum, as then there was something like a natural size limit, which corresponded roughly to my reach. In other words anything larger than 1.50m was impossible to deal with, firstly due to its weight and secondly, the handling. Then at sometime or other, at a guess roughly in 2006 when I had started to work with glass, I felt a need to be able to complete very extensive and expansive pieces. The fact that this is possible was confirmed following my receipt of a commission to complete a work for the central foyer of the newly built Music Theatre. This demanded an agreement to a certain delay in payment, as the work involved was time-consuming and one could only see it in its entirety in situ, as it was infeasible to hang it up in the studio. However, to return to your question, the working process itself is absolutely clear and fully structured. One simply must check all the connections and constantly be aware of the area of the picture in which one is currently situated, as it is impossible to perceive the complete image.
I have learned a great deal during this process and it is exciting to see whether the image worlds designed in the brain will tolerate growth beyond a certain limit. I like to work using two-metre square picture dimensions, as this so to speak constitutes a “handy” format. However, on occasions a motif demands more space and the new exhibition in autumn, which is to be accompanied by the publication of this book, will again contain nine-section pictures, which means three by three metres.
It would be a nice idea to lend free rein to one’s fantasies and use add-ons, thus enlarging a picture again by an extra three to six metres. This would simply expand the focus that the picture always develops autonomously and thus show what is actually happening to the left and right of the selected snippet of the world.
Martin. Your studio is located roughly 300 metres away from the Ars Electronica Center, the Museum of the Future. You as a “painter” use a beamer, computers and every conceivable program as a matter of course without departing from a clear commitment to the classic image.
I would be interested to know how you see the status of painting and what significance it possesses in your oeuvre of the past thirty years. Does your work represent a contemplation upon painting within all these medial contexts? Or is it an attempt to open up painting to this multitude of new possibilities? How do you see your own work within the conceptual fields of contemporary art?
Oliver. That is a very appealing question and one that you have almost answered yourself because both its aspects energise me. The result is a constant perambulation between the two poles comprised by a reflection upon painting, its possibilities and status. At the same time, this naturally also involves the use of what painting does and what has already impressed me in film. Namely, in spite of an endless flood of antecedents, the ability to repeatedly handle subjects in a fresh and exciting manner, which is something that applies equally to film and painting. Moreover, also with regard to cinema, the fact that in a love scene in which two people encounter one another and exchange a first kiss, directors must dare to attempt the credible, coherently aesthetic realisation of their pictorial ideas using just a few cuts, visual details, camera movements and their stylistic devices. And although this scene has been played out on thousands of occasions during cinema’s lengthy history, if the director is “good” and has invested sufficient energy in the action, it will nonetheless be moving and afterwards when one leaves the cinema, a tear-stained handkerchief may well sometimes peek out from a pocket. However, should the director fail to create an artwork and a valid contribution, then the scene will have no emotional impact. Particularly when the arts wish to make a key statement regarding life, tradition and innovation only contradict one another to a limited extent. Indeed, when such key issues are involved, the complexity to which we are currently subject is merely ostensive. Theatre has always dealt with roughly five to eight central themes comprised by belief, love, eroticism, violence, death and reproduction. Film, literature and also painting are equally concerned with these topics and irrespective of the size of the historical rucksack that they have to bear, as well as the frequency with which something has been questioned, analysed or apparently answered, the central parameters of our existence remain unaltered. Therefore, I continue to see painting as a viable means of dealing with these issues if one only tries. I find such endeavours to approach an aesthetic solution and repeated attempts when confronted by failure as exhilarating. For me, it is also important to take up this challenge with the aid of new media and cutting edge, highly contemporary means. However, in the final analysis this should only have a supportive function and merely ensure that the nail is well and truly hit on the head.