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Location: EMDE GALLERY - Mainz
Hendrik Otremba – Riskantes Manöver / 05. Juni – 17. Juli
Outsiderness, lostness and transience are central themes that Hendrik Otremba deals with in his paintings. He often refers to artists with eventful biographies as well as to cinematic and literary models. Cross-connections to his novels and music can be discovered again and again as well.
While the abstract picture compositions are dominated by clear structures with dense, horizontal stripes and are put in ink on paper, the portraits and (city-) landscapes are increasingly characterised by a mixed technique of ink, watercolour, acrylic and oil paints as well as a realistic painting style. In his works, the artist seeks to capture the abysses of human existence. In doing so, he follows his own melancholic but also poetic pictorial language, characterised by dark, muted colours and the contrast of light and shadow - as, for example, in his apocalyptic-looking worlds devoid of people or furnished with lonely figures, or in the portraits of often famous contemporaries painted at close range, which have cause an impact, not least because they seem to have been zoomed in with the telephoto lens of a camera; This is also the case with 'Self-Portrait as a Sad Clown II‘, which is entirely held in brown and red tones. Hendrik Otremba's pictures cast a spell over the viewer and make him suffer and hope with them.
Accompanying the exhibition is a brochure with a text by Anna Seidel (cultural poet and literary scholar) and an interview between the artist and Jonas Engelmann (author and publisher).
Short portrait of Hendrik Otremba – by Anna Seidel (cultural poet and literary scholar)
It is actually impossible to speak adequately about Hendrik Otremba's works in the chronology that coherent writing demands, since a chronology in mentioning means in doubt: hierarchisation. Yet he thinks and creates his works - collages, poems, paintings, stories, photographs, performances, novels, songs, drawings [excerpt, in alphabetical order] - side by side, with each other, in the best sense of the word.
But order results from the recurring motifs, topoi, figures, known and imagined, which move through Otremba's oeuvre as if they led a life of their own. There is Romy Schneider, for example, who in Otremba's ink and watercolour drawings sometimes looks at us directly over her shoulder without expectations ("Romy X", 2019) or refuses that look in a larger-than-life way and instead dreams herself serenely and forlornly into the void ("Romy", 2018). We have long since encountered the actress elsewhere in Hendrik Otremba's work: Together with his band Messer, he dedicated a song to her ("Romy" on "Im Schwindel", 2012), recorded her diaries to music - and on a smaller scale format, she enriches one or another record collection, as painted by him on the cover of the group's second LP ("Die Unsichtbaren", 2013).
Painting, drawing, making music, writing novels - Hendrik Otremba is self-taught in everything. He comes from the Ruhr region and here from a Do-It-Yourself subculture, the circle of friends replaces the net and double bottom. Otremba proves himself, still, one direct line are the Geniale Dilletanten [sic!]. He calls himself an impostor. One doesn’t really want to believe it when you follow what he creates from the periphery. His texts have been published in journalistic, artistic and literary contexts, his novels Über uns der Schaum (2017) and Kachelbads Erbe (2019), for example, by Verbrecher Verlag and Hoffmann und Campe. His paintings not only adorn gallery and collections walls, but also (his own and others') record and book covers.
If writing and painting are really rather solitary activities, Hendrik Otremba collaborates extensively elsewhere - as a musician, curator, in excursions also cinematically.
He then brings his circle of friends back in and weaves them together without claiming the nodal point for himself. Here, too, it is a matter of a next to each other, with each other.
Nowadays, after a longer stay in Münster, Westphalia, Hendrik Otremba lives in Berlin. From there he travels his old home country and the world again and again, and when possible, returns with new (versions of) motifs, topoi, figures to the rehearsal room, to the desk, to the large cardboards on which his papers are fixed for painting. Here, at the improvised easel, Hendrik Otremba mainly uses ink and watercolour, but also oil and acrylic paints. Among other things, he paints sceneries that, although they are depicted without people, hint at protagonists in the titles: "Sie kommen" (2020) or "Das Gebiet des Tauchers" (2021). Inevitably, looking at these pictures raises the question of the story linked to them and at times the pictures almost seem like cliffhangers; after all, there are cross-connections across works and formats, which even the artist, as he explains, often only discovers in retrospection.
Even his abstract paintings, such as "Seelenfeld" and "Seelenfeld II" (2020), exhibited here, can be read as part of the whole in the play of light and shadow, as shown in Jalousie, another leitmotif.
Otremba's portraits leave an impression, the more anonymous as well as the better known, masked, sheltered, bare. It is hard to guess what occupies the pallid figure in "Jenseits der Pestfelder" (2019): Is it still just life, or already death? The controversial avant-garde artist "Hans Bellmer" (2020) looks only just past the viewer. He looks as if he is about to utter a contradiction. Once again, the play of light and shadow can be seen in his face, and here, too, one thinks one might recognize the structure of the blinds. It is faces marked by life that seem to appeal to Otremba, sometimes haggard but always taken seriously. Even when it says in the title: "Selbstportrait als trauriger Clown II" (2020).
Interview between Hendrik Otremba and Dr. Jonas Engelmann (author and publisher)
JE: I first got to know you as a musician, then as a painter, and then as an author. As what do you see yourself primarily?
HO: I don't really want to decide, and in the end I don't have to. In practice it turns out that there are phases in which one is more present, and then again the other. Perhaps that also has to do with my own development: First there was painting, I've always been doing that, actually, and then came Messer sometime ten years ago, which has been a completely different experience - with a public, concerts, press, new people, a new environment. The first years with Messer were exciting and turbulent, and at that time painting gave me a lot of balance and peace, and then was quickly connected to the music. I painted the covers for Messer, but also T-shirts and posters, and the other band members always supported that. Writing novels only took center stage in the last five years or so, and right now I feel like that's how I would answer your question: I'm a writer. But I'm also noticing right now how I'm thinking about a new record with pieces of music that I've picked up over the years, and how my painting is also becoming more and more again, and the formats are becoming larger. But yes, in the end I like to do it all, also because, despite some points of contact, they are so different; and above all they offer me such different experiences: calm, excitement, publicity, retreat, recognition, oblivion, money, destitution. I'm also glad to be able to go somewhere else if things get uncomfortable in one of these places. It doesn't do me any harm and quickly takes my mind off things.
JE: There are various cross-connections between your work as a musician, author and painter; "Kachelbad" (translated "tiled bathroom" but here used as a name) is the title of a song by your band Messer, a painting from 2018 and part of your latest novel Kachelbads Erbe (Kachelbad's legacy). Are these deliberately placed trails between the different media?
HO: That can't be said unequivocally. Sometimes there are concrete references, but there is no need for them to be retraced and resolved in the reception. But I sometimes like to play along, yes, but above all out of passion for the topoi that pass through the transformation of form. Most of the time, however, and that's what's exciting for me, these cross-connections happen of their own accord. For example in Kachelbad, which was at first a quote from the film adaptation of Cronenberg's Burroughs adaptation of "Naked Lunch" and then it became a concrete space in a poem, then also it became the prologue to a Messer record, in which the aesthetic of the whole album was reflected in as well. This was accompanied by an EP and a video that announced the album "Jalousie" and perhaps also broke it down on a motivic level. Eventually, Kachelbad then became H.G. Kachelbad, an old man who freezes corpses in Los Angeles. He is the most important character in my second novel, Kachelbads Erbe, and has since become a close confidant of mine. There is also a painting, "Kachelbad 1988", whose motif appears in the novel. This may seem absurd, but these changes just happen, and I see it as my task to remain open-minded and to observe what happens and how I can capture it. The connections and the meanings that go with them often only become clear to me later, so there seems to be something that knows more than I do.
JE: Not only do you leave traces - whether consciously or unconsciously - between the different artistic forms in which you move, you also refer to artistic traditions. There is the song "Tod in Mexiko" ("Death in Mexico") from the last Messer album, which alludes to the Jewish surrealist painter Wolfgang Paalen, who committed suicide in Mexican exile in 1959, which in turn is closely interwoven with your last novel, which also deals with the death of an artist, the writer Richard Kallmann in Mexico who then transformates in Shabbatz Krekov. Paalen doesn't seem to be unimportant for you, he also worked in different disciplines, as a painter, author, theorist. Is that a tradition in which you place yourself through such references? Especially the associative aspect of many of Messer's texts could certainly be read as surrealist approaches.
HO: Paalen simply blew me away. I don't know about you, but sometimes artists' biographies inspire me at least as much as the work in question, and Paalen, whose joy in experimentation inspired me of course, is one such case: everything that’s contained in this life, how it becomes a means of contrast for the upheavals of the 20th century, that’s incredibly exciting. I read his biography Auf Liebe und Tod (On Love and Death) and then shortly afterwards joyfully experienced how he was rediscovered. In the novel, he became the model for the life story of Richard Kallmann or Shabbatz Krekov respectively, who are one person, although he experienced a kind of amalgamation with Burroughs there. And you're right, surrealism, which I find very interesting in some facets - but rather in the field of literature - plays a big role for me. Most closely in Messer's lyrics, but again and again in digressions, little excursions away from the tangible or in plot relevant dream sequences. In painting, at most when finding a title. In Paalen's work, I like the relationship between enlightenment and knowledge with a simultaneous opening towards the metaphysical, which may also play a role for me. I can't really say if I thereby place myself in a line of tradition, that might perhaps be a bit presumptuous. Let's say: I bow down and take something from it with me on my wanderings. Well, what simply interested me about Paalen were the places in his biography, and finally, at the dramatic climax of his bipolarity, his death in Mexico. When I discovered him, one had to dig a little deeper - nowadays he is being explored retrospectively. But then I really thought: here lies a forgotten treasure. Mexico generally appeals to me, unfortunately so far only through a literary experience, because I haven't been there yet. B. Traven is also closely linked to this place, and not least my favourite author Roberto Bolaño. But back to Paalen: the ambiguity or even the associated refusal to make a decision on what the hell one is now points out possibilities of vagueness, of autonomy, which I find a good impulse for art, especially today, when questions of identity determine discourses. At the same time, of course, there is a sad truth in it: the loneliness of the solitaire.
JE: Beyond concrete traditional artistic lines: Paalen's biography also stands as representative of the outsiders, displaced and exiled. The aspect of the self-imposed or forced outsider, but also transience and death, play a central role in your work again and again. What feeds this view on the abyss?
HO: I would like to say now that what interests me about them is the mirror they represent for everything they are not and are repelled by: on an escape, to exile - and to a certain extent it certainly is. But I'll be honest: here I often fall into utter romanticisation. This finality, perhaps even unambiguousness: what I am doing has brought me here, it allows for no other way in this world; it can just be experienced very intensely and offers a laboratory for intensive reflection on one's own conditions, one's own willingness, but also one's own privileged status. Discomfort lurks at the abyss, of course, but for me it is precisely the place from which views are possible, with which in my perception something can be found out. The abyss is also a good place to overcome one's own urge for recognition, because one, when one approaches figures who are close to it, can also find a diffuse form of humility. But sometimes I also think: I lack intellect, and that's why I'm drawn to places where other spheres invite us to x-ray them, so things that can be explored poetically and thus not through consistent rationality. And then I also think, perhaps to answer the question a little more concretely: these stories have to be told because one should not forget those who have fallen - or jumped - into the abyss.
JE: These stories that have to be told also take place in your paintings. In "Selbstportrait als trauriger Clown II" ("Self-Portrait As a Sad Clown II"), for example, you look at the viewer and at the same time make it clear that you are not concerned with the visible, not with the surface. Is your focus on faces in your paintings also a form of dealing with the question of just what is it supposed to be: Identity? You have emphasised that art especially is a place to ask precisely such questions and to elude explicit answers.
HO: Not really, at least I don't consciously think about that when I paint. Perhaps it is more like, that I actually am interested in the surface, only that there is something hidden there that is unknown to me and then becomes visible. But I can't say that for sure either. I believe that painting is something unintellectual for me, or perhaps at most reveals something that reverberates from intellectual processes. For me painting is more about a feeling that I have. It's not so easy to describe, but when a painting emerges that I like and that stays, then I somehow know. Not because of technical success, but because of a kind of warmth, a kind of flourishing in the process and intermittent contemplation. And then it's just a matter of making the jump. That's why painting is also a particularly intense experience, a solitary effort that leaves something behind most tangibly and can therefore, when something succeeds, also produce the most concrete experience of satisfaction. And it takes place within a manageable, temporal framework. On the other hand, it really puts me in a bad mood when I have worked on something and it doesn't work out. When that feeling doesn't come about. Because I actually have always sought relaxation through painting. I have always perceived the faces as landscapes that can bring something deeply hidden to light and thereby transport something that has expanded in the time of the painted person - regarded from a bird's or moon's perspective. Like the surface of the planet, which shows more and more traces, scars, burns, holes, discolourations. In a piece by Messer it says: "The skin is the canvas of a life / The skin carries off traces of it / The skin, it traces day and night / The skin is beautiful, knows no pardon". That seems to be my painterly programme. And under this skin, there is something that is invisible. There, though, I do not handle the concept of identity. It's more something that simply happens and, at best, is initially far away from thought.
JE: In 2020 you started to paint more abstract pictures, "Jenseits der Wagen" ("Beyond the Wagons") or "Planken" ("Planks"), in addition to portraits and landscapes, where does this turn to abstraction come from?
HO: At first it simply came out of experiments, with new materials, which I had undertaken above all to take the backgrounds for the portraits more seriously. Perhaps, in the meantime, I was a little tired of these elaborate, always somehow hard faces. I was then very attracted by the fact that a narrative emerges without concretely visible people. "Jenseits der Wagen", "Planken" and an early abstract series, "Wellen" ("Waves") - these are all images that make do with a contrast of black and white and are very full, very brutal, and there is very little brightness coming through that points to anything that may lie behind them, or at the edges. Like the motif of the blind, which I was very interested in while working on the Messer record of the same name. In "Wellen" it is the water that cleaves its way, in the "Planken" it’s light from outside. It's probably about the relationship between outside and inside, between shelter and the world beyond this room, about powerful intrusion and collapse. Or even imprisonment and isolation. But these thoughts only ever arise in a more distanced observation. When I plan something it usually comes to nothing. I am convinced that in such a process something takes control that cannot be ordered or commissioned, but that needs the possibility to simply arrive. In my experience, this possibility is most likely to arise when you don't think, when you learn to let things happen. That, at first, is diametrically opposed to writing novels, even though with writing there are moments when you have to let things happen. Those are quite intoxicating experiences then.
JE: Another question about your motifs: Among others there are portraits of Romy Schneider, Serge Gainsbourg or Peter Brötzmann and film quotes, "Stalker" for example. How do these references come about? Are they people you chose for portraits because of their biographies?
HO: I am a fan of people, I deal with some biographies intensively, sometimes over a long period of time and then again and again - simply because a work inspires me, a life path interests me or I see something in the existence of one of these people that occupies me and touches me in one way or another. Over the years, some of these have become leitmotifs, although I am aware that they are myths and not the authentic being. My approach is fueled by some form of media representation and also contributes to it. It started with my first exhibition, for which I deliberately painted a series of small pencil portraits for the first time, a kind of gallery of mostly tragically deceased artists. And that's how it went from there. Maybe that's my version of fan art (laughs). I think, that what unites the aforementioned people is that their lives can be read in their faces, and in painting these faces, this circumstance is then exponentiated and something emerges clearly of what I think I am discovering there. As for Tarkovsky, I can only say that his life and work influence me so much that it has become a kind of private mythology. I have studied his diaries, his film poetics "Sculpting in Time" and film books in great detail, in addition to his films.
JE: You mentioned the pencil portraits of your first exhibition, today you mostly paint in water colour. What is the background for these formal decisions?
HO: There is a very simple reason for this: in the beginning I had no money, so I worked with the simplest means. Then, without expecting it, I sold most of the pictures I showed at my first exhibition, which I mentioned earlier, and then used the money to buy water colour boxes and better paper. That's how I still do it today: when I've sold paintings, I go out and buy new utensils that I might not know yet. In the meantime, fortunately, this is no longer for financial reasons, but has rather become a kind of tradition for me. However, I don't only paint with water colour, but meanwhile also work a lot with ink or mixed techniques, where I also use acrylic and oil.
JE: Finally, let's take a look at your collective art work with Messer: "No Future Days" is the name of your current album, and as the title suggests, your lyrics are very much about time passing, about transience. At the same time, however, the title also contains the defiant "No Future" of punk, which nevertheless carries on, even if in denial. What about you and the passing of time: is your art also a defiant fight against the idea of the future?
HO: It’s certainly not defiant. But yes, there certainly is a tension between romanticising nostalgia, unease about the present and a worried look into the future. But the future always appears in my novels in one way or another, also quite concretely, as a diegesis. Of course I long for a beautiful future, but in capitalism I see only the realisation of dystopias. So, narratively, I'm more interested in the idea of retrofuturism, which allows us to talk about the present without making it the time of the event. And that also allows you to escape from the present in your approach to the material, yes. Like already in "No Future Days", which was just an auxiliary construction for us, more of a conceptual working title, and that was ten years ago: We wanted to make an experimental album between the poles of No Future and Future Days, an album by Can. It never happened, and ten years later the term was still there and then changed its meaning for us in such a way that it was suddenly suitable as a title for a contemporary Messer album. Now there is a complete dub remix album of it available, produced with our Finnish friend Kimmo alias Toto Belmont: "No Future Dubs" (2021). And dub as repetition then turns the clock again. But to come back to the question: Denial is certainly not the driving force here. I see myself more as a time-travelling observer, if you'll allow the fantasy and the accompanying megalomania.
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