Olaf BreUning, Multi Medium Artist
12.1.14 Shawangunk Mountain Ridge, NY
How can one not love an artist who refers to his multi-medium work metaphorically as a “garden", amazing but way harder to tend than growing just one variety! In my eyes, Breuning should continue to grow his multi-medium "veggies" and keep feeding us!
Olaf Breuning’s recent book Olaf Breuning, a retrospective 1998-2015, is published by Gestalten.
Drawings, published by Verlag für moderne Kunst , will be released Nov. 2016.
Interview & Photos: Kate Orne
UD: Tell me about your place up here.
OB: My house is kind of like a spaceship that landed on 43 acres of nature with beautiful views of the Catskill Mountains. I love having these big windows. It was built in the 1960´s. We have been here for three years now.
UD: How did your childhood influence your work?
OB: I had very open parents. They supported me to be creative; my father gave me a camera when I was 16 and that kind of started the whole process of me becoming an artist. Unlike some of my artist friends, I had a really beautiful childhood. It seems that they have more of a need to work out their issues through their work. I always complain to my father that I have nothing to complain about. [Laughs] As a result, I can be open and free to work on whatever I feel like without having to dig deep inside of myself, I guess.
UD: As a multi-medium artist, is there any medium that does not interest you?
OB: Hmmm…When a specific medium helps me to tell the story, I use it, no matter what it is. Of course, I wish I could paint like Picasso but since I don't have the skills or the patience to spend 8 hours a day in front of a canvas, I stick with stuff I know or feel like I am able to learn. But there are times I wish, if we speak metaphorically, that my "garden" would be narrower, so I only had to tend to my "potatoes."
A lot of my artist friends, let´s say painters, they take the time with one medium and get to know their paint and canvas intimately. But I have a lot of different "veggies" to tend to; I have to maintain all those mediums. But for me, again, it's about the idea, the story I want to tell, and I use whatever fits that story. It can be bricks, aluminum, marble, etc. A lot of my energy goes into learning how to do it, and sometimes I wish I could just walk in the morning to work on, for example, a canvas...for eight hours…and that's it. That would be a little easier. [Laughs]
UD: Do you think part of your work is about this learning process?
OB: Yes, definitely. There are practically unlimited possibilities to do anything you want, and then you find the right people to help you produce it. Next year I will do a big concrete sculpture in Switzerland. I've never worked with concrete before but I found a guy who will manage the production. Last year I did these huge sculptures of metal in Toronto. I learned so much, which I can apply to projects in the future.
OB: I want to be flexible. It's important to be able to move from one medium to the next. If photography goes out of style I can easily switch to a different medium; the most important thing is the idea. What "clothes" my creations wear don't matter. I’d rather leave it open as the world continues to grow and transform.
UD: Do you pay attention to the demands of the art market?
OB: To be an artist is my business. I love the very personal aspect where the artist creates — that's the part I love. Then there is the business part. The moment when my work is shown at art fairs and galleries, that's when it becomes more political.
If I were independently wealthy, I would just say, "Fuck you," and just sit in my studio and create. That’s probably what I would like to do. But the business part is a reality...it's also very important to me to remain an artist at heart and not become a businessman. A few of my artist friends are very financially successful, they also have 10-20 employees. They are practically entrepreneurs with payrolls and overheads. I will try to maintain my one-man show as long as I can, and still try to be smart about it.
UD: I get this sense that you feel like you spend a lot of time sitting around doing nothing, that you don't see yourself as a prolific artist.
OB: Yes, that's true. The funny thing is when I look back over the last 15 years I do see a pretty big body of work.
UD: It's pretty impressive.
OB: At the moment I'm working on an exhibition for next year at Metro Pictures in New York. The process is very slow. If every day I have one or two good ideas to add to the whole concept, that's good. And then, sure, as in situations like now, again I feel I should have become a sculptor or focused on a medium that is more hands-on. But I sit here in my studio behind my computer, listening to music and try to... create…and that sometimes is not feeling very productive. It probably is but in another way...
UD: Looking at your Mammoth piece, The Complaining Forest —nature appears to have an influence on some of your work.
OB: Yes, yes. Interestingly enough, I was more attracted to nature before I had this house. Now nature is just part of my life. I love to be in nature, I love the feeling, the energy, but being here, it also tells me, "There is no need to start to talk about it in your work." For the moment, I am still more interested in talking about crazy things, human things, and artificial things. Maybe an anti-reaction to being here...
UD: So how does spending time up here affect your creativity overall?
OB: Yeah, sure. To me the key moment of being an artist is creative. Those small flames of ideas come out of me mostly in the morning when I wake up. In the city, I always go outside for breakfast when I can sketch ideas down. It's hard to allow those flames to burn when I'm constantly interrupted with daily stuff that needs to get done.
Up here it's different. I can change the scenery, walk around without distractions, I can experience my land. I like to sit and watch the view of the Catskills Mountains with a notebook. It's nice here; I can wander around instead of sitting behind a computer. I can walk around and sit down where I please and just be…I don't feel nature has a direct influence my work. But it helps me to create.
UD: You don't appreciate when people make historical art references to your work or critics who name drop to sound smarter than they are.
OB: I actually did a few works where I referenced other artists, like my Marilyn series influenced by Warhol. I guess I have sort of an allergy to the contemporary art scene in general. Some of my artist friends, their whole focus seems to be that art bubble. For me, I am kind of bored and disgusted by it. Not about the people, I love the people in it. But more the mechanism of contemporary art that right now is extremely market-driven. I don't find common sense in a lot of work out there, like what is really good and what isn’t. The art world seems to be more interested in what's currently in "fashion."
To me, a big part of the art scene is a group of people running behind each other, deciding all of a sudden a white cube with some random paper inside is it. You don't know what it is when you look at it. And then you think, "Oh really?" That bullshit I just can't take anymore. I am very critical about stuff like that. I see that politically-driven mechanism among some curators and influential people when they start to determine what the market needs, and then everyone jumps on the bandwagon. It's boring to me. You go to one show after the other, and there is always the same people and the same conversations. It's really hard not to think, "Oh no, not again." I always love when I feel engaged with the powerful language of the artist; it doesn't matter what the idea is behind it - if it's academic or some nutty conceptual thing. I would rather be someone who has his point of view rather than someone that just says, "Oh great, great, great" about work that has no real substance. I am aware my honesty might not be a smart move; maybe I would be more successful by shutting up. [Laughs] But I feel more comfortable speaking frankly about what my experience is.
It's not about complaining; it's about being honest. After all I am aware I don't know more than others — things are not "black and white" and there are loads of various shades of grays. The art world is not that simple, it's very complex. I'm just an artist and try to be just that.
UD: "I don't give a damn." Does this mindset help you to block out all this "noise" that we spoke of earlier today?
OB: I just try to be efficient with my energy, being focused on what I'm interested at the moment. That's why I might sometimes come across as someone who doesn't give a damn. In the city I don't go to new openings every night. I’d rather stay in my studio, in a way to hold on to what's inside of me and remain focused on what matters to me. In this world we live in it’s necessary not to become saturated with information that we don't want or need. It's like curating my time and what I choose to be exposed to. It's all about a sense of balance.
UD: What's the most difficult part of being an artist?
OB: I think the hardest experience was always when you stick with ideas, the moment when you feel you are not sure how to reach the next step. I also know from experience that with some time I will have something. Maybe that kind of feeling of being stuck helps to reach the next point in the process.
UD: Are politics important to you, in your work?
OB: Being a human is politics. Whenever we want something - power, greed, money, etc. - that's part of the equation. I don't purposely go out to make political statements; I am more interested in the human aspect and a universal statement. I was just in Israel for three weeks. The last thing I wanted was to think about the politics between Israel and Palestine. I instead focused on my work.
UD: Like Oh my God on the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, which has such a universal message.
OB: Like Oh my God. I think all my work can be perceived on some level as being political. I try to focus on the human aspect, what it means to be human. Here are two cultures that hate each other but also have to live with each other, and that is more in line with my interest and approach. I am not interested in taking positions but instead look at it from a larger perspective. That is the perhaps the reason it seems I don't have any political interest, because politics always stinks due to the primitive decisions humans make for their selfish gains. I would never want to be a politician.
UD: How did Oh my God come about?
OB: It was a kind of a simple idea; here we have this world famous Wailing Wall, built approximately 2000 years ago, yet nature has existed since 3.8 billion years. I was interested to see the plants growing out of it, between the cracks. Here is an example of man building a wall for religious purposes while nature is growing and pushing out of the cracks in between the stones. I asked myself, "What would nature say if it could speak to us? Perhaps spell out a message?" Oh my God has both a comic slant present in our daily language while also addressing the religious conflicts over the centuries between the Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
UD: What's your current mindset in terms of projects?
OB: I am striving to create something really new, something that is very contemporary.
UD: That's interesting; to me the majority of your work has a strong sense of newness to it, what's different this time?
OB: I'm trying to catch the present time in a sense, encapsulate it within a universal language. Remember a few years ago I focused on Chinatown and its cultures, because China was so much on everybody's mind. "China is coming…China is taking over the world." But then a year later people were not speaking about China so much anymore. So I am trying to create something that speaks more about something timeless but still relates to today. I want people to be able to relate to it equally as much today as they will in the future. It's a big challenge, remember I don't only grow "potatoes" in my garden! If I did, I could just paint them in blue instead of green. [Laughs]
UD: That slipped my mind for a moment, thanks for reminding me. [Laughs]
OB: A lot of artists just have one or two ideas in their lives that they base everything on; perhaps it's an idea that brought them a lot of success so they stick with it, reproducing the same concept over and over again. I could never be happy with that. In the next 30-40 years I want to feel like I re-invent myself each time, but it probably won't work. But then maybe it will. [Laughs]
UD: [Laughs] You just have to try, right?
OB: I just have to try. It's quite a demon to deal with. Whichever idea you have, you search Google, and someone did it before. Like last year with Clouds. I had just finished installing Clouds in Central Park, then the first Instagram post came in, and one guy said "Oh, that looks like the clouds the artist in Texas did." Luckily the concept was very different, it was made in 3D but also on stilts like mine.
UD: Well, we are all fed the same stuff via Instagram, Facebook, etc. We all look at the same things.
OB: Today, there is so much archived online. Before you had to go to the library to find out about something. I think we live in very interesting times. It's no longer about a few big things, but about billions of tiny particles of information that influence us.
UD: Will you tell me about Brian Kerstetter, your friend and star of your trilogy Home 1, 2 and 3? He should have his own TV show, the way he communicates through the camera. It's just brilliant. There is also this underlying social commentary on the world as you travel through it together.
OB: [Laughs] Yeah, Brian is a great guy. He was my best buddy in New York for the last 15 years. We hang out every Friday night going to galleries, etc. One night after a few too many drinks I told him, “Brian, I want to do a movie, I need a professional actor." We did test shoots and then we started filming. We had so much fun; I can proudly say I awakened a side of him that he probably wasn't aware of. At one point he got hooked on acting, especially when he had girls following him, "Oh I saw you in the movie,” when he was getting laid on a regular schedule. [Laughs] After the third one, I realized it had run its course.
UD: I must say your work process seems like one big fun party.
OB: It is as long as I work with people. When I do a project, when I do the photographs, it's always fun. That's always the best time. I guess at heart I am a social person; I like to have people around me. I might have to change that in the future, become like my successful friends and have a small factory with people around me. [Laughs]