by ANNA McNAY
As the name suggests, the artists behind the works prefer to keep their identities hidden. They do, however, have a spokesperson: founding member, Maya van Malden. Studio International met up with her at Art 14 in London.
Anna McNay: I guess, initially, I just wanted to ask you a little bit of background about Artists Anonymous. You’re a collective …
Maya van Malden: Let me just say, I don’t like the term “collective”. None of us likes it. It is the most proper description, because it is true that more than one person may be working on each painting, so you can say it is a “collective work”, but the name Artists Anonymous doesn’t stand for a collective. It stands for an art piece, if you have in the back of your mind the whole theory of a social sculpture that [Joseph] Beuys was talking about. It is also, of course, an experiment, a social sculpture experiment. What happens if you take away authorship? A collective gives the association of there just being some people sharing a studio. That’s not the case. It’s much more complex. It’s about how the collaboration works, but also how it doesn’t work, and all the things that come out of it. I have discovered, for example, that I am the first female painter whose work is judged as if it were the work of a male painter. This has never happened before. You might ask whether this matters. I don’t really care whether it matters or not, it’s just very interesting that, in taking away the authorship, it did. We didn’t know this would happen. We didn’t have this in mind at all. My work, even if I paint a painting on my own, will always be judged as if I were male. This is just one example of how the concept of Artists Anonymous is not so much a collective but more an art piece and a conceptual idea.
AMc: So when did it all start? When did you come together?
MvM: Well, we made up this fictitious founding date of 11 September 2001, and yes, we were already in touch and making art by then, but I think the first show under the name happened in 2004 or 2005.
AMc: And how did you end up working together?
MvM: You know how you get those phases in your life where there’s a crisis, but also a door opening to something new? Everything breaks down and you question everything, and either the phase passes and you change everything, or the phase passes and things stay the same? In our case, we changed everything. Each of us adjusted to a new situation and got on with it and left everything else behind. Willingly or not, it happened. It was a bigger sacrifice for some than for others, but that’s how it happened. So now we work together, we tell each other everything we’re doing and thinking, and there’s a level of shared consciousness.
AMc: So do you see Artists Anonymous as being one author overall?
MvM: Somehow, yes. There’s a Vincent van Gogh quote on our website, which someone sent to us, saying it reminded him of us. It says: “I grow ever more and more convinced that the pictures which ought to be painted, the pictures which will be necessary and inevitable if painting is ever to attain to the serene heights of Greek sculpture, German music and French fiction, will be beyond the strength of one individual. They will therefore have to be executed by a group of painters, who will collaborate in order to carry out an idea which they hold in common.” So what he thought was that, to achieve what he really wanted to, he couldn’t do it alone, nobody can. People should share an idea and work together. And that seems so uncommon in painting, but it’s very common in everything else – in music, in business. Every company has a spokesperson, like me, and a lot of people are making things happen.
AMc: Do you come up with the idea for what you want to do all together before you begin working on it?
MvM: Yes, of course. And it’s the same for every other concern, too. I don’t understand why people don’t understand the process. Everything works like this. If you want to build a road, you have to talk about it first and decide where it’s going. The concept of working like this is totally normal to everyone. And I think a lot of the marketing of art comes out of thinking such as: “Oh, you have an artist genius and no one knows how he does it.” Well, everyone knows how it’s done. It’s not a mystery. And either it’s well done, or not. Either there’s a good concept and a lot of thought behind it, or not. The mystery, I think, lies in the complexity of the work.
AMc: Do you think that celebrity culture and the increased interest in biographical facts about artists is detrimental to the production of the artworks themselves?
MvM: Yes, absolutely. That’s the idea behind our name. Imagine you walk into a room and you see a painting and you think it’s awful. You think it’s absolute shit and it’s not art. And then you walk up to it and beside it there’s a very important name. And then you suddenly think you have to like it. You’re stupid if you don’t like it. You’re uneducated if you don’t like it. Just because the name is there. And now imagine someone put the name there by mistake. You’ve put yourself through all these mental gymnastics, but it was not even true. You forced yourself to accept it as art and to like it, just because someone put the wrong name on it. In realising this, you are able to ask yourself what you really thought. Did you think it was ugly? Or did you think it was interesting and that you would maybe like to know more about why you didn’t like it? Especially with contemporary art, it’s possible you didn’t understand it on your first viewing. It’s possible that it might need explaining. But still, your judgment is valuable. If you think it’s just cheap crap, it might be true, because there’s certainly been a lot of cheap crap sold in the past 500 years.
AMc: Do you not think that your name, Artists Anonymous, runs the risk of becoming a brand in its own right?
MvM: Absolutely. It will become a brand and we can’t do anything about it. But still the public won’t know if this year the paintings have been painted by somebody different from last year. And so people will still be questioning whether or not we have a particular style. How can they tell? Do they actually look at the work? If you take the concept of anonymity seriously, it keeps you awake.
AMc: You’ve made reference before to the workshops of the Old Masters as a model on which Artists Anonymous is based. Is it always just the three of you, or do you also have apprentices coming through?
MvM: Interesting question. No, we don’t. The only apprentice that went through successfully was me, because I wasn’t an artist before. I became an artist by joining – or by founding – Artists Anonymous. The concept of the workshop in the times of Rembrandt was that the painter got paid to educate younger people to learn. Now you have to pay your assistants. So I would have to pay someone to spend my time on him. That’s not going to work. It’s very difficult. Times have changed. I can’t afford to pay someone to then spend my time on him. I’d rather do it myself.
AMc: So what are your artistic backgrounds? You don’t have a visual arts background …
MvM: The other two are typical painters. They went through art school in more or less the usual way. Two of us actually quit school really early – me and one of the others – but we were accepted at university anyway because of extraordinary talent. I was actually trained to be a ballerina. Then I did a lot of other stuff and then painting fell on my head, basically. So then I studied that.
AMc: But you don’t just do painting. You seem to do a lot of other stuff as well: installation, photography, sculpture, video and performance.
MvM: Yes. But all the techniques we’re using, all the media we’re expanding to, are all based on painting. They’re all based on the key technique of invertible painting. To put it very simply, we paint a negative painting, take a photograph of it and invert it, so you have a positive photograph. A lot of people have tried to do this before, but it’s not that easy. If you paint a negative, it looks absolutely stupid, and then the positive looks stupid as well. It took us a while to figure out how to make it work. So, in each of our paintings, there’s a positive image inside, an inverted image that you can take out by photography. And so our photographic work mainly comes out of this process. We’ve also built installations as scenery for our paintings so that there’s a real environment to create a painting from, rather than always using a photograph as reference. You won’t necessarily see this any more if you walk into one of our shows. You might just see a beautiful environment. But, if you know our technique, you will discover all these edges where there’s an overlap to how we paint. We always make fun of it and say it’s Lego art, because you can somehow always fit things together that weren’t planned, but that fit anyway. They’re all connected because one grows out of another.
AMc: So when you come up with your initial idea, it isn’t for the whole exhibition, but maybe for one painting, which will then grow?
MvM: Usually it’s more the case that you have a big idea and you have to break it down more and more until you can say: “This is the painting that I’m doing now.” And then I’ll need this and this and this.
AMc: Do you think that by remaining anonymous you’ve been able to take more risks than an artist with a public face might have been able to? Does it give you free licence, which you might otherwise not have had?
MvM: I don’t think that we have been more radical or more risk-taking because our name’s not on it. I think there have been different – maybe stronger – reactions though. Things get thrown at you when you’re anonymous because no one can say anything back. The real advantage that we have is that we are officially allowed to have a wider range of practice. As a group, even if just one person is painting all of the paintings, who knows? It has given us a lot of freedom. That’s one of the reasons why we do it. A single artist can get so forced to be recognisable, to basically paint the same painting over and over again. As a group, you are allowed to change. As an anonymous group in particular. That’s one of the big advantages. We’ve kept ourselves a certain kind of freedom. You should be free as an artist, because otherwise you’re not doing art.
AMc: Can we go back to the idea, not necessarily of risk-taking, but of the risqué content of your work? With your recent installation at the Berloni Gallery, London, for example, on the surface, everything appeared quite nice. There was an installation with a running stream and a garden with flowers. But then, when you looked a bit closer, it was actually quite disturbing, with references to paedophilia, an axe in the cellar, and so on. Is this sort of subversion normal for Artists Anonymous?
MvM: We have been told that it is. A recent article written about us talked about how the positive and the negative appear in every aspect of our work, so that there’s always an opposition, be it pretty and ugly, human and artificial, whatever. The recent show we had in Stockholm was called ugly=≠beauty pretty never. It came out of a German saying, “Das Hässliche kann schön sein, das Hübsche niemals”, which means: “The ugly can be beautiful, the pretty can’t.” I think this is a very basic thing and the idea of something being beautiful has always to be contradicted. It’s not the truth, somehow. I could also just say that these things just appear, it’s not our fault, they just happen. So, with Berloni, we had the idea for a garden and then the cellar appeared and we had no idea where it came from. Just because this is the reality of things. On the other hand, if you’re making contemporary art and so many people are watching what you’re doing, you have to make sure that it’s not just decorative.
AMc: So is your intention to provoke a response of some kind?
MvM: No, just for there to be some actual concept behind it and some idea and some seriousness, because people actually take it seriously. My experience is that the public is not stupid and the public is not uneducated; the public is interested and really thinks about it. So I had better do my best, if someone is taking me that seriously, to give them something with content.
AMc: In April, you will be having an exhibition, Old Game New, at Jonathan Levine Gallery, New York. Can you tell us a little about the show and what visitors might expect from it?
MvM: It’s a funny show. Jonathan Levine personally is a very, very funny person. And we are always trying to make sure that people see a humorous side to our work too. Often, even with something serious, there needs to be a little bit of humour to help someone take it in and be able to understand it. Obviously, if two parties come together who both share a sense of humour, then something funny arises. You have to imagine a big pop-up book. It’s like you have these 2D installation pieces that come together to form a big picture, basically. It’s something that we’ve wanted to do for a long time – first, because it’s funny, and, second, because we did the biggest painting we’ve ever done for New York, because in New York everything is big, and it was somehow a closed circuit. We built this little model, this little world, and we took photos and let little figures run around and made videos. And we took this as a reference for the painting. So the background for the painting is taken out of this little world. And this model will now be blown up as a big pop-up thing in the gallery, so people can walk through the same environment that appears in the painting. It will be a playful show.
AMc: So there’ll be no nasty things underlying this concept?
MvM: Well, we’ll see! Probably something will come along and we will have to do something nasty. No, I don’t think so. The most uncanny element here is in the blown-up imagery. It has a slightly scary feeling of being disproportional or in the wrong place. So the strangeness is less on a narrative level. Basically the show will just be a lot of fun.
Artists Anonymous: Old Game New will be showing at the Jonathan Levine Gallery, New York, from 3 April to 3 May 2014.