David Ostrowski: Emotional Paintings
Peres Projects, Berlin
2 May – 21 June 2014
by LILLY WEI
On view at Peres Projects in Berlin, the Cologne-based artist’s four back-to-back, floor-to-ceiling paintings slid into the gallery as if measured for it, even though they were not. This is the kind of coincidence Ostrowski takes pleasure in, even fetishises. They seemed mounted on walls, but the paintings – acrylic and lacquer on canvas and wood – are the walls, somewhat precariously suspended, swaying infinitesimally when approached, part of the general air of impermanence that the artist cultivates. Characteristically spare, the emptiness of the gessoed fields are interrupted by one or two mysterious footprints, a line that does a kind of U-turn, a stray smear or streak of colour, a smudge of black, a piece of wrinkled linen (a material that is usually the support deftly transformed into an image), dust, scraps of paper, leftover wood, or whatever is available in the studio and catches Ostrowki’s singular fancy. Dragged across the floor, scuffed, otherwise marked, bullied, even, they are remarkably intimate in presence, reverberating with cryptic revelations that might seem throwaways, but are not. The show is called Emotional Paintings and each has a title – he uses both English and German, “whatever sounds better” – all prefaced with the letter F, followed by (Musik ist Scheisse); (The best part of the story); (I want to die forever), and (Dann lieber nein).
Lilly Wei met the artist at his hotel in Berlin to discuss the new paintings.
Lilly Wei: I see that you have only four paintings in this show, although they are jumbo-sized.
David Ostrowski: It was a natural increase in the size of the paintings and it was a natural decision to place four works in the show. The exhibitions I had before were intended to show different aspects of my paintings. This one zooms into the paintings. I wanted to think even more, to have a larger playground, even if it is still the same playground. It is difficult to say there is a difference. These four paintings are very connected and made exactly the way I always make paintings.
LW: Were you a child prodigy?
DO: Maybe not, but I have needed to draw and paint ever since I was a kid. I wasn’t as smart as I should have been in maths so I was the guy who drew and painted in school. There was no chance for me, luckily, to be a lawyer; there was no plan B. Right now, there are two things I’m doing. One is to let loose, since I have just started my discussion with painting, and the other is to think harder.
LW: Is your work in any way political?
DO: No, I’m not particularly interested in politics, although I am interested in my family’s past. My parents were expelled from Poland and my grandmother was in Auschwitz. Later, my grandparents came back to Germany. I was once asked how is life in Germany for a Jew today. And I asked myself, how is life in Germany for a Jew today? It’s an interesting question but not really part of my work, at least that I’m aware of.
LW: Are the paintings site-specific? They fit so perfectly into the space.
DO: In no way. I just make work in the studio and what happens, happens. I just decide if it’s good or bad – and I decided that these four were good enough to show. They look as if I had thought about the size, and they feel like walls since they are so close to the ground and ceiling, but it was accidental – they are just the size I painted.
LW: And if they hadn’t fitted?
DO: I don’t know. The same happened with my show in Paris with paintings of the same size – another lucky accident. My job is to do my work, to let loose and see what happens. I never plan an installation; it happens on the spot. I need to have a feeling for my paintings in the space since the second chapter of my work is to install them. That’s exciting for me – and challenging.
LW: You said you like to be surprised by your work, that you consider them successful if they look to you as if someone else had painted them.
DO: Yes, I want to be able to ask, who did that? Who made that show? I always say that I wish there were a neon sign in my studio that would blink “surprise” when I leave the studio if I have made something good that surprises me. Sadly, that doesn’t happen often.
LW: You make only paintings?
DO: Yes, it’s the only thing I’m interested in working on. It’s very important for me to put my ideas and my questions into paintings. The paintings are me, part of my life. And it is challenging for me to see how little information in terms of content, colour and gestures I need to make a good painting, to reach the maximum level of emotion. I quit painting with oil because there were too many possibilities. Now I use latex paint, sometimes lacquer, because there is only one chance to do it, only one possibility, and that’s dramatic. Then I decide if it’s a good painting or a bad one. That can be a very thin line.
LW: Do you ever change your mind about what is or is not a good painting?
DO: All the time.
LW: Do you consider your paintings radical?
DO: It’s interesting for me to hear that some people consider my work radical. That’s not bad, but it’s not my intention. For me, it’s more about painting, about the secret signs of painting. I can see them in other artists’ paintings, even if they are doing something totally different, such as [Willem] de Kooning or [Philip] Guston. Sometimes I think only painters know what is going on in other painters’ paintings.
LW: Would you talk a little about your black painting, F (Dann lieber nein)?
DO: It’s pretty simple. The black was painted over white gesso. I work with very simple, very ordinary materials, nothing expensive – wood, cotton canvas, different paper, leftover materials. It’s important to use all these materials to prove to myself how basic it is, to prove how little information you can work with. I start from zero, and every painting is a new beginning, a new proposal, a new example of what I’m thinking, as I try to reach my own new level. It needs to be a challenge. I always need to trick myself in order to push things forward. I’m right-handed so I try to paint with my right hand as if it were my left hand.
LW: Then why not paint with your left hand?
DO: That might make more sense except that what I want to do is to manipulate my brain. I need to force a break between my brain and my painterly knowledge.
LW: What happens when you make the break?
DO: The aim is to find something I never saw before; for that reason, failures can be interesting. It should be about discovering new works in terms of forms and gestures, discovering a weird gesture. Why is it weird? What could it be? Maybe it’s nothing, a nothing gesture that doesn’t remind me of anything.
LW: That must be rare, to find something that doesn’t refer to anything else.
DO: Yes, exactly.
LW: Your paintings have been linked to the autobiographical.
DO: Because they are not science fiction, but narrative is not my intention. My intention is just to paint. It’s simply an aspect of how I think I should paint my paintings.
LW: You use very few colours here, but blue is one of them.
DO: I use the colour blue only because I hate it the most, so I try to find ways to make friends with it. What is the colour blue? Blue is the beach, water, the sky; blue is positive. Everyone uses blue. It is too easy, so I try to find new ways to put blue in a painting. Green is very similar.
LW: They are both deeply burdened with implications of landscape.
DO: Yes, and I’m trying to find ways to put them in my paintings so they are not.
LW: Do you think of yourself as part of the tradition of reductive painting?
DO: I think about a lot of things, but not while I paint. My paintings are not really related to the history of painting, although it’s good to know what happened in the past and what might happen in the future. They are more related to music; music is my great influence. I listen to really loud music and paint. I try things out to find what I don’t like. It’s great to play around. Then, suddenly, I realise that ideas I thought were so good are terrible. But it’s part of the process, to see what happens.
LW: Your titles are so integral to your paintings that they seem to be part of their visual composition.
DO: They are visual. I thought how beautiful the F is, how amazing it looks. Then I started to think about it. F stands for failure, but that’s not important to me. I thought it was great to have a beautiful letter related to my painting, in this case F, since my paintings are about beauty. A couple of years ago, I used to give bad paintings good titles to see if something good might happen. I need titles. I think it’s a waste of time not to title works. I like to write things down when I’m in the studio and to find the relationship between what I’m reading and what I am making. I use the same titles again and again. I can paint 10 paintings and they could all have the same title.
LW: Like Dann lieber nein?
DO: Yes – then, rather, no.
LW: The word “nothing” crops up often in reference to your work.
DO: “Nothing” is very deep to me. “Nothing” feels to me that it can be too much. I just need to find a way to handle that. I’m a romantic. I try to be positive, otherwise it’s hard to go to the studio without leaving with tears in my eyes.
LW: What happens when you are in the studio? Are these paintings fast to make, or slow?
DO: Right now, as I said, I feel like I have just started my discussion with painting. It’s very exciting for me. It gives me a good feeling in the studio. I’m not always very motivated to paint but the music – it’s very loud in the studio – gives me the illusion that I am. I’m thinking about a lot of things before and after I go to the studio, but while I’m there, I’m reading, listening to music. I drink a lot of juice and painting happens in between. So it’s fast and slow. In the end, everything is to surprise myself.