The Structure of Connecting
An Interview with Holger Kalberg
Throughout the 30 years he has been making art, initially in Germany where he was born, then in Vancouver and London, UK, where he was educated, and now in Winnipeg where he lives and teaches, Holger Kalberg has been attracted to the ways in which paintings are structured. “I’m not a colour guy,” he says, “the organizing principle is always the structure.” He has been consistent in this generating idea, from the “forms and images” in the art books he took from his high school library in Dinslaken, to using architecture as a subject because “it was literally a stage where I could build something.” He viewed art history through a constructed lens; his description of surrealism is that it “was just form creating strange objects in space.” Even the two-dimensional drawn line is susceptible to being remade in an additional dimension. In explaining some early work that had a drawn element, he recognized that “its logic came from the line and I wanted to see if I could turn it into something three-dimensional.” This predisposition towards structure is a way of making; at the same time, if overused, it can be a way of unmaking.
What comes with the idea of constructing a painting is figuring out what are its component parts and how do they fit together. In his conversation about how art gets made, Kalberg regularly refers to the necessity of connecting. (I am reminded of the wonderful injunction in EM Forster’s novel Howard’s End that moves us all in that direction: “Only connect,” the novel tells us. “Live in fragments no longer.”) This inclination is what makes collage so attractive. At one point Kalberg actually built very small, undetailed architectural models that he would photograph and then rephotograph before making them the subject of his paintings. He describes them as “wonky, photo-realistic paintings of very bad models.” In other paintings the collaging that occurred happened in his head rather than in actual space.
Among the tools available to him is what he calls “the grab bag of historical references. It is a way of building images.” When he says that he doesn’t consciously look at other paintings, he is not so much claiming an indifference to the achievements of his predecessors as he is commenting on the way he is able to use the work they’ve done without specifically borrowing an idea from one of their canvases to apply to one of his own. Kalberg, as his work makes obvious, is completely aware of what artists have done throughout the history of art, from the Etruscans to the Renaissance and through to the contemporary period. He is particularly attracted to artists who fall into the early modernist category. His paintings and installations show the inflection of an unusual range of artists, including Giorgio de Chirico, Constantin Brâncus˛i, Barbara Hepworth, Hans Arp, Ben Nicholson, Georges Braque, Naum Gabo, David Hockney and Peter Doig.
So his connections toggle back and forth between the present and the past. The impulse behind this connecting and making is ultimately aspirational. As he says, “I do believe in painting as a form of making something serious.” Like so many artists of his generation, he is obliged to deal with the residual consequences of modernism and its utopian inclination. The dilemma that “painting is supposed to do something” results in an impulse to change the world, and that same impulse comes up against the formal characteristics of painting. The discrepancy is that the doing of making doesn’t always affect the making of change.
In mentioning his time-based toggling, I didn’t refer to what is projected by his present making. The comfort Kalberg’s paintings provide is that at the same time that they look familiar, they also feel strange. You think you’ve seen them before, but then you realize you’re seeing them for the first time. The paintings exist in the moment of the just-about-to-happen. The time sequence of the utopic modernist is the immanent; the time frame for the recalcitrant modernist is the imminent. The latter is Kalberg’s domain. His intelligently intuitive operations within this complicating structure of the wished-for and the made have resulted in paintings that have about them a resistant, awkward and thoroughly persuasive beauty.
The following interview was conducted in Winnipeg on June 14, 2018.
Border Crossings: What made you come to Canada?
Holger Kalberg: I came to Vancouver when I was 25 because of a relationship, which ended after three years. But I wanted to stay. In Germany my plan had been to go to university or to art school. I was basically in the waiting circle for the Düsseldorf Academy, where I had applied straight out of high school when I was 19. I got into the art scene there by meeting some cultural workers and artists, people who did a socially engaged practice. I was young and I wanted to change the world.
Was thinking about what an artist could be an important question for you in Germany?
It’s odd because the eternal struggle for me as a painter is that painting is supposed to do something, but if I’m honest, it was really a formal aesthetic thing in a lot of ways. The initial impetus was nothing less than to change the world. I wasn’t really into Beuys, but he’s from that region and he was a very strong influence in terms of what art is and what art does. For him, it was a social project. I was too much focused on making things rather than being engaged in bettering society. I studied literature for one year while I was waiting to get into the Academy. They let in a very small number of people and my portfolio was so horrible that I burned it. I was told I had to wait four or five years, to keep applying and eventually “they will take you.”
Beuys said as soon as you start to stretch a canvas and think about painting, the gig is already over. So if you were influenced by him and you end up being a painter, then you had already created a problem for yourself.
Absolutely. That became apparent to me only later on. I think the one thing that really got me on the way to painting was Pierre Bonnard. It was in Düsseldorf or maybe in Cologne where I saw a Bonnard painting of a scene on the balcony or maybe on a patio, with streets and beautiful foliage. It was just pure painting, the kind of work that I can’t do but that I’m most drawn to. The edges are soft, everything bleeds into every other thing, and it’s the total antithesis of how I make a painting. But that stuck with me as a 14-year-old and I knew then that I was going to be a painter. I remember that over the four years I was in high school, I went to the local library and I basically picked out every art book in it. I didn’t necessarily read them all; I just picked them off the shelf, took them home and looked at the forms and images. Everything from Etruscan art to Henry Moore.
Did you have an aptitude?
My thing was drawing and I was okay at it. I graduated with the highest mark in art, which was a very different high school exam from high school here. You had a half-hour oral exam in front of a panel of your teachers with the director of the school present. As an 18-year-old I remember having to give a presentation on the development of art from impressionism to post-impressionism. But that saved me because I got my high school diploma and then I was able to go to university.
When we talked seven months ago you used the phrase “a grab bag of historical references.” But I sense that you don’t actually reach into it to pull out a specific reference. Is it that it contains all of what you’d seen and those things might emerge when you’re making a painting?
Yes. It’s a way of building images. I can’t escape it and while I’d like to be able to, I can’t really trick myself. I know what’s coming, or I know what’s around the corner. I think that’s why I’ve shifted my style again and again. It’s a way of keeping myself on my toes, of staying alert when I’m making things. I had some early success with a nostalgic, modernist architectural phase, but I knew it had run its course. Pictorially, there was nothing left to explore. I didn’t know where to go from there, so I went into the bowels of painting, which cost me a gallery in Geneva. I remember their coming to London for a studio visit, and it was clear that the direction I was taking was not something they were interested in.
What was it that initially attracted you to architecture as a subject for making images?
I think it was literally a stage where I could build something. I wasn’t so much interested in the narrative. That’s why there were no figures. It involved that period when it felt like modernism has run its course. I think the overarching theme in all of this stuff is modernism and its remnants and outliers. More recently I got interested in the Whole Earth Catalog and Stewart Brand. There is a relationship between theosophy and spirituality in modernism and early abstraction and hippie culture. There are connecting points in those things. Not to say that the work is trying to illustrate any of that; it was just for myself as a starting point for the work. I wanted to create something by making sense of it and finding interesting formal and aesthetic elements within those connections.
I look at some of those architecture paintings and think of Peter Doig, and then the crazy palm trees remind me of David Hockney.
That’s maybe the German love/hate relationship with America. America figured large when I grew up in the ’80s in ways that were both positive and negative. It was culturally a very important place. I remember going to see shows in the ’80s where there was a cultural exchange between German and American art. But it was also the height of the Cold War and America was not always a positive force in Germany. I was involved in student demonstrations; we were very much afraid of being on the front lines of a cold war. So that influenced my early thinking. But when I came to the West Coast, all of a sudden there was that horizon. It’s not like that at all where I grew up. It’s a steel and coal mine kind of place. So I think there was that attraction. Still, to this day, I haven’t been to LA; I would like to keep the fantasy version intact.
There are times when you are actually doing domes and Buckminster Fuller enters the picture.
He’s the archetype of that hippie inspiration and I think that’s where the Whole Earth Catalog came in. In late modernism there is a shift away from a grand narrative, towards the individual, and towards a do-it-yourself way of changing the world. Stewart Brand and others have written that a lot of the issues we’re dealing with started with the ’60s. People like Steve Jobs come out of that thinking, and he has really influenced the way we react to the world. It’s utopian consumerism: through buying you create a better world.
Is it more likely for a German artist to want to change the world because of what happened during the Second World War? Germany is now the European country that is most open to immigration.
Germany has accepted millions of refugees over the last few years but there is a backlash. So it’s not all roses. But there is no question that atonement for earlier sins definitely figures large in German history. I don’t know how it is now, but it was still the case when I grew up. During the last three years of high school, we had visits to concentration camps built into our curriculum. Everything pedagogical that dealt with the history of Germany and the Third Reich was accompanied by that awareness. I think that is a very positive thing, but there are also people saying, “It’s enough, our generation was not responsible for all this.”
So your utopianism was planted pretty early? “Utopia” is such a fabulous word because it means “no place,” so it’s an aspiration and not a realization.
It’s this never-reachable place that you can’t really create, and if you could it would most likely turn into a dystopia. I’m very much aware of that striving towards something unreachable. It’s this thing on the horizon that you never get to. I think art does that. Deep down there is that impetus of wanting to create, wanting to do something better, to shape. Modernism had the idea that you can change human behaviour through design and form, and while it seems silly to think that building better buildings could have that kind of effect, when I walk into a space I’m immediately attracted to its structure and logic. It makes sense and I think it still holds value.
I want to get at the relationship between how you make a painting and how you think about what a painting is. Do they usually begin as an abstraction, which then evolves into something that could be a still life or a portrait?
Yes. Deep down even the architectural representations were abstractions to me because they weren’t built cohesively as one picture. In the late ’90s when I started, I was using photographs as source material, but I quickly realized that that relationship was not a good one. So I used it sparingly and then just removed it completely. I still used the outside image but as a collage. Not physically; I just collage them in my head. Those images started by constructing the image in three pieces and in sequence, without knowing what the second sequence would be. I would tape off one side, paint one section and then paint the second and the third sections. There was a collage element that constructed the whole image out of three or four different components. But there was a time lag. I worked on a lot of them all at the same time, so I didn’t know what was going to be in the middle of the painting until I found something, and I would replicate that in a painting. The sky was there and the palm trees were already there, but the building wasn’t there yet.
Do you actually make cardboard models?
Sometimes I do. I did when I was in school, out of Plasticine and things like that. I’d rephotograph them. In the early works I would build architectural models that I deliberately made so small that I couldn’t really get good detail, and then I’d photograph and rephotograph them, and then I actually made paintings of those. They were wonky, photo-realistic paintings of very bad models. I couldn’t get the tower of the airport straight because it was made out of Plasticine. It was like a kid’s model of an airport or a jumbo jet that looked sort of soft.