18 Jun Bernhard Martin
Between Disney and Tarantino
Photos: Kevin Mananga
All the clichés of a bohemian fit the artist. Since he was fifteen, Bernhard Martin has given free rein to his sheer unbridled thirst for adventure. Unconventionally and excessively, he follows his ideas about art. Gambling, drug use, counterfeiting, or life on the streets, simply belonged to his way of life; because “pushing the limits of society” means art to him. Therfore, you can find very unique visual worlds in his compositions, which are represented in the most prominent art collections in the world, such as MoMa in New York or the Arario Museum in Seoul, and his work is regularly presented in equally prominent exhibition spaces.
I try to get to the bottom of the riddles of his often grotesque fantasy world in my visit to his studio in Berlin. The word explosive best describes the multiple currents of thought that swirl towards me in our conversation.
But first, I get to explore his creative space. In every corner of his studio, which exudes the flair of a classical old Berlin-apartment, there is something to discover. Drawn canvases, mixed paints, painting tools, sketches and unfinished paintings show that he is working in the front area, while on the way to the garden it becomes more and more homely and his passion for collecting art becomes apparent. His own works are predominantly and atmospherically staged in the last room in a setting that seems to have sprung from the remake of an English literary classic.
“This is my cabinet with a therapeutic couch. I also sleep here from time to time when it’s late”, he explains. “And this is my representation of the Dorian Gray portrait. Here, the point of view of the image changed the perspective.” [see image below].
So I was intuitively right with the literary classic. As for the content of the painting, it is the change of perspective that triggers this typical irritation, which is an almost stylistic feature of Bernhard Martin’s art. There is always something familiar in it, but then somehow it does not fit with the rest. Why?
Martin: Because I’m not interested in pure representation at all, but rather in illustration, or in other words the mutations, twists, metamorphoses of language, the invention of stories with painting.
E.B.: What do you mean by that exactly?
Martin: You have to see my pictures abstractly. I am myself morbid and mutating. They are fantasy creations that reflect another level of reality. Truth and reality are for me the absolutely most boring things there are. Also in art. For me, the question of meaning, which is hidden behind the pure representation, is much more exciting. Painting, or whatever medium, is just a tool to visually travel to something else: it can be the content or a formal reference to the medium. Like, for example, in the Dorian Gray painting, I visualize the frame as an element of paintings. In other paintings, I visualize the most diverse adventures of thought.
t.l.: Warten auf das Andere (2014), t.r.: Cooks of Harmony (2019), b.l.: Au dessus et en Dessous de l Avant (2020), b.r.: Elysian Fields (2017)
E.B.: Are these your personal or imagined adventures?
Martin: Both. In general, those imagined adventures arise from unpredictable and unassessable encounters, which causes extreme situations. You believe you are not up to it and that presents us with unpredictable challenges; which is the classic adventure that each of us is looking for in some way, but that our now very conformist world hardly has in store for us. We must not confuse adventure with leaving our comfort zone. The only thing that remains, or rather is everlasting, is that which takes place within ourselves, in our imagination. Provided that we are willing to allow it, which is possible as an artist.
In my paintings I visualize imagined adventures, created in my head, but at the same time related to real events or personal reflections.
E.B.: Do you use real subjects in the representation of these fantasy worlds?
Martin: Yes, because the shift of reality to spiritual functions, primarily by placing familiar themes or figures in unfamiliar contexts. A slapstick situation that actually occurs in reality, for exampIe, if I depict the involuntary collision of two people with two cucumbers or two pieces of chewing gum, I simply give the narrative a different direction.
E.B.: Or with four cucumbers and a carrot, as in this painting here?
Martin: Exactly. Cucumbers and a carrot tied to puppet strings, handled by a woman’s hand. The picture contains a lot of references: the relationship man-woman in the manipulating puppet show; the subject of the cucumber as such, the invention of a game with minimal means, the stupidity of the subject in general, social differences, the theme of meatless-vegan or is it perhaps a feminist image? The most important thing for me is always that it is simply a good, and above all a picture never seen before.
Declaration of the painting La Jardinière (2021)
E.B.: As it often happens in your paintings, a positive-looking, but evil radiating scenery is seen. Equally typical is the gaudy, almost kitschy color mood in the dream frequency-like light glow.
Martin: I like to play with the aesthetics of frosting, or at the moment, of powdery; and paint pictures with a user-friendly interface and user-hostile content – a kind of mixture of Disney and Tarantino …
E.B.: To continue this comparison, a tremendous flood of images is typically characteristic. Where do you get the ideas for your pictures?
Martin: From the memory of my subconscious. I’m very attentive to everything that surrounds me; I’m boundlessly curious and therefore permanently in recording mode with all of my senses. Even while I’m working, I listen to audio books, have the TV on, maybe even play a symphony on top of it, and browse Instagram on the side. I’m feeding myself the whole available undigested media offering, so to speak. The result is hundreds of images that I look at throughout the day. I’m an image eater, or perhaps I should say an image hunter.
Image hunter Bernhard Martin
E.B.: And these images then flow directly into your painting?
Martin: Not necessarily directly. I store them in my head, make thought sketches, load them up with philosophical, symbolic or also spiritual thoughts. Then, individual picture fragments want to find their way out of me onto the canvas and an overall scene develops from my imagination. I bet on the surprise effect. Just as in life.
E.B.: But that also brings unpleasant surprises.
Martin: Yes, of course. That’s just part of it. Of course, I also want a life without detours, but if it’s supposed to be exciting, then things can also go wrong sometimes – all of that is an issue. And in the end, it only becomes challenging when the routine gets messed up and then, you somehow manage it anyway. This non-calculable aspect is the most interesting thing. However, to be able to engage with it freely in one’s mind presupposes unconstrained thinking, which usually gets lost in the course of a lifetime under permanent regulations. I instinctively resist this. That’s why my excesses, I hope, will not stop in the foreseeable future. Why should I want to take it easy and grow up? There is no single reason why I would want to do it. I think pushing the limits of society is what art is all about. If I can’t do that, I’ll create my own rules.
E.B.: Were you such a restless spirit even as a child?
Martin: Not restless – alive. I always needed many valves to let my energy flow out. Actually, it’s always about energy transfer, even in art. The decisive thing for the viewer is not that he must necessarily understand it, but that he feels a transfer of energy. Just as you feel in the pub when you’re sitting alone with a drink, with two bores sitting next to you, and you know exactly that you don’t want to talk to them.
Who doesn’t know this situation? But so far I haven’t connected it with contemplating art. The connection of Bernhard Martin and his art, on the other hand, has become apparent after this conversation. The words that immediately popped into my head and can be found published on my social media account encompasses everything that sum up everything retrospectively: “Profound, humorous, quirky, multi-faceted, surprising: the person Bernhard Martin as well as his fantastic visual worlds”.
And that is truly a mixture of Disney and Tarantino!
Dittrich & Schlechtriem Gallery, Berlin: https://dittrich-schlechtriem.com
Choi & Lager Gallery, Köln: http://www.choiandlager.com