Greenery everywhere, long paths, a garden in winter. Leif Trenkler is one of the pioneers of New Figuration in Germany, attended the Städel Academy as well as the Düsseldorf Art Academy and cultivates an attentiveness to his surroundings. As we talk together, Trenkler repeatedly plays pleasant pieces by Satie, Debussy or J.S. Bach’s music for the lute.
How long have you been working here?
I’ve been working in Cologne-Marienburg for almost six years, since 2012. Before that, I had a studio in the southern part of Cologne that was more akin to a loft studio. Here I can work in peace.
When I started researching your career and your work I noticed that you are very fond of travelling and on your journeys love to experience …
… new things. What happens is that I get to see things in a fresh new light. If one isn’t always in the same surroundings, but in a new landscape, a new area, then everything you see is changed.
Have you started planning your next journey?
No, not yet. (smiling)
Are you saying you’re rather spontaneous when it comes to making plans?
My wife is a musician and often has concerts; that’s why we like to travel together wherever she’s performing.
Then I use the new area to revitalize myself.
What does a location, new surroundings, have to offer to inspire you to be artistically creative?
It all depends on the location. In China, for example, I couldn’t take good photos; China is more a place for writing poetry. It is difficult to judge when a place is interesting. I take a lot of photos, as you do, and don’t evaluate the ones I think are interesting until I’m back home. On the whole, I like water because it provides pictures with a second plane. I find Arizona interesting because it has good light, or Texas because the light there is clear and bright. The Palatinate in Germany also has breathtaking light.
There are certain light conditions that interest me.
The long days in Lapland I find interesting when the sun is low on the horizon.
A question for someone who was born in Wiesbaden and studied in Frankfurt and Düsseldorf: In how far does Cologne provide you with this special setting?
Cologne by tradition has a very good art scene. Moreover, you are very quickly in Belgium, Paris or Amsterdam. A great many important artists live here in Cologne: Gerhard Richter lives a few kilometers away, Rosemarie Trockel. Cologne offers me a certain freedom, a place where everyone can do what they want – a “Laissez Faire”, so to speak. The city isn’t too beautiful, like Wiesbaden, Munich or Düsseldorf, for example.
Is it possible for a city to be too beautiful?
Yes, in Italy there are hardly any modern painters or artists left because the cities are so beautiful and so many artists have already painted them.
If a place is too beautiful, there is no thrill left for an artist to paint, no contradictions.
Space is opened up through the fragmentary. If everything is beautiful and perfect, then there is nothing left to paint, because painting is about one’s own inventions, depicting something that isn’t there. If the scene before you is too beautiful, you can simply lie back and enjoy, you don’t have to do anything more.
What role does the theme “Heimat” (the place one calls “home”) play in your pictures – in contrast to exotic themes which you also depict?
Karl Lagerfeld comes immediately to mind when you ask something like that. He once said: “The place I call home is within me”. When I travel, I take my mental, my spiritual home with me. When I travel, I realize what interests me the most, because I have a clear image in my mind. In this way, I notice details which I wouldn’t see otherwise, when I’m walking, for example, through the center of Cologne or in an area I’m very familiar with.
What role has networking played in your career, especially in the Rhineland, for you as an artist?
This subject used to be of greater importance to me, in the 90s and on into the 2000s. In the meantime, many artists have moved on, to Brazil, France, Berlin, and as a result, the older one gets the wider becomes the networking circle. Because so many painters live in Cologne, discussions on the painting are perhaps more prevalent – but my network of contacts is spread over the whole of Germany and even beyond, from Leipzig to Zurich. Essentially it’s a regional matter, it’s true, but one finds out where good art can be found: What is happening in Dresden, France, Holland? I’m also very interested in many artists from the past and spend a lot of time researching in books. For me, networking is bigger than purely physical networking and goes beyond those people who are alive today.
Which dialogue partners have influenced your work?
I’ve been influenced by the whole of art history, from the Early Renaissance via Abstract Art from the past to contemporary art. For example, when I began to paint figuratively in the middle of the 80s, the director of the Städel Museum came to my studio and said that my then work was anachronistic and asked why I was painting in this way – he said people were no longer painting figuratively and something quite different was in fashion. Nonetheless, I continued to concentrate on Figurativism and decided that it wasn’t a matter of painting in a representational manner or abstractly, but that both held the same value for me. When I paint a picture, completely different things are in the foreground; it’s about composition, layout, which color corresponds with which. Of course, over the years I have studied a great many artists. I have had many exchanges of ideas with fellow students with whom, to some extent, I still correspond with today.
Keyword – digital dialogue: So far I haven’t been able to find a website bearing your name. Is this a conscious decision?
It’s true, I don’t have a website. Actually, it’s galleries which put together websites for their artists.
As far as I’m concerned I have never found it particularly desirable to have a website of my own.
Firstly, looking after it is very time-consuming and, secondly, I think it’s the task of galleries to put an artist’s work online.
In that sense then the way to reach you is always via galleries?
Yes. I’m more relaxed, calmer and think that good pictures and the qualities they possess will find their way online without help from me. For the time being that’s enough with regard to the digital presentation of my works. After all, there is a world of difference between seeing a picture on the internet and having it before one’s own eyes.
Leif Trenkler, „SÃO PAULO“, 89 x 116 cm, 2017, Oil on Wood
Do you distinguish between a stimulus which is analog and one which is digital? As far as you are concerned is one a truer, a better stimulus?
When you look at a particular picture – live, so to speak – then it’s a totally different sensation to seeing it online. There you can’t really grasp it in any true sense. A picture you can look at in daylight, at sunrise and sunset, from different angles. I am thinking here of Dutch artists who painted in the semi-dark…
… but when you consider the fact that one can exactly imitate an analog experience with VR glasses – with that in mind is it worthwhile for galleries to pay for exhibition rooms?
Yes indeed, some gallery owners are, of course, asking the question whether it makes financial sense to put on exhibitions. Shouldn’t one leave this task to museums or municipal art galleries? In my opinion, people like to look at art online, if they find a picture interesting. But the majority still enjoy going to an exhibition to see a painting before acquiring it.
It’s the current topic of discussion: Of course, I inform myself online to find out what a gallery in Los Angeles is doing, but without the gallery, there wouldn’t be the pictures and consequently the website. In that sense, art galleries still have a purpose.
One can inform oneself online extremely quickly, but it’s a very superficial way of seeing.
Of course, we are in an age of information – one gathers a great many impressions and is therefore quickly sated by everything imaginable. In the end, one can’t remember what one actually found so good. For the same reasons towns and cities are losing population and people no longer make their purchases in shops but order what they want online. I don’t know whether the attractiveness of the “tactile” gets lost if people stay at home with their computers and smartphones and simply have everything delivered to the doorstep.
And this leads to the question as to how far “art” encounters can still take place?
This is, in fact, becoming ever more difficult. You take your first look at people on Facebook and judge whether you want to have anything to do with them (both laugh). It’s becoming more and more difficult to meet people because they are already sated. I think this will go in the other direction at some point because people will lose interest in what is happening now. (laughs).
Do you notice that in your everyday life, that you are overexcited about this and that?
Of course, I allow myself to be easily distracted if I want to have a break from painting. With me, though, the feeling of being overstimulated isn’t very great, I don’t possess a smartphone, for example, I don’t want to be tied down. Because if you are painting, one would like to choose a certain detail. A picture is neither a video nor a photograph – you want to select a certain section of what you see around you and have a completely different perspective.
The picture has to be around for a few hundred years if it’s to be good.
It’s supposed to remain interesting. As a painter you look at it time and time again – this is a completely different quality of seeing because it’s supposed to be about stimuli that go deeper. I don’t want to be oversaturated. I’d like to be in a position to look at landscapes and enjoy them.
This is an interesting differentiation, namely looking at the quality of stimuli.
Yes, it is supposed to be a different way of seeing – sometimes you need 20 to 30 years before you can paint well.
Painting is about total immersion, a visual philosophizing.
How do you feel when you look at an empty canvas?
(laughs) I feel good because I already have in my head the finished painting I’m going to paint on it. It’s not the fear of the goalkeeper facing a penalty kick; on the contrary, I already have images in my head. Sometimes it takes years before I can actually paint these pictures. I have so many in my head that a kind of blockage takes place which lasts until I start painting them. Sometimes if I can’t continue it’s simply because the time isn’t right for a certain subject, then I simply move on to other images.
That is also why I like to paint on wood and not on canvas.
Wood isn’t initially completely empty; it has already grown over time. For me the more important questions are the size and the proportions the picture will have. I only use dimensions that were employed in the 19th century and were tried out for people and landscapes as subject matter. Then it is a matter of how cold and warm colours react to each other. I move forward very slowly and sometimes find myself mixing a colour for three quarters of an hour until I have just the right blue. At some point or other the painting is then finished – it can be a small red brushstroke which finishes off the painting to perfection.
When I look at your paintings I see a great deal of order – architectonic order, the order found in nature. This seems to be confirmed when I look around your studio, am I right? Every brush seems to have its proper place …
… well, it’s like this, I emerge from a state of chaos and try to create a certain order. (laughs) There are so many ways of doing something, which is why the painter has to create a certain order, in order to provide an ordered context for his painting.
In spite of the stringent order your pictures have a lightness about them, a playfulness even …
Yes, this lightness is something I want to achieve. When I was between 20 and 30, I painted dark, somber pictures, as heavy as the “Sorrows of Young Werther”… (laughs) In the course of time, I became more colorful, lighter.
Achieving this lightness is a slow, tedious process.
At the end it appears to have this lightness for the viewer – and that is the intention. As a painter I would like to impart a certain beauty, an optimism for the world. This world offers us enough difficult issues and challenges, which is why I prefer to create something light and positive, which incidentally requires a great deal of skill.
Interview: Eva Karl, Photos: Eva Karl & Leif Trenkler. Reproduction or publication of the pictures and the text – even partially – requires written permission.
Many thanks, Leif!
Here you can find further information about Leif’s vita and work.
Leif’s most recent work is on display at stand L05 at Art Karlsruhe from 22nd – 25th February, 2018.
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