top of page

Painting Is a Statement
Thomas Kratz in conversation
with Thomas Thiel

Text by
Thomas Thiel, 2012

Thomas, since 2007, you have devoted more of your art practice to painting in addition to performance and sculpture. What subject matter have you been working on these past years?

The subject matter that you’re talking about—do you mean flowers, nude, square, brushes, paint and wall? I have less and less use for the idea of ‘subject matter’, and the more banal and hackneyed the subjects one puts out there, the more something like ‘eternal’ shines through. So my work is more about a departure from big subjects and ideas.

2007 was the year it finally sunk in. When it comes to the paintings I make in my studio or when I’m performing in public space, I’m coming to appreciate the moment of ‘strangeness’ – encountering something foreign – more and more. The more ‘alien’ the object becomes to me as opposed to ideas and subject matter, the closer I get to it and the longer it stays with me. Ideas and subjects have half-lives and a ‘good painting’ doesn’t. A ‘good painting’ stays alien.


So does that mean you don’t have any subject matter at all? Isn’t that just a statement?

Yes, you’re right, it is a statement. I love statements. Painting is a statement. The subjects you want me to talk about are motivations for the statement of painting, for what it claims. There’s a connection there between motivation and motif. I have the skin, the head, the smile, whatever is falling or flying. Everyone has his or her motivations. It’s more like giving directions: I paint a head.


Actually, it was more the question of motif. You dedicated a gallery in your Bielefelder Kunstverein exhibition to works from the Head series and your preoccupation with portrait. What is it about portraits that interests you?

A portrait, a head, is a surface with character. Something, a being, a sign, looks back—looks back from the painting. I think that’s interesting. The whole thing started in 2004 with my Smiley series. With the portraits, the Head series at the Bielefelder Kunstverein, it’s more about the decision to finish the painting, or the point where I stop. Painting a Head ends when something looks back at me.


Unlike the Smiley series, the Head series has a lot to do with the line between abstraction and figuration. You can’t identify them at first glance, either, only dimly make out faces. Is this a conscious encryption of motif on your part? A smiley is something very direct in terms of a pictogram, the Head is not!

Yes, my paintings in the Smiley series are direct; all they need is two dots, a comma and a slash. ☺ The abstract versus figurative aspect is less interesting to me. What’s more important is the sign and the interaction that goes on there. The image smiles, and you smile back. It’s so wonderfully disarming. And by the time the intellect has grasped it and the smile starts to grin, you’ve already moved on to the next painting, and the next smile. It’s not about realities for me, but an alphabet of artifice.


You’re not creating a representation of reality – that much is obvious. But from the viewer’s perspective: how important is it for you that a viewer recognize a specific subject matter in the work. Does it matter at all anymore or would you say painting itself is becoming the subject?

Your question has a reproachful ‘art for art’s sake’ ring to it. I have no problem with ‘art for art’s sake’ if it’s ‘good’. But actually it goes beyond that. I can’t answer your question about whether or not painting itself has become my subject and motivation. I paint, so I make ‘art’. I paint a head, so I paint a head. With that, I’ve already resolved a lot of the questions that have preoccupied painting. I have communicated something within certain parameters and trust my painting. I trust in the fact that the viewer is following me without me having to speak directly to him or her and without making them my primary focus. It sounds easy, but it took a long time to get to that point.


Could you describe your painting process again in more detail? How do you get to the where to now?

It comes down to the question of how much form and subject matter do I need to ‘get by’ and do the work and how much form and subject matter does the painting need to ‘get by’ and function as a painting. That can be a smile, the color of the skin, the look back…

The Head series, which is painted on jute cloth, is very delicate. The colored ink seems stronger in the weave depending on the amount of light coming through; it’s very vibrant, then it disappears again and you see the dark shadows of the stretcher. The pigment isn’t sitting directly on top of the surface; it’s soaked into the cloth itself. The ink colors the cloth. To work on it, I lay the stretcher flat on the floor and work over the jute with a sponge and paintbrush. After the first coat, I wait until the water evaporates, until I can see what I’ve made and before I can react with a new coat. The result reveals itself very slowly and the drying process often takes until the next day.


At this point, I’d like to speak generally about the presentation you’ve chosen for the exhibition in Bielefeld. The exhibition of your other works follows a chronological hanging scheme, but with Sun and Moon, Nude, Head and Relief, you separated these very different bodies of work and juxtaposed them with one another. What influenced your selection and manner of presentation?

All of my bodies of work, from painting to performance, are developed side-by-side but not simultaneously. For my exhibition at the Bielefelder Kunstverein, I divided the individual series into various rooms, so the viewer is led through various situations that he or she can linger and spend time in, but also leave. What interests me about this is the way back, the second encounter. The architecture of the Kunstverein does not allow you to wander all the way around and through the exhibition; instead it has a guided path that leads to a ‘turnaround room’. I wanted to work with that: with the second look and the backwards movement in the space.


What you’re talking about here is a unity that is broken right at the beginning, I’m thinking of the Checker Pig bicycle installation or the Reliefs in the last room. Would you like to say a few words about that?

I don’t see a break there. The bicycles (Checker Pig) also have something to do with the body, with the desire to stay fit and with the struggle against death. Of course, as an image, Checker Pig is a foreign body. But actually, its construction has to do with the same transience you see in the other paintings on canvas. The parked bicycles give the entire exhibition an air of instability.


Could you explain your selection again in more detail? Why wasn’t the performance part of the exhibition?

You have to make a decision there. We’ve organized a performance at the Kunsthalle’s sculpture park – which is right across from the Kunsthalle – on the weekend of the opening. I don’t like showing my paintings and performances together; in fact it’s best if the two are never within eyeshot of each other. Next to the static image of a painting, the moving image of performance will win out every time.


Let’s go back to the individual bodies of work. What distinguishes the Sun and Moon series from the Head and Nude series in your eyes?

The Sun and Moon series is the body in the exhibition, while the Head series is the head and the Nude series is the skin. The Nude series represents the unifying element, since the skin is the absolute surface and boundary between the self and the other. I find that exciting: the absolute surface of the skin and the absolute surface of the painting.


The vacillation between image and object was already very pronounced in the Nude series, but also in the new Lick Gin series (ongoing after 2011). What interested you about this expansion into the relief?

A relief is so beautifully serious and totally underrated as a genre. I think the move into relief is a necessary step for me. The Nude and Lick Gin series is already moving in this direction. But with reliefs, you also have this question about the necessity of form and object: how little would a painting surface need to for it to suffice as a painting, and what else would it require to ‘get by’ without being an object?


How significant is the particular exhibition presentation and the site-specific interventions into the architecture? You brought in your own curtains and painted the walls and surfaces various colors.

The exhibition space at the Bielefelder Kunstverein is architecturally knotty and the opposite of a white cube. So my exhibition dramaturgy worked with incisions, fade-ins and fade-outs, and the ‘spatialization’ of painting.


Going back to this notion of the body: what form of body representation were you working with in the Sun and Moon series?

There were exhibition visitors that couldn’t see any bodies in the Sun and Moon. I myself see them of course, because I painted them and I have a hard time letting go of ‘the seen’. But somehow, one suspects that Sun and Moon has something to do with the body. Then there’s another aspect altogether, namely the real dimensions of the canvas (all approx. 2 x 2 m). The painting surface is laid flat on the floor and gone over with a sponge and brush, so working on the Sun and Moon is actually much more physical than working on Head.


But even the colors of the Sun and Moon series are very much associated with the body, right?

Yeah, that’s true. Maybe that’s the trick.


Why the open title Sun and Moon? Head and Nude seem much more concrete.

The sun and moon are the horizon that my self, my body, can see and understand. Everything else behind it, in front of it and in between can only be read, understood and grasped on an intellectual level.


The sun and the moon are opposites and symbols of symbolic unity at the same time. So are the siblings Apollo and Artemis from Greek mythology, to a certain extent. Why did you incorporate the latter into the Nude series?

That came straight out of the process of making. I myself always had two different paintings in mind: a skin image in the sense of painting, something completely soft and lovely, and the other that would leave the brushstrokes hard, without blending them. What remains is the question as to how I can get both paintings under one roof, so to speak, and how do I find unity in opposites? Then Apollo’s sister Artemis came to the rescue. Apollo himself and skin are very big topics in art history, especially in painting: Apollo skins the satyrs alive and the painters of history see the paintbrush in his knife.


You talked about the historical significance of representing skin. To what extent do your paintings reflect changed perspectives regarding the body?

The physical definitely comes through in the interaction. I’m less interested in the narrative element, so the sign becomes more important. In a world flooded with images and stimuli, signs have to be very simple and precise. It’s like a samurai – whack! – off with the head – and both smile.

Text by Thomas Thiel for the publication:


80 pages, English/ German, Softcover, 27 x 20 cm,

Texts by Martin Germann, Marcus Steinweg and Thomas Thiel,

With Mousse Publishing, 2012, Milan IT

For the occasion of the solo show LOVE, curated by Thomas Thiel @Bielefelder Kunstverein, DE, 2012

ISBN 978-8-86749-081-3

Contact: Thomas Thiel:

bottom of page