Friederike Feldmann interviewed by Rory MacLean
with Rory MacLean
In looking at the arts, one of the greatest thrills for me is tracing the growth of an individual’s work across a lifetime. I love to see how a childhood obsession or spark of inspiration develops in the creative imagination. I admire the free thinker who turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. So I had to meet Friederike Feldmann when a collector friend told me, “She’s a lonely fighter who has always done absolutely her own thing, with grace and in a good mood. Her work is outstanding.”
On a gusty autumn morning I climbed the four flights of stairs to her Kreuzberg studio. Friederike met me at the door, her foundling cat Paul darting away behind the canvases. Over coffee she told me that she was born in Bielefeld, one of the most provincial of Germany’s larger cities. “There is nothing special about it,” she told me. “The land is not distinctive, nor is the local dialect. It’s best known as the home of Dr. Oetker, the big yoghurt and pudding manufacturer.” Her stable, hard-working parents had no interest in the modern arts, apart from religious music. But at twelve years old Friederike and a friend suddenly started painting pictures: landscapes, still lifes, the neighbour’s dog. I thought I’d found the starting point but Friederike shook her head. Her first brush with painting was just a teenage fad. “Because of my family I didn’t dare to be an artist,” she told me. “It took ten more years of searching, training in visual communication, working in stage design, until I found enough courage to say to them and myself, ‘I am a painter’.”
That moment came at Berlin’s Hochschule der Künste where she did her Masters under Achim Freyer, an influential stage designer. Friederike spent the year deconstructing – reducing – the process of painting. She started with coloured lines, then condensed them to black lines, then eliminated paint altogether by sewing lines onto huge sheets of paper. While working one evening over a bare light bulb the needle holes cast dozens of images of its filament onto another sheet of paper. Unintentionally she had created a multi-lensed camera obscura. “I found it really exciting,” she enthused. Her graduation piece was a large sandwich of transparent and black paper, the latter pierced by hundreds of different-sized holes. In itself it seemed to be ordinary but when hung in front of the gallery window a remarkable, interacting, changing pattern of cloud and sky, window frame and distant buildings was projected onto its transparent side. Her Grosse Abbildung (‘Large Transformation’) was unlike any painting anyone had seen before. It was the antithesis of painting in any traditional sense.
Grosse Abbildung transformed reality in an arbitrary manner so it followed that Friederike – in her intuitive, exploratory and ambitious working method – should select the images for her second important work. “As I never studied art, I lacked a knowledge of its contemporary history,” she told me. “To teach myself I choose 150 paintings from the last thirty years – my age at that time – and repainted them as A5 size water colours.” This startling work Sammlung Feldmann (‘Feldmann’s Collection’) again provided a multifaceted perspective. More importantly, by rerendering the works of modern artists including John Cage, Blinky Palermo and Gerhart Richter, Friederike began her lifelong exploration into paintings of paintings and of archetypal images.
The innovation of Sammlung Feldmann earned her a grant from the Berlin Senat, enabling her to quit her day job in the cloakroom of the Deutsche Oper. But it was her triumph at the influential Art Forum Berlin which really made her name. Her Orientteppiche (‘Persian Rugs’) – was a hit of the show, exciting collectors and curators alike. In this series she again transformed well-known images – this time traditional carpet designs - capturing their energy and religious power, painting them in miniature in thick oils. “I like to create something that seems at first to be familiar,” she said, “but on closer inspection is new and totally unknown.”
A decade later her stunning one-woman show Neue Teppiche – Ten Years After brought her home to the Kunsthalle Bielefeld. This time her carpets appeared to be worn and threadbare, reduced as if by time to only a suggestion of pattern, painted with silicon on jute. Again she used her age as a measure, drawing attention to the passing years through the vanishing image. The delight of the transformation, and her self-mocking humility, made me laugh out loud. I asked Friederike if she chuckled as she worked. Her gentle hooded eyes, full of curiosity and child-like vulnerability, flashed. “That is my secret,” she smiled. “But let me say that to get to this point of my creative life has been very hard work.”
In between and after the Teppiche series, she crossed and recrossed the boundary between representational and abstract art. She explored more cultural clichés by, for example, painting framed alpine pictures on the outside walls of mountain houses and recreating baroque altarpieces in sausages of coloured silicon. Her most recent works are wall paintings which advance her passion for deconstruction, and the structural elements of painting, by totally negating the picture’s centre, leaving only a rim of ox blood red on the wall.
“My earlier paintings were about cultural phenomena,” she told me. “But the newer series are more and more about painting and drawing itself, and the process of producing pictures.”
My alarm bells ring when artists lose touch with their subjects, and their hearts. Her present work, which investigates the space ‘between the brushstrokes’, seems to teeter on the edge of the purely conceptual. Yet at the same time it moves me because of her engaging imagination, fervent enquiry and sense of fun.
“I analyse my work constantly, but in images not words. The words come later. Like everyone else, I have a huge archive of images in my head. We often think that pictures and paintings have nothing to do with ordinary, everyday life, but they do.”
Feldmann’s work both confirmed and confounded my expectations, making me look at altar pieces, carpets, familiar and unfamiliar images with new eyes. I learnt from her to see elements of the world as if for the first time. That is a gift.
All images courtesy of Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin