Rory MacLean meets Felix Gephart
‘I believe we should value change in both the artist and the viewer,’ Felix Gephart told me when we met in his lofty Berlin apartment. ‘As long as the artist keeps trying something new, I believe he is on a good path.’
Gephart is in no danger of painting himself into a corner. The 35-year-old, Berlin-based artist is reluctant even to label himself. Figurative artist? Gifted draftsman? Satirical illustrator? Passionate painter? Graffiti writer?
‘It did all begin with writing,’ he said with a laugh. ‘In Bochum where I grew up my older brother used to go out and do graffiti. At the age of twelve I said to him, “Mum won’t like that. I’m going to tell her.” So to shut me up he took me along with him, and it was such a thrill. A month later I visited a friend in Berlin, and painted on the Wall. In 1989 when it came down people started selling fragments of it, with my painting on some of the pieces.’
‘I was never a graffiti bomber. I was more of a Hall of Fame writer, learning tricks from older artists, putting my images on walls and buildings. The sheer scale of the work affected me, making a place my own, driving me to want to create more, to do better.’ Gephart, who has blue eyes, short blond hair and a solid, muscular frame, laughed again and added, ‘But I should stop talking. If I was any good with words I’d have become an author. Let me just show you my pictures.’
After a spell toying with sociology, Gephart studied graphic design at Dortmund’s School of Applied Sciences. His graduation piece – 18 large drawings illustrating Bret Easton Ellis’ psychological thriller American Psycho – was powerful enough to win him a Fulbright Scholarship and place at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
‘When I read a text that inspires me, it takes me right into a picture,’ he explained as we leafed through his startling Old Master-like American Psycho images: a young woman as a giant ant at the dinner table, a mutilated dog with sexy blonde hair, rivals discussing consumerism and branding – their bodies made up of the words Aiwa and Sansui. ‘I don’t want to replicate a story. That would be too tedious. Instead I try to reinvent it.’
Gephart had been drawn to the States by the quality of American illustrators. ‘I thought there must be a source, an education behind this amazing work.’ Once in New York he turned away from his familiar Rapidiograph technical pen, as he had moved on from graffiti lettering in Germany. At the School of Visual Arts he produced Room 101, six haunting images of surveillance cameras, institutional cruelty and Doublespeak drawn from Orwell’s 1984. Created with fine Chinese and Japanese brushes, his paintings were bound into a book, along with Orwell’s text and a single, shocking photograph of an abused detainee at Abu Ghraib prison. This exceptional book – of which there is only a single copy – suggests parallels between Orwell’s Oceania and fearful, post 9/11 America.
‘I don’t think one should be proud of a country. I’m uneasy with that,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Pride in your work, pride in friends; that I can understand. But pride in a nation, in nationalism? No.’
In New York Gephart reinvented himself yet again by producing three big colour gouaches based on Luc Sante’s Low Life. His copy of the book, a vivid account of the city in the 1890s, was covered with hundreds of margin notes.
‘With Low Life I tried to see if I could tell a story in a painterly way, without using graphic techniques or outlines. I worked on the first gouache for more than a month, then threw it out. But through trial and error I finally got it. One has to try different methods when one is young, and hope that they all may come together in the end.’
Now back in Berlin Gephart has just completed half-a-year’s work illustrating the anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, to be published by Onkel & Onkel this summer. Once again his dark, tragic humour images – of munitions factory women polishing and watering artillery shells, of the wounded protagonist dreaming as both his legs and arms are amputated – both shocked and intrigued me. I couldn’t take my eyes off them yet at the same time I wanted to look away.
‘Johnny Got His Gun is a very important subject for me,’ he said. ‘It suits my work well.’
Gephart – driven to push himself yet again into new areas of self-expression – also plans to try his hand at oil painting. ‘I’ve saved a little money and I want to work on a big series,’ he said. ‘I won’t turn down any illustration jobs (his graphics have appeared in Die Zeit, Cicero, Die TAZ, Esquire, Playboy and other periodicals) but I won’t go hunting for them. I’m going to take the time to explore oil painting. Who knows if it’ll work or not, but I have to try.’
In the bookcases around him were thick volumes on Dürer, H.G. Rauch, Saul Steinberg, Roland Searle and dozens of other artists. Hip hop music thumped from the stereo. His t-shirt read A Man of Simple Choices.
‘You know, some young artists complain that times are hard, that their work isn’t appreciated,’ he said. ‘But I think this is a very interesting time to be an artist. We can paint any subject we choose. We don’t have to please princes or rich patrons. And because of the internet our work can be seen around the world.’
Copyright for all pictures: Felix Gephart