Mixing traditional media like charcoal and oils with spray paint, scraps of porn found on the street and South African tabloid headlines, Emil Holmer’s Dead Letters paintings are neon horror stories that slot discrete figurative elements into an abstract whole.
As he prepared his first solo show here in his adopted hometown, the Swedish artist describes how Johannesburg inspired paintings he calls “visual machines” and the anonymity of being an artist in Berlin.
Perhaps it’s the neon paint, but your paintings make me think of Times Square – bright lights, loud city environments, advertising images. Does that make sense to you?
Sort of. It’s not far-fetched to say that these paintings associate with some sort of city, or society, or system. A city is a system.
You use a lot of fluorescent colours. Why is that?
I see my paintings as visual machines. Most important is visual energy. The brightest colour you can use is fluorescent colour. It breaks up the painting and distorts it. Colours build up atmosphere, like notes in music.
What do you mean by “visual machines”?
The paintings don’t represent anything else. They’re independent units. I have various ideas, layers and concepts, and I bake them into a soup. I want to be surprised – I don’t want the painting to be obvious or locked into a certain idea, or my ideas. I like it to become free of me.
How do you compose these units?
Certain things I plan, and I repeat certain elements, like these fluorescent bars across the bottom. In certain paintings, it works like a teleprompter, with letters moving from one side to the other.
Your paintings seem to be composed of separate clusters. How do those parts work together?
In some paintings there are rhythms that bring the work together, but in others, things are separate. That’s why I work in big formats. With a small format, your eye doesn’t travel the same way. So there’s a clash of violence between elements.
So these elements are clashing, rather than working together?
Some paintings are more functional. Some are more dysfunctional. But that’s sometimes what I want… Painting is, in some ways, an endless making of mistakes. Either you work with the fact that it’s full of these steps or statements – all of which have the potential to succeed or fail – or else you try to hide it. Through these individual statements you try to create a whole that becomes some sort of truth, something with density.
It seems like you’ve found your style…
‘Style’ is an interesting question: ‘style’ or ‘not style’. You have to be in touch with what you want to do or say. There’s a sort of vision or direction. That can change, which you have to accept. I’m happiest when something comes out that I didn’t plan.
So what do you plan?
I’m trying to be as clear as possible with each and every statement – a form or a colour, the neon, for example: it’s not halfway, it’s really neon! So I have to work with that. If I put something on, I have to relate to it as a fact. And then I have to add another fact, and another fact, until it’s finished. I’m trying to create a tension, so that the whole work becomes a generator of possibilities. That’s why I like the word “machine”. It’s a movement, not an illustration of something.
You use some collage elements in your paintings…
Yeah, mostly porn.
There’s an apocalyptic idea there. In the street, there are these little piles of dirty images and dog shit – it’s just a cluster of shit, but these fragments have sexual, very human elements. It looks like something you’d find after a catastrophe. There’d be all these images left, and a lot of it would be porn.
Your titles, even the paintings themselves, are reminiscent of films or stories, especially cyberpunk…
There’s probably a subconscious influence from films like Escape from New York and Blade Runner. I’m not a fan, but they’re visually interesting. Science fiction often describes this paranoia of future societies, of a superstructure that’s become perfect and controls us. I spent time living and working in Johannesburg. It’s a modern city with skyscrapers, but beside them are witch doctors and traditional culture, gangs and extreme violence. Like in those films, it’s a society that’s both superstitious and high tech.
Does that illustrate something about ‘society’ in general?
When it’s in your face, it becomes a clear image. I don’t see my works as a critique of society. It’s not enough to complain. I want the paintings to be free. There are things I think about – in criminology, or about Johannesburg or Berlin – but I try to overdrive them until they collapse into new possibilities. It’s important to be affirmative.
How does Johannesburg compare to Berlin?
Johannesburg is full of fear. People get killed and raped. Berlin’s tame in comparison, although Berlin’s also not tame. It has a lot of possibilities, but it’s also a good work situation. You can be completely left alone to work for six months if you want, and you can meet a lot of artists you have something in common with.
Are there too many artists in Berlin?
I haven’t counted.
So what’s it like to be an artist in Berlin?
It’s like working in IT somewhere else. It’s the most anonymous profession you can have.
DEAD LETTERS | Through April 24