In the hands of an artist everything is made from the beginning, yet always rooted in something existing. An important part of Nana RH Bastrup’s practice involves reference points to an older generation of painters (significantly Gerhard Richter, Arnulf Rainer and Sigmar Polke). In her works Bastrup carries forward the art of making overpaintings in an attempt to merge references and arranging everyday life with art history. Some of the motives incapsulates timebound performances depicted and overpainted in Bastrup’s world referencing both to herself and to the world of art. Recombining sceneries that flashes both past and present, makes us look at the motive once more, differently, at the depicted persons and their stories.
Bastrup’s main medium is the painting. In a refreshing mix between paint, colored pencil and chalk on sailcloth or canvas she is guided by best practices from the advertising industry. To make her works, she prints photographies directly on sailcloth and she stitches and attaches prints on the canvas using wallpaper paste. The motive contributes with a large variety of sceneries collected in the artist’s own habitats, made in allignment with the artist’s signature as of her consistent technique.
Immense overpaintings cover various domestic items which is consciously staged in the background. Being in disguise is at play in the paintings, due to her continuous process of coping with the time we live in and the visible impressions we pass on. The work takes inspiration in the life of Bastrup herself in the role of an artist, a woman, a mother and a wife. Most of these pictures depict real life showing domestic situations which come off relatable, yet with a touch of drama, almost as an act. We witness situations which are being carefully orchestrated for the viewer, yet the source itself is camouflaged often wearing a mask or being overpainted.
In Nana Bastrup’s paintings we are encouraged to curiously enter a blend of very different realities that urges us to reconsider our own.
J.H.: Why did you choose the painting “Falling out/making friends with my walls” as the basis for this conversation?
N.RHB.: I chose it because I consider it a major work. It certainly was the most important work in my recent solo show Collections. It was the first painting I made for the show, and it pointed out a direction for the rest of the works. I think it holds a lot of ideas that I am going to further explore in the years to come. It was interesting and great fun to do, and I for one get a lot out of it.
J.H.: Can you describe the painting? What are we looking at?
N.RHB.: Well, basically it’s a grayscale acrylic painting on top of a photo. The photo is printed on a large piece of tarpaulin mounted on a metal frame. The subject is an interior with a lot of objects on the background wall, and in the foreground a woman is resting on two Corbusier armchairs placed next to one another.
J.H.: Please tell us more about the subject. Where did the photo come from?
N.RHB.: The photo is a snapshot taken by my husband, the artist Matvey Slavin, in my parents’ Berlin apartment. The rooms there are dominated by their enormous and very eclectic collection of art and design. You see it in the background where you can make out different objects: a Chinese sculpture of a horse, a mannequin’s head and lithography by Lichtenstein among others. In the foreground I am myself posing in the chairs with my large, pregnant belly like the sort of Venus you encounter in old master paintings.
J.H.: How come you chose this photo as the starting point for a work of art?
N.RHB.: The photo wasn’t originally meant to be the subject of a painting. I sometimes do take photos with that in mind, but this was just a casual snapshot. However, at some point later I was scrolling through my photos, and it occurred to me that it might be useful. It held several interesting points. The intimacy of the home and what goes on there during a lockdown, the collector’s mania that I grew up with and the links to several art historical archetypes. At the same time the idea of a title came into my mind and I thought it fitted perfectly.
J.H.: Could you tell us about that idea and what you think about titles in general?
N.RHB.: I was listening to a radio show in which someone was being interviewed about her day-to-day life during lockdown. She said that she’d had the feeling of falling out with her living room walls. I thought about that quote for quite a while. What did she really mean? Was she missing something or didn’t she like what was there? I decided to use it as a title but changed it to the somewhat more ambiguous “Falling out/making friends with my walls”.
Generally speaking, I am very fond of titles. Sometimes I already know the title before I start working on a new painting, and sometimes it pops up along the way or after the work is done. In art school most students only made untitled works, but I remember thinking how cool it was, when one day a guy actually titled one of his paintings. Even though titles influence how people experience a work of art and may even destroy that experience, I still like them. I love playing on words and I think that my titles could become even longer in the years to come. But of course, you always have to consider whether a title assists or works counter to the image.
J.H.: So you found a photo reference and a title. How did the work come about after that?
N.RHB.: I have a working method with some identifiable stages. At first, I’ll upload the photo reference and have it printed on a piece of tarpaulin. It’s an unusual painting substrate that I’ve worked on for many years and I prefer it to traditional canvas. I was never trained as a painter but studied sculpture and video art at The University of Fine Arts Hamburg. So, when I started taking an interest in painting, I didn’t want to approach it in a classical way. I found that the industrial look of tarpaulin was more approachable and less posh. You see tarpaulin in the streets every day, so painting on it is a way of challenging the notions of classical painting a little bit. It also has the advantage that you can hang it, fold it and mount it on stretcher bars in ways that are not possible with linen canvas.
When the printed tarpaulin has been hanging in my studio for a few days and I’ve had time to look at it from all angles, I’ll start painting. Usually, the first step is destroying parts of the photographic image. In this case I started out by painting the stripes in the background and then proceeded to paint over some of the pictures on the wall. On other parts of the photo, I’ll paint on top of the objects simplifying their appearance somewhat. Still others are left untouched. Besides that, I’ll add new elements to the composition, in this case the grumpy-looking masks that hover in the background. They symbolize the voices you hear when you are stuck at home, voices actually present as well as those in your head only.
J.H.: How come you only painted in gray tones? Did Covid19 influence your color choices?
N.RHB.: I don’t think that my lockdown blues had any influence on my color choices, but the fact is that this and the rest of the paintings for the “Collections” show ended up being mostly black and white. I think it was a necessity. In 2019 I had a solo show which was like one big explosion of colors, so now I needed to explore what I could do with a very limited range of colors.
It’s interesting to see how the paint application at the same time works for and against the realism of the photograph. In some places it totally negates the sense of space forming purely abstract elements.
It’s true that in some passages the paint points to itself as paint and breaks up the logic of the space in a somewhat cheeky way. Throughout the painting process for instance, I’ll use my leftover paint to apply thick impasto blobs to the painting. In this painting you’ll notice a lot of them by the candle in the foreground.
But the abstract elements also add to the painting’s meaning. I always introduce elements that are repeated in various ways. It’s a very conscious decision to have broad stripes in the background, different stripes on the woman’s t-shirt and narrow stripes that run all across the painting from top to bottom. The idea is to reinforce the feeling of accumulation which is present in the photo of the collection. Accumulation, by the way, is a concept that pops up in a lot of my works.
J.H.: How do you know when a painting is finished?
N.RHB.: It’s a feeling, I guess. Usually, I am quite certain of it, but there are times when for practical reasons I have to declare a work finished even though that feeling isn’t quite there yet. I am not the type to fiddle around with something for a long time. When I have been looking at it for a day or two and I think it works, it’s done. I also like that my work is a bit rough. Other artists would refine to a higher degree, but I like the fact that you can see the clash between the printed photo and the paint. I actually love that clash. If a painting really isn’t working, I’ll rather throw it away than try to save it by continuing to paint or by scraping off the paint that is already there.
J.H.: You started out by relating the theme of this painting to the Covid-19 lockdown, but doesn’t it set the scene for lots of other readings?
N.RHB.: Well, to my mind it’s certainly interesting because it draws upon the tradition of interior painting and traditional depictions of reclining women in Western art. We can’t escape art history. The candle in the foreground also becomes a reference to vanitas paintings, if you want to see it that way. You might also compare the thin stripes running across the surface to the feature of curtains in many old master paintings, where the viewer gets the sense that a scene has just been revealed to her eyes.
Something which started out as a snapshot from a Berlin apartment ends up activating a ton of references. That’s the power of a good painting. Not all paintings work that way. Some paintings are stupid. You see something and that’s it. Other paintings are smart. They offer food for thought to both the artist and the viewer.
J.H.: So the painting creates meaning by quoting other paintings. Is the quote a conscious strategy to you as an artist?
N.RHB.: Yes, I like to quote. It’s a way of paying tribute to other artists, but then again it can also be viewed more radically as a confrontation with your idols. Many years ago, I made a series of drawings called “Rememberings”, where I drew myself next to very famous works of art. In many of them there were lines going between me and the artwork, and the ‘me’ in the drawing was pulling on those lines. It was a way of accepting a connectedness while at the same time shouting ‘move over, here I come!’
J.H.: I have noticed that you also quote from your own works by letting fragments of photos of old works pop up in the background of new works. Not in this painting, though. Why not?
N.RHB.: Yes, I’ve done that at lot. Recycling ideas and projects has been a conceptual cornerstone in my work, but actually I am moving away from it in this painting. Maybe that’s also part of the reason why I consider it so important.
I feel that I’ve used up the sum of images of previous works, and my interests have changed. I need to establish a link to my everyday life. I used to look at my art, now I want to look at my life. I want to show that I’m a human being. Maybe it’s because of the time we spent in lockdown that I suddenly started questioning what life is all about. I want to depict something that people recognize, and not just some fantasy world. I want to touch people and connect to their lives.