by Javier Melian
I visited London-based Swiss artist Felix Baudenbacher's 'Into Space' solo exhibition at cueB Gallery (15 April - 27 May). I was already a 'digital' fan of Baudenbacher's work as I was following him on social media, but I had never seen his works in the flesh. Images on a computer screen, or even worse, a mobile phone, are often deceiving in sometimes negative and positive ways.
Baudenbacher's works are made to directly communicate with the audience. They are a dynamic amalgamation of clear shapes and colours, light, space.. an invitation for interaction and exploration. Is what you feel when you are face to face with Matisse's cut outs, or around Calder's sculptures. It's some sort of knot in the stomach, a gut feeling, it's a primal connection with the sincere beauty of stripped out forms, and colours laid bare in front of you. There is nothing to hide and all to show.
Through years of trial and error experimentation, Baudenbacher has found a method that drags constructivism and suprematism to the 21st Century, recomposing new symphonies with their melodies. His new works still originate from paintings that evolved into site-specific installations made from linen-covered wood panels painted in the best available oils, claiming sculptural and architectural space. Baudenbacher then projects light into the structure, igniting a new life and narrative into the piece. The transient light, usually seen as a component of the environment to which the artwork reacts passively, now drives this ingenious amalgamation, highlighting tonalities and creating stories from the anticipation of the viewer trying to guess the new shapes it will transform into.
It's a dialogue on minimalist language. A playful but carefully crafted code borne from the artist's deep love for classical materials and modernist art. He added new concepts and components with a fresh perspective, pouring originality and pushing time and time again his pieces into the avant-garde that one can only anticipate, time will turn again into classics.
Felix Baudenbacher was born in Switzerland in 1977 and grew up there the son of an artist mother and a surgeon father. Although he didn’t take much notice of his privileged upbringings at the time - "the overwhelming feeling growing up was of conformity and limitation; all I ever wanted to do was leave for good at the first opportunity. I have over the years come to appreciate very much how lucky and privileged I was and am" - he tells us. Baudenbacher's family’s middle-class standing allowed him to have experiences many contemporaries didn’t (travel, an exchange year in the US, music and drawing classes, etc.). He was also very fortunate in having a mother who taught him not to care too much about what others think of him and a father who embodies an admirable work ethic and a will for pushing things until they are as good as they can be under the given circumstances. "I think I inherited my mother’s tremendous need for freedom and my father’s temperament" - he confesses.
He did leave for good at the first opportunity, coming to study fine art at Central Saint Martins here in London. The city was and continues to be a revelation for Baudenbacher, although in a challenging sense to start with. "I did not see eye to eye with my tutors and spent most of my four years at college fighting them" - he says.
Baudenbacher left London after six years and moved to Los Angeles, where he lived for three years - it’s a great city that he really loved living and working in but ultimately, he missed Europe and moved back to Basel, Switzerland, where he lived for two years before moving to London again in 2010 when his girlfriend was accepted onto the MA Design Products course at the RCA. "This time around, living and working here has been nothing but amazing and we absolutely love it", he says.
When Baudenbacher moved back to London in 2010, he took the move as an opportunity to jump into being a full-time working artist. He says about his decision: "It was very scary and difficult to start with. Of course, I was again lucky in being surrounded by supportive friends and family, many of whom have bought artwork from me over the years and have helped in many other ways too. Nonetheless, it took a lot of courage and an insane amount of work, determination and a learned ability to ignore reality. The reward for taking this risk is that I now find myself living the life I dreamed of having when I was a 12-year-old boy; having made that dream a reality and having done so by staying true to myself is something I’m immensely proud of".
'Oetlinger Buvette Kunstcontainer' was a temporary installation on the bank of the Rhine in Basel in June / July 2015 (during and after Art Basel) in which a summer bar housed in a repurposed shipping container was turned into an oversized painting-sculpture.
You have used a wide variety of media in your work. How did you come about to your current means of expression?
I came to the work I do now through 20 years of honing my artistic skills, developing my understanding of art and of myself, of slowly figuring out that what kind of art I wanted to author and by insisting that if I wanted to deserve being called an artist I had to find an original voice and something of substance to say. It’s different for different artists, but for me, that was a painful process. For many years, the works I showed were nowhere near the things I felt inside I could and wanted to make. But I didn’t have a clear vision of what that work could look like and so I could only progress by exclusion: not this, not this, not this .... then, a few years ago, something clicked. I began to understand that the things I’m most interested in are elementary formal aspects: how do the basics, form colour, light, influence each other and how can I manipulate them to create works that have the power to move people? Things have been developing very naturally since then with one body of work leading to the next. Of course, there are still difficult days in the studio where I’m ravaged with doubt over what I’m doing but I’ve learned to trust that the next good development usually comes from these difficult moments.
How do you choose the themes of your works?
There are different levels of ‘theme’. There’s a fundamental level, a kind of core; that, for me, is the examination of elementary aspects of formal visual expression. As I said, I’ve become aware that this is what interests me most over the course of many years. On that core fundament rests the level of ‘visual language’, what is a favourite mode of expression. Right now, that is a minimalism-influenced language for me (that can change, though). I’m less interested in the theoretical aspects of minimalism, as a matter of fact, I like to subvert the ways in which minimalism traditionally works, but I find the language so striking, clear and powerful; it suits me and what I want to say ideally - for now. Then there is the level of individual impulse for a specific piece or a specific series: that can be anything from something I read or hear to a visual stimulation of some kind...the impulse can literally come from anywhere but what they all have in common is that they cause in me a feeling of excited anticipation, where I feel that there is something there that I want to investigate, a new and exciting possibility for expression.
The way you combine materials, form, texture and colour is very unique. How to you balance all elements to obtain the desired results?
When it comes to balancing content and material, I’m a big believer in a concept of failure and success in a work of art. Of course, we live in a time where anything goes in art. I’m a defender of that and I think the only criterion to judge work by on that level is whether it is interesting, acknowledging that there is nothing that is objectively more interesting than anything else - what I find fascinating may be completely boring to someone else. That level is completely subjective. But I believe that there is also an objective level on which an artwork can fail or succeed. Simply put (and grossly simplified), failure and success on this level are measured by how successfully you’ve managed to realise what you set out to do. There are a million ways to do anything but if you have a clear vision of what it is you want to do then the desired result necessitates certain formal and material decisions. Of course, this process is never perfect or pure, it’s always moderated by circumstances, technical and financial limitations, personal affinity for certain materials, etc.
When you work with a vocabulary as reduced as mine, all these decisions become extra important: weight of canvas, quality of paint, balance of composition - I spend a lot of time on these things. Of course, I don’t always get it right!
Your latest work is based on site specific installations using light as a prominent component. How does it enrich your painting? Or is it considered as a separate practice?
I consider everything I do artistically as the same practice, inasmuch as the main concerns are constant through the different media. The installations using light that you mention are called ‘motion paintings’, which gives a clear indication that they developed out of painting. As I imagine any painter would be, I’m hyper-sensitive to how light affects colour but up until recently I only considered light passively, as something largely outside of my control that my paintings were subjected to. Then, last summer, I hit on the idea of taking charge of the light that falls onto my paintings, manipulating it and using it as a fundamental form-giving element.... I made a piece like that, a canvas hanging on the wall like a conventional painting but progressively altered and enriched by projected light. I was blown away by the possibilities.
The sculptural / site-specific / installation impulse came shortly after and blew the doors of my practice wide open! ... But to actually answer your question: I still think of these pieces as a form of painting, albeit a massively enlarged and enriched form that forces me to deal with the elements of space and time in a way my work up to that point hadn’t. No doubt, this expanded horizon will eventually filter back into the more conventional paintings (which I have no intention of giving up) but at this point it’s too early to say what exactly that influence will be.
What are your favourite media to express yourself?
My favourite medium to express myself in - for now - is paint and light!
Is there a message in your art? What is it?
No, there is no message in my art, at least not in the sense that there is a message in political or protest art. At the same time, I believe that the artistic impulse is one of the fundamental aspects of humanity, that it is a way that we try to understand ourselves and our place on the planet and maybe in the universe, a way to confront our mortality, as well. That is true whether we are artists ourselves or whether we are art lovers - or even if we are not interested in art at all but choose our trainers very carefully. It all has to do with order, understanding, self-expression. I consider myself very lucky that I am in a position where I am allowed to live this on a daily basis, creating works along the way that will give the people who end up living with them a daily dose of something valuable - joy, relieve, connection, whatever it may be.
Could you please tell us about the creative process since initial thoughts to completion?
I have already touched on the fact that ‘inspiration’ (a problematic term) can come from anywhere and how what makes me act on an impulse is that feeling of excited anticipation it causes in me (sometimes, I also get a flash of a finished piece, but that is rare). After that initial impulse comes development. I have to understand what about the thing I caught a glimpse of fascinates me, to isolate that and develop it into something strong and worthy of a piece of art or even a whole body of work. Sometimes, it leads to nothing and that can be frustrating (for example, I’ve been looking for a way to work with colour separation the way the pointillists did for about 5 years now but I haven’t yet found a way to do so that I feel holds up in the 21st century). On the upside, sometimes I find new interesting things in developing an idea that then lead to a separate but related series of works.
On a practical level, once the idea has solidified and I understand clearly what it is I’m trying to do, I start looking for ways to make that into artworks. This almost always involves first drawings, then scanning of those drawings, then ruthless selection and extensive computer manipulation until I have a ‘blueprint’ of the work I want to make. I like using the computer at this stage because it allows me to play through many different possibilities quickly - in the past you would have done this with pencil and tracing paper, now I do it with the computer.
The last phase is the physical realisation of the piece. Here it is very important that I remain open to everything being thrown up in the air again. I may have a blueprint worked up on the computer but when I deal with the physical materials, the canvas or linen and the paint and the light projections, I can only judge things in the moment. Sometimes, what ends up being produced is a long way away from the blueprint but I like that because it tells me that I’m keeping things alive and fresh and that I’m not simply executing a previously devised plan.
The 'Anna & Argyle' suite of paintings was developed by invitation and in response to the app-based digital children's story of the same name in New York City branding and creative agency Loyalkaspar. The paintings employ some of the trademark image-making devices Baudenbacher has developed over recent years, such as hand-painted gradients, coloured frames and areas of exposed untreated canvas as integral parts of the composition.
What would be your dream collaboration?
I ‘don’t play well with others’ (I’m not difficult to work with but I am very protective of my space, time and my work - because I know what it’s cost me to put myself in a position where I’m more or less in control of these) so in terms of my fine art work, I prefer to fly solo. However, there are things I would be very interested in, like working up colour palettes and designs for a porcelain manufacturer like Nymphenburg or consulting on colour for a shoe line for someone like Fendi, that kind of thing where I could bring my fine art expertise to bear on beautiful products.
What are the technical/logistical challenges of working with innovative materials in site specific projects?
The light projections are tricky to set up because there is very little room for movement: if the projector moves one millimetre, the projection is off by anywhere from 1 to 5 centimetres, depending on the distance between the projector and the piece. There is a little wiggle room but, basically, the projection needs to be precise for the piece to work as I intend it to. Then, of course, you have to be creative in working with the limitations dictated by the space - that could be anything from pillars that are in the way of projections to not being allowed to drill into walls, ceilings, etc.
Careful planning and controlling the workflow are also important: sometimes, access to spaces in the weeks before exhibition is limited so you may only be able to take some measurements and then you go away and build the structure in the studio and find out only when you go to install the piece if you have a good fit. And because I work only in oils, I also always have to factor in drying times and often have to adjust production schedules if certain steps take longer than anticipated. If it looks like I can’t get two coats of oil to dry in time for installation then I have to get one dry enough to be able to transport the piece, install it and do the final coat in situ.....you try to avoid as many of these issues as possible through careful planning, but when it comes down to it you also have to be able to improvise successfully.
'My London' was an extended series of works that was initially inspired by Baudenbacher's daily walks in a south-east London park in the late spring of 2013. "After what had been a couple of particularly wet months, nature just exploded into splendour, everything lush and in vibrant colours, which awakened in me the desire to work with this experience somehow, to bring it into art by finding abstract ways of expressing some of that joy and visual excitement, that wonderful sense of promise" - the artist says.
What other artists do you admire?
I rarely love everything an artist does but some of the artists I love and admire are Philip Guston, Alex Katz, Imi Knoebel, Ettore Spalletti, mid-to-late period Matisse, Bridget Riley from the late 90’s onwards, late Cézanne, Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park Series, Alan Uglow, Morandi, Agnes Martin, late Joan Mitchell....
What is your favourite piece of art?
I also don’t have a favourite piece of art but if I had two choose two pieces right now, it would be Philip Guston’s ‘Painter’s Forms II’ from 1978 or anything from Imi Knoebel’s ‘Anima Mundi’ series.
You have lived and worked in prominent cities in both sides of the Atlantic. How would you describe the current art scene in London and UK?
London is a tricky place for artists. There is a top segment that’s rivalled by only very few places on the planet, as witnessed by the slew of international galleries constantly opening London branches. In the bottom segment of the market, the competition is insane because London art schools attract and spit out so many incredibly talented artists every year - but that segment is not sustainable for anyone because sales are so limited and prices are so low. The middle segment seems very small. The kind of places that have access to clients who are reasonably well off and willing to pay fair prices for good work are difficult to find. What there is seems quite conservative and not generally favourably disposed towards contemporary art. Maybe this is the result of a polarised educational system, I don’t know, but I notice that there is a better-educated general public who understand that fine art is not something that you acquire with the same price expectation that you buy clothes or IKEA furniture in some of the other countries I show my work in..... That’s the commercial side of it. On the creative side, London is one of the most interesting, dynamic and inspiring places there is that offers creatives every kind of nourishment, which is why I love living and working here.
'Piero' (the name for the series was chosen because the colour palette was heavily influenced by Piero della Francesca paintings) shows the artist's abandonment of anything beyond the most rudimentary composition. Piero also represents Baudenbacher's fascination with awkward shapes and their expressive power.
Could you tell us a little bit more about your forthcoming projects/ exhibitions?
I’m currently working around the clock making new work for a solo exhibition at cueB Gallery in Brockley that opens on April 15. After that, there are a few commission pieces to make for a client in New York and then it’s soon time to turn my attention towards Art Basel in June. I’m not showing at any of the fairs but will likely have the opportunity to create two new site-specific light projection pieces to go on display in a Basel restaurant during the Art Basel week.
After that, there is nothing on the books so far but I’m actually looking for some time to finish the redesign of my website and to research galleries and contact them with a new catalogue I’ve just had printed up and I’m sure new interesting opportunities will come my way very soon - they always do!
To find out more about the artist's work, please visit www.fbaud.com