"Casually chewing gum until the bubble bursts"

A conversation with the Berlin-based painter Moritz Schleime about black humor, the end with horrors - and what comes next

Moritz Schleime in his studio, Photo: Franzi Klotz
Moritz Schleime in his studio
Photo: Franzi Klotz

Mr. Schleime, your painting is figurative, narrative. Is there an underlying narrative that connects the paintings of your first exhibition Dark Loveboat Stories at Galerie Thomas Fuchs?

Moritz Schleime: Yes. The title says Stories, and so the pictures are to be understood as individual stories. They are inspired by personal experiences that I am currently processing.

Are they rather good experiences or bad experiences?

     MS: All in all, it was quite a bad time that is now behind me. It has to do with the deadly loss of loved ones, with illness, with separation. I've had bad luck, but lately, a greater unyielding curse seemed to lie over everything.

And then there was the pandemic.

    [nbsp]MS: In my respectful perception of things and consideration for my environment, I would say that Corona only gets the bronze medal in all the evil of my bad experiences.

The pictures are ambivalent: there is horror lurking in them, but you also lend them wit.

     MS: After all, I am essentially a positive and humorous person.

Why do you let your stories take place in a maritime setting?

     MS: I liked the old TV series Love Boat and the sea theme, so I decided to tell individual episodes about it. You could also call the pictures sea pieces. They are metaphors of hope: Although we are all currently on a dark and difficult journey from A to B, in the end, a beautiful harbor awaits us - and a happy end.

When I think of Love Boat I think of the American series and its German remake. But your captain in the painting Love Boat Captain has nothing to do with the fatherly film characters who serve on board the TV cruise ships. It is a skeletal grinning pirate. How did this picture come about?

     MS: Since I listen to a lot of music while painting, I often use song and album titles or song lyrics as titles for my paintings. Love Boat Captain is a song by Pearl Jam. It was written to deal with the accident during a concert of Roskilde in 2000.

During the band's performance at the Danish open-air festival, there was a crowd and visitors fell, were crushed and trampled to death.

     MS: Nine people died before the eyes of the musicians as they stood on stage.

It took Pearl Jam six years after the accident to even enter a festival stage again.

     MS: With all the tragedy of life, hope is necessary. It is the elixir that we all need in order to process and survive such terrible experiences, as well as personal and collective misfortunes. A line in the Pearl Jam song All You Need Is Love refers to the Beatles' song of the same name. And my picture is meant as a counterpart to it. As an encouragement not to lose hope above all. The morbid Love Boat Captain may be more of a nightmare captain, but he does guide you through hard times. And that's how I feel about the band, which makes a song about a very tragic event, and gives their audience - and me - back strength through their music. In all sadness, there is always something beautiful, and vice versa. But in the end,  what counts is what we want to focus on and whether we are ready to go through our fears.

Moritz Schleime, Love Boat Captain, 2020, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm, Galerie Thomas Fuchs
Love Boat Captain, 2020
oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm

In your pictures we see skeletons: an undead sailor plays the accordion (Ein schöner Wind), a bony couple has sex on a raft (Klappern), the skeletonized captain makes a kissing mouth. Is that a longing for death?

     MS: No. "Es war ein schöner Wind" is a line from the song 0043 by the Austrian band Wanda. The lyrics are about nostalgia and the longing for an irretrievable childhood. This is a reoccurring theme that I am interested in. Just the fact that I have the time and am allowed to paint such a picture preserves a part of my childhood. And maybe there will be another birth after death? The skeletons in my pictures are intended to be more of a memento mori, a reminder that something in life is coming to an end. In our thoughts, however, death does not necessarily mean the end.

What do you mean by that?

     MS: I try to express it with some black humor: If we can no longer love each other in this life, we simply love each other after life. And then it simply rattles more.

Does one need gallows humor to get closer to your art? Your pictorial figures seem to sail towards the catastrophes of life in good spirits. Is this only the calm before the storm?

     MS: Somehow I have the feeling that I am always in the middle of the storm but never have my raincoat on me. Humor is always needed in any case, but not a gallows!

What has influenced you as a painter?

     MS: The question makes me think of many things, but above all: The Secret of Monkey Island!

Is this another song title?

     MS: No, it is a computer game classic of the nineties by LucasArts, in which talking skulls explain the wisdom of life in the most bizarre allegorical way. Whoever knows this game, understands an approach to my visual world. But basically, I like it when a painting remains a secret. Even for myself.

Do you still want to reveal a secret? What is Behind Your Love all about? Two young women drift back to back in a rowing boat without paddles through a poison-green sea.

     MS: Behind Your Love is about separation. Love is something that lies behind us. But something that is still sitting behind us and touches us. And so we are in the same boat without a paddle. But it remains open where it will take us.

Slow Explosion seems to be the opening image of the exhibition. How did this vision come about?

     MS: Slow Explosion is outside the maritime exhibition theme, although the sea can be seen in the distance. The story behind this painting has to do with this "wonderful" summer after the first Corona lockdown. I had listened to some The Three Investigators cassettes during the isolation phase and my mind wandered through the American coastal town of Rocky Beach…

... the fictional small town in California where the three detectives of our childhood lived.

     MS: The association tries to capture the basic mood of life during the first corona phase. The painting shows the Cadillac with flat tires, the sprayed-on lettering Run, the lonely teenage riot girl. But now we are back in this phase, in which we cannot run away, cannot drive away, cannot go anywhere. Despite all our technical achievements.

Moritz Schleime, Slow Explosion, 2020, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm, Galerie Thomas Fuchs
Slow Explosion, 2020
oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm

A brightly colored dystopia?

     MS: First there is always despair, followed by exhaustion and disillusion. And in the end, we can only casually chew gum until the bubble or "bomb" bursts. At the moment we are only spectators.

If we didn't know that you are fond of black humor, you would sound rather resigned. Do you still have hope?

     MS: Spiritually speaking, this crisis also gives us a chance to use this time for self-reflection, which hopefully will lead us to a better world. We now have time to ask ourselves: What do I need and what not? What do I really want? Have I listened to my heart? Maybe it is now about finding ourselves completely. Each one for himself. And giving up is of course out of the question!

The interview was conducted by Marcus Woeller.