Pushing Color to its Limits

Nicole Büsing and Heiko Klaas in Conversation with the Italian Painter Rudy Cremonini

Rudy, you studied at the Bologna Art Academy. Can you tell us something about your studies there?

     Rudy Cremonini: I already began painting at the age of seventeen, namely at home in the garage. That was in fact a quite instinctive and autonomous decision. My student years themselves were not a particularly happy time for me. I found myself in a complex, quite difficult and confusing phase. I did not attend classes at the academy very regularly and in fact gave up painting completely for a while in order to experiment with other forms of artistic expression like photography, video and performance. But I returned to painting by the time I completed my studies. On the one hand I lost a great deal of time, but on the other I was able to broaden the scope of my art as well as my personality.

Which art historical precursors are you interested in? One recognizes, for example an affinity to Symbolist painters like Edvard Munch, Odilon Redon, and Félix Vallotton.... Is this impression correct?

     RC: Yes, those are artists I admire greatly. But I am also very passionate about artists who are far removed from them and very different. For example I not only love Manet’s subjects and painting style, the spatial confines within which he composed his paintings, but also Goya’s vehemence and love of liberty or Morandi’s delicate gradations of light. I also discover a small part of me in all of these masters, or at least something that corresponds to my own inclinations. For me it is like the permanent search for small mirrors hidden in history on which I then find my own pictorial world.

Which contemporary artists interest you?

     RC: One can lean something, a specific aspect perhaps, from every great master, whether contemporary or historical. It is as if one is looking into a mirror. There are, of course, approaches that are more conspicuous and of more crucial interest than others. I find this for example in the works of Luc Tuymans, Mamma Andersson, Wilhelm Sasnal, Marlene Dumas, and Victor Man. But in order to broaden one’s spectrum, it often makes sense to occupy yourself with things that are very different from your own work.

Are there other sources of inspiration? For example cinema, theater, literature?

     RC: I draw stimulation from psychotherapy and current events.

Tell us about your working method: What preliminary steps do you take? Do you make drawings first?

     RC: To begin with, a certain kind of chance plays a role in my search for a subject matter. I then express something in black and white and in a very low quality. But I never draw. I work directly on the canvas instead. First, I lay out the composition in a very fluid and transparent style of painting, without making any firm commitments. Everything is always in motion in my work and full of the potential for change.

You work solely in oil? Can you explain this preference to us?

     RC: I have been painting in oil from the very beginning. At some point I tried working on a series in acrylics but immediately afterwards I returned to my preferred type of paint.

With oil paint I manage to become something fluid myself, and glide, as it were, across the canvas. Almost completely lost in thought, I can in this way harmonize my ideas and the paintings. I can enter into an intimate relationship with the material. Sometimes I challenge it, sometimes I let it do what it wants; I infuriate it and it responds in its own very personal manner—sometimes even by revolting against me.

Your brushstrokes are often very thick and concentrated. This produces powerful structures ranging between concreteness and abstraction, giving rise to a certain ambivalence that appears typical for your work. Would it be correct to state that it is this material characteristic, which is inherent to oil, that makes up the supremacy of this paint for you?

     RC: The supremacy of a material is determined by the one who uses it. But it is true, that is exactly the way I see it. I have entered into a very lively dialogue with oil paint. It often makes suggestions that I never would have thought of myself. And it forces me in this way to accept them. It consequently opens up ever new approaches that I can follow in order to extend our special relationship even further. The intimacy of this relationship also determines the uniqueness of the results. Or put differently, it is my very personal filter, one that I need to achieve even greater clarity in my painting.

Your painting waiting room (blue) shows an abandoned waiting room. It could be a room in an airport terminal. The viewer immediately notices a flock of birds that is not only situated inside this waiting rooms but also outside. The windows are obviously broken. Nature seems to have reconquered this man-made space. To what extent are you interested in the conflict between nature and civilization?

     RC: The question whether the windows are actually broken or not is in fact not so particularly important. In fact I do not know for sure myself. It is of course a painting. I was much more concerned here in this picture with making a statement about the perception of time. There is this waiting room, static, completely empty, the entire burden of interminable waiting that is diametrically opposed to the flock of birds that has conquered this space on the canvas within four seconds at the most. I was concerned with producing a friction between these very diverse moods and perceptions of time. The observation that it involves a conflict between two very different and opposing forces is consequentially correct.

One gets the impression that you have a certain affinity for existential topics: life and death, love, the isolated individual, the struggle between humankind and the elements (for example in the painting in acqua), Memento mori. How do you arrive at your subjects? Why do you favor a gloomier atmosphere?

     RC: My search for subject matters is actually always guided by chance. I try to switch off my lucid consciousness to some extent. In the end, different aspects of a basic theme emerge that in fact traverses the work as a whole. That might seem to be dark subjects at first glance. But they also have enormous depth and the more they crystallize themselves, the more clarity and incisiveness they also develop. I approach places where it is possible to hide or seek shelter. Screened off places, to be sure, but where the paintings’respective protagonists—be they animals in a zoo or tropical plants in a greenhouse. Everything has its price.

Perhaps you can tell us something about your use of color. One gets the impression that you prefer somewhat muted, less intense colors. What are the reasons behind this voluntary restraint?

     RC: I can simply work more freely with ambiguous colors. This type of deployment avoids commitments and makes room for very different perspectives. I am interested in pushing colors to their limits. That is also a part of the close relationship I maintain with them.

We are also interested in how your paintings are produced. How long do you normally need to paint a picture?

     RC: As soon as I have found a subject that interests me, I become obsessed, as it were, to occupy myself with the theme and deal with it in the shortest period of time and with a minimum of effort. But I do not manage to achieve this every time. For some paintings I need up to two years. Now and then I leave them on their own for a while. Then I take them out again and complete the work. Even when I overpaint a picture, I try to produce it within the shortest period of time possible. Otherwise I would lose the immediacy and naturalness of my painting style, which is a very essential characteristic of my work.

You have a certain preference for series. For example the twink for money und tank (1-3) paintings. Can you please tell us something about your method of varying a subject?

     RC: It very obviously concerns deepenings, acts of painterly repetition. These are firm starting points where I must linger and ponder. There are many of them. They change over time; sometimes they connect themselves to something, sometimes they also diverge.

On the one hand your titles are very objective (for example due finestre or due cimi), but also full of poetry, mysteriousness and secrets (for example never can say goodbye). How do they come about?

     RC: On occasion I feel the need to substantiate something with a perhaps somewhat didactic title. Like in an archive or a filing system. Conversely, I also take pleasure in suggesting a more poetic interpretation. They are always the starting points for a much more comprehensive discourse that will possibly first be completed in the future.

What roles do autobiographical motifs such as events from your life, dreams or fears play in your paintings?

     RC: Everything is entirely autobiographical. But I needed a long time myself, approximately six years, to comprehend what my own works were actually about. At first I was simply concerned with expressing charged relationships, opposing forces. Only later did I notice that it could also be fun. The conflicts I am concerned with require this degree of pleasure to be able to invoke them, to discover and to occupy myself with them. But at some point I also discovered that it ultimately also involved a search for salvation. Confronting conflicts is the price you have to pay for it.

Taking a look at the works you made this year, one gets the impression that you are now make more frequent use of intense colors, for example in the painting Sacred Hole. Several mourning wreaths can be seen there aside an open grave. Can you tell us a little more about this (new) preference for more intense colors?

     RC: I am by no means lord over everything that the work generates with the paint and the canvas. I could claim that the more I acknowledge this, the more certain colors and contrasts crystallize themselves. But I am really not sure about that. It is probably just the case that some of my pictures simply require a great range of color than others. I do not have a more unambivalent explanation. Everything is rather ambivalent.

The new pictures seem to reveal a stronger tendency towards abstraction. Is this impression accurate?

     RC: I simply like the tension-filled equilibrium between abstraction and figuration and keeping things in suspense. It is possible that this tension has grown stronger over time.

With Mercurio, The Guided Treasure, and Venere Dimenticata you have painted a series of works depicting classical sculpture. All of them are in an indeterminately formulated state. They appear unfinished or damaged. Can you say something more about this series?

     RC: It is in fact less the depicted objects that are deformed or incomplete but rather our consciousness or the way in which we perceive them. It is our way of seeing that causes the difficulty in correctly reading their form.

The backgrounds in this series are also interesting. What led you to choose certain colors?

     RC: Because they are preserved in a kind of safety zone, for example in a museum, I referenced the existing type of scenography in the backgrounds. Sometimes the wall was red, another time I depicted the reflections I saw on a showcase.

We live in unsettling times: economic crises in many countries, in Italy as well, a new nationalism, Islamism, terrorism, the new American president Donald Trump. Do you sense a special obligation as an artist to deal with such themes?

      RC: By working seriously in my self-imposed isolation, I think on a more general level about these things and deal with topics in my works that concern humankind and his world. The enumerated things are deeply frightening indeed and tied to great imponderabilities. It involves contradictory forces and human needs, which are unfortunately being instrumentalized by different sides.

You live and work in Bologna, the city where you were also born and studied. What is your relationship to the city? Do you sometimes feel the urge to move to a larger city?

     RC: Bologna is a very beautiful city with numerous exceptional attractions, especially as far as architecture is concerned. You can enjoy an incomparable light and familiarity. Even in summer you can go for a walk in partial shade here. In wintertime I am fascinated by the countless gradations of color on the orange of the facades. It is also strategically well-situated within Italy. The city is readily grasped and at the same time not too far away from the major metropolises of Milan and Rome. Moreover, you can get to the airport in ten minutes.

What are you planning in 2017?

     RC: I definitely want to travel to Germany more often.

Thank you very much, Rudy, for talking with us.

The interview was conducted by Nicole Büsing and Heiko Klaas.