The Vienna- and Berlin-based artist Thomas Rhube creates series of repetitive abstract word paintings that, however, function also as individual pieces. Read the following interview, in which he talked with Sabrina Möller about his way of working, the issues he confronts as an artist and also about his interest in philosophy and alchemy.
A couple of days ago, you inaugurated the group showing “Use your Illusion” in the Clemens Gunzer Gallery in Kitzbühel. What is this exhibition about?
“Use your Illusion” is not just a famous Guns’ N’ Roses album, it is also a very accurate description for a meta-level of art reception. I am interested in connections that turn out to be different from what you would suppose at first sight. The exhibition title refers to the power of imagination which is very important when we contemplate an image. An illusion is a tricking of the senses, and in a way, that’s what art really is about. Art is tangible and ephemeral at the same time. Every time its meaning seems to finally have been grasped, something changes.
How does your work fit thematically (in the sense of illusion) into this exhibition?
My work reflects the question of why we produce art. Single words on the different works communicate directly with the viewer. My way of dealing with the complexity of art (and therefore its existence) is reduction. If we get rid of everything that is unimportant, the focus shifts to the question of what remains. Reality is very complex and that’s why all my text works follow very simple structures. Every viewer has his or her own version of reality, which then relates to the word paintings. In this context, illusion becomes a kind of vehicle for content. I see “Use your Illusion” as an invitation to take part in a thought game.
How did the different word paintings come about?
The word paintings are the results of a long development process. I’ve been working with graphics and drawing for a long time. I have been using typefaces in order to establish determined relationships. I’m also interested in calligraphy. I create the word paintings using both calligraphy and drawing and the words in them becomes an image.
Form-wise I use different standardized parameters. I use a standard font, Helvetica, and my format goes back to A4. There’s always just one word per painting, and it can be combined in different ways. Sometimes one single word is the point of departure for a whole series and each work in it creates its own connections.
Are there specific criteria that make you choose certain concepts or words?
Sometimes, not always, words manifest themselves just like mantras, which gives them a very strong presence. I choose words because of their connection to art production, or because they question images. In the beginning, I worked with “Yes” and “No” paintings that were based on different questions: for instance, what processes are necessary in order to produce art. These processes often need restrictive decisions in order to come to a finish and therefore to a beginning as a work of art. “But”, for instance, questions this whole idea. The optical quality of the works is another decisive factor: formally, three-letter words work very well.
Your works are conceived as series. This makes their order of production and their chronological order obvious to the viewer: from one word painting to the next, letters disappear. What do you hope to achieve by erasing more and more letters?
I’m seeking to create a unique individual piece within the concept of a series. This isn’t so much about following an individual idea on every painting but rather about developing an individual idea within a series. A base form is derived from the works’ formal development: a “Three Letter Word” is repeated three times within itself. The serial component lies in repeating the words’ formal composition and a number of letters. Through the painting process I create unique individual pieces. The craftsmanship varies with every line and every time it comes to filling in an outline. An aesthetic tension is created: I don’t actually erase letters, I simply don’t finish them. I create something by drawing lines on the canvas. Its completion has to do with a process of development and afterwards with the contemplation of the finished work. I question the idea of something being finished just because it is generally considered as such.
Is repetition one of your work’s main characteristics?
Yes, repetition is one of my work’s main characteristics. On one hand, in the age of digital reproduction, the idea of a unique specimen is taken almost too far; on the other hand it’s very interesting, because in fine arts, the question of the original––of something tangible––is always the main focus. For me, the repetition of form and words is something constant and something that I can stick to. My work creates a sort of a system. Not every painting needs to be based on new ideas. The idea is serial, and yet, the painting remains a unique individual piece.
Does your serial procedure change the value of each individual work?
Despite the serial component, every work is a new painting, and therefore a new challenge, as well as a unique piece. The challenge is to create something that works on an aesthetic level. In figurative painting, you have to come up with a new idea for every painting. I’ve done this too when I was a student, but I changed the way I work because I felt that nonrepresentational art has a better way of conveying the concept of abstraction. It is for this same reason that I find a unique idea within a serial context to be more interesting. I’m fascinated by the idea of in fact working on just one painting until the end of my life. That’s why I think of repetition and variation as a driving force of my work. After I finish a “YES” painting, I feel challenged to paint another one in order to see whether the idea lasts. This has to do with the will to engage in a circular process and a progressive development. Repetition, and the focus on minimal changes which I base my future development on are fundamental parts of my artistic work.
You use a computer to conceive new works. What drove you to go from drawing (a medium you are very much familiar with) to use a computer?
I’m just as interested in technology as a painting technique. A computer is a means to an end. It’s useful during the process of preparation and offers technical possibilities. However, I didn’t give up drawing: my paintings are done purely manually.
I find it very interesting that you also work with pre-existing graphics, among them graphics from other centuries. How do you select them?
A point of reference that I’m very much interested in are alchemist world views, especially the idea that by employing different processes, dead or inert matter can be turned into something precious. While this idea was first applied to man-made and physical matters, it later became associated with a spiritual process. When it became clear how hard it is to transform something ordinary into something precious, ideally into gold, the interpretation of the process shifted its focus to human development. I see this as an analogy to art and my role as an artist.
The result was a deep interest in graphics and forms that convey a conception of the world. Some great reduced graphics on this subject were produced in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. I wanted to apply those forms to my paintings because painting is very much related to illusions, visions, and conceptions attempting to explain the world.
In “More or Less Paintings” there are certain very clear connections to philosophy. One main aspect is the content of my works. My works don’t necessarily need to have a mystical background, but they don’t need to be enlightened either. While creating the word paintings, I proceed in a rather pragmatic manner, whereas when it comes to abstract works, I tend to use a well-researched, contextual procedure.
Do your works have a concrete intention?
The good thing about art is that there is no need to convey a “message”. There’s no dogma in art. It shouldn’t and can’t impose an opinion. I wouldn’t want to give the viewer a “message”; I’d rather try to reach them through aesthetic form. My intention is not to have an intention. To me, this is a bastion of freedom which constitutes an important pillar of art.
// Sabrina Möller
USE YOUR ILLUSION | PETER JELLITSCH, MAX PIVA, THOMAS RHUBE
Exhibition: 05/03 – 26/05/2016
Galerie Clemens Gunzer • Josef-Pirchl-Strasse 10 • 6370 Kitzbühel • Austria