Nick Oberthaler’s paintings imply a conceptual superstructure: color and surfaces assume a codifying role, opening up references to fields such as image theory, art history, the natural sciences and philosophy. He seeks to question inherent conventions rather than to describe a vocabulary of form. We visited Nick in his studio to learn about the conceptual depth he applies to his work and why he values discourse over the essential process of painting.
Nick, you began studying art at the age of eighteen. Why art, and how can one already be so sure at such an age?
I actually wanted to go into commercial graphic design. Coming from a rural area – I come from the Salzkammergut – one does not have a concrete idea of what makes up the context of contemporary art. You just want to move to the big city, leave the provinces. If one wants to go into a creative direction, applied graphic design would seem to suggest itself. At the time, I spoke with a friend who studied at the “Applied” (University of Applied Arts Vienna). However, the courses there appeared too narrow and too school-like to me. So I arrived at free art and then studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.
In the meantime, you have left your beginnings as an artist far behind you. What has remained from your art study?
Of course you take things with you, you get an overview of art history and learn to classify things. Beyond the field of artistic practice I have never felt the urge to work theoretically or scientifically. Art education was not valued in the way it is today. Recently however, and for the first time, I have written a short exhibition text for an artist friend – that was an interesting experience. How does one actually write something like that? How does one address another artist’s work textually?
You say you don’t work scientifically per se, you are not an art theoretician, but you do weave many art theoretical themes into your work, don’t you?
Yes, I think my artistic work has to a certain extent to do with theoretical exploration and I think it is necessary to include it in my own practice.
You don’t deal exclusively with art theory. Often, your references originate in philosophy, sometimes in the natural sciences or in politics, that is, in fields that have nothing to do with art.
The contents with which I work originate from various fields: Image theory, fiction, scientific essays and day-to-day political reports. I actually wander constantly between different areas of subject matter; it is quite rare for me to read something in one go, rather I pursue a kind of rhizomatic reading method.
The French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used the term rhizome as a metaphor for a postmodern or post-structuralist model of knowledge organization and description of the world. According to their theory, knowledge is not imparted in a linear strand or on one level, but three-dimensionally and anti-hierarchically. My approach to research and my work process are similar.
For example, how did you come to “Distinct Features of Fast Oscillations in Phasic and Tonic Rapid Eye Movement”, as the title of your exhibition at Galerie Emanuel Layr in Vienna in 2016?
At the time, I had read a text by Jean-Luc Nancy, which dealt with the description of light, its perceivable fractions and the question of the so-called distinct in painting. I am interested in such image theoretical questions: What does the image take from reality? How is a new reality formed by coding? And what is the relationship of the viewer to it?
One paragraph in the book is entitled “Distinct oscillation”. I did not only like this word combination, I also thought the relationship of text and image in regard to painting was interesting. While researching on the web I accidentally came across the article “Distinct Features of Fast Oscillations in Phasic and Tonic Rapid Eye Movement” in a neurological journal that described the oscillation profile of the phasic rapid eye movement), a form of REM sleep. I felt the sentence was appropriate as a title in regard to the concept of the exhibition. I also think that the use of language is also a possibility in adding further levels of meaning to the (visual) artistic practice.
So you are not concerned with painting only colorful surfaces in your pictures, even though it may look that way to the viewer at first glance.
Yes, that would definitely be too boring for me. It is important to me to pursue this semantic research, during which you discover various things, which serve the interpretation. From this amalgam forms something like a story, a conceptual superstructure. At the same time, my artistic practice is extremely heterogeneous. I am more concerned with a kind of setting: the relationship of images to each other, the constructing of exhibitions as situations...
Would you call yourself a genuine painter?
I am not really sure myself (laughs). The mere fact that I apply paint to a surface does not mean that the work can be exclusively derived via the discourse of painting. I am not the type of painter who is mainly concerned with form and composition and the process of the application of paint or material.
More important to me than the painting process itself is the creation of a context into which the picture has to be integrated so that it receives authorization. I actually spend more time in the studio working with vector programs on the computer or with the cutting of stencils and templates than with the actual painting process.
Yet you still paint your pictures by hand which can only be recognized on close inspection – a more casual glance may suggest that they originated from a printer.
It is not interesting to me to produce paintings purely with a machine. The exciting thing about the manual process is still that there is the possibility of an unanticipated chance occurrence.
Where would you classify yourself?
I can’t really answer that in simple terms. For some time now, I have been in a dialog about my work with the French art historian and curator Marie de Brugerolle. In her research and scientific work she is concerned among other things with the French artist Guy de Cointet, whose work encoded and abstracted text and its performative translation into space. Departing from this, Marie had the interesting thought to place my practice into a new context: Painting in this situation is not only an object on the wall, but steps into the room and becomes readable on an expanded level. That is what I meant earlier: Pictures receive a completely new meaning in the respective exhibition context and this not least, in interaction with the viewer.
To just produce a “beautiful exhibition” would surely be insufficient?
Yes, that would be comparable to the concept of salon painting at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I believe a picture should do more and challenge. It should enter into an interaction with the visitor, but I don’t want to impose a set of rules for interpretation to the viewer: Through the discourse art history is being perpetuated as it were. In exhibitions one should try to construct and suggest more radical interrelationships. That happens in my opinion much too rarely. I believe that here the discursive limitations could be more often explored and transgressed.
Aside from the conceptual superstructure which we just mentioned, what role does the actual esthetic play in regard to your pictures?
The question of esthetics is connected with the image reception. I am more concerned with testing through painting, to question inherent conventions, otherwise one is in danger of describing only a vocabulary of form.
We have already spoken about “oscillation”. Many of your paintings actually do oscillate – through the use of neon colors for example which are present here in your studio.
Oscillation is not a fundamental feature of my paintings but does apply to some of them. I often work with complimentary colors. Looking at these paintings can be slightly unpleasant for the eye which is intended because I am concerned with the interaction between attraction and repulsion.
I actually rarely use pure colors directly from the tube. The colors are mixed with each other and as impure mixed colors heavily diluted in several layers and applied to the respective intended surface (aluminum, HDF, or canvas). Down-toning is sometimes done in the drying phase. It is actually a bit crazy, because it’s never possible to match the color 100% again.
You are an Austrian artist, you live and work in Vienna. Many of your works are in private collections in France and in French-speaking Switzerland and but there are rather fewer in Germany. How do you explain this?
I can’t analyze this precisely. On the one hand it may have to do with the fact that I have lived for a longer period in French-speaking areas and the BeNeLux states, where my interest in certain predominant discourses relating to painting has formed and has transferred to my painting.
Without generalizing, I believe the discourse in Germany is different, departs from other (art historical) questions.
In Francophone Switzerland around Geneva, there exists a close relationship to Neo-Geo or Hard-Edge Painting, embedded in a context, which in an expanded sense deals especially with strategies to display in exhibition spaces, around people like John Armleder or Francis Baudevin, who are relevant for me.
Why do you work in Vienna?
Vienna offers a very high quality of living coupled with good production conditions. The city has a pleasant size and a quality of internationality, one is almost a little spoiled, that’s why leaving the familiar is good and necessary at times. I do not rule out living and working in another city again.
After two incredibly successful but surely also very demanding years, you retreated for some months in 2015 and 2016 and now you have begun to work with full force again.
I think it is very important, especially in this state of present intoxication to resist the urge and to reduce one’s own speed, in order to sharpen one’s own perception again and to be able to develop new points of view – also in regard to the fact of how one defines one’s own role in the art scene. For me the fulfillment does not lie in more, bigger and still more accumulation. I try to keep a certain calm. For 2017 new exhibitions are planned with Martin van Zomeren in Amsterdam and in the new gallery space of Emanuel Layr in Rome.
Interview: Florian Langhammer
Photos: Florian Langhammer