14 May SANDRO KOPP: INTENSIVE CARE UNITS
3 June – 30 July 2021
Who am I? What are we?
Thoughts on the work of Sandro Kopp
We live in a time dominated by science and technology. Man has robbed nature of its magic, and with his fantastic technologies runs the danger of destroying the world or his own kind. At the same time, technology affords us the chance to undo our capital mistakes and ensure the survival of our species for eternity by one day possibly opening up extra-terrestrial habitats to us. Because in about five to seven billion years our most important and sustainable source of energy – the Sun – will begin to transform and destroy our Earth. Our dearest star, which was dedicated to Helios, God of the Sun, and later Apollo, God of light, healing and the arts, is nothing other than a giant nuclear fusion reactor that is slowly but steadily consuming its resources. This thought may seem infinitely far away and therefore irrelevant, but in times of a pandemic such apocalyptic ideas may move closer to our consciousness. Perhaps the “selfie culture” of our time is an expression of our collective unconscious fear of the end of the earth, as if we could actually immortalise ourselves and our loved ones with countless megapixel images in the cloud…
Since photography was first invented in the 19th century, and all the more today that a smartphone can “shoot” perfect pictures or record almost cinematic videos, creating portraits or self portraits with a brush and oil paint or the more modern felt tip pen almost appears to be an anachronism. But Sandro Kopp does just that, maybe even in defiance of our time, with a consistency and devotion that leaves a deep impression. As much as a talented, sensitive artist may work in a “classical” manner, he will not remain untouched by the zeitgeist. And indeed there is a contemporary spirit in Kopp’s works, particularly in the way he works, which becomes evident in his first Vienna solo exhibition.
The artist, who was born in 1978 in Heidelberg (Germany), emigrated to New Zealand at the age of twenty-two and has lived in Scotland since 2006, shows three bodies of work in the Vienna branch of the Friedrichshof Collection, in the so-called STADTRAUM: “The New Me III” (2020), his Eye Portraits (from 2017) and his Lockdown Zoom Portraits (2020-21). I would like to point out Kopp’s concise “artist statement” about the current exhibition, which was published in the folder accompanying the exhibition, as well as a few interesting texts on the bodies of work just mentioned, available on his website1. I am therefore not presuming to think up or write something new or original on these works. Rather, I will attempt to approach the essence of his work and the fundamental questions of these three cycles.
“The New Me III” (2020)
We are familiar with famous self-portraits by Albrecht Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn, Artemisia Gentileschi, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Max Beckmann and Lucian Freud, to name only a few in chronological order. Reportedly there have been self-portraits since antiquity, but this special practice only became established during the renaissance. It was then, according to the most prevalent interpretation, that the “self-confident” artist began to view himself as not purely a craftsman, but as an equal to the intellectuals of his time, the philosophers, scientist and literati. Wikipedia says2: “Apart from the examination of one’s own physiognomy as the always present and cheap model, many self-portraits also bear witness to the artist’s inner confrontation with himself, and his own changing moods and transience.” This is also true for Sandro Kopp, although he transcends it by far. Sandro Kopp painted his first series of self-portraits in 2008 (“The New Me”), then again in 2013 (“The New Me II”) and most recently in November/December 2020 “The New Me III”, now being shown in Vienna. For twenty-eight consecutive days, a so-called lunar month, the artist sits down in front of a mirror for hours and paints his likeness. While Sandro usually likes to smile and his face exudes a cheerful, solar disposition, in the self-portraits his face appears particularly serious. This has nothing to do with self-importance, as is so often the case with photographic portraits, but is the result of hours of focused self-observation. At the same time, this gives a majestic quality to his slim, well-formed face. This, however, also stems from the artist’s intensive engagement with late Egyptian art, in which the first portraits appear to have originated, as tomb paintings – the mummy or fayum portraits.
From the perspective of a former natural scientist Sandro Kopp’s “painterly process of self-knowledge” appears like an experiment: the artist attempts to establish the same or similar framework conditions in order to conduct a kind of measurement. On the one hand he measures the daily “fluctuations” in his creative capacity. Some portraits are more realistic, others are only hinted at in an impressionist manner, a rather gloomy self-portrait consists mostly of a lush pencil sketch. Another gives one the feeling of recognising the exposed muscles of his face. In another one his features appear smudged, as if in a nightmare. The different colours surrounding the head are remarkable and might have a connection to the artist’s mood. Sandro also makes mistakes in his painting, he recognises and corrects them, but also partly leaves them, as a part of his painting and cognitive process.
On a higher, metaphysical plane, this body of works is about the “New” and the “Me”. What is new about me? What will remain? Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ panta rhei (everything flows) is juxtaposed with his contemporary Parmenides’ fundamental question of being behind appearance. In fact, we are changing every moment, physically as well as mentally. Our mood depends on many factors like our recent experiences, a sentence, a touch, our sleep or the current dream. In our body, around ten billion cells die every day, and just as many are newly born. But not only we are constantly changing, our entire environment is as well: the temperature, the climate, the lighting conditions… . In one single day the earth moves about 2.5 million kilometres along its elliptical path, and the universe is likely to also have grown by about 6.4 million kilometres. In spite of all these infinite changes, something seems to remain that allows the continuity of our consciousness in time: the self. Thus the impression arises that with his self-portraits, Sandro Kopp wants to “measure” precisely this mysterious constant and therefore essentially pursues the existential question of our innermost being: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Who or what are we?
Eye Portraits (from 2017)
But let us leave the self-portrait and dive into the Eye Portraits by Sandro Kopp, almost a hundred of which the artist has embedded on a large mural painting in the Stadtraum. In the space, most of them are facing his self-portraits and are looking at them and the exhibition guests spiritedly, curiously, dreamily or simply in the ways in which a hundred different eyes can look at us. The eyes, as we know, are the windows to the soul. But what even is this soul? Is it “only” electromagnetic waves buzzing around in the highly complex neuronal networks of our brains? Or is the enigma of our consciousness grounded in the macroscopic quantum effects of the microtubules of our brain neurons, as suggested by Sir Roger Penrose? Or is there something that transcends the physical after all? With the Byzantine-looking gold leaf background that the artist applies carefully behind many of the eyes, is he maybe alluding to this non-profane, spiritual plane?
When you look deeply into another’s eyes, sometimes there is a feeling of shame, as if the other were seeing us naked, could sense our most intimate feelings, longings, our darkest and brightest thoughts. Maybe only the fine eye muscles that are shaped by character and moods over the years let us know the inner life of their owners. But what is this shine in the eyes of children or in the eyes of a loved one and not least in Sandro Kopp’s Eye Portraits?
At first glance Sandro Kopp’s eye portraits appear very material, sensual, I would even say fleshly, as if the painter had dissected them and not just painted them on the 10 x 10 to 20 x 20 cm wooden cassettes, but carefully encased them within them. Looking at them for a longer time, they develop a life force of their own. They speak to us. We feel the intimate relationship between their owners and the painter. In several works one can even recognise the artist painting the portrait in the reflection of the pupil. The eyes belong to family members, friends, highly interesting personalities and not just a few celebrities whom Sandro Kopp, in his rich life, has met again and again all over the world. The oversized portraits were created in his studio in Scotland, in cafés, in theatres, on the set, in hotels, even in toilets if the lighting conditions required it. It is astounding how easily Sandro can not only recount the names of the eye owners, but also the smallest details about the creation of these many Eye Portraits.
The mural that spans across rooms, created by Sandro Kopp in the Stadtraum, boldly and inspired by music, appears like a landscape, in which a shining yellow monastery-like structure rises up triumphantly. Here his non-figurative, gestural vein also appears, possibly concealing an actionist element within it. Large, monumental non-figurative works by Sandro Kopp will shortly be shown in particular in the film “The French Dispatch” (2020) by Wes Anderson.
Lockdown Zoom Portraits (2020-21)
Dulcis in fundo we move to the upper, cabinet-like room of the Friedrichshof Collection’s Stadtraum, where thirty-six so-called Lockdown Zoom Portraits by Sandro Kopp hang on the wall as if suspended in air. With a certain serenity, they look down in the direction of the self-portraits of their creator.
It is remarkable Sandro Kopp had already recognised the influence of Skype and therefore also its successor apps in 2008 and examined them artistically. With respect to these portraits, the artist speaks of a “mediated presence”. Since the Corona pandemic he has primarily used Zoom, the most prevalent of the platforms. During the online conversations, the artist drew the portraits on A5 format sheets of paper from a sketchbook using light-sensitive felt tip pens. They alternate between illustrations in bold, striking colours and delicate, rather withdrawn sketches. Some portraits are already a bit faded by the light, which does not bother the artist at all – on the contrary: it is an intended characteristic of these works, which thereby also allude to our transience. Sandro Kopp explores how the virtual presence of these people he comes in contact with manifests and affects him. Particularly in times of a pandemic, where physical meetings and travel must be reduced to the absolutely necessary, Skype, Zoom and the likes of them turn out to be essential means to maintain human contact. The same technology that makes us amble through the world looking fixedly at our smartphones allows us, in these difficult times, the best possible connectedness – not only in business, but also with family, friends and acquaintances. In these circumstances, the inherent contradiction of technology becomes apparent once more. In these small, fleeting works by Sandro Kopp technology and art therefore seem to merge in a way that is reminiscent of the original term techné. This seemingly harmonious connection could therefore also be interpreted as an approach to a solution to the tense relationship between technology and nature or man and the world.
Thanks to Sandro Kopp’s exhibition in Vienna, we embrace being infected by his palpable love for painting and drawing, by his skill, his enthusiasm for colour, his dedication and intense attention to human features and eyes, to humanness itself, and not least by his far-sighted intuition as well as his positive, hopeful attitude that shines through in his personality and in his works, completely and without reservations.
1Regarding the self-portraits “The New Me” I would like to point out the text “Portraits for the artist” by Denise Wendel-Poray written on the occasion of the exhibition “Take Time” in the Gallery Eric Dupont in Paris (2016), and regarding the Eye Portraits I will mention the text “The Faithful Interpreter – On the paintings of Sandro Kopp” by Jasper Sharp on the occasion of the exhibition “mEYEcelium” in the Palazzo Grimani Museum in Venice (2019). Sandro Kopp’s Skype Portraits, which he showed in particular in the exhibition “There You Are” at the Gallery Lehmann Maupin in New York (2012), were examined by Carolin Ackermann in the text “Sandro Kopp – ANALOGUE“ on the occasion of the exhibition “Analogue” in the Gallery Antoine Laurentin in Paris (2014).
This exhibition comprises three bodies of work, each of which is an exploration of the subjective perspective that figurative painting affords us.
We live in an age when we are continuously surrounded by lens-based still images that are created by the objective eye of the camera. In contrast the highly subjective human eye, heart and hand all combine to bring paintings into being. They chronicle lived experience over an extended period of time as well as the impulses and instincts that influence the interaction with materials which create these representations of another person.
An intensive caring gaze and an intensive caring touch are the basis of both this celebration of humanity and the struggle to communicate and make permanent personal and interpersonal experience.
The New Me III – Every few years I paint a self portrait in front of the mirror for 28 consecutive days (a lunar month). The work is displayed as one piece, in sequence, seven paintings wide and four high. This is the third series in the larger body of work which was begun in 2007. Each painting is finished and left as it is when the next one is begun.
The Eye Portraits of a wide-ranging group of friends and family were each painted from life before the beginning of the pandemic in many different locations: From tea gardens in Bangladesh to my artist studio in Scotland, to a Venetian palazzo. Each eye is intended as a window into the perception of the particular atmosphere of the sitting and the connection with the sitter. Occasionally the reflection in the pupil holds a tiny self portrait as well.
Finally, the Lockdown Zoom portraits were made in 2020, in the course of the initial lockdown during video chat conversation with dear people around the globe. The uncertainty of the pandemic made me feel that oil paintings were too permanent a thing to create in that moment, so I chose the lighter touch of small drawings made with intentionally non-archival markers. In retrospect perhaps they communicate a hope that this difficult time would fade away at some point like the colours used to represent that moment, while the human connection endures.
Photo by Philipp Schulz / boxquadrat