Interview with Artist Marie Irmgard

Marie Irmgard is a Danish artist, born in Copenhagen, who currently resides and works in Berlin. She has shown widely throughout her home country as well as in the U.S., Portugal, Sweden, and Norway. Her work is impactful, the opposite of subtle - bewitching - at times, unsettling. In a series called "New Mexico 17 Years After", she juxtaposes visceral abstract paintings with seemingly mundane photos, zoom-ins in on corners of spaces - unkempt edges of existence. Her paintings, simultaneously abstract and representative, allow the viewer to explore the between - an unruly state of sensation knowingly just above the firm grounds of reality. Her current studio is in the formerly demarcated East Berlin where she says there are still many abandoned buildings in different stages of decay. "There is for instance an old East-German shopping center half burned down where there are no walls left – so it’s like looking into a very messed up large scale doll-house." Much of Marie's art evokes the feelings one would have traversing through a very messed up large dollhouse - feelings of trepidation and enchantment synthesized. 

Your artist statement is very unique: a list of 27 statements that must allude to your vision. Can you expound on a few of these statements: 2. I live half of my life in passive astonishment; 8. I believe Nike’s slogan to be today’s most relevant philosophy; and 15. I think about Thoreau almost daily?

Passive astonishment is one of the ways Andy Warhol described himself and it fits half of me so well (the other is half is probably a knotted-up Pollock). I love Andy Warhol’s work but for all the wrong reasons. I am not interested in his conceptual framework, the consumerism, the overproduction, the stale silver. What gets me is the astonishment that always comes through in his work and to me overrules the apparent cynicism. There is a wide-eyedness in his work that I recognize in myself - being quietly stunned. I share Warhol’s fascination of the dollar bills but not his other subjects, or fixations.

To me passive astonishment is a transcendentalist's outlook. I see Warhol as someone that saw consumer objects with a transcendentalist’s eyes. Most of my subject matter is much more classical than his, but the way of looking is the same. I look a lot at nature's “visual design” - the outlines of dog paws, horses’ canon bones, cat skulls and bird feathers never lose their fascination to me. The same goes for some foods - a broken egg, a mango cut in half and an eggplant - to me there’s everything in that. I can look and look and I still don’t quite get it – but I don’t mind that I don’t get it – as long as I can keep looking, there is no frustration in that look. It’s very much about being in a state where not understanding, or ever expecting to understand but just observing and admiring, is okay.

I believe Nike’s slogan to be today’s most relevant philosophy.

Before art school I studied English, and I learned a lot from that, which I use in my practice. But the close-minded referential tendency there can be in some parts of academia; academics writing papers for other academics commenting on the theory about the theory’s theory made me claustrophobic.  In art school I felt a bit the same. The statement is linked to one of the other statements; irony is good in humor sometimes, mostly it is not good in art. What I mean is the snarky irony where artists make clever art for other artist and hide behind it. That snarky irony that says: “Oh well if they don’t like it, it’s okay because as you can see I didn’t really mean it anyway.” 

I feel if you don’t really mean it, I don’t really care. I love Asger Jorn, Jackson Pollock, and Kazuo Shiraga – and of course that was not so passable in art school. For me it’s irrelevant what body part Shiraga painted a piece with – it’s the energy that it transcends that matters – he just “did it” and that shows in his work. It takes courage to make a work “real” because it is so easy to attack. Real is a vulnerable position, but also the only one I think anything interesting can come from. I root for and admire people that do things, risk looking foolish. It’s the difference between doing or decontextualizing. I like work-horses, people with blinders who just do their own thing, completely regardless. The statement is also very much a reminder to myself, in the sense that I have definitely not always followed it, though I became better at it.

I was once asked to write a text for a drawing/painting class I was teaching and I called it “to walk after the sound”, and the text is about walking blindfolded in a dark forest with only a weak sound signal to direct you out of the forest, and sometimes you will become so lost that you can’t hear the signal so you have to stop and listen, try to walk, and catch the signal again. You can just walk after the sound - that’s all you can really do.

I think about Thoreau almost daily.

Emerson and Thoreau are important to me. I think of self-reliance as one way out of conformism. It’s about building your own world and that’s where the pull of the canvas is for me - a space where I do exactly what I want. Somehow transcendentalism and those thoughts got tucked away before they became fully rooted and to me that's a shame because I think it’s a much more interesting direction than what came after - I’ll take Thoreau over Sartre any day. Donald Judd speaks about how they, for his sake, could flush the whole European tradition down the drain – it’s a bit extreme, but I get where he comes from. I like Judd not Duchamp – that is really what that statement means.

You utilize both painting and photography in your work - can you tell us why these two mediums? Have you explored other mediums or do you wish to?

I don’t consider myself a photographer but an artist that sometimes works with photography, a lot of my favorite contemporary artist are photographers i.e. Alessandra Sanguinetti and Lise Sarfati. Because I work in that flux intuitive process where I try to stay open, I have to work in different mediums because painting is good for some things but not for others. For instance, my most recent photo series wouldn’t work at all if painted. Colors in a painting and in a photo are completely different, I would never make a lavender and purple painting but in a manipulated photo it works. Another reason for working in different mediums is also purely practical because in my oil paintings I often use linseed oil as the only medium, and it is such a slow process that I need to be able to leave it and work on other things in the meantime, because the paintings can take years to dry. I would like to eventually work with video, site specific and build objects. There are so many mediums I would like to explore, but I am just not done at all enough with painting to get there, and I don’t know if I will ever be. If you work with oil or acrylics or on primed or unprimed canvas, there is such a huge difference already in that, which I’m not at all done exploring.

Can you tell us about some of the themes you explore in your work and your process?

I do not purposely explore certain predefined themes, if anything comes close it would be entropy – but not entropy as just decay, more entropy as the constant transformation. I have a hard time with categories because the more you work with them, the more you realize most of them are artificial and were never really valid. A big part is an influx between chaos and control, so if I should label my process anything, I would call it “entropy interrupted” - when it really goes wrong, and it often does because it is such a free process. Then “interrupted entropy” when it goes right.

My process is hybrid in that I put things together that might be seen as being very different or even opposed, at least from a linear time perspective, but it is always things that for me fit together. Right now I am working on a Vanitas series with floral motives, I am looking at the Dutch painter Maria van Oosterwyck as a point of departure. She was active in the 1600s. But the spur came from an interview I read with Yoko Ono where she speaks about how she consciously made a switch from “seven sufferings and eight disasters” to “seven lots of luck and eight treasures”.

I don’t think it is a theme per se, but for me, the make or break with my works is whether they breathe or not, if they are not alive, I discard them. It’s important to me that my works seem edible, not as in delicious, but as in a presence that is real in the world. I want the work to give a tactile feeling, it has to give a bodily sensation that transcends language and the conscious mind. It’s a thing that is hard to define because it is not about craftsmanship or tricks, because there are plenty of painters that use thick lustrous brushstrokes whose painting seems lifeless, and then there are painters who barely use any paint whose works vibrate.

That’s one of the places where painting really becomes interesting to me, because there is something there that we cannot understand, or at least, we haven’t discovered it yet. I think there is a big difference between knowing and understanding. And I work with and am interested in the knowing – you can know a painting even though you might not understand it – but it’s the knowing that has the most value not the conscious understanding.

What formal and/or informal training helped shape you as an artist? 

I worked primarily with narratology when I studied English. Narratology is the study of narratives and how narrative structures are constructed and how these structures influence and/or control our perception. It is an uncovering of, how the story is told, and that this “how” is as important as the story itself. I see so many parallels between narratology and painting - how a painting is painted determines how we perceive it. Narratology is a bit like archaeology applied to literature: you carefully inspect and brush off to see what is really there. And I was drawn to that field because it is so much what I am about – about stories and how they are told. It’s how I work with painting, text, and photography. I apply, remove, rub off, over and over, endlessly - and usually what I remove is more important than what I apply.

Who are three women who inspire you creatively and/or otherwise in your life?

Uh.. there is many, but the first must be: Yoko Ono, because she is a great artist in all mediums, and because she managed not to become insane and destructive when she was strung up by a world mob. She persevered and a bit became the saint for all the people who were judged really unjustly, and her music is amazing – New York Woman is one of my favorite songs.

Then Patti Smith for her work, the music and the novels and for doing her own thing – regardless - for being an example of creation rather than competition - she just does her work. And for losing the meanness when it was time for that, for stepping off stage when it was time for that, for getting back on the stage when it was time for that.  

Then Joyce Penesato. I love the feel of her work, unfortunately I only saw one of her paintings for real, but that one was breathing. I admire her for being truthful and stepping into her own and for the generosity that is in her work.  

For all three women it also goes that I admire their style. Patti Smith is elegant like a Roman in a custom-made suit even in jeans and a flannel, and I love Yoko Ono’s outfits especially the little grey high heeled suede boots, and Joyce Penesato looks so punk rock and bursting happy at the same time.

What does feminism mean to you? 

Freedom from conformity for both women and men, equality under the law, the right to choose and to live free of judgement and social control.

For example, in our present state, nurturing is devalued, it is used against women to belittle them and explain to them why they are where they are, sort of “if only they would care less they would be more successful, stronger, etc.”, and at the same time it is driven out of men. We have too many men and women (!) explaining to women that it’s their own fault they are not succeeding, and if only they would “be more like men”, then they would succeed, which looking at our current state of affairs (climate, armed conflict, misery) is absurd – the last thing we should do is eradicate those qualities typically seen as belonging to women.

As an artist, it has taken me a long time to really come into my own, and I wonder if it would have taken me as long if I were a man. Rothko was in his late 40s before he found his signature but still... For many years I wished I was more like Marlene Dumas or Sophie Calle – more controlled – less expressive. My very first paintings were drips and running paintings, but I took a long detour from that and worked much more conceptually and controlled - it was a valuable exploration, but it didn’t need to take over a decade, and maybe it wouldn’t have if there had been more Joyce Penesatos’ and Anke Weyers’ around to look to.