Portraits of the Artist
by Denise Wendell Poray for TAKE TIME
Sandro Kopp’s first important exhibitions involved two series of 28 self-portraits entitled the New Me. Each series was painted over a period of one month with one finished portrait being produced each day. It is a lifelong project whereby a full series will be repeated every five years. The first dates from 2008, the second from 2013 and therefore the next is planned for 2018. The precise time frame becomes a determining factor. One portrait a day implies working quickly, abandoning doubt and moving forward at all costs as well as accepting error.
The series has the feeling of a pictorial diary—perhaps this day he woke up not sure which country he was in, there is disorientation and jetlag, the portrait has an unfinished quality. In others there is stillness, concentration, the artist’s hand is steady, the time factor is under control:
“In the New Me it’s more of a forensic exploration of the changes in my working method from day to day; of the “mistakes”; of the gaps between likenesses; of the degree to which I tend to hit – or miss – the mark of accurate representation.
When I am repeating the same painting process over and over again, the ‘mistakes’ and moments when things go off in unplanned directions are interesting and become an illustration of the particularities of what I can and can’t accomplish. This self -analysis of capability is more obvious in the New Me than in my other paintings in which it is easier to see the balance between the poles of representational accuracy and keeping the paint alive. Creating a likeness for the New Me also involves not « getting it right ».”
The Self- Portraits in the present show are painted upon palettes that the artist has been using for mixing his paints. After a working session, Kopp scrapes the palette clean and takes the remaining paint and wipes the moist paste onto the outer area of a canvas, these are set aside. The beauty of the scraped palette is the beauty of chance. It is an aleatory piece of art in as much as nothing was pre-determined in its making— it is the haphazard result of several months even years of painting and mixing paint and scraping it off again and again. The appearance of the palette after scraping is entirely random; it depends on the hundreds of decisions that the artist made while painting: choices of colour, thickness of paint, and this over months of work. Then there is the sweep of his hand as he cleans the wooden surface.
John Cage started to experiment with techniques of complete or partial indeterminacy in his compositions as early as 1939. Starting in the 1950’s, this sometimes involved the use of the I Ching or Book of Changes, a classical Chinese text commonly used as a divination system. Cage consulted it to determine specific notes, duration, dynamics and tempo. The work for solo piano: Music of Changes (1951) was entirely composed in this way. The scraped wooden palettes are works of chance whereas the finely detailed self-portraits executed upon them are the result of deliberate effort—or are they? The self-portraits have an eerie quality as if Kopp stared into the palette until his own likeness appeared, then he painted what he saw—a vision of him but not by him: “For the palettes, I liked the idea that I am paint… On a palette…” One of the four Palette Portraits depicts an ear— his ear; it is there hanging on the anthropomorphic curve of the palette and inevitably evokes van Gogh.
Cage’s use of « generators of randoms » casts of dice, imperfections in music paper, star charts, or the I Ching was a way of abandoning control, stepping aside while some other force accomplished the work. Without resorting to elaborate systems, Kopp also seeks momentary freedom from conscious decision-making in his work:
“sit down, choose to lose control, ride the wave all the way to the beach, and what you have at the end will either be terrible, usable or great. Something else takes over; I need to get my head out of the way. Sometimes the conversation with sitter occupies the mind to the degree where its busy, then the painting happens automatically between my eye and my hand somewhere. And then the alternative is to “take time” consciously.”
There is an ancient discussion, still unsolved, about the status of portraiture as painting. Portraiture always occupied an ambiguous position as works of art in that the imitative ability of the painter was not employed in the service of higher creative ends but rather as an end in itself—that of achieving a likeness. The question is then when does a portrait stop being a likeness of someone and become a work of art? Jean-Luc Nancy emphasizes the notion of the autonomy of the portrait as painting:
A portrait, according to the definition or the general description, is the representation of a person as we see them. The definition is as correct as it is simple. However, it is far from sufficient. It defines a function or finality: to represent a person for who they are, not for their attributes or their functions, or for their acts, or for their relationships or engagements. The portrait as an object is, in the strictest sense, the “absolute” subject: detached from everything that is not they, drawn away from all exteriority.
The problem of the autonomy of the portrait as an artwork and the necessity of drawing it away from or extrapolating the image from “all exteriority” becomes more complex when it involves a famous face. Here the factors that constitute the exteriority: all aspects contingent on the subject’s life, relationships, education, environment, belongings, profession, social status are increased exponentially through media, events, societal, dramatic or filmic roles, and star status. Therefore the viewer already has a pre-formed image before even encountering the portrait. The three portraits of Tilda Swinton, have this added level of complexity and not only is she unmistakably recognisable in Kopp’s skilful and tender renderings of her, no one else even looks vaguely like her, she is a unique beauty.
The other famous figure in the exhibition is Michael Stipe but if your memory of the head singer from R.E.M. goes back to the early years of the Green album, or his very gaunt period in the 90’s you might not recognize him. Here you see a portrait of a bearded man in a green shirt (perhaps a reference to Green album). The portrait gives the impression of someone existing inside his own self-contained universe— an autonomous portrait. It is only when you learn who he is that the larger associations take hold and these depend heavily on the viewer’s familiarity with Stipe’s music and lyrics. For some, viewing the portrait could trigger a synesthetic reaction—a song starts to ring in your inner ear or are you just Losing your Religion.
In portraiture, when the model is another artist, the exchange is intensified.
When the artist portrayed is a musician, as in the case of Stipe, there is yet another dimension that opens up, another lingering abstract conversation: music— the hidden arithmetic exercise of the soul, which does not know that it is counting (Leibniz).
Kandinsky was acutely aware of an‘interior sonority’ within the body that was triggered by viewing colours—an involuntary response. We all have it but some individuals are more sensitive to its presence than others; it exists and all our senses, moods, sentiments, thoughts, actions and even our perception of temperature are affected by it. We are all potential synaestetes. He developed these theories in the years prior to the First World War and published them in a short manifesto entitled The Spiritual in Art (1912). Much of the text was the result of the author’s late night conversations with Arnold Schönberg; long sessions of searching out how the other functioned, each holding the other’s art in higher esteem than their own and frustrated with the limitations of their principal medium. Theirs was a need to break through borders and destroy systems and to find new ones—their meetings significantly furthered the development of abstraction in painting and atonality in art. I am not comparing Kopp and his contemporaries to this pivotal moment in art history in 1911, I am only pointing to a similar form of emulation and exchange between the arts.
There is a portrait by Kopp of the musician and painter Marilyn Manson and there is in turn Manson’s portrait of Kopp: We had a couple of nights painting and hanging out where he lived back then, above a liquor store in the centre of Hollywood. There is his painting of me and my painting of him. These mutual portraits remind me of another artist Kopp has painted, Chuck Close— a Skype portrait. Close did portraits of composer Philip Glass; the first dates from 1969 and then Glass did a musical portrait of Close in 2005. These works are the result of many years of friendship between the two and a tribute to the profound influence they have had upon one another’s work. Glass’ composition, a 15-minute solo piano work is the most abstract portrait possible. It is free from any form of exteriority or contingencies, it is an « autonomous » portrait and work of art.
There exists what could be considered a musical portrait of Sandro Kopp by the composer Simon Fisher-Turner. While Kopp was painting him, Fisher-Turner recorded the session: the rustling rhythm of the brush, the clicking of the metal tubes of paint, the sharp scraping of the palette knife, dogs barking in the distance, then the hush of night falling and their voices. In the manner of musique concrète, the composer then looped, layered and compressed tones to create a sound installation that was heard throughout Kopp’s show Feedbackloop at the Five Eleven gallery in New York in December 2015. For Kopp it remains: a sonic portrait of me and my world.
Now back to Kopp methodically scraping leftover paint onto the edge of a canvas day after day, month after month. These have formed rough, brightly coloured accumulations of paint, now aureola that surround each one of the Icon paintings. Kopp explains:
The encrusting oil paint on the central paintings of the show – Take Time I, II and III – are several years’ worth of palette-scrapings, slowly built up, collecting time, like a coral reef. Each blob is the trace of a particular day or two of painting. The portrait is then painted in the centre, which is left more or less clean and flat. After the sitting, the image is built up over months, refined in countless layers and then surrounded by precious metals like gold, palladium and platinum.
The portrait part of the painting kind of sits in the background when the metal is first applied, but there comes a moment when the portrait moves forward and is more dominant than it’s surroundings. This is to do with the absolute opacity and brightness of the metal leaf. It dominates the picture plane and the portraits initially look like they lie below this shiny surface. Only after a few dozen layers and glazes do they suddenly emerge, taking on a sculptural quality and visually pushing the bright metal into the background.
Making these very laboured heavy framings can take two to three years and it’s fun to watch them evolve and slowly accumulate and develop a life of their own. I like the notion of time as an ingredient. Looking at painting and “taking time” as a maker and as a viewer.
We imagine the artist coming to contemplate or scrutinize the portrait again and again over months always adding another ounce of paint on the edge like hanging a small jewel or trinket on an Icon. For the viewer the “coral reef ” accumulation can be perceived as the organic matter that gave birth to the image or the inverse: a dissolving process whereby the image or subject gradually decays back into the primal paint substance. The surrounding material can be seen as the non-subjective, abstract prolongation of the initial moment of the sitting.
The New You
After growing up in Germany, Kopp moved to New Zealand where he lived in a communal flat in an old hosiery factory in the centre of the capital city of Wellington from 2001-2004:
“basically it was 30 people sharing one stove and two bathrooms on two floors. I had a very big studio and I lived at the hub of a community of dancers, filmmakers and painters.”
All the portraits in the New You series were members of his community from that period which formed an eclectic international mix including childhood friends as well as his brother and sister. Each portrait has a carefully prepared surface under-painted with coloured and gold glazes that seep through the edges of what appears to be a monochrome grey background. This creates a neutral setting, one free from status symbols and tradition.
The Factory functioned as an extended stopover, a branch to rest upon in the lives of each one of these artists. From there they would either strive or continue to struggle or perhaps drop out of the art scene altogether. Kopp’s individual renderings seem to reveal something of the past, present, and future of each of them, an image fixed in time but where the subject is just about to shift positions, stand up and take a further step along their life trajectory.
When not at home in the Highlands of Scotland, Kopp is in constant movement and his field of observation is vast and rapidly changing. He is a world traveler. Observing friends at work, writers, musicians, dancers, actors, and film directors is an essential part his creative process.
The happenstance that brings two people together on this planet is already mysterious; what then creates a bond between them is still more so. In The Elective Affinties (Die Wahlverwandtschaften -1809) Goethe tried to or pretended to try (some say he was only using it as a structural device) to demonstrate that emotional attachment was based on chemical affinity and not on free choice. Ironically, Cage might have found in Goethe’s formulae yet another generator of what he referred to as randomness. For Cage abandoning choice for chance was a way to greater freedom, freedom from Will.
Kopp’s choice of models in the present show seems to be guided by both chance and affinity. One of his most frequent models is an Indian-American designer and actor Waris Ahluwalia who also figures among the Icon paintings. There is a strong bond between these two human beings; some would say strong chemistry, with no deliberate reference to Goethe.
But to conclude this essay without delving further into the unfathomable question of free will: here we stand in a gallery full of portraits of people whom, for the most part, we do not know. They are strangers; we have no pre-conceived notions about them as individuals. We don’t know what drew Kopp to these particular people, why they or we for that matter are all together in this room on this day. What is the level of determinacy in Kopp’s choice of models? What is the level of determinacy in our attraction and fascination with them?
Though they won’t be answered immediately we can begin to formulate questions. An art gallery is a rare haven, a heterotopia, where empathy can occur between people, especially when judgment is, momentarily at least, suspended and you become immersed in the paintings. The most important with the exhibition Take Time is to take time, to wander around the gallery and to get know the unknown faces and to look carefully, look deeply, look at the portraits as landscapes of the soul.
Denise Wendel-Poray 26 September 2016
Denise Wendel-Poray is a Canadian writer, curator and critic holding degrees from Yale University, McGill University and the École Normale de Musique. Formerly an opera singer she performed principal roles throughout Europe (Convent Garden, l’Opéra de la Bastille, Théâtre du Châtelet). She is the author and editor of books and essays concerning the relationship between art, theatre and music. (Frauen-liebe und Leben, Hatje-Cantz, 2013 and the forthcoming Painting The Stage: 200 Years of Stage Design by Artists from Schinkel to Kentridge, 2017). She has been curator and music advisor for the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg Germany and guest lecturer on stage décor at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. As a journalist she has contributed to Opera Canada Magazine, ArtPress, Art Review and the Wiener Kurier.