Who am I? What are we?
Thoughts on the work of Sandro Kopp
Sammlung Friedrichshof Stadtraum, Vienna, 3 June – 30 July 2021
By Marcello Farabegoli – Curator Friedrichshof Collection
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 immortalize 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
Regarding the self-portraits “The New Me” I would like to point out the text “Portraits for the artist” by Denis e 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).
“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 selfknowledge”
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,
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.
Curator Friedrichshof Collection
The Faithful Interpreter
On the paintings of Sandro Kopp
by Jasper Sharp
Said the Eye one day, “I see beyond these valleys a mountain veiled with blue mist. Is it not beautiful?”
The Ear listened, and after listening intently awhile, said, “But where is any mountain? I do not hear it.”
Then the Hand spoke and said, “I am trying in vain to feel it or touch it, and I can find no mountain.”
And the Nose said, “There is no mountain, I cannot smell it.”
Then the Eye turned the other way, and they all began to talk together about the Eye’s strange delusion.
And they said, “Something must be the matter with the Eye.”
Kahlil Gibran, The Eye
Our eyes are a barometer, signal lights for feelings held within. At times they are large and glistening, communicating delight, excitement and engagement. At others they seem almost to turn inwards, deadened and unresponsive. They can shed tears of happiness and weep tears of pain. They are the part of our bodies around which narrative most instinctively forms. What we are and will become often begins with the eyes; it is here that love first takes hold, that envy seeps in, that we put together the pieces of the jigsaw that forms the world around us. Organs of extreme sensitivity, they respond to surges of feeling or the physical effects of light and pressure, and broadcast that response. Charlotte Brontë referred to them as interpreters for the soul, unconscious but faithful. Shaped like a fish, they are often considered to carry some of the symbolism of that creature: fertility, femininity and the unconscious. Jung considered the eye to be the eternal bosom, with the pupil its child.
The eyes of Sandro Kopp are accumulations of highly specific but anonymous intimacy. Painted on small panels in sittings of several hours in cafes, palaces and gardens, they reveal both defiance and vulnerability, sometimes in the same person. Kopp paints people that he knows, with whom there exists at least a certain familiarity. He begins by looking closely at each subject, to select an eye to paint. That is followed by a brief pencil sketch, made in a few minutes, before he begins to paint, usually with the outer rim of the iris. From there he builds up the structure of each subject’s eye over the course of a couple of hours. The task that he has assigned himself is, of course, ultimately a hopeless one. Like a star in the night sky, the human eye has something inherently indefinable to it, a sense of infinite depth that is impossible fully to capture. But it is for this reason, perhaps, that he continues, completing one and moving on quickly to the next, moving a small step closer with each new eye to understanding is unfathomable complexity.
Much like we are are able to take measure of ourselves by returning at intervals to familiar places, so Kopp is able to measure his own
development as he works on each new eye. After finishing, he allows them to settle in the studio, a process of ripening which can occasionally result in him continuing to work on them at a later date.
To look someone in the eye is an act of intimacy. In western cultures it is considered a custom of honesty. Further east, eyes are turned away to convey respect or even covered to confer modesty and submission. The eyes that Kopp paints are wide open and full of language, full of conversation. Seen as a whole they make up something of a family, but a family of individuals with as many variations in mood and atmosphere as there are people. Time, we become aware, is an essential component of the work. Each single portrait is as much about time, and a record of
movements made during that time, as it is about the subject itself. There is an experiential quality to the painting that often continues beyond the sitting itself. At a certain point Kopp began to layer gold leaf onto the small panels around some of his subjects’ eyes, ennobling them and dignifying them with a certain spirituality. The process of gold leafing is an act of quiet meditation that dates back to the illuminated manuscripts crafted by monks in ancient monasteries, whose own dedication often resulted in them losing the gift of their own eyesight.
The eyes that Kopp paints are larger than life-size. Standing alone, they invariably bring to mind the single eye that has come to represent divine
omniscience. In Ancient Egypt the single painted eye of Horus was a sacred symbol, regarded as a source of light, knowledge and fertility. The pupil stood for sight, the right side of the eye for smell, the left side for hearing, the brow for thought, the curved tail for taste and the teardrop for touch. Seen together, they resemble a gathering of protective amulets, magical apotropaic antidotes to deflect misfortune and turn back malevolence. And they feel very much at home in Venice among the shimmering golden mosaics of Torcello and San Marco, in a city that shares their indefinability, a complexity that will forever remain fugitive.
Jasper Sharp is a British art historian. He is Curator for Modern and Contemporary Art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, for whom he has curated exhibitions of artists including Lucian Freud, Joseph Cornell, Susan Philipsz, Mark Rothko and Kathleen Ryan. He worked previously as Head of Exhibitions at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, and is a founding director of the philanthropic organization Phileas.
For his 2008 series, The New Me, Sandro Kopp painstakingly created a self-portrait every day for 28 days. The paintings are honest, self-questioning and slightly disconcerting – qualities they share with the works in his latest exhibition, Fiercely Loved shown at Timothy Everest in Spitalfields, London, E1.
The richly layered paintings in Fiercely Loved are of soft toys: Goully the monkey, Liony, Snoopy and other cloth, wool and fur comforters and confidants. Although the portraits are not of Kopp, or his friends (the subjects of his 2010-2012 shows of Skype paintings) they do tell the most personal stories of the artist and his intimates. They also possess the power to provoke memories from childhood, and even infancy, in us all.
I was three and my sister was five when we were driven by our parents through France to Spain in a Volkswagen. Our luggage was piled on the roof and we slept in the car. As my sister recalls, we always woke up in some field or other. We are a family who are avowedly averse to camping, and yet, now that we come to talk about it, we often did just that but without the added bonus of a tent. My parents slept upfront, my sister on the back seat and I was swaddled in the boot. That holiday Little Ted was lost overnight in one of those fields. He was, as his name suggests, a small teddy and he belonged to my sister. She only realized he was missing when it was next time to sleep. She was devastated and inconsolable. Nearly 50 years later I can hear in her voice that not only was Little Ted lost, but the holiday was lost and something else too. Perhaps she lost the belief that our parents could magically repair everything?
A friend, Charlotte, tells me of a similar journey with her parents and her comforter, Wol, whose portrait is part of Fiercely Loved. She recalls losing Wol out of a car window when she was aged four. Prompted by Wol’s inclusion in the show she asked her parents what they remembered of the loss. Her father, who sounds like an astute man, says that a Charlotte a propos of nothing suddenly announced that Wol was missing. He says in his email to her, that he was not sure if Wol fell, or was pushed. The route was retraced and Wol was, miraculously, recovered. I had a strong image of Charlotte sitting in the back seat, insufficiently noticed by her parents who were together in the front. She wanted them to turn around in more ways than one and she engaged Wol in the exercise. What Charlotte’s story demonstrates is how important it is for the child to assume their rights over the object of their love, the comforter, the soft toy, or what psychotherapists would call the transitional object.
Donald Woods Winnicott first used the term in his paper Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena a Study of the First Not-Me Possession in 1953. When an infant is first born and begins to feed from a mother’s breast it has no knowledge that it is a separate being. It believes itself to be part of the mother, or rather, that the mother is a part of it. A significant part of the infant’s move towards understanding the existence of a world of not-me is its discovery of an object, usually soft, that can move to show it has a vitality or reality of its own. The infant readily clutches it as a defense against anxiety, particularly at the time of going to sleep. The object represents something that is both mother and not mother and can be used to express all sorts of feelings, for example, love, hate, aggression, and reparation. Importantly, these loved possessions are able to survive all the feelings children have towards them. The objects are termed transitional because they help a child move from the original object, the mother, towards a more independent state.
My sister still mourns Little Ted, but, when I call her, is more anxious to talk about Big Ted who, she says, was really her favourite. Big Ted had to have several new noses as she serially rubbed them away with her love. In fact, Big Ted eventually had to have a makeover by our grandmother as my sister’s love for him was so fierce he’d lost not just his nose but, much like Teddy in this exhibition, his eyes and most of his furry face. Maybe her love for Big Ted was more vigorous as she had lost Little Ted Maybe what persisted in her was a greater need to assert her ownership.
My sister’s love for Big Ted survived his makeover because she sanctioned it but Winnicott states the object must never change unless changed by the infant. Most parents get to know the value of a Teddy, a Wol, a Liony or a Goully and carry it around when travelling. Most understand the need to let it get dirty and smelly and inherently understand that washing introduces a break in continuity of the infant’s experience, a break that might destroy the meaning and value of the object to the infant.
I am not sure what age I was when my mother became repulsed by my ribbon (which was, in fact, a blue blanket with a ribbon border that I stroked between my toes) and concerned that, on another trip abroad, the customs officers would not allow us in the country with such a thing. She not only washed it but trimmed it into a neat, acceptable, square. I can instantly recall the feeling of outrage and near despair, the feeling of a brutal separation.
Writing in Attachment and Loss, the psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who was a pioneer in attachment theory, says that, There is no reason to think that attachment to an inanimate object bodes ill for a child; on the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that such an attachment can be combined with satisfactory relations with people. With some children, indeed, an absence of interest in soft objects may give grounds for concern. He tells the story of a child whose strong dislike of soft toys from infancy was notable and was rooted in his mother’s rejection and later desertion of him. That child’s dislike of soft objects reflected a dislike of his mother.
Bowlby believed that the prolongation of attachment to inanimate objects into later childhood was not a sign of insecurity. It should not be a cause for concern if we love our Lionys, Teddys and Ribbons alongside our parents, our siblings and our friends long after some (notably parents) believe is healthy. However, alarm bells ring when a child?s preference for such an object outweighs any attachment or affection for a person.
The largest painting in the exhibition, Safe, shows Goully (Kopp’s own treasured transitional) arms outstretched around Snoopy and Piglet. Kopp describes these three as his favourite sitters. The cave, with its fronds, in which they sit seems feminine and womb-like, outside the background is phallic, harsh and rocky. Beyond the world of soft toys lies that of the hard ones of older childhood, the ones that break and disappoint, and beyond that, some way off, the realities of adulthood.
What Sandro Kopp has achieved with Fiercely Loved, is the elevation of some of his friends and family’s transitional objects into the heroic and romantic. His portraits, set in landscapes that bring to mind the grandest from past centuries, are poignant and powerful. He also lets us see how these toys and comforters are not only transitional objects but also the earliest transferential objects. Into Wol, Liony, Piglet and all the rest are projected the rage, disappointment and even hatred their owners have felt for their parents, their sisters and their brothers. And we see that reflected back in their staring eyes, their limbless waves, in Goully’s silenced mouth. We feel too the fierce love that these soft toy warriors have endured. The decorative but taut blue ribbon round Goully’s neck has collared him for decades, the friendship bracelet almost severs Snoopy’s arm. Perhaps Kopp feels that some have borne their fates angelically. Snoopy and Piglet, have been set free by him and are ascending weightlessly to comforter heaven. Whilst these two have been released, the others remain as possessed by their owners as they were when they were first discovered. Only now, we’ve discovered them too.
Camilla Nicholls, October 2013
Camilla Nicholls was a communications strategist and policy advisor working in the national media and for several leading arts organisations before becoming a psychotherapist. She currently works in the NHS and runs the private practice, EC2 Therapy. www.ec2therapy.com
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 it’s 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 recognizable in Kopp’s skillful 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 synaesthetes. 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 Schonberg; 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 concrete, 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 its 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 3 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 cole Normale de Musique. Formerly an opera singer she performed principal roles throughout Europe (Convent Garden, l’Opera de la Bastille, Theatre du Chatelet). 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 d’cor at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf. As a journalist, she has contributed to Opera Canada Magazine, ArtPress, Art Review and the Wiener Kurier.
Sandro Kopp ANALOGUE
by Carolin Ackermann
The invention of photography precipitated a crisis for painting in general and portrait painting in particular, as photography was quicker, more comfortable and more accurate. Unsurprisingly, these characteristics made it the medium of predilection for the rational, normative times of industrialization. While science found its tool par excellence in photography’s seemingly unnegotiable objectivity, painters used photography and subsequently electronic media not only as a model for the reproduction of reality but also as a tool to question what we understand as reality. A portrait serves as representation and biography, as document and theatre of the self. The question it raises is: Who is this person? Sandro Kopp’s portraits offer a transfiguration of this question and hence of our conception of Being.
It seems anachronical at first glance to encounter a contemporary painter whose medium is oil and whose mode is the live sitting, but Sandro Kopp’s investigation of the portrait is relevant to our time, as he seeks to understand the experience of the present and of presence, the metaphysical question of what is. He combines the old-fashioned technique of oil-painting with one of the most dominant contemporary media: Skype video chat. Skype lets you spend time with the people you love who are far away. It allows you to deny the distance for a second, but only to painfully remind you of it a second later. You might see your loved one’s face, hear their voice, but you can neither touch nor smell them, nor look them straight in the eyes. Once you accept that you are looking at a box of light and colour instead of at the physical person, it is suddenly a reminder of the person’s absence rather than their presence. In this respect, it is not dissimilar from other forms of mediation, for example painting. So how do you depict the presence of a person when you are presented only with their absence? And what can it teach us about presence?
Sandro Kopp’s portraits of people who are literally and figuratively more or less close to him invite the virtual space into painting and reflect the distorted quality of mediation. He accepts the deficiency of digital transmission and invites it into his depiction. Sometimes to an extent where a painting is made up of vertical and horizontal colour patches that evoke the form of a person and emulate the pixelized image that is sometimes caused by a bad internet connection. It is virtually impossible to recognize the person depicted, but we do know that they have been there, somewhere behind the fog of the binary code. Their presence is undeniable and unattainable at once. This also hints at another understanding of the actual presence: the superposition of two forms of mediation, video-chat and painting, reflects on the painter’s gaze as a third medium that already comports the distortion of subjectivity. Rather than asking whether the subject of the painting is represented truthfully or whether the painter has accurately reproduced what he saw, we are pushed to wonder what we see and how we come to consider our perception is the truth. The question is not anymore: Who is she? But: What version of herself is she? It throws us back to the multiplicity of possibilities of what a person can be.
By using the contemporary technology of video-chat in the live sittings Kopp goes beyond painting purely from the physical presence and moves on to exhibiting a situation of communication. In several of his paintings shown here we can see references to the painter’s presence through his absence. As a squared patch of light reflected on the iris of “Terence”, as a reflection of the screen on the glasses of “Maria”, or even as an actual although abstract self-portrait within the screen that is reflected in the mirror behind “Dulce”. We are reminded of the dimension of dialogue, the fact that the painting has been produced between two people. The positions of subject and object present themselves fundamentally entangled. The question is not anymore: Who is she? but:” Who are they?. We are reminded that identity is not only located within the self, but is always already determined by the Other.
In contrast to painting from photography, Kopp paints not only one moment but several moments from a moving image, which is a sequence of multiple images. But unlike the cinematographic image, which is a register of the invariable past, the interactive image is as much unforeseeable as it is random. With each brush stroke the painter is chasing the present moment but is never able to attain its full representation, as it changes to the next present moment. His paintings are condensing time and layering it onto a canvas. The question is not anymore: Who is she? but: Who is she becoming?. Rather than of immutability, his paintings are mirrors of incessant change.
All of these questions are contained in the series Caro and Cy. In this series, Kopp painted twelve pictures of two people over a period of twelve months: A heavily tattooed man on the right and a fair-skinned woman on the left, whose hair gets shorter and more colourful in each frame. Whereas her physical appearance is different in every painting, his body is already marked as different.
Essay accompanying the exhibition THERE YOU ARE at Lehmann Maupin
by Hilton Als
You see too little. No sooner do you tumble out of bed than your eyes search for some means of connection, words that describe yourself to yourself: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr: You don’t know what you look like. You don’t know what shape you present to the world. You don’t know what your eyes say, since they never look up; like Narcissus you are always looking down at your reflection, but instead of water, it’s a Blackberry screen. You talk too much. No sooner do the words tumble out than they devolve into meaningless sound-symbols signifying the busy work of thinking, of being, of feeling, while doing very little of the above. You lack half-wit. You plug into your day like another appliance: a double-pronged, bi-pedaling thing immune to sensation you cannot mitigate through a television screen, a computer screen, an iPad screen, mobile phones. You don’t know what your mouth looks like as it shapes the words that tell you about the world in which you assume you have a place because you share the same language sort of. What about the language of the soul? Individuality? That which our individual bodies sing only to ourselves? What about all that Walt Whitman gave us when he wrote, I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. You can’t celebrate yourself because you don’t know yourself, trapped in that net of beeping words.
Given that words too often supersede handmade visuals paintings, drawings, sculpture, and so on how to make those visuals matter? That is, how to contemporize painting, say, or, more specifically, return it to the level of discussion it engendered fifty years ago, before our world went mad with beeps, and biomorphic forms and various color fields and portraiture and drips and concentric circles inspired conversation, too. In recent years, the brilliant English artist, David Hockney, in addition to his work on canvas, has begun to use the iPhone as another canvas. Every day, via this Apple method, he sends images to twelve or so friends still-lifes, landscapes, self-portraits, whatever he comes up with that day. By using an electronic tool for communication, instead of the transmission of more information, Hockney subverts standard use, and marries the artist’s hand to what can’t be avoided our contemporary world and what we misuse: apparatuses like the iPhone that allow us to spread more and more blather.
In Sandro Kopp’s recent painting, Mum, a dark-haired woman sits in a room. She looks as if she’s lit from within. She has a long face, and she wears a headphone the most modern of accessories. She’s looking down, and to the side of the visual field. But at what? She’s thin, and her body communicates that she is trying to communicate something, but what? In Sandro Kopp’s painting, Viktor and Rolf, two men sit against a white wall. The wall looks as if it’s lit from within. Both men are thin one more than the other and their silence is palpable. It is a silent painting, made electric through light, and brushwork: patches of lit heaviness alternating with dark shapes that communicate something about his subjects’ bodies, they’re being joined, but in what way? They, too, look a bit off center which is to say, it appears they are, and aren’t looking at the artist, all at once. In Sandro Kopp’s painting, Maria, we see a woman’s head. She seems to be lit from within. Brown hair frames a facial plane composed of lines made out of strong brushstrokes. Who is Maria? What accounts for the sensuality of her lips, the wry intelligence in her eyes? And why does she look as if she is and isn’t looking at the artist? In Sandro Kopp’s recent paintings, the sitter poses in a field of ether. The artist works in collaboration with his subjects, but at a remove: they pose in the terrible intimacy and distance that Skype affords them. Kopp can talk to his subjects, certainly, as they adjust their eyes to the image of the artist recording who they are, or thought they were, or who Kopp sees them as, but he can only touch you through paint, through his attention, and his various descriptions, on and off the canvas – seeing through modern technology, but transmogrified, somehow, through the artist’s eyes, which is where vision belongs. Like Hockney before him, Kopp’s work isn’t just about painting – that is, the image qua image – but about how to incorporate the artist’s subjectivity with a modern contrivance, thus not only making painting matter in a post-Impressionist world, but the better to show ourselves to ourselves in a framework we understand: that distant and close world where talk is cheap, but it doesn’t have to be, and paint communicates our inner silence, the only vocabulary worth knowing.
Before coming to The New Yorker, Hilton Als was a staff writer for the Village Voice and an editor-at-large at Vibe. He has also written articles for The Nation and collaborated on film scripts for Swoon and Looking for Langston.
Als edited the catalogue for the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition entitled Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, which ran from November, 1994, to March, 1995. His first book, The Women, a meditation on gender, race, and personal identity, was published in 1996.
In 1997, the New York Association of Black Journalists awarded Als first prize in both Magazine Critique/Review and Magazine Arts and Entertainment. He was awarded a Guggenheim for Creative Writing in 2000 and the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for 2002-03. In 2009, Als worked with the performer Justin Bond on Cold Water, an exhibition of paintings, drawings, and videos by performers, at La MaMa Gallery. In 2010, he co-curated Self-Consciousness, at the Veneklasen Werner Gallery in Berlin, and published Justin Bond/Jackie Curtis, his second book.
Als has taught at Yale University, Wesleyan, and Smith College. He lives in New York City. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2017.