Regina Michel, Spiel mit der Wahrnehmung / in: refresh, 2009 / Hrsg.: Kunststiftung der ZF Friedrichshafen AG und Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen / Translation: Lucinda Rennison

Playing with Perception
Regina Michel in conversation with Katja Brinkmann

RM: Katja, in your works you concern yourself with some fundamental questions of painting: What does painting achieve? What is the relation between flat surface and spatial depth? How do colour and form interact? Where do you see the contemporary relevance in this?

KB: Since the very beginning, a central theme in painting has been the realisation of three-dimensionality within a two-dimensional pictorial space, the question of how we handle spatiality, illusion and the pictorial surface as delineated by the picture carrier. Early on in my studies I painted still-life works; still-lifes with printed objects like milk and apple juice cartons, and in this context I was particularly interested in rendering the graphic patterns and lettering. An interest in the ornamental was a component of my work, so to speak, from the start. It was from this that the structures developed, and they have remained an essential part of my paintings to the present day. Then I moved away from this rendering of the representational and experimented with rectangular, structured flat surfaces for a while. At some point I developed an interest in the circular form, in a very banal way at first – as a contrast to the rectangular canvas. Working with contrasts subsequently spread to all the levels of painting, like flat surface and depth, surface and structure, or representation and the non-representational. In this way, gradually a very individual pictorial language crystallised; I have now been working with this for a long time and continue to develop it. At the same time, however, I question my vocabulary permanently.

RM: What is it about the discourse on painting that attracts you, and why is it so important for you to discuss the fundamental aspects of painting in a way that is quasi “immanent to the work”, i.e. using the vocabulary of painting itself?

KB: I am not anxious to make a theoretical contribution to the discourse on painting; it is the investigation of painting within a painting, with the aid of a sensual pictorial language, which interests me. In this context, it is important to me to take into account and to investigate the full range of pictorial means such as colour and form, flat surface and depth. At the same time I re-question my pictorial messages by providing an additional approach, another possibility of perception. The forms therefore entice us to make associations that have to be abandoned again immediately. Things that appear flat initially develop depth when they are contemplated for a longer time, and then this depth disappears once again. On the one hand I am searching for a way to objectify my pictorial language, facilitating a debate with painting and perception on the basis of the medium of painting. On the other hand, there is a subjective quota in my paintings, which is based on intuitive decisions. There is always something mysterious about the pictures as a result; something that also stimulates my own desire to observe and continue working.

RM: Unusual colour contrasts are characteristic of your paintings; the colour range is reminiscent of the 1970s. Why did you decide in favour of this particular use of colour?

KB: Often, I select the colour contrasts from a spectrum close to complementary colours, but always with a slight shift. I choose the actual colours in a rather intuitive way, whereby some ambiguity is always decisive for me. On the one hand, the colours seem very artificial, which corresponds to my images, which are artificial constructions. For me, the particularly exciting aspect of this choice of colours is that it underlines this artificiality on the one hand, but at the same time the colours trigger associations with the natural and the organic, and that corresponds to my use of form.

RM: You plan your pictures very exactly before you begin to paint, leaving nothing to chance. How do your paintings come about? How do you find your motifs and then realise them in painting?

KB: My works develop from picture to picture, in a relatively self-contained process. The pictorial motifs emerge one from the other, although new elements and forms are always added as well. I used to prepare my canvases on the basis of painted sketches, but then I moved on to develop the works by computer. I also take up existing works and pictorial elements and continue to process them digitally. In this way, I produce large series of conceptual sketches, in which I plan my paintings down to the last detail until I have arrived at a final design, which is then realised. Precise preparatory planning is so important because the separate areas of colour in my paintings do not overlap. Each individual area consists of many layers of paint on top of each other, certainly, but the forms are laid out adjacent to one another without overlaps, which means that what you see at the end is all that has been painted. During the painting process, therefore, I cannot alter the form of the coloured areas. An understanding of the picture as a flat surface is vital to me.

It is also important to me for my pictures to be painted, and I want this to be visible as well; I want the paint and depth of paint to be present in a sensual way and so I don’t use masking tape on the contours, for example, but paint them freehand. As a consequence, they retain a certain vitality.

RM: At first glance, the monochrome areas in your works bring to mind Color Field Painting. But at the same time you destroy this association immediately by confronting the flat areas with graduated colour shades that create an impression of depth; oval and elliptical forms always seem to cut across one another and overlap. What is it about this game with perception that interests you?

KB: Each of my paintings is a complex whole, in which the individual components closely interact, defining each other reciprocally. No form exists as such, without the colour or without the structure. That is a key aspect of my work.

Above all, I am interested in questioning perception. Here, I play very consciously with ambivalences, with a permanent irritation of the viewer. Forms seem to overlap although they are painted adjacently, structures look spontaneous or expressive, but when examined more carefully they turn out to be meticulously constructed. The result is a spatial illusion, but the viewer is always referred back to the picture’s painted surface. I like to make sure that nothing is isolated, nothing absolute exists. Everything is constantly being placed in a new context and thus questioned, and permanent motion develops as a result.

RM: In your paintings, the pictorial elements constantly alter their position in space. The foreground and the background almost oscillate.

KB: As I said, the element of motion is very important in my work. It starts with the composition. The viewer’s gaze is led from one point to the next, but there is no focal point for it to hold onto. As a consequence, the pictures give rise to a circular movement of the eyes, but without offering them any point of rest.

RM: So the viewer is caught in a dynamic pull, quasi in a maelstrom that he should give in to?

KB: It is impossible to immerse oneself completely or let oneself drift in my work. Repeatedly, a fresh distance to the picture emerges. The viewer cannot ever be certain of his perceptions or attributions; again and again, he is made aware of his own standpoint outside of the image. That is what I mean when I talk about permanent irritation. But there is still something playful about my work and certainly there is a pleasurable component.

RM: Besides the paintings on canvas, some of which are very big, in recent years you have also realised several site-related works like the mural at Gasag in Berlin or the floor work in the palace of Monrepos in Ludwigsburg. What links these two groups of works?

KB: In both the panel pictures and the mural and floor works, as a rule I work with a limited two-dimensional surface, which develops into an illusion of space whether it is a canvas, the wall, or the floor. In the site-related works, however, this area is not necessarily rectangular; it may be cut up as a result of projections or openings in the wall. Despite the irregular shape, I understand the wall or the floor as a picture surface just like a canvas.

In the corridor of Gasag, on the one hand the forms are integrated into the spatial constellation, embracing the doorways as a matter of course, but they are cut off by another wall, the ceiling or the floor and so appear to explode the dimensions of the wall. The resulting impression resembles a collage-like insertion, an application from “the outside” into the space. Here, I am interested in a balance between integration and contrast, an interlocking of the surrounding space and the image which is not given in the autonomous panel picture.

RM: It is not possible for the viewer, either in the case of the floor work in Monrepos or the mural at Gasag, to grasp the work as a whole; he needs to actually walk through the pictorial space. Due to a lack of distance or his inability to survey the work, but also because of the changing vanishing points, the viewer is situated directly within the image. What part does the viewer play in your space-related works?

KB: For me, the attraction of these works in a spatial context is the changing perspectives, the movement that is actively demanded from the viewer. And here I am interested in the changes to the space as a result of my painted intervention. The exciting part about the mural work for Gasag, the real challenge, was the setting in a narrow corridor. My work focuses on the fact that we are always unable to see the image as a whole, that the viewer has no fixed standpoint, and that the painting must be re-examined again and again from different perspectives. The forms sweep along the full length of the corridor, and according to the direction in which one is walking and the angle of view they appear more round or oval, expanding in one particular direction, or they even seem to move.

The floor work in Monrepos was similar. The carpet image filled the whole rotunda of the baroque palace and the forms seemed to continue underneath and beyond the walls. The viewer was obliged to step onto the carpet and so he was situated in the middle of the image – in the forms, in the colour space – without being able to survey it properly. This meant that the viewer had to become physically involved with the image. As in my large-format works on canvas, the dimensions of the colours, forms and structures give them a truly physical presence.

RM: When you speak of movement – of the necessity of changing one’s standpoint in order to grasp the image –, inevitably I associate that with the extension of horizons in the metaphorical sense.

KB: I am convinced that there is a connection between perception, thought and movement. In my opinion, movement is an important prerequisite to frequent checking of one’s own position or the way things correspond. In this way, not only those things we can see in a concrete way are relativised and questioned; our attitude also changes and a fresh perspective becomes possible.