Painter, academic, curator, gallerist and author Rupert Goldsworthy gets most enthused by signage, the cult of charisma and the melding-and clashing-of cultures in urban space. Taking the iconography of radical histories as his starting point for many of his large, poster-style paintings, the English-born artist brings together faintly familiar figures of old that were used as tools for propaganda, with his own text, rococo patterning, Ben-day-like dots and copied signs from Islamic food shops in Berlin, military graves and mass media. The juxtaposition feels far from a mere mishmash of appropriated imagery; it’s the tracking of the history of images that is central to the work. Goldsworthy has previously run eponymous gallery spaces in Berlin and New York. His recent solo show, “New Paintings” at Ritter/Zamet Gallery in Whitechapel, East London, explored the continuity and contraditions of an aspiring post-racial Berlin today.
LAURA K JONES: Your large-scale paintings here are all on brown wrapping paper. Why not canvas?
RUPERT GOLDSWORTHY: I like the tactile quality of wrapping paper, and its ruggedness. I like the excessiveness of the size. A work at this scale on paper feels relaxed and intimate in a way that canvas doesn’t. I wanted the works to live and breathe on their own terms, to feel expansive, not cramped.
JONES: Your paintings bring together a variety of incongruous signs from around the world, from political iconography, from packaging and from mass media. What fascinates you about the tracing of visual history, and the reconfiguring of it through painting? LEFT: MINDFUCKER, 2009. COURTESY THE ARTIST
GOLDSWORTHY: I’m interested in exploring how signage functions. In my paintings I like the incongruity of putting different types of signs together. Certain juxtapositions create a visual alchemy. The history of visual signs is the subject in my latest book, CONSUMING//TERROR: Images of the Baader-Meinhof. Tracing the history of left-wing logos over time is its main focus, how outlaw or terrorist signs establish themselves and operate as a heretical category amid a closely administered, legitimated forest of signs.
JONES: There’s a dated aesthetic to these works. Are you using specific paints? Or is it merely because the works recall old posters and propaganda works?
GOLDSWORTHY: I use a type of paint called Flasche (similar to gouache) used by commercial sign-painters in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s liquid nylon. I also use gloss house paint. I’m reproducing mass-produced signage so these materials work well.
JONES: You’re an artist, but also a curator and a dealer, having run gallery spaces in both Berlin and New York. Do you find the curating and dealing side of things can take over? Can it take away from the solitary time needed in the studio?
GOLDSWORTHY: I’ve maintained an artist-run gallery, Rupert Goldsworthy Gallery, on and off for eight years. First for two years in Berlin (1995–97), five years in Chelsea, in New York (1998-2002), and again for a year in Berlin (2009–10). These projects were conceived to be finite and time-based at their inceptions. They were modest spaces and I could run the gallery on a shoestring while teaching.
At a certain point, the project of running an artist-run gallery gets quite complicated. Either you start thinking of yourself solely as a dealer, or you quit and go back to making art. After a number of years of organizing shows in my space, a lot of the questions with which the gallery project has been concerned shift back into my writing or my own art-making.
I switch between creating and curating/dealing because I enjoy both. The unholiness of what I do is part of its appeal. One is not supposed to do this and that.
JONES: You seem fascinated by the iconography that springs from urban centres. How have both Berlin and New York fuelled the works in this show? The intentions seem very global but I can see both cities in them particularly.
GOLDSWORTHY: Berlin is a great place to produce in solitude, and it works for a while for me creatively. The city can be a great catalyst. Isherwood and Bowie made their best work there. But Berlin can feel very Kafka-esque. I find it’s a city where one must isolate, batten down the hatches, and just focus on a project. This show came out of the bleakness of living in Berlin. It has an austerity that comes with that feeling of interiority.
JONES: Even the mayor calls it “poor but sexy.” How about New York?
GOLDSWORTHY: New York is inspirational in a completely different way. It’s a much warmer city. I’m always inspired by hip-hop style, by gay subcultures, and by the plurality and tolerance of New York. Berlin is very slowly developing a similar plurality.
Recently I have been intrigued by the unusual juxtapositions in the part of Berlin where I live, between the architecture of the 19th Century Prussian military era and the new Moslem design sense now emerging in my neighborhoods, Neukölln and Kreuzberg. A lot of my recent work is inspired by an interest in the incongruity between the old and new communities, in the history of the location where these communities live, and also in the style, and the juxtaposition—its awkwardness on many levels and also the links between old German baroque rococo design and the newer Arabic and Berber design style in this area. People talk about Berlin being one of the most interesting cities in the world right now. I would say that this kind of mix is a key element. LEFT: LEATHER ANGEL, 2009.
JONES: Despite the complex visual lexicon of signs—the Cold War, 1970s radicalism, high commerce, myth, mysticism, crime, cult leaders—the composition of your paintings is precise and delicate. How much time is spent mapping out the composition, or do you start with an image and work out from there, freehand as it were?
GOLDSWORTHY: I pre-select a couple of central motifs, and then a natural logic develops during the process.
JONES: In the painting Mindfucker, you include a German military grave for the quote-unquote heroes of German campaigns in Africa, alongside Arabic signage from a Berlin bakery. How would you describe the nature of your critique of the (almost) post-racial, mass culture world we now live in?
GOLDSWORTHY: The paintings can function on a number of levels. I am interested in the awkward disconnects of contemporary Berlin. Paintings like Mindfucker and Leather Angel try to subliminally lay out links connecting the masculinist culture of Fundamentalist Islam and that of past German military history. The Mindfucker painting depicts a military memorial and the reference at the top is to the Heldentod (hero’s death) of 41 German soldiers from one regiment in German S. W. Africa from 1904–6. Wreaths are still annually laid at this monument. For some they still remain heroes. No acknowledgement is made concerning slavery and colonial land rape. In Leather Angel I was thinking about how someone somewhere might one day try to hijack history and propose that in the context of the international student riots of May 1968 that there had also been a militant gay movement in Islamic countries.