Wendelin Wohlgemuth


“Painting is one of the few activities that lets me engage meaningfully with the world”

AT: Where are you from and how/why did you start engaging with art?

WW: I grew up in rural Washington State. Both of my parents emigrated to the US from Germany, so I am first-generation American in my family. I began drawing and painting with watercolors in childhood. I don’t think I had any conscious motive for it.


AT: When did it become serious?

WW: After several years off after high school and community college, I eventually went to Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon for illustration. But after taking my first painting class there I decided that personal fine-art painting was infinitely more gratifying than commercial illustration. I ended up transferring to WWU in Bellingham to complete a BA in studio art with a minor in philosophy. I realized that I could avoid a mountain of college debt by attending a public university. And since I was no longer pursuing illustration as my major, it wasn’t necessary to go to a private arts college. So I started taking oil painting seriously at WWU in 2012. I graduated in 2013.


AT: Are there any person who has been significant in your breakthrough as an artist?

WW: At WWU I was exposed to several artists that greatly shaped my interest and trajectory in painting including Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Michaël Borremans, Marlene Dumas, to name a few. Richter was my single biggest influence. I had never seen figurative painting with such objective, style-less, archival qualities before. His work has about as much style as a dictionary or a police photograph. I like that about it. 4.


AT: What is your first approach to the work? How would you describe your practice?

WW: My practice continues to evolve and adapt to circumstances, but I still work mainly from source material that I obtain from online sources— usually archived film footage. I often re-film them from my computer screen with my phone, playing with things like focus and playback speed. Then I send them to myself and use screenshots from these films as starting points. I edit them for color and composition in photoshop before I begin working on canvas. On canvas, I work in discrete layers. Most of the rendering is done on the first layer and allowed to dry. These days I will often lightly disrupt the first layer while it is still wet with solvents. Once the first layer dries, I use squeegees and other non-traditional tools to add transparent layers of color and texture that conflict with the rendered image. I will sometimes go back into the rendering and make adjustments throughout. But each layer is extremely thin and heavily blurred, through the use of a dry brush blurring technique. Each painting has between 5 and 20 layers.

Swimmers, 110cm x 90cm, oil on panel, 2018.

AT: What do you aim to reach with your work?

WW: The goal for me is always to create a delicate balance and tension between something virtual (removed in time and space) and something tangible or physically present. I want photographic source material to function as a mere starting point for this process and in effect function more as an abstract image. I do not believe it is my duty to construct narratives or convey literal ideological commitments. I consider it my duty to communicate an aesthetic experience, period. In this sense, my work is quite musical. Music can be enjoyed for its sake. I think the same can be true of figurative painting. I take much more inspiration from music than visual art in general. But I retain my interest in more of a figurative approach (rather than purely non-representational) because all images carry connotations and references to shared observations/perceptions/memories between people that connect us. This tension between the virtual and the tangible can not exist if I paint purely non-representationally (or purely figuratively).


AT: What are your favourite tools and materials for working?

WW: Industrial-sized saran wrap, screen printing squeegees, old frayed brushes for blurring paint, cradled mdf panels, walnut-alkyd medium, odorless mineral spirits, photoshop.


AT: What do you feel while you work? Do you usually think about the final outcome beforehand?

WW: I intentionally leave the painting open-ended when I start. I know how to start the painting, that is, I know how to create the rendered reproduction of the reference material, but I often don’t know how to transform this into a true painting that can justify its existence on its own merits. This is the struggle. So I have a general idea for the emotion, tension, and balance I’m after, but I cannot force the paint to conform to my expectations. I simply try to harness those effects that work while discarding those that don’t. It is not particularly difficult to get paint to do interesting things, but it is exceedingly difficult for those interesting things to cohere with the rest of the work and enhance its impact. I mostly feel nothing when I work, punctuated by brief moments of excitement, frustration, or bliss.


AT: How do you understand that a work is finished?

WW: If I reach a point where there is adequate evocative impact and tension between all of the competing visual elements and I can say that the painting should exist—at least as a point of reference—then I will call it finished. I cannot be more specific about what constitutes ‘adequate,’ but ultimately I think it comes down to tension/visual counterpoint. I cannot truly understand a thing until I understand its opposite. This underlies my constant impulse to counter every visual idea I have.

Patriarch, 60cm x 77cm, oil on canvas, 2019.
Boy On The Dock, 90cm x 75cm, oil on panel, 2018.

AT: Where does the inspiration for the work come from?

WW: If you mean ‘what inspires me to make paintings in general?’ then I would have to say it is due to the fact that aesthetic pursuit is the least destructive activity that engages my fundamental human demand for purpose and meaning to my actions. This is probably a fiction, of course. But every time I succeed in making some sort of aesthetic discovery I feel that it is necessary and worth existing for. If you mean ‘what are my paintings about?’ namely, what themes are present in my work, then I’d say say: emptiness or absence, decay, memory, time, human identity, the endless conflict between the ideal and the corporeal, scientific materialism, nihilism, death, cruelty, paint itself, etc.


AT: Are there any artists who influenced your works? Why?

WW: Gerhard Richter, who I already mentioned, is the visual artist who has had the most lasting impact on me. I’d include Adrian Ghenie and Johannes Khars here as well. But the truth is I am a much greater consumer of music and often want to harness the emotive qualities of the music that I listen to. (To name a few: Steve Reich, William Basinski, Leyland Kirby, Dominick Fernow.)


AT: How important is the role of social media for you?

WW: At this point it is virtually essential to my livelihood and career. Almost every opportunity I’ve encountered so far has been mediated by instagram. For all its failings, it seems to be the best medium for attracting an enthusiastic audience and collector base for one’s work. It is also how I discover and network with new artists. If I had begun working before the internet I would probably never have moved beyond pursuing painting in the privacy of my studio. I am not someone who feels comfortable marketing my work or forcing others to pay attention to me. Luckily a medium now exists where those who are interested can follow me with ease. I work under the (naive) assumption that if something has value, it will eventually get noticed. I’ll accept the outcome.

Wedding, 90cm x 84cm, oil on canvas, 2019.
Three Ghosts, 52cm x 52cm, oil on canvas, 2019.

AT: As an artist, what is your point of view about the contemporary art system?

WW: I’m not sure I’m really part of the system enough to comment on in. But I can say that social media seems to have changed things drastically. 15 years ago the only way for someone to see your work was either through a gallery or some sort of publication. This is not longer true. I can now function as my own gallerist since my online platform is much bigger than most galleries that show my work. This of course has its down sides because artists still need galleries for exhibitions and for exposure to the art market. But it’s now possible to live in between worlds, both as an independent artist and a traditional consignment-based gallery artist. This has sped-up my career to a large extent.


AT: What do you find to be the most challenging or daunting thing about pursuing art? What is the most rewarding part of working as an artist?

WW: One needs to strike a delicate balance of delusional optimism and practical realism that is almost impossible to maintain. It is nearly impossible to exist as an artist, but this needs to be the case, otherwise anyone and everyone would do it. Persistence is the only weapon against the odds. I’ve accepted that nothing about the future is certain and I should not have any expectations. I’ve also learned that I really don’t have much of a choice. Painting is one of the few activities that lets me engage meaningfully with the world. I simply have to find some way for it to subsist me.


AT: What do you do besides art?

WW: I used to enjoy playing music (drums) but that has all taken a backseat to painting. I think I will return to music sometime soon, once I’ve established a more stable living situation and I have the free time to invest into a second art form. These days I spend my free time riding my bike, listening to podcasts, watching films, reading, etc.


AT: What are your goals and expectations for the future?

WW: My only goal and expectation of myself is to continue challenging myself in the studio. I never want to stagnate or be the sort of painter who paints the same motifs over and over. Once something feels comfortable/graspable/understandable I hope to always find a way to subvert that idea and continue the pursuit for new discoveries. I think aesthetic exploration is valuable for its own sake and there should never truly be an end goal.

Viewers, 150cm x 113cm, oil on panel, 2018.
Wendelin Wohlgemuth (1988) is a German-American oil painter currently residing in Portland, Oregon.