Sophie Ullrich - Interviewed by Art Springboard's Wolfram Schnelle
Sophie Ullrich studied at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf as a Meisterschülerin with Eberhard Havekost. She graduated in 2018 and was interviewed by Art Springboard’s Wolfram Schnelle.
Let’s start with the work in your final presentation at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Can you talk about the subject of your work and what you did for that show?
What I choose to depict in my works is mostly based on experiences. A lot happened in the last two years. On one hand very private things, and on the other hand I worked in refugee aid and experienced things that needed to come out somehow. I was looking for an outlet to show my emotions. The headless figure that you saw in many of the works appeared in my work and when I talked to my professor about it he encouraged me to do something with it, to bring it to life. I thought that this figure could fill a whole universe. It could represent banal things but also represent questions that are important to me without being too in your face. And you don’t have to know about my experiences for the paintings to have an effect on you.
During the final presentation I enjoyed seeing that a lot of visitors were laughing at works that I find rather dark, almost as if it was a way of dealing with an uneasy feeling. For example, works featured a dead fish, a screaming dragon, bones that are being poked into things.
How did you arrive at this figure that appears in your works?
I had worked a lot with comics in previous works and it was a logical next step to develop my own comic motive. It’s a pictorial language that’s attractive because it’s quite expressive. I tried to develop my own comic but I have a problem with portraits. I might find the technique interesting, or how a portrait is done, but I have never seen one that stayed in my head or that touched me enough to make its way into my world. That’s why my figures are headless. This figure with its long extremities developed out of many different figures that I tried out over time.
What’s your process like? Where do you start?
My starting point is an emotion rather than a motive. The figure has become a channel for visualizing emotions. Those emotions change during the course of making the work and with it the composition on the canvas changes. It’s always a big battle as I have to make sure that I stay true to myself. I’ve developed a certain understanding of aesthetics and composition and it can be difficult to let go of this and to just do what I feel like doing, even if it is kitschy or if it seems banal. A lot of times, when the first layer is painted I let the work rest and look at it for some time in the studio to see if what I have done works for me. What do I feel? Do I feel a certain truthfulness with myself? If the work passes this test then I add more layers to give it more body and to give it the final touches.
And when is a work finished for you?
That’s a huge problem! That’s actually something that you have to deal with a lot during your studies. To find the right moment to know when a work is finished. It can easily happen that you paint too far. It’s a feeling. When the work can exist on its own, when I don’t need to add anything to it… It’s hard to grasp. I have a lot of works that seem to be finished but that aren’t as ‘in your face’ as I would like them to be. They survive for a certain time and I struggle with them until I finally find the courage to say that it’s crap.
It happens quite often that works don’t make the cut. It can approach a point of exhaustion that then somehow liberates me. It’s a strange process. It’s also the reason why I work on the two other series in parallel to the series with the headless comic figure.
Tell me something about those other series.
One series is oil paintings of hand-written invoices from all over the world. It’s a purely reproductive way of working where I try techniques that I then use in the freer works. I never show the complete invoice but only parts of it. This choice of a certain detail has been influenced a lot by my flatmate who is a photographer and works a lot with closeups.
The other series of paintings consists mostly of Belgium comics. Since I’m from the French part of Switzerland I grew up with Tintin, Gaston Lagaffe and all those classics. For me they have a wonderful flow in their ink lines. I turn a page and only open it a little bit in order to see if the composition is interesting. If it is, then I simply reproduce it. Because it is only a small section, I learn a lot about image composition. You’re detached from the typical vanishing points. I then also use my experience from this series in the other works. For example, you can see in these small paintings how the shadow of the headless figure creates the space. It’s opening utopian spaces.
You’ve said that these series of works with invoices or comics feed your other series with the headless figure. Is there some sort of hierarchy that you put to your works?
Not a hierarchy because they fulfil very different roles. They’re both important and one can’t exist without the other. The series with the headless figure is more personal and shows more of my own world, but I couldn’t imagine my work without the invoices and the comics. They all happen in parallel. It’s impossible for me not to paint, so I often paint the invoices and comics as a way to relax or while my other works are drying. If I were to work on several headless figures at the same time, it would be confusing for me because I put a lot of focus on them and engage with them completely. It’s a passion, and in some ways a fetish to work with wet paint. You notice that a lot of painters get nervous when they haven’t painted for a week. During my studies, I remember students who were emotionally drained after painting for a full day and suddenly simple social competencies seemed to be very difficult for them because they had spent all day in their own worlds.
Why is it emotionally draining if you paint all day?
I think it’s non-stop reflection. It’s incredibly exhausting to let that happen. You can see it in paintings if somebody has been reflecting on what they’re doing. The challenge is to reflect and to have a certain looseness at the same time. It doesn’t always work to put yourself in a state where you say ‘now I want to work in a spontaneous way and my body is just the organ that’s executing the work’. Everybody has their own way of getting there. This could be, for example, painting for so long that you get into some kind of trance. Like a marathon runner who at some point just runs automatically. That’s very exhausting.
And especially to reflect on yourself. I think every person knows that. To look at your own feelings and behaviour from a distance and to be true to yourself. Sometimes you might think this is how I would like to see it, but how is it really?
I had that to a certain extent in my work with refugees. I heard a lot of emotional stories and I felt sorry for them in many ways. But I still had a distance from it and it made me wonder how I should feel and if I should feel bad because of this distance that I felt.
If we take the example of refugee aid, are there specific works of yours that you relate to these experiences?
No. I started to have a more global understanding of things – I started to get a different idea of what suffering is. Very different things cause me suffering. Communication was a very important point. How do I communicate with people whose language I don’t know? That’s what I tried to do with the paintings somehow. They have to communicate.
You showed me two paintings earlier that you described as ‘too beautiful’. That there is some friction missing. Can you explain what you mean by that?
They are missing a point of friction where the viewer feels attacked or dominated by me as the painter. I like to direct the gaze of the viewer in a way that the viewer can’t resist. Too beautiful for me means a composition that is pleasing to the eye and to the soul – a composition that is not aggressive enough.
With those two paintings, I reproduced works that already exist and that have always had an aesthetic role for me because I grew up with posters of them in my home. I’m missing the point of friction where the viewer might feel uneasy and then spends time thinking about the work. The viewer might think that the work looks nice and might remember the composition, but he won’t remember the feeling he had when looking at the work. At least this is what happened to me. I don’t connect these works with emotions.
One of the aspects that I find interesting in your work is the way in which you paint the background or surfaces. Can you say something about your technique?
It took me quite a while to get those painterly aspects of my work. And to be confident about it. There was an ‘aha’ moment with a fellow student. She saw a work where I had combined the headless figure with this painterly background for the first time. She really encouraged me to go with this since it created an interesting contrast between the graphic element of the painted hard-edged comic figure and the painterly background. I like this contrast. Both elements sort of need each other. It also makes it easier to access the work. I am a painter after all.
Tell me something about the choice of your medium. How did you become a painter? Do you work in any other media? You mentioned drawings before.
Drawing and painting somehow goes together. Since you can’t take your canvas everywhere, you use drawing for sketches and ideas. I am not sure where my interest in the medium comes from. Wet paint always fascinated me. It’s my passion. I love pigments and oil and everything that has to do with making paints. I also like the different ways you can handle a brush. Like a carpenter who might have a love for wood and working with wood. From a purely technical point of view, it’s fascinating and I could do it for hours without getting tired. I’ve tried other media – often in collaboration with other artists – but my passion is really painting.
Tell me something about your experience at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. How did it influence your work?
During the foundation year everyone is mixed up and architects, stage designers, sculptors and others are all in the same studio. It was great to have all these people in one place who were passionate about similar things. The discourses and discussions we had were super exciting. I was then accepted to Eberhard Havekost’s class. We only had one-on-ones with him and no group tutorials so everybody worked a lot more by themselves. In some ways I learned to be very free and to try out a lot of things at the Academy. I had 24-hour access to the studio, which was important since the work is always with me and I could wake up at two am and try something. Art never sleeps. For me the work is always present. There’s no break or distinction between private life and art, so the best you can do is to either live and work in the same place or to have 24 hour access to your studio.
I think at the Academy you learn to do quality work with great workshops and access to printing and all kind of different techniques – but that can be paralyzing, too. This willingness to experiment and do crazy things that we had during the foundation year was somewhat lost during my studies and I only gained it back when I started working in my own studio outside the Academy.
How did you work with your professor, Eberhard Havekost?
I learned a lot from him. The one-on-one sessions could last for two hours, so you’re able to connect very differently with your professor than in a group tutorial. His seeing is extremely trained and I learned a lot of technical things from him. He would know exactly what pigment I used, how I mixed it and what type of brush I used. We would have a very intensive conversation every month or every second month and then he gave me the freedom to develop something myself. For instance, he would tell me to paint 10 backgrounds to work on them but he wouldn’t expect to see them in the next meeting.
He also encouraged me to do the comics. In my foundation year I was told that comics are problematic. When I started with Havekost I tried to construct these worlds in my paintings until he asked me what I had worked on in the beginning of my studies. That’s how I went back to the beginning but with all the technical knowledge that I had acquired.
What is it that interests you about comics?
For one thing I grew up with them. I never stopped reading them. they have their own world. The aesthetics with the black outlines are strangely satisfying to me. It’s an applied art and it’s interesting to use it in fine art, similar to what happened in pop art.
Same as before. I’ll paint, exhibit, apply for art prizes… I’d love to go to France, maybe for a guest semester. I hope that at some point I’ll be able to live from my art rather than living from jobs on the side. I feel more independent. I’m not labelled as a student anymore, which is good, although I don’t have the safe environment of the academy anymore. But it feels liberating. I’ll always continue making work and I’ll never stop learning.
How do you go about finding a gallery?
I’ve been asking myself the same question! I’ll continue to work and to develop my work, meet people, be included in exhibitions, whether they’re organized with friends or through a prize. I think luck is also necessary. You have to be in the right place at the right time and seize the opportunity when it comes up. It’s important that your work gets out there and is seen.
Thanks for the interview, Sophie!
Photos: Sophie Ullrich