Friedrich Kunath, with his painting Where Is The Madness That You Promise Me. SALVADOR SALAS
Beneath the layers of Friedrich Kunath

Beneath the layers of Friedrich Kunath

The artist, who is exhibiting for the first time in Spain, combines American popular culture and German romanticism in works in which what you see is not all there is

Regina Sotorrío


Friday, 24 February 2023

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The number 310 features constantly in his pictures, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. In some works the digits can't be seen, but Friedrich Kunath assures us that they are there. Their significance is more mundane than one might suspect. It is the telephone area code for his home in Los Angeles, where he has lived for nearly two decades. But what started off as a joke has become a sort of ritual. «I realised that unconsciously, by writing the number, I was wanting people to connect with me,» the artist said at the opening of his first exhibition in Spain, at Malaga's contemporary art centre (CAC Málaga).

He admitted that he felt «cosmic homelessness,» as a creator who had to leave his native Germany behind and move to the USA to reconcile himself with his influences and feel like a German artist again. The weight of history and the pictorial tradition of his homeland had restricted him.

«I needed more freedom and moving to the west coast offered me that. There, the culture is still very young, it is a desert from the cultural point of view; I needed that blank canvas in order to express myself. That enabled me to redefine myself as an artist,» he explained.

His exhibition, called There Must Be A Spanish Word For This Feeling, which can be seen until 21 May, is the reflection of this reinvention. It consists of around 20 pictures he has produced in the past ten years, in which the German romanticism from the place where he grew up mixes with the American popular culture he acquired in his second home.

Kunath's work, said the exhibition's curator Fernando Francés, is «like a box of memories,» where landscapes which extol the beauty and grandeur of nature are combined with strange elements that disconcert the spectator, but form part of the artist's own universe. There are figures from comics, cartoons and even Disney characters, slipping in between spectacular sunrises or sunsets.

But what we see is not what there is. «There are between four and eight paintings in each piece of work. What you see is just the final layer,» he explained. His creative process is unusual. Every picture begins «from the unknown», from the unconscious, with a thick layer of oil paint that borders on abstraction. Then others are added, and each one takes a month to dry. This means he has to live with the incomplete work for some time. «It allows me to see what the work wants me to put, instead of what I want to put,» he said. Only after two or three months have passed does he decide «consciously» where the painting is heading and what will go on the final layer.

«It takes me about six months to finish a painting completely. It is a complicated system, but it is gratifying,» he said.

And all of this becomes evident in a detailed look at his paintings, in which scenes and brushstrokes of oil paint are superimposed. In Where Is The Madness That You Promised Me, pairs of birds and people intermingle on different planes amid a background of roses and thick lines. Those lines are painted directly from the tube of oil paint without a brush and they are repeated in other works with the form of trees (Older) or sunbeams creating a marvellous effect in others (Love Remains). The texture of his paintings -with his fingermarks visible on some of the canvases - is another of his strengths.

But no work is complete until Friedrich Kunath gives it a title, and this merits a chapter all of its own. He constantly writes down in his notebook phrases that he hears in songs or reads in poems, transcendent and poetic expressions that at a given moment end up giving meaning to some of his creations. These titles act as «clues» to the story behind the layers of paint, and provide a touch of irony.

In the one called I'll Be In Touch a snowman in a snowless landscape seems to be saying goodbye to someone on his mobile phone. In Someday You Will Find Me, a giraffe throws a bottle containing a message into the river. In Lonely Are The Free a naked man contemplates a landscape in which a dolphin flies and an orange plays a trumpet.

Even the title of the exhibition comes from a song by David Berman, of whom Kunath is a fan. He likes it because it suggests a question to the viewer without asking the question and that is the aim of all his works. «And the word does exist in Spanish and it is 'pasión'. Passion is the feeling in your artistic career when every element that has passed through your life finds a place in your work,» said Fernando Francés.

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