Friedrich Kunath on pushing paint and why he loves the ‘empty promise’ of Los Angeles

Friedrich Kunath on pushing paint and why he loves the ‘empty promise’ of Los Angeles

‘There is this sentence in my head on loop: “I want to go home – but I am home,”’ muses Friedrich Kunath during a walkthrough of his first solo exhibition, ‘Where is the Madness that You Promised Me’, at Antwerp’s Tim Van Laere Gallery. Born in East Germany, the artist has been living in Los Angeles for just over a decade. ‘I am constantly between these two points. There is always a question of “homelessness”.’

Having relocated to Los Angeles in 2007, Kunath spent a year driving through his new city, accumulating Americana knick-knacks from thrift stores. ‘[Moving] is such a big change. When you’re in Germany and you paint, it’s something completely different. Now you’re on an empty canvas culturally. Something was bound to happen, I just didn’t know what.’

While the multidisciplinary artist dabbles in painting, sculpture and drawing, he became preoccupied with airbrushing following his move to the West Coast. ‘The whole practice of airbrushing was so conceptually-based, that I doubt it was even painting,’ says the artist, who was struck by how unburdened LA was by history. ‘You literally don’t touch the canvas. There’s a built-in distance to everything, but that’s what I wanted.’

Installation view of ‘Where is the Madness that You Promised Me’ at Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp. Courtesy of Tim Van Laere Gallery

Kunath recalls being drawn to the Pioneer paintings of America – particularly the Hudson River School and artists Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Moran. ‘I had an obsession with rediscovering this America from 200-300 years ago, but expressed through the aesthetic of Venice Beach.’ (The German artist quips about forming the LA River School, due to his studio’s location.)

After a six-year hiatus from painting, Kunath felt the urge to reconnect with the medium, and began a new body of work last summer, now on view in the Antwerp gallery. ‘It was only logical to go to the opposite end of [airbrushing], to not question what painting means in 2018. You learn not to dissect everything. It was very freeing to just push paint around for a couple of months without any direction.’

It’s little surprise then that his florid artworks are imbued with a medley of motifs that reference everything from conceptual art to Hollywood kitsch; and popular culture. At Tim Van Laere Gallery, Kunath’s Technicolor canvases depict the saint Hieronymus wearing Converse, or a choir of bananas serenading to a landscape that recalls German romanticism, as well as a feel-good helping of sunsets and watercolour washes, often overlay with handwritten text, cartoons and doodles.

We Must Believe In Spring, by Friedrich Kunath, 2018

A single denim-clad leg emerges curiously from the gallery ceiling, treading a rainbow gradation of ‘paint’ – the idea for this particular work, Kunath explains, simply came to him in a dream. Other works are more directly autobiographical (Kunath’s daughter has contributed scrawls to one painting, for example).

‘I feel that it’s the very engine of my work, this longing for a place that doesn’t exist – it’s an empty promise,’ he explains. ‘LA is an empty promise – I am fully aware of it – but I also love it. I love the stupidity, and I love the substance and the narratives that the city provides.’ It’s clear Kunath doesn’t take his work too seriously – and perhaps in these sober times we’re in need of more artists like him. §

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