German artist, Cathrin Hoffmann, makes paintings of the contemporary individual; alienated, caught up in the temporary pleasures and quick fixes of our techno-capitalist reality. The paintings in her recent exhibition ‘IT STILL SMELLS OF NOTHING’ at PUBLIC Gallery in London are filled with such lonesome individuals, twisting and folding into themselves. Their exposed, blemished flesh is compartmentalised into exaggerated body parts, organised into various suggestive poses. They are both uncanny and relatable, evoking the ‘moods’ of isolation: existential reflection, anxiety, binging, aimless lounging. I chatted to Hoffmann about her process and influences, her impressions of social media, consumerism, the contemporary psyche and capturing the perfectly imperfect subject.
Sonja Teszler: Could you first talk a bit about how you became interested in painting and how your studies shaped your practice?
Cathrin Hoffmann: I’ve been drawing since I can remember and I’ve always been a fan of cartoons, from Looney Tunes to Walt Disney, Bugs Bunny to Donald Duck. I improved my drawing skills by copying these characters and went on to develop my own. As I got older, the idea of becoming an artist was always there, but I felt pressure to study something more ‘reasonable’, more economically secure. I studied graphic design and worked as an Art Director for several years, but eventually quit everything to pursue art. Since, I have taught myself, but my practice has of course been shaped by my more technical graphic training and even the cartoons of my childhood.
Painting itself and painting the body especially are robust traditions to take on – are there any artists that have influenced your unique style along the way?
I’ve always been drawn to artists like Louise Bourgeois, Egon Schiele, Francis Bacon, Otto Dix and George Grosz. Their figurative approach, particularly the way they engage directly with the body have had a profound impact on me. With Schiele, it was his theatrical representation of bodies, fragmented and unembellished, with nowhere to hide. As a child I remember finding a book with a painting by George Grosz on its cover, ‘The Pillars of Society’ (1926); I loved its caricatured angular bodies jostling for space. It was only once I got older that I learnt about the socio-critical context behind his work and as a young German, the dark past is very moving.
When I was growing up I hardly got to know any women’s work because of the state of inequality at the time, but now if I was to list all of the female artists who influence me we would run out of words. Dorothea Tanning is important to mention. When I saw her work – particularly her soft sculptures – for the first time at Tate last year I was totally electrified. ‘I Stick My Finger In Existence’ (2020), a painting in my PUBLIC Gallery show, is my homage to her ‘Nue Couchée’ (1969-70).
The characters in your paintings are often sprawled out and fully exposed, but somehow, they appear withdrawn from the viewer and immersed in the flat surface world of the canvas. They seem disconnected from and irreconcilable with their own selves and desires. Is this sense of contradiction something you’re interested in?
Absolutely. I think any thoughtful person will recognise his or her own behaviour as contradictory, though of course I can hardly speak for others. I notice this particularly in my own behaviour when it comes to social media. We live in the age of ‘Likes’. Even if I look at it all critically, I still have a strong need to play along.
Isolation during the pandemic highlighted another conflict within me. The ignoring of reality. In the beginning, I was very active in keeping myself up to date with the news, which started to feel like a dystopian movie – Trump idiocy, right-wing extremism, conspiracies, fires, climate change and so on. It felt like an overload from which one tries to escape, sitting at home watching Netflix. But by just tuning out I got angry with my own decadent boredom. Cosiness in existence is not what we should be aiming for and that is exactly what creates a conflict within myself and my work.
Your compositions are reminiscent of striking stages that host loudly erotic characters as props, engaging in empty, dramatic exhibitionism. You expose their bodies to an unflattering limelight that renders bare all their grotesque impurities. Do you see this type of performativity as a reflection of the digital (st)age? Why is it important for you to highlight imperfection?
I often see the work with clear eyes when someone else talks about it. I have no doubt that the digital (st)age has intensified our performative behaviour, cultivating digital selves that ‘exist’ for many people as viscerally as our physical bodies. I think that my time in advertising has also made me sensitive to the eradication and retouching of imperfection. But nothing is perfect, and this is what I want to show in my work. Although, I don’t want to put myself above everything, after all, I am part of this world as well. We are back again at inner conflict!
Food, cigarettes, sex – your figures seem dependent on various hedonistic ‘guilty’ pleasures across your canvases, mindlessly consuming them in a way that reflects the insatiable appetite of overstimulated capitalist society. Which symptoms of this system are you interested in depicting?
Everything you describe is correct, but do the figures really not know what they are doing? For me, the question is, what is the motivation of their behaviour? The excessive desire to consume proves to me that we as individuals have put emphasis primarily upon ourselves. The idea of consumption is intensified by the hyper-capitalist system we have created. But it seems, regardless of the system, we want what we have always wanted – to reach a state of happiness and perfection. Yet, in this hyper-capitalist society the route to happiness is fuelled by a pressure to consume or have the means to consume – I do not only mean goods or food, but also techniques that are supposed to help us self-optimise. However, the vicious cycle continues; once you have satisfied a wish, you are soon dissatisfied because the wish has been fulfilled. This disappointment is like the motor for the next wish – and so it goes on and on.
The digital finish and the stark, geometric lines applied in your paintings reflect the fragmentation and limited dimensionality of the virtual self. What’s your technical process?
Due to my background as a graphic designer, the digital pen has always been more familiar to me than the real brush. So, before I turn to the analogue act of painting on canvas, I play with virtual compositions using a digital effect that turns a two-dimensional surface into a three-dimensional one by adding light and shadow. The surface then appears in relief. In this sense, you are a painter and sculptor at the same time. For me, the digital approach is comparable to a tool; tools do not leave trace of their existence and are accessible to everyone. But the difference is the way they are used. It’s trial and error – the process is a constant back and forth because the digital effects are completely unpredictable.
Your recent solo exhibition ‘IT STILL SMELLS OF NOTHING’ features sculptural and installation pieces alongside your paintings for the first time. Could you talk about the inspirations behind this body of work?
Strangely enough, I never felt like a painter, although I started painting first. The process is more like a form of digital sculpting and painting in one. My bodies are sculptures that are located in a painted in-between world, where they exist only with themselves and their own shadow. I have noticed that people are often not aware of their own shadow. Still, it reveals something about you. For example, you can hide something behind your back but when the light falls on you, your own shadow betrays you. I think nothing is as it seems at first sight. Shadows not only provide, but disguise information too, and I find that exciting. For this show, after transferring the bodies from the digital screen to canvas to let them enter the real world, I wanted to go one step further and create a new space for paintings – our space. The confusion of proportions and dimensions particularly appeals to me. I enjoyed that process a lot and I’m currently experimenting with more ways to transition bodies between digital and analogue worlds.
The title ‘IT STILL SMELLS OF NOTHING’ captures the sense of inertia many of us might associate with lockdown. Were you influenced by the isolation period for these works?
Definitely. Corona has triggered many questions about life. When you stew in your own juice all day long, everything suddenly seems unreal. You get all the news of the world through the media, and you almost feel lost within the madness. I always try to tell myself how well I am doing and in what a privileged position I am in. But then the moments of defiant ego come again, and you are annoyed and angry, which in turn leads to a bad conscience. You are in a permanent loop. There is a quotation from the existentialist Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard about the absurdity of human existence, agency and purpose that I could not get out of my head, and which I had in mind throughout the time I was working on my show for PUBLIC Gallery. The title comes from its first line:
“I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing.”
One of your most striking works in this exhibition is ‘Blue Skull With At Least A Cherry’ (2020). It’s an intimidating, vibrant blue bust that feels openly confrontational amongst the other decadent figures, glaring at the viewer with a menacing grimace. Can you talk a bit about this piece?
I am glad to hear that. When I decided to make sculptures for this exhibition, I wanted to start with something ‘classical’ like a bust. After I made different sketches, I realized that I didn’t want the figure to be transferred frontally from the two-dimensional screen into the three-dimensional world. It should be averted, but not let the viewer out of sight. The bust is completely flat and without profile from behind, as if it has been cut from the digital realm and placed on the pedestal. To be honest, I don’t know what state of mind it has. I see a new emotion in her every day. Disapproving from above, fearful and insecure, surprised or decadently bored. It has been thrown into the real world, but, as the title says, has “At Least A Cherry”.