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"My think tank's in here," says Friedrich Kunath as he walks me past a Bond-worthy Jaguar E-Type, a rolling sculpture of sorts that anchors the foyer of his sprawling 14,000-square-foot studio in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno, and opens a door onto a rumpus room stuffed with mid-century design gems. If the studio (which was formerly owned by Cuban-American artist Jorge Pardo) is the German-born-Los Angeles-based artist's lab—one devoted to a painterly psychedelia that merges abstraction, figuration, and romantic landscape painting—this space mirrors the interior of his mind. "Everything in here," he claims, "gets manifested in the art."
The first thing you notice in Kunath's disco dojo are the British racing green walls, which echo the Jag's paint job and lend a funky, American Gigolo vibe to a busy selection of the artist's paintings. The works on display include a pair of canvases emblazoned with the phrases "I'll Try To Be More Romantic" and "Fuck It, I Love You." Next, the incense hits your nose, burning from a wall of record bins filled with old vinyl and topped with a collection of photos, sculptures, and tchotchkes including personalized tennis balls (a present from his LA gallery, Blum & Poe). A two-way brick fireplace divides this part of the space from a voluminous library and a louche lounge occupied by a porcelain camel, Bertoia chairs, and a vintage wooden bar straight from Boogie Nights.
Evoking everything from iconic European design to German Romanticism and Hollywood kitsch, Kunath's extraordinary space makes you wonder why so many other artists treat their studios like dumping grounds. "I never understood the studio as purely a workplace. You come here and you do this, and then you go home and only there it's nice? Fuck no, it has to be nice here, too!" exclaims the artist, who will shortly put a version of his cush digs—complete with carpeted and mirrored floors—on display at Blum & Poe as part of his first hometown solo show in five years, transforming the first floor of the Culver City space into a tour of his oeuvre to date. He's even attaching grand pianos to the walls, inside of which he'll project a film, The End is My Beginning, in which his Polish father-in-law, an ex-miner, inhabits the mise en scène of his paintings.
"I felt like he should play things out contrary to his life—kind of an anti-authenticity program," Kunath explains, noting that the film also explores the "tragicomedy of the clichèd wish to be one with the work." With elements represented in The End is My Beginning dispersed throughout the exhibition's paintings, sculptures, and installations, the show is intended to echo the psychological effects of Ad Reinhardt's Abstract Painting and Kazimir Malevich's Black Square. "Everything I do is a love story," says Kunath. "It just doesn't always end up being very sunny."
GARAGE: You seem to be working in a lot of different painterly genres right now, from interior painting to figuration to straight-up abstraction. Where did this show start for you?
Friedrich Kunath: Mainly it was about me getting back to the cliché of it all. To really just, you know, paint.
There are the dreamy allegorical paintings, the romantic landscapes, and the surreal, rainbow-punctuated interiors that have surfaced over the years, and then there are these big, meaty abstractions that feel new. Why do you keep coming back to rainbows?
I've always been drawn to them. When I was in art school, these types of things weren't allowed. They were almost forbidden subjects because they menaced, sort of like soft rock. There will be a couple of them in the show. One is going to say: "Your fault, My fault."
How many paintings are you showing?
Well it's all about editing. There are some based on an Odilon Redon chair design, and there's the "Returned to Forever" series, which is a reference to a 1970s jazz fusion band.
This is sort of the beginning and the end of painting for you.
Yeah, it's quite an existential question: What does it mean to do a show in 2017?
Is it because of the fraught political moment we're in that you're asking yourself this question?
Of course. I don't consider myself a traditional political artist, but in a way we all are now. It all starts personal, then wanders out into the world. I've been through some transformations in my life . . .
What do you mean?
I cleaned up my life a little bit and I'm trying not to be so hard on myself. I'm 42, and I was like, "Fuck, I'm running into the same problems all the time and I've got to do something." Things as simple as being unable to say no. So I'm trying to deal with all these things. Saying yes all the time is just an aspect of inner hate. I don't believe in self-help or self-sufficiency, but I know there's something changing in me. There was a moment that brought it all out, and now I'm in the middle of it.
And this show will see you pushing through that?
Yeah, it's going to be big for me. I don't know what the outcome will be, but this exhibition includes every type of thing I've done over four years. For me at least, it's a big transformative show that'll also define something. I haven't done a solo show at Blum & Poe since 2012. I felt like I wasn't ready.
What's changed? What have you been thinking about?
It's the most complete and kaleidoscopic show I've done. I've done projects in Europe and New York, but they were always in one room. Here I can tell much bigger story. It's like a museum.
It also seems like a total work of art, with everything referencing everything else.
I did a show in Holland last year where I had a whole big room, and it looked like this. But now I'm looking ahead to what the resolution of it all might be. That's in the last room, where I go back to thick paint and figuration. And the video is called The End is My Beginning. It's . . . a senseless quest for meaning. You're given purpose, so there's always an interior monologue, but now you have something that bounces off you—the purpose of life. Sometimes I feel like it's all so formalist and decorative. And I'm not saying that I'm going to change, but I want to give the work a bigger purpose. I don't want to do seven abstract paintings in a row and call it a day.
You want to create more questions than answers.
Is this show something you could only do in LA?
Well, LA gives me the most freedom of all the places I've lived. There's a sense of generosity here that I've never felt anywhere else.
Where were you living before?
Mostly Europe, Germany. I lived in Texas twenty years ago.
What made you move to LA?
I did a show here, then I was like, "shit, this is my blank canvas." It was a new beginning. I'm from East Berlin, so going from communism to sunshine made things feel easier.
What did your parents do?
My mom was in the music business, managing Eastern European rock bands. But then she transitioned into dealing a bit with art, East German stuff, in galleries. She married four times so I have like a lot of stepdads, from roadie to architect to bricklayer, the whole range. My dad used to be a bricklayer but now he has a company. He does pressure gauges, really boring stuff.
So what got you into painting?
My mother took me to a thing when I was 15 or 16. I was kind of a troubled kid—skateboarding, drugs. She dragged me to this thing where there were housewives painting. I think she offered me money, like if you do this I'll give you an allowance. Then I painted at home and she took my portfolio and applied to the art schools with it when I was 17, and one took me. I think I was the youngest student ever to start there; I don't have a high school diploma. I was like, "Fuck, I'm not an artist. This is insane!" But in retrospect, it saved me. It was all a joke pretty much for the first four years, then it dawned on me that maybe it was the only thing I could do, and it got serious. It's not the classic story of a well-nurtured talent, and I still feel that distance, you know? When you ask an artist they always say that "I feel like an outsider," but I definitely feel that. I wanted to be a musician—there are a lot words in my work, and a sadness and melancholy that music tends to deal with more than art.
I do feel like your paintings have a sort of longing in them.
That might come from music; that's kind of where I learned my alphabet. If what most artists do is articulate certain ideas as objects, what I do, if I can, is articulate certain emotions as objects—or as paintings, films, sculptures, or entire shows. But I also ask the big questions, you know, so it's never like when artists just talk about certain processes. There's no nailing it down.
Where do your obsessions with architecture and interiors come from?
I don't know, but I always feel like a carpet not only changes the acoustics in an exhibition, it also takes away the importance, or the fear of importance. A carpet democratizes everything because it feels like home. I always like to calm things down, make them homey and comfortable.
Is this a conceptual entry point or a formal device?
Maybe a mixture, like a Trojan Horse. Like, "Come in, sit down, let's talk." But maybe it's insecurity too. I've done the white cube, but I feel more comfortable thinking in terms of other interiors.
Many artists have this "overwhelming" sensibility, this excess of ideas that spill out onto the walls and the floor.
I've always needed a space like this in order to think. I hate the economy of things that are "not supposed" to be around you.
It gets at that notion that the best art is art that's about life, not about art.
Always, I totally agree. Most of the stuff I do when I'm painting is unconscious, almost blind. I create an environment to let these things happen. But when they're happening I'm actually not there, really.
It can't feel like you're going to a job to make things for people to buy.
Yeah, or like an exercise. I've always had the fetish of a gentlemen's club in my head. That would be the perfect environment.
Do you have buddies that come over and jam in this room?
Oh yeah, of course, all the time. Not collectors though. It's so sensitive you know? When I'm doing a show, every reaction I get from you, from anyone, towards something unfinished is going to corrupt my view. And I don't want that, so I'm very selective.
What prompted the show's title? I like the melody of the phrase. It also seems like you're really rolling the dice, showing all your cards.
Yes, but if it fails then that's fine. I'm in a good place.
Michael Slenske is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who covers art, culture, and travel. He is the editor-at-large of CULTURED and LALA.
Friedrich Kunath's "Frutti di Mare" is on view at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, from September 9 to October 14, 2017.