Sascha Braunig Paints Psychedelic Heads with Holes in Them and Other Trippy Stuff

We tricked her into taking time out of her busy day to put down the brush and answer a bunch of intrusive questions.

Oil on canvas
24 x 22 in. (61 x 55.9 cm.)

Unless you’re one of those insufferable “nobody reads anymore” types (by the way, you're wrong), you may have noticed that in May we began publishing monthly fiction with Tao Lin’s “Relationship Story.” And even if you are dyslexic and cross-eyed, there’s a good chance you’ve at least caught a glimpse of the corresponding artwork that we’ve been running alongside our short stories/excerpts. We usually try to pick photos, illustrations, or artwork that are evocative of the story without being too literal about it. This was especially true of Sascha Braunig’s work in our August issue, which ran alongside an exclusive excerpt from Lynne Tillman’s forthcoming novel. Her paintings exude psychedelic and cerebral qualities that trick the eye and mind in the best of ways, but they’re also meticulously realistic. Sascha is an extremely talented artist (both in the technical and conceptual sense) who will undoubtedly be celebrated for years to come, so I was extremely happy when I tricked her into taking time out of her busy day to put down the brush and answer a bunch of intrusive questions.

Oil on linen
20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm.)

VICE: You had your debut solo show in New York last spring. I noticed that many of the pieces were completed in 2011. I’m guessing you had an extremely busy winter.
Sascha Braunig:
Yeah, I made them all exclusively for that show. I found out about it exactly a year before. There were nine, but a couple of them didn’t make it. It was a year of intense production, but luckily I had just moved from New York so I had a lot of newfound time to complete everything. It was kind of perfect.

And you’re still living outside of New York?
Yup, I live in Portland, Maine. It’s a nice little city; I like it a lot. It’s drastically less hectic.

Does it get boring?
I do miss being able to get on the subway and seeing a vast array of different art shows—just being able to immerse yourself in that environment. But there are lots of things I don’t miss. For instance, I only have a one-day workweek at the moment. Every Monday I teach two classes, painting and drawing at a local art college and a local sciences college. Then I work in my studio for the rest of the week; everyday is a workday for my creative process, but I only have to go to my “job” on Mondays.

A sciences college? Is it a mandatory art course, or are you teaching some sort of insanely intense illustrated anatomy course?
No, it’s just that they have an art requirement.

I see. The reason I ask is because a lot of your work seems so precise and realistic it’s as though you’ve developed some sort of geometric theory to painting; it’s evocative of what the Old Masters were doing, if they were on peyote.
That’s nice of you to say! But no, I just create a challenging setup and then the process of making them is just dumb observation. There’s no science to it.

Oil on canvas over wood panel
22 x 20 in. (55.9 x 50.8 cm.)

Some of your paintings also make my eyes go crazy. I hate to use the term “optical illusion” because people automatically think of gimmicky MC Escher and corny posters from Spencer’s Gifts, but I’m not sure how else to describe it. It’s like you figured out how to wallpaper the 4th dimension over classically painted busts and other humanoid forms. At first glance—especially when viewed on a computer monitor—it seems like they could be Photoshopped. Then you realize it’s all done by hand.
I’m really into a certain kind of hyper-illusionism. I don’t want to be a realist painter. I’m interested in mapping that Photoshopped illusionism onto an unbelievable entity so that there is that disconnect with viewing it. It’s nothing new in painting. I once saw this show of Konrad Witz’s work. He was a 15th century painter who was doing something similar. It was a time when oil painters got really good at depicting texture and mapping it on a premodern body.

The patterns and textures you use feel ultramodern, futuristic even.
It’s a combination of practicing very traditional painting and choosing subjects that are a little more fantastical. I’m definitely interested in science fiction, advertising images, fashion models, photo shoots… instances when details are mapped onto digitally manipulated bodies.

Do you set anything up in the digital space beforehand?
No, it’s all painted from observation which I think is why they give off this uncanny feeling. They’re optically observed in three-dimensional space, but I’ve been looking at digital images just like the rest of my generation for my whole life so it’s hard to avoid that shallow, digital space.

Oil on canvas over panel
22-1/2 x 15.5 in. (57.2 x 39.4 cm.)

Many of your pieces have a head or head-shaped object. Is that another throwback to classic portraiture or do you just like heads a whole bunch?
I guess I love portraiture and the history of painted portraits, so I guess it was a way to tie that show together. The idea was to focus on the bust format, with the focus on the face and head. I’m interested in giving the figures more of a body, so I think my next work is going to expand a little bit to include other body parts.

Do you have anything set in stone yet for another show or exhibition?
I think there’s a group show at Foxy, my gallery coming up in November, curated by one of the artists Gabriel Hartley. Then there’s something coming soon… but I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about that yet.

Another thing I wanted to touch on is your use of color—it almost seems like you’re painting with a neon light bulb, or at least under one.
Thank you! I do! [laughs] I just use regular paint, but I do light everything really carefully. Also, I use a lot of colored light and I’m always watching really vulgarly lit movies.

Like what?
I just watched Lola by Fassbinder. The lighting in that movie is really over the top. Have you seen it?

Oh yeah, definitely.
It’s amazing. I just realized I’ve been stealing from that movie for years. I love anything like that. I love David Cronenberg. Oh, and Enter the Void, which came out last year. That was a really big deal for me. I’m trying to emulate cinematic experiences of overwhelming visual intensity. It’s hard to compete.

OK, so Enter the Void is about… well, a lot of things, but one of the main things is a DMT trip. Would it be fair to say that there are psychedelic, drug-related imagery in your work?
Yeah, it’s certainly not my lifestyle, but I think any kind of intense looking can be a hallucinatory experience. There doesn’t have to be any type of drugs involved. There can be a transport experience just by looking at things and I want to intentionally produce that effect for viewers.

So that causes you to look at things very closely.
Yeah it’s a huge part of my painting process—minutely observing and looking for hours and hours at a time. I want the viewers to be in a heightened state when they’re viewing, and obviously I can’t control what that state entails for each person. So I guess you could say it’s like a trip.

Oil on canvas over panel
20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm.)

See more of Sascha’s work at Foxy Production’s website.