Sandro Kopp: Not A Still Frame (Hybrid)

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Waris Ahluwalia
Waris AhluwaliaPainting by Sandro Kopp

German/New Zealander Sandro Kopp is a prestigious artist renowned for his distinctive, broad brush stroked oil paintings of friends, family and the famous, his new exhibition Not A Still Frame (Hybrid) features paintings executed in front of the

German/New Zealander Sandro Kopp is a prestigious artist renowned for his distinctive, broad brush stroked oil paintings of friends, family and the famous. His new exhibition Not A Still Frame (Hybrid) features paintings executed in front of the computer during Skype video conversations. His 36 sitters include muse, girlfriend and actress Tilda Swinton, close friend and jewellery designer Waris Ahluwalia and fashion designer Haider Ackermann. Exploring the “meta-state” and hybrid space of the online world, his new series enters a three-dimensional, technological world that has become commonplace for social interaction today. Here we preview some exclusive images from his forthcoming exhibition (including paintings of Patrick Wolf and John C Reilly) and speak to Kopp about his instincts, his dream sitter and 80s karaoke tunes.

How did this project come about?
It all started in December last year. My friend Waris Ahluwalia and I have an ongoing project, where I paint him from life whenever we can find the time, usually three or four times a year. We have been doing this since 2005, in 15 years we are going to have an exhibition of all the paintings. He was working in Istanbul and I was at home in Scotland, we were Skyping and, as we hadn't done a painting in a while, we decided to just give it a go over Skype, as an experiment. It was a lot of fun, he kept me entertained by playing me 80's karaoke tunes and having me guess the song. The more time I spent with that painting when it was done, the more I realised that this was something really special... a way of crystallising the difference between a portrait painted from life and a portrait painted from a photograph, by combining elements of the two into a hybrid construct. Also, I've always been into the idea of exploring presence as a concept through paint and web-presence has become such an important factor in our relationships today, so I thought it was a fruitful path to follow. Apart from being a wonderful excuse for catching up with far away friends for some hours, there's this added element of surprise: How is the connection going to be: Is it going to be heavily pixelated or smooth? Will the colour distort and suddenly make everything pink or blue? All 34 paintings in the show – except for that first one of Waris – have been done in the six months prior to the opening. Waris was also my last sitter for this show. I wanted him to be the "book ends".

How did you choose your sitters?
Very much by gut-instinct. I just ask my friends and family if they are up for it. As I am reliant on other people for my art constantly, people canceling or postponing sittings can be a problem. I have to psyche myself up into a very adrenalised yet relaxed state to paint, so if the model does not show up, that energy fizzles and is lost.

Could you explain the experience of painting your sitters in this new frame?
Not wanting to sound too esoteric: Sometimes I feel like there is some sort of energy channel connecting the back of my screen to the back of the sitters screen, allowing elements of presence to travel between where I am at the time and the location of my sitter. Allowing particles of a person’s presence to become manifest in the paint on the canvas. The more of these paintings I do, the more of these channels remain, creating a matrix that snakes around the planet... It's a little fantasy I love to think about.

How did your sitters find this new realm?
Most of them really enjoyed it, I think. Many came back for second helpings... I personally love sitting for painters, but it is a real commitment to presence and concentration, as well as of course a very generous gift of time the sitter makes. It can be uncomfortable being still for so long and it can be uncomfortable being scrutinised, but at the same time, I think the experience is a very rewarding and unique one... unlike anything else. And my impression is that, because people are in their own environment and because a computer is a less imposing presence in the room than a person is, they are perhaps more relaxed and less on guard than they would be in an ordinary portrait painting scenario.

How much did it differ from painting a normal portrait?
On the one hand it is just the same: A human encounter, resulting in a painting. On the other hand I think the spatial distance and the precariousness of the situation means that both my sitter and I have to be more active in establishing rapport and an energetic connection. When you are in a room together that is pretty much a given, and sometimes it can be too intense for people, which makes them pull back and become a little guarded. When you are thousands of miles apart physically and meet in some obscure web-chat meta-world, you automatically strain to get closer. I also think that on a basic, biological level, this meta-state of togetherness/non-togetherness is such a recent development that it can feel like my whole system is revving to figure out why I feel like the person onscreen is present with me, yet I can't smell him or touch him. As a species, we have no established cellular memory of video chats, so our evolutionary motors keep shifting and changing, trying to fit the experience into other, more established modules. Perhaps this is a reason why I always feel so exhilarated and exhausted after a successful Skype painting session.

How much of a role does technology play in your life?
It plays a huge role – funny how saying that feels like a confession – without my laptop, my cellphone, my iPod and my camera I feel slightly amputated.

Painting has existed for centuries and yet you are exploring something that is very current - do you like this visual contradiction and could you ever see yourself using technology as your artistic tool?
I think the tension between such an ancient tradition and the modernity of the technology involved is the very fuel for this piece... I love it. Painting has been around for so long that it can be a real challenge to find anything new with it. I have dabbled in computer-generated images and I love seeing the stuff people paint on iPads etc, but it's not really my thing. I'm so attracted to the sensuality of paint and the materiality of paintings that I doubt very much whether I would ever stray far from that.

Is this hybrid project an ongoing work?
Absolutely. The title of the show 'not a still frame' makes reference not only to each individual painting, but also describes the, literally, viral nature of this work: during the duration of the exhibition, every Saturday afternoon (October 30th and November 6th and 13th), I will be 'present' in the gallery on Skype from Scotland  (and also Florida on the last Saturday of the show) via a monitor displayed along with the paintings and available to make new commissioned portraits of people who will sit for me in the gallery in Paris. At the end of the session which will take about four hours, the screen will show a live feed of the newly created (drying!) painting, alongside the 'live', dry, paintings in the gallery.(Anyone interested in commissioning a painting this way, please contact Brachfeld Gallery.) All the paintings in this series are uniformly small, referencing the size of a screen. Next I want to see what happens with the pixelation in the paint when I blow it up and make the paintings much larger. Then, who knows... There's really a lot of potential to explore further.

Who would be your dream Skype sitter?
David Bowie. Of course.

If you could sum this series up in one line what would it be?
"It can be both."

Text by Lucia Davies

Not A Still Frame (Hybrid) by Sandro Kopp runs from October 22 – November 12 at Brachfeld Gallery.