Global Artist

Interview with Michal Corbin, Art Book Guy,


Georg Salner is a well-traveled, gifted artist who lives in Vienna, Austria. 

His work is bold, graphic and highly conceptual.  I wanted to find out about his unique vision and also ask him about life for an artist in Vienna.  Regretfully, I don’t speak German, but Georg managed to chat with me in English.

MICHAEL: Georg, I absolutely love your work!  Let's start with your paintings.  They are big, bold and very graphic.  They're almost like advertising billboards.  What inspires you to create them?

GEORG: First, thanks for the honour of being interviewed. Your question is aiming at the relatively big - in matters of number and size - complex 'typo.log 36 EXP', which was completed a few years ago and which is the last series of works exposed on my website. The reason for this is that I've been working on smaller, identical formats on paper since then. The results are nearly 180 pieces, each of them created in about one week's time, which are not easily placed in the frame of my website. Your first question inspires me to complete the archive, also in matters of ‚spaces’ I was exhibiting in. The archive in itself is of course not complete at all.

For a long time I've been collecting small splinters, particles and whole pages of magazines. A big number of various photographs, images, objects, designs, typographies, graphic side effects, words, sentences, (advertising) messages, codes, brands, symbols, signs, logos, icons were isolated from magazines and mounted in scetchbooks. They are representing a certain personal view on the artificial world of media, which again represents the globalized world in a very artificial way. So first I am a fascinated observer and collector before I go to my own strategies of preparing a series like this.

After rather reduced and minimalist years, I had decided to open up my spectrum of motifs for bigger oil paintings on canvas, a technique to be put into practice for the first time by me. So some of the small scale materials of inspiration are transformed into big size, found footage and my individual inventions go parallel. I wanted to create a world of pure colourfields out of my personal choice and variation of colours. I also wanted to create out of strategies of Pop and Minimalism, but representing various types of classical modernist and contemporary design and typography, which I used nearly intuitively and systematically - to find as many different ideas for a certain number of distinctive paintings.

Oil colour on canvas - what a history. I used my 'motifs' - free of clear meaning, bowdlerized of texts and special contents - to add a comment to this history by the means of today. At the same time, of course, it's ironic.

The production in my studio is strictly analog, extremely low-tech and the things are made by concentrated handwork. The origin is all digital, we sometimes forget it, but real life is analog. It's my way to overcome the digital divide, to bring back these overwhelming and dominating mass of digital elements into reality - the reality of art as it is relevant for me for this series.

Many more things could be said, especially in matters of geometry: rectangle, the order of the square and the circle are the determining factors of this „typo.log“, used in a wide scale and in a huge playground.

One thing is also very important to know with this series: I'm working in a relatively small studio, normally only a drawing and thinking room.  In 2005, I went to Pakistan and crossed the Karakorum into China to travel to Beijing and Shanghai by land for three months on a conceptual journey. It was to complete earlier trips to the Indian subcontinent overland from Central Europe (first in 1978!), so part of the complete crossing of Asia by land. Before that, I had prepared exactly 36 images, according to the coincidental number of sheets left in a sketchbook. I thought it was a wonderful number for a unit of paintings with a lot of connotations. After my successful return from this globally relevant distant journey, I had the strong will and the energy to translate the painting's concepts made before in two year’s hard work - also meant to widen, to 'break up' my studio. Long distances, long times of preparation, long processes - all these belong to my work.

MICHAEL: Do I understand correctly when you say your motifs are free of clear meaning? Does that mean you don't have a narrative and you're not expressing specific messages in your work? Are the characters and symbols just characters and symbols?

GEORG: Not easy to answer. Yes and no. These characters are typical for our time. I consider they express our world "atmospherically," because they represent for example big international companies, if not with a typical logo (Nike, Adidas, etc.) then - for example - with some typical graphic elements you find hanging with clothing as part of the merchandising. It’s a widely "capitalist aesthetic" that we're part of. Think of Andy Warhol. He also took the stuff and made interesting pictures out of can design. But mine is a more of a minimalist vocabulary and more poetic. It's sometimes an emptied display or organigram or a blindtext, standing e. g. for pornographic advertising. Only a few punctuation marks are left, numbers (to be dialled for "1-on-1" phone sex) or some fragments of messages. It shows the shape of 'communication design' in a free specific form of painting, which functions without all of the applied aspects of the model, if existing. A nice reason to cover the surface of a prepared canvas with a nice hot layer or skin of oil colour. (I didn't use a brush, but a kind of small flexible silicone spatula). The paintings don't have to be logical on the outside, they follow their own individual logic. They all have different "meanings," absurd, surreal, but always specific for themselves, which means they are in a way, enigmatically hidden in themselves. At the end, they're maybe a kind of merchandising logo for themselves, for being sold more efficiently. Haha! NEO stands for New Entertainment Online, but I say NEO is always up to date. You will find HIV or H5N1 as parts of a composition or a simple word game with (the German) 'und' and the (English) 'and.' The und/and/pun (a coincidental discovery!).

MICHAEL: What's your first memory of art? When did you first start drawing and painting? Did you grow up in Vienna? Do you come from an artistic family?

GEORG: After a rather complicated matter, probably more confusing than enlightening, referring to only a small, but important segment of my work, I'm grateful for these biographical questions.

MICHAEL: Yes, you are a prolific artist. I can clearly see that.

GEORG: I was born in 1958 (like …Keith Haring, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince and Sharon Stone…) and raised in the small, high-altitude mountain village Galtür at the Austrian-Swiss border in the Alps. There is a strange short story by Ernest Hemingway, who was skiing close to my village in the 1920s about it – “An Alpine Idyll.” Still Galtür is a prosperous skiing resort. It became especially famous in 1999 when a series of avalanches killed 45 people and American UH-60 Blackhawks (5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment) evacuated thousands of tourists.

In the years of my childhood in this gorgeous mountain landscape, there was no art around except the impressive late baroque altar and wall paintings in the village church. No media except a local newspaper and an old radio, TV only came in the 70s. My father was just a hobby painter and handicraft enthusiast in his younger years, but among his seven children, there were quite a few talents. He was rather surprised and my mother, who died when I was 17, loved it. The art education at my high school was relativey up to date, I remember having learned of Renaissance art, American art (Pop Art, Edward Kienholz' environments), Islamic art and so on. It was a boarding school and I started with my own ideas of 'art' as a more and more fascinating way of an 'inner emigration when I was around 16.' The adolescent works were given affirmation by the art teacher, an artist himself. After grammar school (with ancient Greek and Latin), I went to Vienna for studying graphics at the Academy of Fine Art, an old institution, where - imagine! - Hitler had tried to study before World War I. As you might know, he was not accepted. For several years, we were three brothers at the academy in Vienna, later one sister also finished there. She and a brother still are freelancing artists, the elder brother is teaching art at high school. Another sister has a small fashion label.

Of course, from the beginning of my studies in the imperial and also more modern Vienna (Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann) my eyes were opened to a wider horizon. When lots of younger painters in the 1980s in European countries and in the States were becoming successful by just painting in the spirit of this time, I always was also interested in drawing, constructive art, conceptual art (On Kawara) and later the results of upcoming computer art. Not to forget comics and anonymous street art. I accepted various influences. I enjoyed the works of innumerable artists. Mondrian, Fernand Leger, the Futurists, Paul Klee, Josef Albers, Marc Rothko, etc.. After Europe (London, Paris, Rome, Berlin) I saw the ornamental wonders in Istanbul and Esfahan (Iran), Mazar-i-Sharif (Northern Afghanistan), the Taj Mahal and Kajuraho in India, then original Tibetan Art and East Asian, African and Pre-Columbian art in museums in these young years. From that time on, I've been engaged in the old and the very new art - applied or not - all around our globalized world.

MICHAEL: For some reason, you strike me as an academic or college professor. Are you a full-time artist? Also, how do you manage to travel around so much? What have you learned from traveling?

GEORG: Thank you Michael, for your exciting questions. You're giving me good ammunition. Sorry when I'm getting too long. But you know: The mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart. Yes, I am a full-time artist, which of course is not a contradiction to have some experience and knowledge. They're only fruitful together... Experiences mostly come from "real life." And to my real life belongs travelling. As a master of my time and with the ability to travel with relatively little money it is possible, - but before all necessary to leave my studio every now and then, to leave the city, the country, to leave Europe. Travelling means variety to studio life, to private life, vivification, freedom, studying, exploring, photographing, adventures in cities and in stunning nature. Once you have started travelling as I did in very young years on the hippie trail to India (most people cannot imagine to have seen Iran of the Shah in 1978 and one year later Iran of Khomeini), you try to repeat this role model trip ‘forever’. And I stayed curious and found splendid concepts for myself for travelling.

As you might have seen in 'spaces' on my website, there is an installation called E/O/S, a table - as a whole two by seven meters big - consisting of thousands of little narrowly combined and arranged industrial design objects in 'my' colours red, yellow, black and white (with all shades in between, so also a surrogate for a three-dimensional painting).

The whole setting looks like the model of a fantastic city, a megalopolis. One of the first smaller versions was very much associated with New York (I was there in 1993 and 2003 for a few weeks only). This was a nice side effect. When I reached my last destination, Shanghai, on the mentioned long journey through China (with lots of different, also very old cultural aspects connected to India) I went to the rooftop restaurant of the Raddison Hotel in the city centre. What I saw was an incredible déjà-vu of what I had created in my installation, not in colours, but in the arrangement and shapes of buildings of various sizes.

Last fall, I went to India to study and photograph (in black & white analog) the modernist new capital of the Punjab, Chandigarh, a 1950s Le Corbusier project and in April, I travelled to the federal capital Brasilia and to Rio de Janeiro to work in the same way with the Niemeyer buildings. Before that, I had produced ten delicate gouaches based on Google pics of the architectures placed in specially created displays. This shows the intimate connection between the studio work and travelling projects, which are highly based on architecture, art and cultural history.

A wonderful contrast to the artificiality of our civilized lives in the West is nature and wilderness. I belong to those who know how to move there. After India, I went to Nepal for the fourth time and did trekking in the highest mountains of the world close to Everest, one of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world. I consider myself extremely privileged to lead such a life between superlatives.

MICHAEL: What have you learned about people as a result of travel? What have you learned about yourself?

GEORG: People are always around you, people from all countries are in Vienna. Formerly, it was very different, although I grew up with tourists from different parts of Europe. To meet people in their countries (of origin) is totally different. Even if 'No Such Agency' is watching us, I'll tell you a little story about our prejudices. When I traveled to China (only four years after 9/11 and one month after the London terror attacks) via the Pakistani Karakorum Highway, I stopped at the village of Chilas. I was the only tourist, but in the guest book of the small hotel, I even saw two women from Rochester/US! I had stopped there to see five-thousand-years-old petroglyphs, rock engravings at the river Indus in desert-like mountain scenery. I met many friendly people there.

Passing by Nanga Parbat, I went on to beautiful Hunza Valley with Aga Khan followers living there, a liberal group of Muslims. For example I was invited by a keen young lady for tea, when I was hiking from one village to another and an older man embraced me to welcome me on the way. But there people, being astonished, told me, that Chilas is a Taliban region! In the close by Nanga Parbat base camp there was a massacre of Taliban terrorists among climbers last year and police prosecutors were killed in Chilas afterwards. So what did I learn of this? Even in a Taliban region, you will find friendly and hospitable people. Assumingly, there are only a few radical fellows and if you are really unlucky you'll meet them. Later, I saw the arrogant Chinese in the western minority regions of the Uigur and Tibetan areas, whereas I also met friendly, helpful Han-Chinese people everywhere in the 'rest' of China. You learn about diversity, different manners, languages, tradition and cultural heritage, about common needs, about simple everyday life, about poverty, about how different you feel on the way - in unknown and strange surroundings.

When I first saw India and the incredibly poor classes (in 1978, life was much simpler there, it still is simple and poor for too many), it made my decision to be a freelancing artist at home in one of the richest countries in the world much easier. Recently when I was in Brazil, I 'fell in love' with the charming people there. I was not feeling endangered in Rio, only when I saw security staff and police. I met friends in India and in Brazil, with whom I can easily stay in contact with social media nowadays. We're living in one world, but it's endangered.  We have to take care of it. I have a guilty conscience, when I'm flying. The only excuse, I don't drive a car.

Look at the trash work E/O/S: It is made of very noble garbage with lots of ‚gold’ in it, to be found somewhere nearly new (some of it also comes from New York) or not thrown away, but ready to be thrown away. There is plenty of stuff in our affluent society being produced to 'kill' us. In this respect, I know that I'm a guilty victim.

MICHAEL: When you are creating your art, who are you making it for? What's the point of making art?  You never know if or when it will sell ... so what's the point?

GEORG: I see you know artists very well.  This is again, not easy to answer. ‚The point' is not existing, it's many points. I could reply quickly and say - no risk, no fun. As long it makes fun, I'll produce my things. Not too many, because it's not my style and not my 'operation mode.' I leave myself time to develop my 'products.' My approach is - based on my mentality and also intentionally affirmed - a contradictory attitude to the high-speed of our time and the mechanical mass-production of pictures. Nevertheless, by working steadily for long times, there are always 'big' numbers of works accruing.

To be in the process of making art is exciting, fulfilling - and it is an appropriate way to use my given time and to forget it at the same time. It's a way to get calm, relaxed and concentrated, to lose nervousness.

Of course, I make it for myself first, but I'm not only one inside (I love multiple identities not only in life in general, but also as a practicing artist) nor am I alone in the outside. You always think of at least one spectator, one recipient in the background, with whom you want to communicate.

The risk to fail, the risk to be misunderstood, the risk not to be understood at all, the risk not to find even one person who shares similar feelings about the work as I have, the risk not to find the ultimate recipient, the one who falls in love with the work and who wants to spend the money for it, is not separable from the production. Let's say, there are plenty of reasons, not to go on working in my studio anymore, as there are always some processes on the way, which do not need a studio. Besides - there is the (re)viewing my art and the art of others, cooking, having sex, hiking, watching the sky, writing, travelling, being.

What a pity that I have decided to earn money with my art, it makes it terribly profane.

MICHAEL: Tell me about Vienna. Are everyday people there interested in contemporary art? Are you part of the art community there? Shouldn't you be in London or New York?

GEORG: Vienna is a vivid city with a good quality of life (Vienna tops Mercer's quality of living list), although in my eyes 'the better is the enemy of the good’. As I'm an environmentalist and aesthete, I find things to criticize every day (I'm punished…), especially in matters of architecture and public space design. Vienna is working well as an organized structure, but you have to have money like anywhere else to have the 'benefits of higher levels.'

Theaters, opera houses and concert halls are more popular than the numerous museums here, as a result of long traditions. An American acquaintance of mine from New York City, who was a neurologist there and who came to live here, says Vienna is great in art institutions. But just recently we lost two smaller, however important semi-private spaces of a bank and an insurance group (one of them the Generali Foundation). But there still are quite a few international galleries - well reachable on foot in and around the city centre - and also the main institutions as the MUMOK, the Leopold Museum, the Kunsthalle, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Secession, the MAK, the Belvedere Museums including the Museum of the 21st century as well as the Thyssen-Bornemiza Art Contempory and the Bank Austria Cultural Forum, which all offer high rank international exhibitions.

Outside Vienna, there are new Modern Art Museums in Linz, Salzburg and foremost the KUB in Bregenz (with a Richard Prince exhibition at the moment), also the Kunsthalle Krems and the private Liaunig Museum. They all are quite well-accepted, but the atmosphere of London, Paris, Berlin, NY or LA is a bit missing, as far I can judge. There is no Tate Modern and so on, which attracts huge numbers of especially younger visitors.

I myself am known among my colleagues in Vienna and Austria, but far from being famous (who is?). Partly because of my art and partly by the way I'm being present. The younger ones have their own communities. They mostly only know their professors and the international stars. I'm part of the village here, but I'm freelancing by my nature and so I am not "employee" of a gallery. The disadvantage is the lack of an efficient management, which by the way, is also hard to get within a gallery. Some say I'm underestimated, that's nice. Some say I could have better resonance in London and NY, you're not the first.

I came to Vienna in the late ‘70s and in the ‘80s I decided to have a family. So I never thought of leaving Vienna except for travelling and a few scholarships connected to travelling. To be more important and to get higher prices is a nice idea, but not for the price of losing the quality of life imagined by me. Maybe I also was too lazy for an international career, not clever enough, not needy enough and too little entrepreneur.

MICHAEL: Well Georg, your work is great and you’re super-talented. Thanks for chatting.

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