Parinaz: Flo, you’re in New York and I’m in London, so let me get right to it. Here is question number one... you have a background in architecture, so how did you transition to painting?
Florian: I was very lazy in secondary school, I never thought I would continue my studies in any meaningful way. I tried a few different lines of work, applying to be a construction draughtsman and survey technician. After disastrous interviews, it’s needless to say that I didn’t get the roles. Then I apprenticed as a house painter, but a week into a lacklustre job, I realised the best path forward was to pursue a university degree. I was able to get a place on an architecture program at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences, and it was while I was there studying under a professor called Nikolaus Bienefeld, who I still speak to today, I had a bit of a breakthrough moment.
Briefly the signal drops and Parinaz, owner/operator of TRAMPS gallery, thinks that the call has failed. Then her connection re-establishes, and the flow of conversation continues with the painter.
Parinaz: What happened?
Florian: The coursework included a free drawing class - I wasn’t particularly good at drawing but really enjoyed it. Then there was this one particular assignment that led to this breakthrough. Bienefeld asked us to observe flowers and trees during different times of the year. It was a very open-ended project, and we could approach it whichever way we wanted. I painted flowers, and it sounds cheesy to say, but in doing so I came to realise how much I loved the material. The fluidity and spontaneity it allows stands in contrast to architecture. A very different creative process. When I brought the finished canvases in, my professor was amused by my literal approach to the project but also able to recognise my enthusiasm for painting. Bienefeld had studied sculpture at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf when he was younger and suggested that I should look into doing a fine arts degree there after receiving my BA in architecture. Once finished, I applied and got in.
Parinaz: Our story began there. We first met when you joined Peter’s [Doig] class after finishing your foundation year. Can you try to explain the atmosphere in Düss in the years you were there?
Florian: Joining Peter’s class was one of the most significant experiences of my life. To study with Constantin [Nitsche], Christoph [Matthes], Tim [Breuer], Lotte [Maiwald] and Raphaela [Simon] was amazing. We challenged ourselves and each other in our work and spent many late nights having drinks and good times. We were very close and would go on trips: kayaking along quiet rivers, sleeping in churches after very late nights. We criss-crossed Europe and became like a family.
Parinaz: And how was Peter as a teacher?
Florian: Committed deeply to helping us find freedom in our work. It wasn’t about studying art but rather living life, and most importantly he showed us how to bring our lives into what we made. Before being in his class, my painting was very influenced by what was in favour in the art world. He changed everything for me, I learned to find and trust my voice, and what I did became much more personal. I began to draw upon my own life for inspiration more and more.
Parinaz: When people leave art school, their lives inevitably take a radically different turn. They are no longer part of a group of students in constant conversation but rather in it alone. The life of an artist can be a road traversed solo. How have things changed for you since graduating in 2017?
Florian: Ja, art school was a cloud in the sky, then you leave and freefall back to earth. Luckily, after graduating, you asked me to show at TRAMPS in New York, which was like Christmas and my birthday rolled into one. The show motivated me to commit to my work fully and plough forward. After, with the encouragement and support of Gordon VeneKlasen at Michael Werner Gallery, I made the decision to move to the States. After years in Düsseldorf, I thought I needed a change. The idea of displacement was exciting to me.
Parinaz: And you got there and lockdown began?
Florian: That was pretty rough for me. I got sick too. Five weeks of illness after contracting Covid. I was all alone in an empty apartment and eventually ended up in the hospital. That was an eye-opener - I was floored by the prices of medical care in New York. My German insurance didn’t cover the costs, but luckily I was able to negotiate a sort of deal with the hospital. It was still a huge amount of cash.
Parinaz: You left the country with the best healthcare system in the Western world for one which has one of the worst. How was the recovery?
Florian: Yeah... I was so physically drained from it but eventually worked up the strength to go back to the studio. I was sick from the virus but also sick of staying alone at home with nothing to do. It changed my approach to painting a lot. Before, the energy from my social life and friendships fuelled and inspired my work, but after this time in New York, my work became a lot more introspective and self-reflective. The energy had to come from within myself.
Parinaz: It’s a loaded time to be in America, as the country has never been more fractured. The injustices keep piling up: bigots and body bags. You experienced firsthand the protests following the murder of George Floyd, and now you’re there in the lead-up to what is sure to be a very contentious presidential election.
Florian: I know... intense times. There is a great heartbreak in the United States. As a white man, I feel a sense of shame for what other white people subject people to here. The culture of alienation and racism is tragic. Diversity is the biggest gift of all, so why some people don’t recognise this, I don’t know.
Parinaz: I was worried about your move to New York. I still remain reluctant around anyone moving to the States at this point in time. It’s inexcusable how the US government refuses to take care of its own, and not only that, but actively antagonises and persecutes its citizens. It defies logic and decency, the depravity of these past four years with Trump has been staggering, and now the virus. How are things for you now?
Florian: Much like everyone else - still in the haze of Covid. Admittedly, before all of this, I had to contend with some mental health issues, but now these issues feel amplified. It’s a bit like a life without life. I don’t want to complain because in the end I am one of the fortunate ones, there are people without jobs, losing their homes, trying to take care of their families. We are in damn crazy times and hopefully, when the dust settles, we all can get through to a better place.
Parinaz: Do you find it hard to work, how have you adjusted?
Florian: Life is very different in general, of course, the new normal people keep talking about, what does that mean? So much feels in limbo, and yet I am getting by. I was happy to see Gordon [VeneKlasen] recently and spend time with him. We made a show of my small paintings paired with sculptures by A.R. Penck. I have been working towards November’s show that we will do together at TRAMPS and Michael Werner [Gallery]. And I still find the city to be inspiring! There are happy moments to be had, as you appreciate the small things more when so much has been taken away. Though, I’m still longing for that old heated nightlife.
Parinaz: You were telling me about the smaller paintings and how they are the first time you’ve exhibited works on this scale... anything else you want to say to that?
Florian: Sure, smaller works are more experimental for me. They open up new views that can inform my larger works, as the big paintings are a much slower process. I find it productive - shifting between two modes of making and thinking.
Parinaz: What role does narrative play in your work?
Florian: Narrative? I think It’s important, but it must be open and ambiguous – not referring to just one story.
Parinaz: Yes, I don’t buy the argument that with representational/figurative painting that a narrative of some sort is irrelevant, unimportant or bad. If a painting conjures an experience or a feeling how is that anything other than good? It can’t only be about the handling of paint and exercises in style. That’s just too boring. Though, perhaps for some people it is just about that, and often those people make boring paintings!
Florian: Yes, I think it has to be personal somehow otherwise zzz and no fire.
Parinaz: For the most part, your works feature men, and more recently there is a wild, feral cat that seems to haunt and hunt the figures. Beyond the physical depictions, might you consider a lot of your work to be portraiture? Do the men and cats in your paintings refer to you, people you know, your psyche, pathos, desires etc.?
Florian: Yap, I bring friends and myself often into paintings, though not always in literal ways. The atmosphere in my paintings is often a reflection of what I’m going through and feeling, yes.
Parinaz: And the cats? Has the unease and tension that surrounds you pervaded your work?
Florian: The cats are there because they refer to the wild times we are going through, but also because they are animals that live without rules and judgement. They possess an elegant feminine touch, even if they are not female cats. They don’t have to fill normative roles as humans do, they are fluid. I admire their freedom.
Parinaz: So if we were to say painting is a journey, then what sort of journey are you on?
Florian: A wild voyage, driving through the night without stopping.