Friedrich Kunath is pointing toward a giant denim-clad leg, which hangs from the ceiling of the Tim van Laere Gallery in Antwerp. The leg ends in a white athletic sock that rests atop five snaking polyester tubes in yellow, orange, red, blue, and green that lie across the floor. People at the exhibition’s vernissage are walking around it, even hopping over the long tubes. No one is sure what to make of it.
“This came to me in a dream,” says Kunath, the boyish 44-year-old German-born artist who now lives and works in Los Angeles. “I’ve been doing a lot of dream therapy recently.” The work, “At Least, God Had a Good Look at the Astronauts,” 2018, is what you’ll first see upon walking into his latest exhibition, entitled, “Where is the Madness That You Promised Me,” on until June 23. And, although it’s only one of three installations in an exhibition that’s otherwise made up of paintings, its utter bizarreness and inexplicability encapsulate the rollicking, dream-like atmosphere of the entire show.
Kunath is open about the senselessness of his work in a way that’s refreshing from a Contemporary artist. Too many panels and interviews exist in which artists, especially at more major galleries, have been provided talking points that seem, if not antithetical then at least superfluous to how they actually feel about their artworks. Kunath, on the other hand, embraces the fact that much of his recent work is a pouring out of his subconscious, a form of automatism. His work, which is defined in part by its nostalgia and sentimental symbols — from sunsets to images of couples staring out into the distance — is consistent only in the intensity of the feelings it provides.
Sometimes, his paintings include the words of places on his mind (“the Beverly Hills Hotel”); other times, he lets his daughter paint a few lines, or he draws a man with a candle for a head. Sometimes, there are cartoons or perverse Biblical allusions, like John the Baptist being baptized in a lake but dressed as a cowboy. Saint Hieronymus wears a pair of Converse All-Stars. A couple looks out onto a sun-splotched lake as if deeply in love, while, just above them, another, cloudier image of them standing and holding hands maintains the colors of both a sunset but also a nuclear cloud.
Nothing means anything, and he embraces it. What he finds in his head, in his locker of Americana trinkets, is what goes on the canvas. To look at Kunath’s work is to experience the sentimental and the kitsch but also the ways in which sentimentality and kitschiness is confronted. It’s easier to be cynical than earnest, and his “characters,” as he calls the people who appear in a few of his paintings, seem to be in a constant battle between these two modes. They’re homesick, nostalgic for a past they don’t fully know, and the only mode available to them to express this is through melodrama, sunsets, cartoons, trinkets of the Wild West. The scope of his characters’ emotions is thus neutered by the cultural language available to them.
“It is what it is,” Kunath says of his subconscious and how it spills out onto his works. “I don't make a comment; I don’t judge it. I notice it and then I do it. I think that judging is not my job, that’s someone else’s job.”
Getting to create exactly what he wants without having to judge it is a privilege he’s had only since moving near Los Angeles in 2007. Growing up in Berlin and living and working in Cologne, he felt the weight of the history of European art on his shoulders. It stifled his creativity. “The kind of level of self-seriousness was clearly overwhelming me,” he says. “It was unbearable because everything was a question of history. A left or a right brushstroke was an existential question, and you’d get criticized in the streets, stoned to death in the gallery. I think once I got there [to Los Angeles], my art almost emerged like a white, empty canvas.”
Today, he lives in Pasadena, just outside of Los Angeles, with his wife and daughter, and keeps a 14,000-square-foot studio in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno. His routine is wonderfully laid back. In the morning, he goes to his studio where he puts the Tennis Channel on mute, turns on music, then goes to his table with his paints, pencils, image clippings, and artistic accouterments. The studio has a high ceiling and there are separate areas for spray painting as well as a room for viewing how his art will look when hung up in a gallery or museum setting. He sports a low-key rock-star life with a Rolex, a swimming pool, and a six-figure bubble-top Jaguar that’s parked inside his studio. (He’s also an avid tennis player, although Tim van Laere, the long-haired gallerist with whom Kunath is showing in Antwerp, played professionally through his mid-20s and didn’t go easy on the amiable artist. “It was brutal,” Kunath laughs.)
“Where is the Madness That You Promised Me” has little in the way of technical mastery, but that’s never been Kunath’s goal. He says he was never an exceptional drawer, but the ability he does have is far more important: he’s able to tap into his own anxieties, which happen to be ones that many others share with him—feelings of existential homelessness, of not knowing exactly what one wants but knowing that one is still wanting, and, perhaps more than anything else, wanting to be seen, known, and understood.
“I want to be understood,” he reiterates. “I read and I watch films and I listen to music not to solve intellectual inquiries. I want be heard. I want to be understood, and I want to understand, but at the same time there's a big confusion that's bigger than me that I don't understand.”
His works not only match this kind of emotional experience but also create it and amplify it so that standing in front of a work that depicts a deep-hued sunset with the words “I Love You, But I’ve Chosen Darkness” in the center of the sun, there’s a feeling that the sentimentality is honest. “It’s always cooler to say ‘fuck you,’ than to say ‘I love you’,” he says. “So although I play with irony, I always make sure there’s an earnestness with it. I’m not full of cynicism; I’m full of love.”
"Where Is The Madness That You Promised Me," works by Friedrich Kunath, is on view at Tim van Laere Gallery in Antwerp through June 23. More information: http://www.timvanlaeregallery.com