Industry Insight: A Depiction of the Undesired - John Reuß Interviewed by Alexander Rajah

John Reuß is an artist concerned with only one thing – alienation. Throughout his works, the bodies displayed are all contorted, misshapen, in motion or even disintegrating before our very eyes. His depictions of fragmented subjects show the disturbing inner realities of an individual, and their struggles to find connection and cognition with others and the world around us.

Isolation - John Reuß

With seventeen years’ worth of solo exhibitions, and his recent participation in a host of group exhibitions, Reuß has shown his paintings in his country of residency Denmark, his home-country, Germany, and has begun to break into USA. I decided to catch up with him to talk about his artistic process, his influences both in and outside of his work, and to ask what capturing alienation might look like in the future.

AR: Vær hilset John! I’m finally able to talk to you about your ‘process’ in your works. There’s definitely a rejection of planned drawing styles - in fact, sometimes you even layer paintings on paintings, completely changing its original state to something entirely different. How and why did this become your modus operandi?

JR: I started out being much more literal and naturalistic back when I started being interested in painting. Discovering the surrealistic movement as a teenager, however, taught me that art is an amazing language to describe all those things you can’t really put into words or logic. So, from there on, I started being much more about the subjective personal expression and process than trying to depict an objective reality.

That, paired with me losing the reverence towards my own work, completely led to the style you see today. I’ll layer drawing and painting, adding and subtracting, until I feel it works. If something has to go, I will erase it completely, or even destroy the canvas. I feel like this process is much like a conversation between me and the painting - and through that conversation, we find the final motif together. So, I actually can’t tell exactly how a piece turns out when I start on it, as I discover the final outcome as I go. I feel like there is an extraordinarily strong connection between my technique, process and expression, and the way I view the world and our being in it.

AR: I think it is perfectly embodied in one of your earlier works ‘Philosophy of the Flesh’ (I even have a print of it at home). As this was back in 2015, in what ways do you think your process has developed since then?

JR: I actually feel like that particular painting is sort of pivotal, and, in many ways, represents a shift in my work - it sort of pointed to how my work was about to develop from then on. You can say that my process as such is pretty the same - or at least very slowly evolving - I still do the constant redrawing and repainting and layering. But I am also incorporating more abstract and gritty textures, and trying to respect and use the qualities of the medium. This has actually led to a very recent change in medium for me - going from using acrylics for a couple of decades and back to oils! This shift in itself means that my process is being slowed down a lot, so I am forced to let the individual pieces simmer for longer in the studio. But it also gives me a whole lot just from the inherent qualities of oil paint, the way it handles and works on the canvas.

'Philosophy of the Flesh' - John Reuß

AR: Existentialism and Kafkaesque subjects are explored through your works and it’s easy to see how those concepts have greatly influenced you. However, do influences outside of that, such as fashion, or more specifically the aesthetics found in Rick Owens’ work, affect your artistry at all?

JR: Well you know - I see influence or inspiration as sort of a conglomerate of lived life and experiences, coming together in many forms in your (un)conscious mind, and melting into a new body of expression. So, influences come from many, many sources.

I’m not really like a big hypebeast fashion addict - well except for the fact that I always wear Rick Owens. But I don’t really take a lot of interest in fashion in general, or see a lot of shows or whatever.

Discovering Rick Owens and that whole aesthetic, however, immediately felt like there was a certain kinship. Not that I suffer from the delusion that I know the man. But as far as the expression and output - and that certain existential quality and artistic sensitivity his work has - I felt right at home.

That being said, I’m sure that whole Rick vibe, the deconstruction and the play on proportions, has had some sort of influence in my own work also. It’s certainly something I can relate to.

John Reuß

AR: What about architecture, film and photography as influences?

JR: I love photography and it is certainly a big influence. I’ll often try to incorporate a certain feel of gritty film and out-of-focus surfaces into my paintings - and match it with more precise and sharp details to create a certain mood, visual interest and contrast. Just the human as motif in photography is of great interest and inspiration to me. Also, photography of a sort of artistic documentation of a person or a life - like…. say, David Nebreda.

Film, books and music are also things that may influence me. Sometimes very directly - like reading a certain book might generate a certain spark in my head and I’ll work from there. In fact the work you mentioned before, Philosophy In the Flesh, is named directly after philosophical book by Georg Lakoff and Mark Johnson, that, along with other philosophical readings, have been some of the biggest influences on my process and work - it is something that really pushed me into developing the expression you see now. Same goes for films and music - and it can be down to a sentence said in a movie or a line in a song - or just a whole piece, like say a David Lynch movie. In any case, I continuously listen to music while I paint.

Architecture and furniture are something that has been creeping into my work over time - more so in a very simplified geometric and abstract way - and I am getting increasingly interested in the relationship between the body-mind complex and the surrounding structures. It is something I’ve been working with for a while now and it is probably going to become even more evident in future pieces. What I’m noticing in the pieces in progress in my studio right now, is how the space surrounding my figures is beginning to change from super simplified and clean backgrounds into a more visceral part of the entire piece.

AR: Your most recent works: “Rest”, “Isolation”, “Distortion” and “Nightstand” all favour single words as their titles, when most of your past works have used two or more words in their names. They’re also fixated on not just alienation but isolation as well - what are the sort of thoughts and feelings you had while creating these paintings?

JR: I think several of those pieces stem back from the initial wave of Covid-19 here in Denmark and the following lock-down. So, I am fairly sure there is some sort of influence from the uncertainty and the whole turmoil and panic going on in society. If you take a painting like “Isolation” - apart from everything else going on in the painting - it is also a reference to self-isolation and missing that human touch (notice the little ghost hand…)

I’m in a phase where the titles are getting very abrupt and to the point, I think, but also sort of leaving a lot to the imagination of the viewer. I don’t really like (over)explaining my work. I am currently really into those artists that do some insane and violently expressionistic piece, and then name it something so laconic, like “man in lawn chair” - naming the painting, but not really saying anything about it.

LEFT: 'Rest'; RIGHT: 'Nightstand' - John Reuß

AR: For the next few months, do you think your following works will be guided by these same emotions, or would finding a different source to draw influence from be more desirable?

JR: Well - my whole process and view on art is about the emotional response to the world you live in. It is about the complexity, instability and uncertainty that characterises our modern world. So… yes?

The thing about influence and inspiration is... I don’t really think about it like what is desirable - it just happens. I don’t pick and choose; I go with the flow on a daily basis. And I can tell you that I usually go through the full emotional spectrum several times in the time it takes to finish a painting - so everything from despair to exhilaration is in there somewhere…

In general, I’m not interested in “happy” art - so in that sense you can say that I am choosing... I am choosing the less desirable and problematic route.

AR: I hope all goes well for your solo exhibition in January as I’m looking forward to that very much. Fantastisk!