First published in VAULT, Issue 16.
Tal R believes that craft is overrated. The Tel Aviv-born, Denmark-raised painter, whose palette of dirty pinks, jewel greens and schoolbus yellows manages to endow a parade of supine women, street scenes and carnivalesque spaces with an interior life that transcends their inanimate origins, says that intent always trumps technique when it comes to making art.
“I always want my paintings to be more about expression,” laughs Tal R, who has long dropped his last name – Rosenzwieg – for a moniker that makes him seem more elusive than he actually is. “Craft simply colours in the expression. When I was teaching, I had students who were living in Russia and had a formal education in painting so could paint masterfully. They knew all the tricks. But there was nothing in their paintings. You try to teach them that the craft should follow the idea, not the other way around and it’s always the idea that drives it. And even if you lack craft, it doesn’t matter because your sense of necessity will be so strong, you will create the tools. If you get to a stage where you’re just polishing your tools, then I’d stop. Because even though in one way, the work gets better, in the important way the work gets worse. It gets sharper but the bone inside it just disappears.”
Tal R, who’s talking to me over the phone from his studio in Copenhagen, has spent the last two decades reconciling romantic ideas about artistic expression with aesthetic achievements that somehow both wink at painterly traditions and inhabit the zeitgeist before it unfolds. In 2003, Lords of Koboljnik, his first solo exhibition at London’s Victoria Miro gallery, he cast paintings and tapestries alongside 32 drawings. The sprawling show (“I wanted it to be like a group show,” he admits) which takes its name from the Hebrew word for ‘leftovers’ and riffed on cultural detritus could have bordered on schizophrenic – had the artist’s visual exuberance and knack for wry innuendo not been so acute.
The Schlomo, a 2013 show at the artist’s New York gallery Cheim and Reid – also home to the likes of William Eggleston and Jenny Holzer – a make-believe character based on his long-lost uncle wanders through stranger’s apartments, flea markets and streetside cafes. The paintings, which are rendered in crayon, pigment and rabbit skin glue, channel Matisse’s candy-coloured abstractions and Chagall’s cartoonish impressions of street life. But they convey a sense of ennui that’s so contemporary that this gravitas feels like a trick.
And in 2015’s Alstadt Girl, women languorously breathe cigarette smoke out their windows, recline, naked, amid bohemian clutter and shower in rooms with pastel-pink walls. The series simultaneously references our Instagram-era obsession with the minutiae of existence and deconstructs the female nude. But These figures don’t feel like refugees from art history or figments of the artist’s imagination; they feel like girls whose surroundings – a bed post here, a closet there – are signposts for messy inner lives. They manage to be both wildly original while recalling a Picasso knockoff you might find at a flea market. Improbably enough, the effect is equal parts utter sincerity and ineffable cool.
“I don’t watch movies, I don’t read many books but for three years I had drawing appointments with people,” says Tal R, whose soft cadences are punctuated with urgent declarations and analogies that come out of nowhere before landing hard and fast. “So, when I was teaching at the academy in Dusseldorf which was near Aldstadt, I would carry around this suitcase with paper and I would meet people and draw them in hotel rooms or private houses. We would always drink tea and draw. And I would think, ‘Is it possible to make paintings out of these drawings?’ I didn’t ask why the same way that I didn’t ask why my hands had the urge to pick up certain colours – there’s certain people you want to kill, there are certain people you want to be friends with, there are certain people you want to marry and there are certain people you want to draw. As an artist, there’s no time for your own psychology. Instinct is just faster – it’s cruel, its more egoistic than intellect. That’s why it’s useful.”
Tal R was born in Tel Aviv to a Danish mother and Israeli father amid the Six-Day War in 1967 and his family moved to Denmark when he was one. “Every school has a class in which someone is drawing and usually kids stop around puberty and say ‘that’s enough’ but I’m just the one that kept going,” he laughs. “I was just drawing what was interesting, it was a free nameless practice but I never called it ‘art.’ I was the one in Jewish school drawing the swastika, it was very awkward.” At eighteen, he dropped out of high school to enrol at art school only to quit after two years. “After one year, I thought I didn’t want to be an artist. I thought ‘art is ridiculous, it’s not for me.’” But at 26, he applied to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and was finally accepted after submitting an upside down portrait of Adolf Hitler. At the Royal Academy, he started to suspect that his aversion to authority could galvanise his artistic ambitions. More importantly, he realised that painting – a medium that the conceptual art explosion had deemed unfashionable to the point of embarrassing – may not be the dead end that the ‘nineties would have him believe.
“My family are Jews so we are a minority in Denmark and my name ‘Tal’ is not a real name here and as a kid you hate that because you just want to be average,” says Tal R, whose work piqued the interest of Anders Kold, a curator at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen in his second year at the Royal Academy, who invited him to take part in the 1997 group show that helped his career take off. “The moment I decided that art was what I wanted to do, I remember saying to my father, ‘if I do it, I want to be the best’ because that’s is part of proving yourself but in a way that’s suicidal. And in the beginning, I was very interested in outsider art or anything that had an unschooled approach towards expression. In the nineties, if you were a painter, it was the same as saying ‘I’m stupid.’ You were only allowed to do very formal studies of brushstrokes but if you were enough of a fool to try narratives, it was a great environment to develop it because nobody cared.”
His breakthrough arrived when he realised that his impulse to destroy paintings could actually help him organise his canvases, sparking possibilities that hadn’t occured to him before. “Suddenly, I had a way to paint based on the way my ideas had failed and got destroyed that really opened the door for me,” says Tal R, who has had solo shows everywhere from London’s Camden Art Centre to Germany’s Kunsthalle Dusseldorff and who showed his latest sculptures (“they are like teenagers; they have pimples, their voice is out of tune”) at Victoria Miro in May 2015. “But I wanted to challenge myself by just putting a painting on the wall and whatever context the work was in it would be possible for it to speak. At the same time, I wanted to get much closer to simple narratives, the things in your living room, the friends who fall asleep on your sofa. Just everyday stuff.”
Tal R is currently making paintings of sex shops, those temples to human ordinariness and I can’t help but think that his painterly intentions may have found their ideal form. “You can look at a shop and find the window interesting because of the things you imagine and the things you can’t imagine,” he says, grin giving way to something uncharacteristically serious. “And it’s the same thing with painting. I’m 48 now, old enough to know that a painting should have a back room you can only reach with your imagination. A great painting has a beating heart.”