The artist’s latest exhibition, “Monotony in a hurry,” features portraits of the most ubiquitous faces of modern media
“Everything is made up of everything, in the small as in the large”, says Thomas Bayrle. “Everything can be modulated from everything, like in a kind of rubber world.”
It’s a statement that captures the essence of the German artist’s superforms – his characteristic portraits, made up of repeated distortions of smaller images. Kim Kardashian’s face is made up of thousands of iPhones; Stalin’s is made of mustaches; the Virgin Mary and Jesus appear from layers and layers of tiny crosses. They are statements about the modern norm of visual oversaturation, especially when it comes to the faces of famous and infamous people of a given era.
Bayrle, raised in post-war Berlin, once said that he experienced “the contradictions of the time”. He started as a weaver in a factory, then turned to graphic design, then co-directed a publishing house specializing in artists’ books before fully committing to artistic creation. “During the day I worked for Ferrero, Benckiser, Pierre Cardin and McCann Erickson, German factories and American agencies,” Bayrle said in a 2018 interview, “and at night I worked for Marxists and anarchists, the students, the Italian protest newspaper Lotta Continua and the German extra-parliamentary left.
The product of such conflict was the ability to “experience something fuller and more complex” – Bayrle gained a fuller understanding of the society around him and the means of expressing the qualities inherent in mass culture, mass production, capitalism, authoritarianism, digitalization and urban life. “There are stages in the complexity of this life”, says the artist, always in tune with the formal shifts that surround him. “It’s not that everything always hardens one way. There are movements and counter-movements that fit together.
Morgan Becker: What is the meaning behind the title of your show, Monotony in a hurry?
Thomas Baylé: ‘Hurry monotony’ is an interesting contradiction. With the extensibility of time, which is very subjective, a second can be like a year and vice versa. This feeling is very important for the art: that the normal grids of movement dissolve and change according to the physical and mental situation in which you find yourself.
Morgan: Can you tell me about the physical process of creating a superform? How did the method develop and evolve during your practice?
Thomas: In the mid-1960s, I tried to approach this idea through painting. A little later I worked with graphic means to lay out grids with shapes so that they fit a supershape. Initially, these are drawings that are assembled in montages then made in screen printing. I used whatever means best served the need at hand, like [creating] a stamp for a series background or an individual design.
It was only later that I had latex rubber imported on a roll, which I printed on, and which in turn was warped with several manual copiers. Then came the first personal computers – and I was lucky enough to work with a student who wrote me a new program on the Atari to calculate the desired distortions and use them to further develop my graphics. The distortion option is now implemented in all good graphics programs, but a lot of manual work is still needed to create a supershape.
Morgan: What is the thought process behind choosing the thumbnail image that will be the main subject of a superform?
Thomas: At first I thought in terms of two categories: a superform as a whole and the detailed forms that [make it up]. This happened by working on the small components so that they fit exactly into a large mould. The organic shapes were overlaid with quadratures so that a face made up of only deformed internal shapes emerged, which I could then work on.
Everything is made up of everything, in the small as in the large. Everything can be modulated from everything, like in a kind of rubber world. In the micro, as in the macro. An organic world in which all surfaces are used for a statement.
Morgan: Repetition plays an essential role in your work. Initially, it was a way for you to engage in mass consumption. Can you tell me about the new meaning it has taken on over time, or its other applications in social commentary on the modern world?
“The forces I speak of are causal expressions of our present material and spiritual world.”
Thomas: I constructed the repetition as an organic sea of millions of sub-forms – like an organic web. A world is built from different areas in such a way that no area is left out, no shape is too much or too little. I broke organic shapes into organic faces. Small subparts of another genesis were then filled in these areas, so that a new network was created in terms of content. I see repetition as large-scale creativity. It’s not monotonous and boring, but a sea of millions of uniquenesses.
Morgan: What is the function or the reason behind the presentation of your superforms as wallpapers or floor coverings, as you have often done in galleries?
Thomas: I see my works as skins that permeate the environment in which I live, walk and stand. By covering such large areas, a new world is created. Repetition shows that nothing exists twice in nature.
Morgan: What is the reason for making a room in bright colors or in black and white?
Thomas: I see execution quite subjectively – where color and shapes are set in different relationships to each other.
Morgan: You’ve done portraits of many pop culture and political figures, from Kim Kardashian to Xi Jinping. What are the qualities of an individual that you might choose to represent in your work?
Thomas: These figures, which appear a million times in all media, are archetypes that mentally and physically structure our world like a network of nets.
If I construct Stalin from his mustache, then I am formulating one of the many characteristics that can be associated with this man in his time. They are archetypes of mass society. Whether they are made of buttons, beards or smartphones, they are an expression of our mass society and mass production. I try to find archetypal modules that distinguish a face in this society.
Morgan: It seems that you are grappling with many different themes – the political, the sexual, the digitization, the mass production, the transport and the urban life. Yet you approach them all with this very provocative technique.
Do you think your artistic method can be applied to many or most of the problems that exist in contemporary society? Is there a force that connects them all?
Thomas: Yes. I think it can be applied to various problems in our society, simply because it is a method of declination of the masses – like a cake batter that is constantly being reshaped. The forces I speak of are causal expressions of our present material and spiritual world.
Morgan: What was your introduction to pop art and to art in general?
Thomas: I came to pop art through the great American artists of the 60s. A German artist who inspired me a lot was Peter Roehr, with whom I was friends. I wanted to be a textile engineer and did not intend to be a visual artist. It was around 1960, but in the middle of a room of hundreds of looms, the penny fell for me: “This madness must have something to do with art.
Morgan: Some have suggested that you “predict our digital reality”, representing its visual features before they actually exist. Is it true? Do you have any forecasts for the future?
Thomas: This is related to automatic weaving machines, in front of which I stood for more than a year in a large textile factory. The organic connection of bodies and machines did not dissolve there, but melted into my imagination and my feelings and took on an artistic form. Regardless of the factory punch card machines, I realized that weaving and programming were causally linked. There are stages in the complexity of this life. It’s not that everything always hardens one way. There are movements and counter-movements that fit together.
Morgan: It seems that much of your work is built around observing, on a large scale, the world around you. Where do you get your observations from?
Thomas: I cannot locate my sightings directly.
Morgan: Is there anything that you think people often misunderstand about your work?
Morgan: If you started your practice again today, as a young man, how do you imagine it would be similar or different from your current work?
Thomas: It’s a good idea. Today, I would certainly no longer aspire to such a hard apprenticeship. However, I think [my work] it’s much later.
I don’t want to say that today, everything has become “softer”. Much of today’s reality is more psychological than physical. I don’t mean it’s better or worse, it’s just fundamentally changed.
by Thomas Bayrlé Monotony in a hurry is on view at the Gladstone Gallery’s 21st Street location, through April 23.