Nils Jendri sits down with Erik Sommer to talk about hostels, using spray paint as a brush, earning a PhD in philosophy, and dreaming colors.
(ES) Describe your work for us.
(NJ) I usually paint with spray paint. The one brush I have I use sometimes for the first acrylic layer. I paint canvases and from time to time I do some paperworks as well. Not long ago I started doing sculptures out of steel, concrete and spray paint.
Over the years I tried different mediums and different techniques but coming from traditional graffiti I focused on spray paint to see what is possible. Let’s say my brush is my spray can and can find new ways in painting. People see me working with spray paint and say “Ahh you’re a graffiti artist!”. But no, I’m not. I feel freer in painting canvases now without any references as ever before. I like to play with the spray paint in a maximum way.
Painting is a way to express myself in that moment I step in front of a canvas. I don’t want to construct or imitate something. Painting is to enjoy the pure moment. I’m hypersensitive 24/7, releasing everything in a few minutes. I don’t make sketches but sometimes I dream colours.
Tell us about your backgroud. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small village close to the city of Freiburg in south Germany. When I think back, I remember buying watercolours in the local art supplies shop in Freiburg when I was around 11 years old. It was the time when my dad built an easel for me so I could spend my time in my room painting my cat sleeping, comics, or naked women out of some cheap magazines.
Later I got friends in the next bigger city and I started doing graffiti when I was 16. I was glad to be a part of a Hip-Hop Crew including DJ’s, Breakers, MC’s and some graffiti writers. That pushed me enormously. We drove from city to city from Jam to Jam connecting to other artists. Later, I got interested in the whole art spectrum visiting museums and galleries. Visiting a city always meant to me visiting the local art museum or galleries, as well as doing some graffiti. I’ve been a few times to New York City when I was younger. I remember chilling with “Seen” in the backyard of his tattoo studio in the Bronx and listening to his stories and watching him painting some canvases. The next day I found myself in the MoMA or PS1 seeing a video installation embedded in a hole in the floor from Pipilotti Rist and enjoying the Manhattan night skyline from the 5 Pointz roof top until the morning after joining a studio party a few levels lower.
Later I studied graphic design with a focus on typography and printing. But there was already a big theoretical part in my studies. That means on one side I was working with typography and design and on the other side I was reading about Roland Barthes and his philosophical approach about semiotics or Adorno’s aesthetic theory. With this my interest switched slowly from graphic design into a more philosophical direction. After I studied graphic design I moved to Vienna to start my PhD in philosophy at the Academy of Fine Arts.
In this time I was reading a lot and writing a lot and painted only a little. For my living I was working as a receptionist in a Hostel in Vienna and Berlin and finally as a Hostel manager for two years in Budapest. I think in 2014 I moved to Munich, got married and had two kids, while still working in a Hostel. After I finished my PhD I started more and more with serious painting again since I got good feedback on social media. I was able to sell some paintings and the first galleries contacted me.
I never studied in a painting class, but the story is that during my time in Vienna I gave a friend of mine some of my artwork on paper I created as a present. His flatmate stole these paintings and tried to apply at the art academy with these. The problem for him was that the girlfriend of my friend was sitting as the judge and she knew these paintings. Everything came out in the end and the art teacher asked me instead if I wanted to study in her art class. But I was busy with my PhD.
How do you think this has influenced your work?
Graffiti and the interests around that lifestyle definitely influenced my work somehow. At the same time the whole art scene influenced my work. The borders became more and more blurry. I think intuitively I picked out some ideas from both genres and still today I try to develop something new. The “name” or “fame” is not important anymore.
What catches me now is the movement of the body when painting big swings, blocks and blurry lines or when I blur the spray paint with my hands. The idea is to “accept” my graffiti background but paint abstract now. I think using a spray can as a “painting tool” is a very young idea in contrast to traditional painting tools like acrylics, oil or pencils and brushes. In this way I see an interesting way in creating a new visual experience.
My PhD is about the history of the nation state, sovereignty and citizenship. Here I tried to figure out how a contemporary citizenship could look like. It was an interesting journey from design to art theory to the big topic of Post-Fordism to migration to micronations as an art project to the topic of transnationalism and finally to the idea of citizenship. If and how my philosophical approaches are connected to my art is probably another question.
Where do you live and work now?
Since 2019 I am back close to Freiburg having three kids now, a super nice studio and painting 3 or 4 days a week. I will start as an art teacher soon for a few hours a week because of the big big lack of art teachers here. I kind of jumped in, otherwise they wouldn’t have any art class at all.
Do you remember any artists as a child that captured your attention?
I was reading a lot of German satire magazines like “Kowalski”, “MAD” or “Titanic”. They have some nice comics in it and I copied a lot from these. “Rattelschneck, “Walter Moers” and his “Kleines Arschloch” or “Brösel” to mention a few. But I also remember some art books at home about Picasso and Da Vinci.
Any artists today that you are looking at?
I had the chance to see paintings and drawing from Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt when I was living in Vienna. I am very into the “Wiener Moderne”. I am as well a big fan of the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans and Isa Genzken for her installations and Katharina Grosse for her paintings. If I look across the pont I always enjoy to see Andrea Marie Breiling’s paintings.
You have spoken of how when you paint you believe that everything that surrounds you is concentrated and present in your moments of creation. Can you expand on this?
Usually I have an idea or more a “feeling” how I would like to start a canvas. Like I said I usually have an idea of colours I am going to use, the rest is “contemporary”. Electronic music turns my other senses on, and listening to a good DJ set is already the half way in painting a good canvas. I let myself go and just grab a spray can and do a first line. From here I work out layers of paint, shapes, forms, lines…step by step. When the music is good you can see me dancing from outside sometimes and when I surprise myself with the painting I just did, you can hear me scream in some moments. It is like a half day metamorphosis when I am in my studio.
When you ask about the moment of creation I have in mind: The world talks and I try to decode it. I want to believe that everything that happens in life forms personality and character and so it forms somehow my paintings as well.
What is your normal studio practice like? Any routines or superstitions?
After all my kids are taken care of in the morning I go to the studio. I change my clothes, search for a good DJ set, put on my spray mask, my ear phones and start the ventilation system. On purpose I only have an uncomfortable plastic chair in my studio that – on purpose – my ass starts to hurt if I sit too long.
Are you more concerned with the process or the end result?
I am glad I can tell you I do not have to be concerned at all. I know every painting has the potency to be a good one in the end. There is no wrong stroke or colour in my options. Sometimes a painting is hard work and it seems I won’t get any further. But I trust myself. There is no doubt. I know there is always a way to satisfaction so I can say to myself “Wow…yes that’s it!”.
What excites you the most about the current art world?
I am so happy to have the chance to exhibit all over. Sometimes I can’t believe this small kid from the village is going to exhibit in Los Angeles, Rome, London or Paris. Everything is possible in this art world and I look positively into the future.
Finally, what is your favorite color?
My favourite colour is sunny day sky blue.