Have you ever had a memory that seems so vivid with emotion, yet you cannot quite picture it exactly? A memory that is more of a feeling than a clear image, but nonetheless important and cherished? Such are the paintings of Wendelin Wohlgemuth. Steeped in nostalgia, the artist wields oil paints to form dreamy, hazy images that appear to us like an apparition, ghostly and familiar. Each painting being just a bit out of focus, they become semi-abstract, unrooting itself from reality and transcending time. Like fragments of memories, each painting has something recognizable that takes hold of the viewer—a poolside scene, a rose, a lady near a pond. Each piece offers us a way to enter the scene, a marker we seek out that we can understand and relate to. Yet the images seem far away, distant in our minds like a fading memory. Wohlgemuth beautifully captures more than an image in his paintings, but also a specific sensation, a particular mood or sentiment that perhaps brings us back to our own memories of our past.
Wendelin Wohlgemuth studied at Western Washington University before moving to Portland, Oregon, where he currently lives and works. Join us for an in-depth discussion of the artist’s work, his creative process, and the part of creating that thrills him the most.
Tell us a bit about your creative journey. When did you know and/or decide that you wanted to be an artist?
I began drawing and painting with watercolors at an early age. I did not take it seriously until I was about 22. I began my illustration degree then at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon, but quickly switched to painting after my first semester there. I finished my degree at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA. I began oil painting at WWU, and realized this was the most interesting medium for me personally. I’ve been painting ever since and have not really deviated from oils.
Your incredible work appears to be a mix of paint and perhaps photography. What materials do you use to create each piece?
There is no photo-transfer or collage involved in my process. Everything you’re seeing is done with oil paint, various mediums, brushes, and squeegees. But I am definitely captured by the aesthetic of experimental analogue photography and I’ve incorporated many photographic-like elements in my work. Oil paint works surprisingly well for these effects since it is easy to blur and manipulate before it dries. I work layer after layer, utilizing blurs as well as reductive work with solvents. In my work there is a constant tension between a scientific, objective approach where I’m trying to stay true to my reference image. Yet at the same time, I’m distancing myself from it, letting it get buried in semi-opaque layers of color and texture. It is this interplay between paint as a window and paint as a physical presence that fascinates me.
One of the reasons I am so drawn to your works is because of their dream-like quality, almost as if they are fragments of memories. Do elements of the subconscious or inner-psyche inspire your work?
Yes, part of the reason for all of the blurring and textured layering in my work is to add the dimension of time to the image. One way we perceive time is through decay. But I am not particularly interested in my own personal experiences or psychology. The goal is always to make an open image that isn’t tied down to a particular moment in space or time, but merely presents an image that is vague enough to encompass a kind of universality. I want to capture collective memories. Everyone approaches the works with their subjective memories and experiences, and I think a successful painting should be open enough to describe everything and nothing all at once.
I understand you currently live and work in Portland, Oregon. Are you originally from Germany? What brought you to Portland and what has been your experience in the art scene there?
I have dual citizenship, but I am first generation American in my family and I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. I lived in Berlin for two years but recently came back to Portland for a variety of personal reasons. I tend to move a lot, and I’m sure I’ll move a few more times before I finally settle somewhere. It’s important for me to live in fresh surroundings where every day offers unique experiences of some kind. As for the art scene here in Portland, I am probably the wrong person to ask. I am a terrible networker and usually just keep my head down and work, wherever I am. Luckily, the Internet allows anyone who is interested in my work to follow me with ease, but this means that I am never really tied down to where I am living. Additionally, COVID hit soon after I arrived here, so my experience of Portland in general has been heavily suppressed by the pandemic.
What is your favorite part of the creative process? What part do you find the most challenging?
I am addicted to visual problem solving. I will have these moments of excitement, where I think “that is an interesting starting point for my next painting” and then I get completely obsessed with turning that visual idea into a reality. It almost never goes the way I thought it would, but then I end up stumbling onto a new visual idea along the way and the cycle begins all over again. This process of discovery is the most thrilling for me. The point is always to take something utterly mundane, boring, and unworkable and then use the painting process to reveal its meaning and significance. The most challenging aspect is the monastic, isolated lifestyle. Working alone in the studio, day after day, does begin to take a toll, even for extreme introverts like myself. There were times in Berlin where I’d go weeks on end without having a conversation with anyone. But I find it necessary to distance myself from people in order to feel fully functional in my studio practice.
I love the mesmerizing colors in your abstract work. Does your abstract work influence your more representative work, and vice versa?
Although I am at root a figurative painter, the fact is that we get all of our meaning from the abstract subjective world of emotions, experiences, sensations, etc. I think good painting needs to interact with this abstract space in order to remain relevant, even if it is based in the realist tradition. So I actually don’t see a sharp divide between an abstract and realist painting. Photographs make this clear for me. Some photographs are recognizable, but some are merely collections of blurs and values. The distinction between an abstract and realistic image has everything to do with the mind of the being looking at it. But yes, my work has definitely deviated from a purely representational approach to one that incorporates vagueness to the point of losing the figuration. But even my abstract paintings are based on photographic reference material. I believe paintings should start the conversation and the viewer’s mind should take it from there. Non-representational images sometimes do this more effectively than representational ones.
Who would you say is your biggest inspiration, whether they are an artist or not?
Gerhard Richter was my first and biggest inspiration. Aesthetically, I learned the most from his objective, style-free approach to figuration. His squeegee paintings, too, embody a kind of freedom and photographic objectivity that still just looks correct to me. One always begins by imitating those we admire until we ultimately strive to move on from there. Much of my aesthetic inspiration these days comes from music, specifically drone and experimental music. Such music has a kind of emotional purity to it that I am also aiming toward with my work.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
I should mention that I’ll be launching a monthly newsletter soon, which will document my studio process with high-quality images and commentary about my work. I’ve decided to launch this as an alternative to merely posting tiny jpegs on social media, since this is how that the vast majority of people see my work. I will post more details about this on my website as soon as it’s ready.
Images courtesy of the artist.