Shudders—The Spiritual Anthropology of Konrad Ross

“True artists do not paint things as they are…but as they feel them to be.” This is the foundation – the search for meaning – from which South African artist Konrad Ross’ anthropological, ritualistic images arise. His repetitive inaccuracies and transformations allow his figures to be more alive, to breathe and speak with greater truth than anything purely representational could. Each image is a balletic composition, exposing the limits of body, mind, and spirit, inviting viewers to leave their comfort zones and join Ross’ unnerving travels into sexuality, tradition, longing, belief, nightmare, and dream.

Work by Konrad Ross, Courtesy the Artist

D/railed Magazine: You have traveled a lot, exploring multiple aspects of your coexisting identities. Where are you currently based?

KR: Right now, I live in Worms, an entirely unremarkable town close to Frankfurt, Germany. Unremarkable except for the cathedral dating back to the 11th century. Worms is a long way from the posh white suburb close to Johannesburg in South Africa where I grew up under Apartheid. Worms is also a considerable distance from Texas where I studied. Or wonderful Copenhagen with its vibrant cultural scene, where I met some brilliant artists. But strangely, the greatest distance is to Mulhouse in France where I went to the art academy. Imagine living so close to the German border and never venturing over, as many of my fellow students disliked doing. The antagonism created by history is very present. Yes, I lead a nomadic life, and this has defined my work, my documenting of the others.

DM: Can you tell us more about the intellectual and spiritual process that anticipates each of your works?

KR: The spiritual process is simple, I am the observer, I am the other, I am the outsider– that, and my curiosity. Lack of identity makes observing simple. The intellectual process follows my curiosity about the human condition. People gathered for a reason, people doing something in unison, bodies touching, hands gesturing, and then the motivation for doing these things. Yes, a certain anthropology. I research the origins of rituals, or the etymology of words, that have always puzzled me. But my interest is defined by my physical body in these narratives. My interest lies in my personal experience. In pretending I belong to these other worlds. And then at some point, I find it necessary to draw myself into their world. Sometimes the drawing gets the better of me, and I have to rethink my strategy, I enjoy this struggle to find meaning.

Torso by Konrad Ross, 2018, oil stick, oil and spray paint on colored paper, 85x100cm

DM: In one of our email conversations, you mentioned several authors that inspired you to become who you are today. Can you share your reading with our followers?

KR: I have been a voracious reader from a young age. So I will begin with my most recent literary experiences. Karl Ove Knausgaard, “My Struggle,” epic 6-book, intimate story of his life, sparing noone and no detail. He insists that memory is fiction. Thus, his novels reveal all and yet remain his personal creation and ordeal. Timothy Morton,“Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People”– a brilliant mind questioning our times. Yuval Harari, “Sapiens,” and “Homo Deus” – obviously, everybody is reading his work now. Thomas Bernhard, “Gathering Evidence” – pure existential angst. Defining books that have remained with me over time: JK Huysmans, “Against the Grain” and “La Bas,” two books that left me astonished and bewildered concerning the excesses of human physical desires and the idea of the mind being more powerful than experience. Werner Herzog, “Conquest of the Useless.” As in his movies, Herzog presents a truth that is undeniable. Jonathan Littell, “The Kindly Ones,” is for me the definitive book about the horrors of war. There is also Denis Johnson’s “Tree of Smoke” or Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (I can’t seem to separate the book from “Apocalypse Now,” anymore). Michel Houellebecq –  all of his work is so vacant, it becomes for me a beautiful landscape of emptiness, not unlike computer games where I enjoy just standing still studying those absurd landscapes. Vladimir Nabakov, not “Lolita,” but “Pale Fire,” a poem, and the footnotes that define the book – masterful use of language, questioning all the chains that define language. Le Clézio, all his work, subtle use of words, with themes of race and gender and loneliness. Virginia Woolf, a strong, proud writer. I love her work. Lawrence Durrell, particularly “The Alexandria Quartet.” They are somewhat romantic and dated, but Durrell manages to delve into the human psyche from multiple angles. Roberto Bolano, “666.” In fact, as with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there is something about South Americans and the way they repeat themselves that I find attractive for my own work. DH Lawrence, all his work, but particularly “The Plumed Serpent,” and his investigation of humans and their motivation to exist, love, or be violent. Samuel Beckett, all of his work, brutal, minimalist, reduced to the human being nothing except human. Ernest Hemingway, best in first editions where the language of the times is left intact. I love his closed system of simplicity and always that extreme close-up of a selected reality. Aldo Busi, “The Standard Life of a Temporary Pantyhose Salesman,” “Sodomies in 11 Point.” Busi was honestly surprising and a wonderful discovery for me. Jean Genet, “Funeral Rites” – actually all of his work – simply brilliant, ugly and truthful. Of course Umberto Eco, pretty much all of his work. Growing up in South Africa I read a lot of non-fiction about Africa, tribes, and the mess made with the colonies.

Relic by Konrad Ross, 2018, oil stick and aluminum tape on colored paper, 70x50cm

Shibari by Konrad Ross, 2018, oil stick and spray paint on coloured paper, 100x140cm

DM: You also stated, “My work is about others, their world their rituals. I am not appropriating. I am not copying. I am not endorsing. I simply observe and repeat fragments of what I see, using my own body to create images.” How would you further unravel this concept for an audience of art lovers who are not acquainted with anthropology?

KR: The science of anthropology is just that, a science not only dealing with origins and social customs, but also with analytical distance. I try to remove the distance by introducing myself into the mix, to draw myself into the narrative. The results are images with repetitions. Marks made on paper that move toward the expressionistic, marks showing the passage of my body holding poses, moving and repeating gestures, struggling with the physical limits of my own body and the ability to see my body. A physical closeness creates an emotional closeness, and the work I create is a combination of analytical distance and gestural marks, revealing hopefully the essence of whatever I am trying to document.

DM: You are a huge fan of Paul Celan. How did poetry influence your work, among the other things?

KR: Celan creates emotional landscapes of convincing beauty. I find them so ethereal that they are something akin to a shudder. Poetry and his work, in particular, are about fragments. I see in fragments, I work in fragments, I, somehow, lack the ability to create more than fragments. Through poetry, I have understood the need we have to shudder sometimes.

Work by Konrad Ross, Courtesy the Artist

Hym by Konrad Ross, 2018, oil stick, oil and charcoal on 300g paper, 200x280cm

DM: Your works remind me of the South-American artifacts I saw at a museum a while ago. To what extent are your works to be considered contemporary or anachronistic, and would it be provocatively accurate to talk about “vulturism” intended as the appropriation of other cultures within your own?

KR: I appreciate the comparison to South American artifacts. I think this is in part because we have become so inundated with the female as object in art, and my work is about the male as subject as it was in these ancient cultures. This in itself is not anachronistic at all; in fact, we unfortunately still live in a male-dominant society. The hero and protagonist is mostly the male. So, I definitely consider my work contemporary, but maybe somewhat iconoclastic. Even that which I highlight, I question. After all, faith exists only in the face of opposition. Vulturism is an interesting concept, in that it is grandly accepted in all walks of life; however, it is critically viewed in visual art or fashion, unless it is a homage to some grand master or period. But if I go down to the corner, I can get a pizza made by a Turkish guy, living in Germany using flour from Poland, oil from Greece, vegetables from Spain and cheese from Holland. I’m not using other cultures, I want to celebrate their existence. None of the rituals I use are defunct or redundant, they are all happening today. There is a superiority in the art world that is defined by money and not curiosity. The position of the artist is to create curiosity.

Work by Konrad Ross, Courtesy the Artist

DM: Most of your production includes works that are to be placed somewhere between figurative subjects and abstract gestures, which makes them vaguely expressionistic, but what’s the story behind “She Was 16”? This series is entirely and surprisingly different from anything that you’ve ever produced.

KR: “She Was 16” was my take on portraiture. The girl who modeled for me was 16 at the time of these paintings. She was all caught up in the poses of adulthood and shiny magazines. I decided to do 27 portraits of her from the same sitting, again fragments, to try and capture a more complete essence of her personality. I believe repetition creates knowledge or understanding, not only for myself but also for the viewer. The irony is, of course, I chose the flatness typically used in fashion shoots. So all that is left is paint, and very little is revealed about her personality, so, actually, the work speaks more about the loss of youth and innocence.

DM: Let’s delve more into the technical aspects of your art: how do you create your two-dimensional works, and have you ever created any sculptures or multimedia installations?

KR: My oil-stick drawings are all created on paper on the floor. Before I begin the work, I have an initial idea about the theme or narrative I am following. Generally, the paper is large enough to fit my body and multiple angles or repetitions of my body. I draw with oil sticks to keep the image raw and quick, to keep up with my body in positions on the drawing on the floor. I have no concern for light or shadowing being correct overall. Each fragment is as well drawn as possible. Mistakes are not corrected or erased. The physical limits of my body and the ability to see my body become apparent in the drawing. The drawings lack perspective and limbs become distorted. I draw with both my left and right hand. The repetitive drawing of body fragments deepens my emotional understanding of the ritual, tradition or group I have researched. My series “The Fall,” is a multimedia installation with sculptures. For the most part, the sculptures are furniture built specifically for the project. The furniture features in the paintings or accompanies the paintings. The project deals with the semiotics of classic imagery.

Work by Konrad Ross, Courtesy the Artist

DM: How do you distinguish yourself from other artists who are drawn to the same subjects and are trying to render their transfigurations of the outside world with similar goals and materials?

KR: Instead of distinguishing myself from other artists, I would like to align myself with what I consider a movement away from posing and irony and towards a pure honesty. First and foremost, William Forsythe and his over 30 years of work as the choreographer for the Frankfurt Ballet– a genius of physical movement, pushing bodies to their limit and combining this with language, sound, and images to question all that we consider our culture. Walton Ford is doing brilliant work with the animal kingdom. Alexander Tovborg believes intensely in his performances and imbibes his paintings with spirituality. Same with Tal R, and Michael Armitage. Then there is the brutal simplicity of Richard Serra, Michael Heizer or poetry from Richard Long. Mark Dion documents the world, I want to draw myself into the world, in fragments, in raw drawings that show the limits of the physical body, in work that raises questions about the fringes of our culture, about others, about identity. That fragile place is where I am.

DM: How could your work fit into a museum or commercial gallery exhibition, in your opinion?

KR: The work I create is language, image, emotion, and physical act. There is an analytical distance, and a physical, gestural, mark-making aspect that makes for interesting viewing in any context.  Seen together, in a large curated space, the effect is perhaps a certain brutalism combined with questions of identity and semiology. Alone or in a gallery setting, well, I would hope they make you shudder.

Pio Pio by Konrad Ross, 2018, oil stick on colored paper, 100x70cm

Totem by Konrad Ross, 2018, oil, spray paint and linoprint on paper, 150x140cm

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