The Universe of Silly Objects and the Evolution of the Abstract

The Universe of Silly Objects and the Evolution of the Abstract

by Elena Sinagra

In preparation for the exhibition Silly Objects, an interview took place between the artist HNRX and curator Elena Sinagra. This occasion enabled an exploration of HNRX’s artistic practice and current creative investigations to further develop the concept behind the exhibition. Silly Objects introduces a new type of production for Street Levels Gallery, both in the selection of an artist outside the usual parameters and one who engages in this type of artistic language. HNRX is Austrian and currently practices in Hamburg, Germany. He is part of the artistic movement known as Post-Graffiti which signifies the stylistic transition into abstraction within the urban sphere. A particular aspect of HNRX’s artistic journey and practice is the investigation and reconstruction of everyday objects, such as scissors, forks, cucumbers or pipes. The interview was a means to uncover and elucidate the intricacies of this experimentation and how his background and personal philosophy influenced his artistic research.

Thank you for being here! For the first question, could you describe your educational background and how you first began your artistic practice? 

I started to paint at an early age. I have always been interested in painting and drawing. It was more drawing, I mean, in the beginning, it was just with the pen and the pencil and I have always been interested in designing and painting. So this is the path I took and the way I started to get interested in art– also in design and everything creative. At some point, when I was thirteen or fourteen I stepped into using spray paint, which was my first tool to put color into my artwork. Before it was more black and white– basic drawings with pencils. Then I started to use paint as a means of creative expression.

Did you ever study fine arts in an educational background or was it all self-taught?

No, nothing. I just went to a high school that was focused on architecture and interior design. So this is what I have as an education, but it was not a university, it was high school.

Very interesting. How has your artistic research developed and changed over time? Can you point to outer or inner events that influenced your creative process? 

I think, in the beginning, I was really into figurative painting, similar to almost everybody starting out. I think in the beginning, one wants to learn how to paint, how to create, and how to faithfully show objects or scenes photorealistically. In other words, how to reconstruct something that you see in your painting. When you can achieve that, then you step into playing with your forms and with your artistic expression. So first you do more photorealistic stuff, you copy other artists, you try stuff from other artists out, and then at a certain point when you get a lot of inspiration– at least it was like this for me– then you try to find your own  path and continue with that. For me, I become more abstract and more constructed. It has become a less photorealistic painting, it’s now more about finding forms and finding compositions that I like. I think at this point I am actually now moving away from figuration and instead going more into shapes, forms, colors, and expression.  Also, I think it’s connected to age. When you grow up– I mean now I’m thirty so I’m a little bit more grown-up so there is less interest in childish cartoonish figures. Now I like playing with more simple stuff. Also, I realized that I don’t need so much to express and I can use less to say more. I can have the same quality of work with less compared to what I needed years ago. I used to need a lot of colors and shapes. Now I choose two or three colors and fewer shapes and, at least for me, it is the same quality of work, if not better, I would say it’s better now.

A piece shown in the exhibition which shows the contortions and the abstraction of common entities from the everyday life. The simplistic forms combine together to create a nuanced perspective and show the interaction between space and color.

Your style and artistic nature seem to be constantly evolving, so how would you describe it now? Do you see it as becoming more abstract? 

Yeah exactly, I would say it’s getting more abstract, but I think for many people it’s like this, I think it’s a natural process of working that you start at a certain point and then, you usually go deeper– and the deeper you go the more you realize that you can simplify your work and that you can also save a lot of physical work and a lot of energy– you don’t have to paint so many details or you don’t have to put so many colors. It can be more simple because, in the end, we all just want to have a nice composition, a nice piece, or a nice message. We all just want to have the best results, and I think all artists are looking for their own best results. Over time, we learn what is essential and what we can avoid, including physical effort and time to spare.

How do you balance art as self-expression and art as a form of communication? What do you hope viewers take away from experiencing your artwork?

For my work, I want to show what one can create in a new way.  I’m always looking for new ways of painting, new styles, and compositions and I want to keep people updated generally with new movements and new ways of painting. I want to be in time. I want to find new ways to stay fresh and keep people fresh. I think it is really important for the development of humanity to keep going, and in order to keep going, you always have to look for new stuff and new forms.
This is what motivates me to stay updated and stay within time– to not get rusty and old– not physically but old within one’s mind. We always need to stay open and be open to new things and experiences. For me, I recognize that last year, I was always like this and it inspires me. When I see or get the chance to explore new colors or shapes, it helps me to keep life interesting for myself and others too.
 I am also inspired by other artists who are doing nice stuff and new stuff. This keeps me alive– to see their work makes me feel motivated– like “Wow this is really nice! This is new, this is very interesting.”
For myself, I try to keep going and look for new adventures. It’s similar to hunting as if I am going into a forest and I’m looking for something. I don’t know what it is, but I know there is something there and I just go as long as I need to go to find it. For me, this is what it means to be creative; to continue trying as long as I have to, to arrive at the point where I can say “Okay, this is nice, this I like, this I will put in an exhibition.” Then, afterward, I go further and search for the next result, and so on and so on.

HNRX’s artistic creations are not limited to the studio or building walls as is shown in a mural painted directly on a truck in Hamburg Germany. Here, it is evident many of the typical images and forms he uses, such as peppers and scissors, but always depicted in a warped way.

The next question is, what does the word ‘process’ mean to you? Both in the linguistic sense and how it relates to your artistic practice.

The process is very intense, really interesting and it’s sometimes also exhausting. I mean it’s something I enjoy for sure, but sometimes it’s also work– it’s mostly work. It’s something you have to stay within. The process, at least for me, is physical and real work. I have to keep going and, more than that, I can not control or decide when to be creative. For the most part, I have to take it when it comes, so when the creativity comes, you just have to do it, because maybe the next day it won’t be there. The creative process itself is not controllable, it comes when it wants and it goes when it wants, so I always have to keep the ideas in my sketchbook and when the creative process is finished, I can then manifest it in the form of an artwork. These days, the artwork is not indicative of the creative process, the artwork is the end product of the larger creative process.

When thinking about your creative process are there any rituals you embrace while working? Do you listen to music or podcasts? Do you see a connection between music and your creations? 

Music yes, Podcast no. Podcasts sometimes I use during the final painting stage but not during the creative stage. Music can help me in my creative process, but it’s not necessary, it depends.

You have mentioned that you not only enjoy traveling, but it is an integral pillar of your artistic practice. Can you describe a bit of why and how it is important to you? Do the pieces you decide to create alter depending on where you are? 

I think traveling is important because it helps me get a lot of new inspiration. Moving in general is very important because it’s really hard for me to sit and be in the same place for a long time, so there is a need to move. It doesn’t always have to be traveling, but also moving within the studio, I might start here, and then go there, or there. I go out. I go in. Moving in general helps me to create. I think it’s like this in general for a lot of creative people, as it helps them to think and to find new inspiration. It is a big part of my work because I do a lot of jobs and festivals around Europe. Depending on where I am, sometimes it has an effect. When I go to places or cities where there are fewer materials, I can only do so much and this helps me to become more minimalistic. When I went to Sicily or some other places where I just had one job with one or three types of paint, this helped me learn to handle and manage different situations and to be accustomed to fewer tools.

A mural HNRX completed in 2023 in Cacak, Serbia.

Next, Working in the urban realm versus working in the studio offers different opportunities and limitations. What are some of those challenges and opportunities for you? 

There is a lot to say, I will try to keep it simple. I think the studio is a safe space where I can stay and paint as much as I want and as long as I want. No one disturbs me there and I don’t have to worry about factors such as weather, climate, or other people, so it’s a safe space where I am free. There’s also no time limit. I can paint in the studio on one artwork for ten years if I want to. This can be both a good and a bad thing.
Outside, there are a lot of different factors that can affect the work, like how much time there is, the weather, and the conditions in general. It also depends on how much physical work there is, if there is a huge wall or a small wall. I think the thing with painting outside is that I have a lot of stuff that can affect the artwork and this can be nice but sometimes it can also be really hard to handle. In the end, it’s something you just get used to, and the more you do it,  the more professional you become and the more you know.  The first years were really hard to accept all these limits that exist when painting outside, but it also brings good because one is forced to finish as there is always a time limit, therefore you finish the pieces more quickly. This is good for creative people because sometimes it’s difficult to finish the artwork when staying in the studio. After all, there is always a lot of time and there seems to always be the option to finish it tomorrow.
In general, I don’t have this problem. I always know when I finish so the difference between inside and outside has become less of a problem, it’s just the fact I am not depending on something when I paint inside.

Interesting and also I imagine when you paint outside there’s a certain kind of architectural backdrop and a context that is always in dialogue with the works whereas in a studio it can be more of an individualistic process. 

Yeah, totally for sure. Also, in the studio, you don’t have any limits when it comes to the design because when you do a job in the urban sphere, the people always have to give their input on how the design should be realized and which colors to use. If I paint for the festival sometimes the government stops certain choices for the walls. Whereas in the studio you have total freedom and outside it’s sometimes a little bit tricky.

There’s like a playfulness or a jovial element to your work which I feel is something you don’t see as much today. Is there something that pulled you in this direction? How would you define and how do you relate to so-called everyday objects? 

It is a bit difficult to analyze. I think it’s just my personality. I’m aware of what I’m doing and I know my past, but I don’t know where I am going. It’s not something I can control. I sometimes wish I was less experimental and more focused in one direction. Some artists explore one thing for a long time, so it creates a brand.
Sometimes for me, it’s hard to stick with the same image because I get a bit bored and I think it’s not my job. Since I am an artist, I should use my creativity and not stay with one topic for a long time. Still, I think my artworks are becoming recognizable as the years pass. The creativity goes where it goes and I can’t control it. I sometimes try to push the practice in one direction, but in the end, it’s not me who decides where it goes, but instead my intuition.
This is the beautiful part of my job actually– to let it go, to be creative, and to use what comes. In the end, I have to decide what is good and what is not good, but I always collect and then decide what I want to use.

HNRX preparing a mural directly on Street Levels Gallery’s wall for the exhibition Silly Objects in November 2023. The artist has indicated that he prefers to work closely with the architectural backdrop of the murals as he believes it allows for a more fluid and intimate expression.

So for the next question I want to ask, are there some art historical movements or individual artists that have inspired you? 

I think Surrealism has inspired me a lot. Especially in the beginning, I was really into Surrealism because they did a lot of still lifes and paintings of objects, in addition to portraits, but they were always into still lives and painted them in really fantastical ways. They were imitating the realistic, but they were also painting out of their imagination. I always did this as well, so I think in the beginning Surrealism played a big part. I would say this is one of the movements that inspired me the most.
Of course, there are also street art and graffiti movements, but as I said, I am not so interested in identifying myself with only that because it can be limiting to my artistic expression.

For the last question, working in a group or individually presents challenges and opportunities. Which do you prefer? 

It’s a really interesting question and it’s really up to date. In the beginning, I was not doing many collaborations, then there was a time I was more into it because I wanted the exchange and I wanted to work with people to learn from them and to see how we might work together. Last week I collaborated with two friends of mine, who are good and we have a good way of working together, but I realized for myself, that it’s better if I work more individually, so I think in the future I will not do many collaborations. If I do work with others, it will be a carefully picked and selected work. I think artistically it’s important to go deeper within my work and not make so many compromises and exchanges.
All of my works that came out of the studio, I do on my own, but for the walls and murals, I have done a lot of collaborations. I think a lot of artists would agree that the older you get and the longer you paint, the more you have your idea of what you want to do and the harder it is to find someone who has the same idea to collaborate with. I think it’s beneficial to preserve my own ideas, and in collaborations, you can never do just your idea but you have to find a compromise between two ideas. From the perspective of artistic expression, I find it more rewarding to deepen my work without limiting my creative vision.

So it’s kind of important to find the right kind of people you can do collaborations with who don’t hinder your artistic vision but instead enhance it, but it is easier said than done. 

Yes. For now, I just have a few friends I am cool to collaborate with, but in general, I will do fewer joint projects in the future. 

Thank you so much for your time and for answering the questions. 

Thank you.

The author

Elena Sinagra

Elena Sinagra graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in New York where she studied art history and cultural anthropology. During that time, she completed a year in Siena, Italy studying Renaissance and contemporary Italian art. Elena has worked at Print Center New York, a non-profit Gallery in the Chelsea art district dedicated to the medium of prints. She completed a Master’s in Curatorial Practice in Florence and is currently researching the intersection between contemporary art, cultural identity, and museology.

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