Secundino Hernandez, Madrid/Berlin

In the Studio

»My paintings grow spontaneously. Like tomatoes in a garden.«

When searching for painters who are making their mark at the moment it is almost impossible to overlook the Spanish artist Secundino Hernandez who splits his time between Berlin and Madrid. Over the last years, his direct approach to painting has made a strong impression on collectors. He is creating canvases with a powerful presence of physical immediacy making intuitive use of color and gestural form. Secundino sat down to talk with us about the two cities he lives in, about the role that concept and intuition play in his work, and about how he wants to transform his career.

Secundino, we are in your Madrid studio right now. How do you divide your work between here and your Berlin studio?
My studio here is very wide and open, so I have space to make large scale technical works. When I have an idea or look for the best solution for a painting I don’t like to be restricted by space. Also, here, I am able to work on several pieces simultaneously. After major shows, I usually move back to Berlin where I am more likely to find time to relax, to read, to experiment, to look at other shows, and to discuss ideas with colleagues. I am convinced that, to get new input and develop fresh ideas, it was a good decision for me to move to Berlin. In Madrid, on the other hand, I have a big studio and my team, so it's ideal to actually get paintings done when I already know what I want to do. And I am familiar with the city and the people in a very different way because it is my hometown.

How do the art scenes of Madrid and Berlin compare?
They are very different, but to me they are the perfect combination. Everyone knows that Berlin is one of the most exciting places in Europe to do art right now, mainly because it’s a city that's ready to satisfy the needs of artists. It's easy to find a good space to work. The city has good supply stores and fine galleries. In Madrid it’s harder to develop your career but at the same time it’s very rough, authentic, and inspiring. I was thinking about that today on my way to the studio: Madrid is such a schizophrenic place! Sometimes the city makes you happy, sometimes it gets you down. Berlin, in contrast, is a much slower city and great for working. However, when I go out I still feel like a tourist at times.

Many of your pieces have a strong physical presence and your process seems to be very hands-on too. What do the use of powerful color and the large formats mean to you?
I like the performative act of transferring a small line drawing sketch to a large canvas. I enjoy working in different sizes. Large formats are great to show how paintings change when you move around them, when you explore them by physically repositioning yourself while small paintings feel much more intimate. For an artist to paint large formats is more performative than painting little pieces. That means there is a connection between the work and the way the painting is experienced.

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How do you make sure that the joy and the physical experience of painting reach the viewers of your painting in the pure way that you experienced?
The way in which the paintings are made is certainly important to me, the experience is very personal. However, I don't believe that people who look at my paintings necessarily need to have the same experience. This aspect is probably more relevant for other painters or very few other people with a particular interest.

In which way do you transfer ideas you had in Berlin to the Madrid studio so that they are ultimately represented in the final paintings?
Most of the time I am planning my paintings very carefully, doing many sketches and transferring those ideas to the canvas. If I want to do something figurative or at least somehow representative sketching is especially important. When painting I try to explore the surface of the canvas on the basis of what I have done earlier. However, if I’m doing one of my palette works or using a process like washing I have to accept that I can’t completely control the outcome. In those cases I don’t make any sketches and instead start working directly on the canvas.

At first glance your paintings seem to be made up of abstract compositions. But soon figurative elements start to appear, at least in some paintings. Is that done on purpose or does my mind play tricks on me because it's desperate to find something representational?
As a fact, I do that on purpose. Using both abstract and figurative elements is important to me. Some time ago, I started to combine these two languages because I wanted to create something tangible from the big reservoir of abstraction and from our very cloudy perception of what abstraction might be. However, at the moment, I am in the process of separating these spheres again. The figurative part of my work is developing on its own now. By giving the two languages their own space it becomes easier for me to develop my ideas properly. If I want to be more narrative or representational I take the figurative route. If I want to work in a more open or conceptual way I move towards abstraction. 

Did you establish a new relationship with art history on your way of rediscovering figuration?
As a painter I have always spent a lot of time in museums learning increasingly more with every visit. But when I am looking for inspiration I never differentiate between abstraction and figuration. In the process of painting both are the same because for the artist both are just forms of expression. Figurative works can be very abstract and abstract works can be quite figurative. Picasso for instance was never a purely abstract painter, except perhaps in his cubist phase. And yet you get the feeling that he would have been a very good abstract painter. That makes him so exciting to explore. Modernist painters like him combined the languages of figuration and abstraction, and yet it doesn't seem as though they were forcing opposites together, these appear rather to be more like complementary elements to them.

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Can you recall what your first encounters with art have been?

I have had very early connections with art and like to remember how I saw El Greco's apostles in Toledo as an eight-year old boy. It was the first time that we made a school trip to a museum. We went directly to see Greco’s works, and they left me deeply impressed. A few years ago, after the reopening of the El Greco Museum, I revisited the apostles. In my memory the paintings had been very dark and serious. However, in the meantime they have been very well restored so one can see all these vibrant colors. To me the paintings now appear almost ironical and humoristic. I also like to remember the big Giacometti retrospective of 1991 in the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid. The spontaneity of the line, the construction of the figures – the entire show was a big blast for me. I was around fifteen then and I was thinking, “Wow, how the hell can someone produce something like that?” I think that these early experiences as a viewer have definitely shaped my sensibility as an artist.

How long did it take you to transform the inspiration you gathered into actually making art yourself?
To make art always felt like the most natural thing to me. I was already painting on canvases when I was eight years old. Since I was a very bad student the only time I could impress people was when I was painting. Even at school I was always asked to create the backdrop for stage plays. Painting was the only way I could be useful to others and to be accepted in the neighborhood. All my neighbors at home have early paintings of mine from the time I was a schoolboy. (laughs) They are mostly depictions of landscapes, but to me they were a way to earn some money, so I could buy better brushes.

Was there ever any pressure on the part of your parents to pursue a “proper” career?
I was such a bad student that my parents were happy that I was studying anything at all! (laughs) They were really supportive. And as soon as I started at the Fine Arts Academy in Madrid I was no longer a bad student. Finally I was doing something that I enjoyed. I even got a grant to go and finish my PhD at the Accademia di Brera in Milan, giving me the change to get familiar with Arte Povera and to study some very good critics and art historians. The only moment I remember when my parents were skeptical was when I decided to stop studying to turn my full attention to painting. I didn’t want to write a thesis about someone else's work. I wanted to develop my own work! Luckily, I was already working with a couple of galleries here in Spain, so I had a basis to start from. Looking back it's amazing that I have been doing something with art for almost my entire life.

When did it become clear to you that you could make a living from painting?
Moving to Berlin ten years ago was an important step. I had been awarded a prize here in Madrid and the money I won was enough to live in Berlin for maybe half a year. So I just did it. That was when I came into contact with international galleries like Krinzinger. I began to seriously develop my work and to build a reputation among collectors outside Spain. Being in contact with a more global art environment was key to grow as a painter, to gain independance, and make a living from art. 2012 was a turning point because many important collectors started noticing my work. My show at ARCO Madrid that year was a big success. I am very happy that I was able to build such a loyal base of collectors. Sometimes I think I am driving them crazy because my style changes so much and so fast. But they are still supporting me.

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Do you have a theory about what it is that makes your work so attractive to collectors?
I think that my galleries do a very good job. (laughs) I’m just doing my work. My responsibility is what is happening in the studio. Everything else is taken care of by the galleries. That's not naive, it's about who does what best. I know how to paint, they know how to sell paintings and I trust them about that. The other thing is that I’ve been lucky enough that my collectors are, as I've said, very loyal. To be honest I am not motivated by sales or interested in sky-rocketing auction prices. Instead I prefer to focus on my job and enjoy the very personal success of a painter in his studio.

But surely your commercial success must have changed your life and working conditions. You maintain two studios, and you’ve got a team of people working for you…
The structure is still very much like a family business. I have two assistants in the studio and three people in the office for the archive and press work. My studio assistants do framing, they stretch and prepare canvases for me. So it's all very down to earth. It's not like I have a team of twenty people who produce a share of the paintings leaving my studio or who consult me on my projects. As I said my studio is more a place of craft than the machine behind a big cultural brand of global scale. No one gets to paint but me. I'd say I'm still a small artist, but of course I've come a long way from working in a studio with a leaky roof and mice everywhere. It’s very different now but I’m still working as I have worked ten years ago.

I am curious about the techniques you are using. I’ve seen pieces where you build up layers of paint and scrape some of them off again. What’s behind this type of painting?
The idea was to be very honest and to let paint accumulate on the canvas by cleaning my brush or my hands on it. Like that I can turn the painting into a memory of the whole process, of everything that was happening around it at the time. I realized that this was an interesting combination of control and chance, of representation and freedom. This random process resulted in a series of palette works with strong impasto which represent what I was doing in the studio on a particular day. I never think too much about what is happening in those paintings. They grow spontaneously. Like tomatoes in a garden. (laughs)

On the other hand you are using a high pressure water jet cleaner to blast a canvas. That seems like a rather unusual technique too.
The normal process of palette painting is adding material layer after layer. An other way of working three-dimensionally is to remove material from the canvas. So I started digging and carving and washing away. Both approaches are very sculptural and I like their conceptual connection. But this thought came afterward.

So often you simply trust your intuition and let things develop spontaneously, reflecting about what they may imply in retrospect?
Yes. That is my vision of art. I'm not forcing myself to paint following a preconceived idea. I prefer to move my fingers, my arms, my body, observing what is happening to me and to my surrounding. Out of that I draw my conclusions and ideas. I want to understand the world through my work. This to me is the meaning of doing art. 

Should art be about providing answers?
I don’t think so. I don’t like answers. And I don’t need answers. Rather, I prefer to question myself, my ideas, and everything around me. In my opinion everyone who is making art is right. Everyone is in the possession of the truth and every artist in every media is doing valid work. 

Once you have finished the works for the show, I assume you are going back to Berlin to think about future projects?
Yes, I’m going to relax for a little bit in Berlin. In fact, I’m going to take a small break from doing commercial shows. I plan to have mainly museum shows next year. In April 2018, I will have the opportunity to exhibit at Taidehalli Helsinki, which is such a beautiful building, and I very much look forward to it. 

Does that mean you want to make work that not only speaks to collectors but also to a wider public?
I have always worked with a wide audience in mind, never just for informed collectors. When I was a child I got in touch with works of art that changed my life. Today, my aspiration is to create works that appeal to both the child in the museum and the global art collector. I have been working for several years now and it’s really good to see what I was able to achieve. At this point, I feel it is a good moment to look for more simplicity in the artistic production, without deadlines and pressure from the art market. This pressure was good in the past because it drove me to work on a whole different level. I honestly think that now it's time for me to work in a different way and to try out new paths. 

You don't sound like you’re worried about the future.
I’m not! I’ve never worked towards becoming a commercially successful artist. Generating money with the creation of art has not been and is not my relationship with art at all. I’m grateful that I can make a living from painting, and should that change one day it’ll be fine as well. The great thing about being an artist is the freedom of not having to worry about what the future will bring as long as you are respectful and resilient.

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