In his upcoming solo exhibition at Backwoods Gallery in Melbourne, Australia, James Reka examines the transition in a city from winter to spring. Perhaps no other city experiences such a drastic change during this time, than does Berlin, which come April is flooded with people riding bikes, picnicking in parks and soaking up the sunshine. Earlier this year, Reka came to Berlin as the inaugural artist-in-residence at the Urban Nation Workspace in the former West Berlin neighborhood of Schöneberg. His abstract paintings of women pulse with a dynamic spirit that captures not only the city’s newfound spring life, but also Berlin’s struggles with gentrification. Working in Schöneberg, an area noted for both its upscale residences and regular prostitutes, Reka is no stranger to this paradox of imported poshness and crude authenticity.
We met with Reka in his Berlin studio to talk about his artwork, Berlin’s abandoned spaces, and the Melbourne-born artist’s homecoming for his upcoming solo show, “Untold,” which opens on June 6 and runs through the 15th. Read the conversation below.
Photos by Rosalind O’Connor.
There seem to be a lot of found objects in the show, which is a bit of a departure from your regular practice. How did you start working with found objects?
Before it was canvas but then I got a bit bored. I like the connection with my street art side versus the gallery side and then using found objects to paint on instead of traditional media to do that. For me, there was more of a connection and I really enjoy the process of going to these abandoned spots. I go there with spray paint and I’m painting during the time but I’m also collecting all these objects.
So going to these abandoned spots is a two-sided process?
Completely. I’m exploring because I love exploring all these crazy buildings and I want to go there to paint because it provides a really amazing backdrop to paint on, and I’m searching for these objects as well.
But now, I’m making the transition back to canvas again. I’m really enjoying painting backgrounds again. Mostly I’m trying to make this texture look like the things I find on the street anyway. I want it to be like gritty and decayed and old or whatever.
On the Backwoods website, the exhibition title was originally Works by James Reka, Made in His Berlin Studio. Is there a specific reason why Berlin is mentioned in the title? Do the works have a particular connection to the city?
Yeah, there is a Berlin connection with the theme of the show, so it’s probably good to spell it out that the work was created in the city where the theme derived from, especially because all these pieces were found in Berlin, so I think it is good to be a bit obvious in saying the work was created in Berlin.
These pieces were based on photos I took outside in the transition from winter to spring — so the celebration of life back in Berlin. That is kind of really loosely what the show is about. And then these objects are elements of what I’ve been inspired by during my time here. Almost like a little travelogue.
These works are based off photos and so I think it is important to state that. I’m giving them German names of areas where I took the photos just to give them a bit of context as well. The photos were taken [in Berlin], the work was developed here and now I’m taking it all to Melbourne, almost to show my city where I came from, what I’ve been up to in the last year or so since I’ve been here.
How do your studio and street art practices relate?
It’s very much a balance for me – my walls and the studio thing. I need to get out. The street art side of things is where I came from, so I still find it a really important part of my process.
Speaking specifically about the works for the Backwoods Gallery show, how do you think about your practice in the street versus your practice in the studio? How are they different and how are they similar?
People can still see, it’s still my style so people can tell my gallery work. They can see my work; they can see its me. But to answer your question, my street work is a lot more graphic. It’s a lot more like how I painted those objects [pointing to the found objects with bold insect imagery]. I like to pursue two different styles and two different contents as well. The gallery gives me opportunities to work on things that I wouldn’t be able to work on in the street, especially with techniques or the process of using media that I don’t use in the street as well. It enables me to play around with texture and being a little bit messy with my approach, whereas with spray paint, I find it really easy to paint clean. That’s how I paint my walls, a lot more graphic. I’m really trying to loosen up with my artwork and I’m having a lot more fun doing it. There is a lot more feeling and expression in it. I think in the future I’m definitely going to be focusing on this style a lot more.
Could you tell me more about your process for these wall works?
They’re literally just photos I took like walking around. I wouldn’t normally go out on a mission to take photos, but just on my day-to-day process, I see a photo and I take it. My work is very figure-based, so it’s always photos of people or an interaction. Especially with these larger ones, an interaction with many people together, creating a dialogue or whatever. My work is very abstract. I blend together a couple of photos. It’s a reference point, a starting point. I usually look at the form of the figures in the photo and then the placement of the hands. Often in my work I try to find more of an iconic pose. So the process in the last two to three months, has been taking photos and documenting the life that has come back to Berlin after winter. It’s a very vague thing, so all these pictures are based off actual photos I’ve taken during my time in the last three months in Berlin. And it’s just a starting point. The content matter changes.
I’m noticing the textures are all quite interesting and varied as well. Can you tell me about those choices?
The textures, I mean a lot of that was produced with spray paint. I wanted it to look like the gritty Berlin streets. They are trying to clean [Berlin] up, but it’s still there. It’s one of the reasons I moved to Berlin. It’s still quite gritty, and I’m still a big fan of graffiti as well. So I wanted it to look almost like these figures had posed in front of a gritty Berlin wall.
The gray-scale are my favorites. I wanted them to look like walls, almost like they are already decaying and have had a bit of life. Almost to connect them with these pieces that are largely decaying objects, rust objects that have been battling the Berlin elements for a while.
I want them to connect, but I could treat them almost like two different shows. But they work well. The connection is that the objects were found in Berlin as well, and it’s hard to explain to the average person that will come to this show, the process of how I found these objects, because it is quite beautiful. Finding them and also painting at the same time. Especially with these spray cans. I think there is a really nice story of using the medium, using a tool to actually paint walls, to create your work.
But anyway, the main focus is on these larger canvases, because its something I haven’t been doing for a while, so I feel like this is a nice change. People will be surprised to see this. The work is becoming more abstract as well.
I guess I’m still painting mainly full figures, but I’m kind of dissecting a lot of figures now, I’ve been painting elements, so like focusing on a limb or a face. In previous shows I’ve rarely used references or photos, so this will be a nice new direction as well, that I am starting to use references at least as starting points. It’s a good starting point for me, especially how the figures are positioned.
Some of these gestures are really strong. I’m noticing some of the hands in particular.
Yeah, and I can see me going that way in the future so I think the viewers will be happy to see a change in style and process and medium, like back on canvas again. So I’m really excited to show this work, especially in my hometown where I’ve made a name for myself. It will be good for people to see that I’ve got new inspiration and a breath of fresh air relocating. It’s nice. You jump in the deep end sometimes when you re-locate. I didn’t know anyone when I moved here.
Could you speak specifically to this monochrome work with the three female figures?
This was taken down in the canal, but these are three separate photos, three separate images. A couple of my friends. None of them were really, like nothing was organized like a photo shoot or whatever. More like we’re just hanging out and taking a bunch of photos or whatever. All these pieces are very much a celebration of life and being able to be outside again. It’s hard to say what each piece means specifically because it was more a focus on the amalgamation of many figures, elements of figures in relation to how they interact together. So not so much as like a specific content matter or a story. It’s vague enough that it still gives people the opportunity to come up with their own interpretation of what it means. But it’s more a focus on the figure than say painting a scenery or something with a specific story.
And always women.
Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m kind of focused on at the moment. I like the female form and it’s also very traditional. My work has a lot of flow to it; so to be able to exaggerate some parts of the female form, it works much better than working with the more rigid male form.
However, as of late, I have been moving a bit away from always painting figures all the time. I want to broaden my content a little, but also having said that, my work is becoming more abstract so I can keep painting figures but keep pushing them in new ways and eventually it will be less about the form and it will become a lot more abstract. I can see my work becoming like abstract expressionist, focusing on texture and movement instead of form. But I like painting figures, always from the beginning. A lot of my work previous was a lot more fictitious. I was painting a lot more creatures, and painting weird animal, creature-like things and I’ve kind of pulled it back to painting more like actual figures. I kind of feel like making up my own characters for a while, but I really like the tradition of painting the female form. For the moment, it’s definitely the content.
Do you think people will be surprised?
Yeah, especially ‘cause I haven’t done much back in Australia for a while so it will be a pleasant surprise. It’s always interesting with each show I do to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s always a learning experience for sure.
Besides these particular works, how has living in Berlin been an influence?
I’ve never shown much work in Berlin because it’s so hard to sell. But I’ve really enjoyed inviting people down here, even like gallery curators, they can see my work but I don’t have to rely on trying to make sales here which is hard. I really want to work here. I would like to be able to make money here and do business but it’s tough. I knew it was going to be like this when I moved but it would be nice if there were ways to make money here.
It seems to really be coming up though.
It is, it’s coming up slowly. And you can really see what’s happening here in the city, its becoming gentrified. I want the city to have money. But it’s a double-edged sword. I don’t want the city to loose its charm and it is, the area I live in is changing really fast and there’s cool new funky cafes and shops and I like drinking coffee, but they’re cleaning all the buildings and they’re taking away the life and sure, maybe it looks more safer or it’s more family friendly or something, but once again, it’s not the reason I moved here. Its good and its bad. I want to be able to make money but I don’t want it to loose its charm. I don’t even know if that’s possible. But anyway, I’m really enjoying my time here.
And it seems like you’ve found an incredible amount of inspiration here.
Oh yeah, its been inspiring to meet other artists and to be surrounded by different scenery, its refreshing and you can source inspiration from everything. I would get more inspiration [in Berlin] looking at less artists and walking around the streets to be honest. You don’t always choose where you get inspiration from.