Interview with Tal R



Trousers, 2015, crayon, pigment & rabbit glue on, canvas

“To sleep, perchance to dream—” Forgive the truism, but when considering the work of Israeli-Danish artist Tal R., overcooked Hamlet once again feels relevant. An eternally curious multi-media artist, Tal R. is fascinated by the liminal space of reverie and sleep, where truth is scrambled with untruth and sanity is confused with insanity. His portrait series, paintings, sculptures, and installation projects explore these conceptual spheres in their own ways, questioning the classic down-the-rabbit-hole issue of reality lost and reality found, considering the corporeal world in relation to its opposite. Emily Friedman recently spoke with the artist about dreamscapes, nightmares, vulnerability, and creative laziness in relation to his two series’, Altstadt Girl and Chimney School of Sculpture.

I wanted to pivot between discussing the Altstadt Girl series and the Chimney School of Sculpture because I saw strong parallels between the two. But, first: I read several times that you’ve given your artistic practice the title of kolbojnik, or leftovers?

Kolbojnik is a word that I remember from my childhood. It means something like ‘trash’—like a common trash plate. It’s like when you’ve eaten your food in a kibbutz and everybody puts their leftovers in the same trash-can. You could say that’s called a kolbojnik. I think that refers more to work that I did ten years ago. But that word kind of stuck; people always ask me about it.

Perhaps because it’s not often that you hear an artist describing their work as leftovers, or trash, even. There’s usually a very negative connotation to that word, so I think it’s really interesting to reformat it.

True. Well, my studio used to be a mountain of materials;  you couldn’t walk on the floor. I always trusted my instinct. Every time I would make a show, I would just pick at this mountain, in this kolbojnik.

So the studio very much informs the work that’s produced?

Yes, but I always fantasized about getting rid of my trash. Because I find it more stimulating [to change] once a certain interest is over. I think people often panic when something is not attractive anymore, or not possible anymore. But I’m always more attracted to the work that comes out of that tension.

Right, what comes out of the debris.  I was really interested in the relationship between the Altstadt Girl series and kolbojnik— I envision them as abstract memories, or “leftovers,” coming together to produce this series of portraits.

The Altstadt Girl series started four years ago, when I was wondering if it was still possible to work with a live model. Those paintings started with that question: is it possible, or is it just nostalgic? Because it could easily just be a study of proportions, and I’m not interested in that idea at all. I’m more interested in pictures that come out of necessity or have some sort of obsession behind them. Often we don’t know why, but there are just certain things about people that make you say, “I’d love to draw them.” Also, for me it was important what room I’d put them in. I would always think that the context of the environment is just as important as the nose and the eyes and the haircut. And the debate you have with these people.

I feel like context and domestic space is really important in the work that you produce, especially with the Chimney School of Sculpture show. Can you speak to that interest?

In the Altstadt work, you want to load the picture with information. You want to give the viewer as much information so they can then use their own imagination. To draw domestic objects like the bed, or the things hanging on the wall, or the windows, it encourages imaginative and interactive viewing. You want the viewers to be on the dance floor with the work. You want them to end up in a situation where they are somehow hooked with an image. You give them so much information that something is sticking. And therefore, it’s not enough with just the figure, because that’s too easy for projection. You need all the other stuff. Everything lying on a table, everything about a window. Corners, ceilings, carpets on the floor. Everything, you can leave with information.

Part of the Chimney School of Sculpture show included the series of blinds. In contrast to your work at large, which focuses on interior space and domestic space and privacy and intimacy, all of a sudden you produced a series that’s all about shutting out and creating a fence. I was wondering if you could talk about that tension.

In the beginning, I didn’t know the English word for “blind,” I thought the name was “curtain.” And then somebody told me that it was actually “blind,” and that made me more obsessed with that project. I think the magic thing about it is that you don’t know which side of it you are on. You don’t know if you’re the one pulling down the blind or if you are the one that the blind is being pulled down in front of.


Venice Bed, 2015, crayon, pigment & rabbit glue on, canvas


Hollywood, 2015, crayon, pigment & rabbit glue on canvas


Tivoli, 2015, crayon, pigment & rabbit glue on canvas


13 Westindians, 2013, crayon, pigment & rabbit glue on canvas

The ambiguity of where you stand, and what is reality. That’s a fascinating thing to consider, and I think that it leads well into my next question, which is  about your interest in dreams.

When I was a child – a lot of kids know this – most of my day was spent living in fantasy. I was never interested in art as a child, but I was always drawing. Drawing was not about creating images for other people; it was simply about being in a fantasy. The older I get, when I look at my own life and other people’s lives, I  wonder how much of the time is actually fantasy. Sometimes, it’s as though you don’t, know which side of the blind you’re on. What is actually the fantasy and what is real? In a clinical sense, it’s a dangerous thing to ask, and you probably shouldn’t fool around with these things, but for most people, this is very real. Am I dreaming or am I not dreaming? Is this real or is it actually something I imagined? Is it true or is it a lie?

I think in terms of the Romantic poets and their whole idea of liminal space and waking while dreaming, and pushing that ambiguity of reality and sanity, and the kind of creative potential that that has.

This has been a constant subject for me, even when it was not a subject.  You can’t call it a subject as a child, because it’s just a reality. For me, I suffered from nightmares until I was sixteen or seventeen. I understood the way to get out of the nightmare was always to ask, “Is this real, or is it not real?” Because in a dream, you can’t really answer. If the dream said, “No, I’m a dream,” then the dream is over. So lately I’ve been thinking whether it’s which side of the blind you’re on or if you’re dreaming or if you are awake, what is real, what is unreal. And I think art is very often playing on the edge of these ideas, which is over the edge of sanity.

I wanted to talk about the Raku sculptures that you’ve been making. You discussed them as a body of sculpture that revolves around this almost becoming of sculpture. I wanted to ask you about that moment of anxiety, that anticipation without resolution, and what the power of that non-moment would have in your art, your artistic practice and other sculptures or work you’ve been doing.

I’ve been doing sculptures for fifteen or sixteen years, on and off, and I almost always felt like a teenager in the world of sculpture. When you’re a teenager, you are terribly honest, but you’re also very clumsy. On the one hand there is lacking a certain maturity, and on the other hand, there’s a beauty to the lack of this education and maturity. In the world of sculpture, I actually always just wanted to do figuration. I was always just looking to be able to do a figure, but I never trusted the figures I could imagine. So I think most of my sculptures are always reaching out to become figures. Just a simple figure: boy standing, woman sitting on a chair. Just very stupid stuff, just always about the body, always about people, or at least creatures. But every time I reach out for this, I am not satisfied, and I get distracted. The figures can’t rise up so there is always something very unborn about them because they want to be somewhere that they can’t go. They always want to be just simply a figure, but I don’t allow them because I don’t trust what I imagine, I don’t trust the direction that they take so I always leave them in this kind of ghostland where they still have their eyes closed.

Right, they’re on the other side of the blind.

They’re always kind of unborn, always kind of unfulfilled, in a way – I would say it so I don’t sound so negative – like a handsome compromise. They want to stand up, they want to raise their arm or they want to start walking but then they just stay in the world of still unborn, undone. Instead of always destroying them or crying like a baby, I just accept them and leave them in their state. But actually, I always wanted something else, and I’m seriously still reaching for this.

You talked about vulnerability, for instance, asking strangers to pose for you, and consciously putting yourself in an exposed position.

I work very much in different families of work, and usually – for instance with the Altstadt series, I worked with those images for three years and now that’s over, that’s done. When I started doing them, the question was always “Is it productive that I put myself in this intimidating situation, or is it just something that I find interesting or attractive?” But I wanted to find out if it changes the situation, if it makes greater works that I feel intimidated? I thought when you’re doing a drawing at nine o’clock at night with a stranger, in a room that you’re not familiar with, it is intimidating for me and maybe also for the person, and that also changed the way I was drawing. So that’s why I kept doing it, because it made sense.


The drawing class, 2014, oil on canvas


The drawing class, 2014, crayon, pigment & rabbit glue on canvas

How does that vulnerability translate when you’re working in different media, like when you’re working on different series even, or sculpture?

Whenever I transition into a certain family of work, I eventually notice that I get into this world of simply perfecting that craft. In turn, I notice the work I’m producing becomes weaker. I’m not interested in this safety. This is caused by laziness. Usually, laziness is something seen as very negative, but in the world of art, if you say “Okay, I need to challenge laziness,” that means that it has to be exciting, it has to be like you’re on thin ice.

That’s really interesting, the idea of laziness or anxiety or self-doubt having a productive creative force within the work.

Right. When that happens, then you know, “Okay, I’m excited now because I’m nervous, I don’t know how to end it. I got in but I don’t know how to get out of this now. This is terrible, now I have to invent ways to get out.” That’s what I’m talking about. The moment that the craft is so developed that I know how to “get in” and I even know how to “get out,” then, it’s a done deal. It has no breath anymore, and no real value as art anymore.

What are you working on right now?

I’m painting façades – very slight images of shop windows. I find it exciting that whatever is displayed in the window will influence your decision to go in the shop or not. When you enter the shop, all the information you get inside the shop will leave you with this fantasy: what’s in the back room? And the painter should never, never show you the back room. He should always just give you information so you have a fantasy about the back room. So I’m drawing façades now, it’s what I’m doing every day and night.