Building on a long standing tradition within Danish modernist painting, Sejr's work is rich with carefully structured compositions and balanced colors. Far removed from the vase and flower paintings from earlier in his career, his works now seem almost entirely abstract. - Galleri Jacob Bjørn
Jonathan Ryan Storm: Your latest show at Galleri Jacob Bjorn, "how does a strawberry taste", feels like you're moving away from your recent subject matter, into more abstract territory. Was that a conscious decision?
Søren Sejr: It was, yes. For a long time, I’ve been meaning to move my focus from the figurative into a more abstract point of view. Through time I’ve made a lot of paintings with figuration as the main focus point. The figuration had become too complicated, and I would often loose it 2-3 weeks into the working process. Because of that I felt like I needed to bring new ideas into my work. I wanted to feel free in the process again, to explore, and not be locked by a motive.
It seems like you were more open to experimenting with materials as well. Oil sticks seem to be the main medium with the new works. Did this switch in how the paintings were made help steer you in a new direction?
There´s actually more to the new works than oil stick. Underneath, there are layers of acrylic and pencil but it´s true that the final layer is oil stick. I have always been experimenting a lot, so the switch was actually more like going back into some of my old work and develop some of the elements that I worked with before it was just a natural way to go. If you look at some of the older paintings, you will see that the new ones derive from the edges around the figurations. My main focus moved from complex composition to exploring the surfaces and how the material works. My work still deals with composition of balancing colors and shapes.
Jumping way back, to the beginning. When did art become a real part of your life? Was it a gradual thing, or did you wake up and realize "this is it"?
I think that I woke up quite early and realized that ”this is it”. I was fourteen when my mother signed me up for an evening art class at our local school. I went there every Thursday and even continued through High school. I remember how a new world opened up to me a world in which I could play and lose time. I would go into the class start working and then three hours was gone in three minutes at least it felt like that.
The two teachers introduced us to a lot of great artists a new one each time and I wanted to paint like all of them at once. I spent a lot of time figuring out how I could do the stuff they did and why it looked like it did.
I also recall the first “fights” and the feeling of “landing” a painting. Even today that’s the best feeling - the moment when all your efforts/choices fall into a magic order and it becomes a painting.
Who were some of those early artists that interested you? It's always interesting to see if those early influences stay with an artist and continue to teach you things, or if they're kicked to the curb.
Our teachers always started the class showing a new artist from slides, and because of that I was introduced to a lot of different artists, but I think the ones that interested me the most at that time was the expressionists. I really liked painters from the “Der Blaue Reiter” and “Die Brücke” specially Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde were my favorites. But also the Danish painter Per Kirkeby had a big influence on me. Looking back, I think I did over twenty more or less successful Per Kirkeby imitations. It was a nice way to develop an understanding of painting. I still think there is a lot to learn looking at the old ones, history often repeat itself just in another form and painting do too. Take f.eks. Eddie Martinez´ paintings, rhythm, physics etc. and look at the old Danish Cobra painter Asger Jorn or Joe Bradley compared to Phillip Guston’s early abstract paintings. I see a big influence and a very important understanding of a painters’ language.
Have you always lived in Aarhus? Does city living keep you inspired, or is an escape to the country necessary from time to time?
No, I grew up in a small village next to the sea at the west coast of Denmark. A really beautiful place with a lot of nature just outside our
house. My parents still live there, and even though the bigger city Aarhus inspires me I still like to go “home” to reload. Especially when I need to clear my mind I always go the sea. I have also lived in Berlin and Copenhagen in short periods and I liked that too. In Berlin I lived in the area called Kreuzberg. It was an amazing place, filled with many different nationalities/ cultures and a strange clash between eastern and western color and architecture. The life was fast down there and there was always a new show to go to or some people to see. I still like to go there and get a big city boost and see some friends from time to time.
Let's talk about process a little bit. Is there much preparation before a painting starts, with sketches or studies? Or is there a general idea of what you want to happen, or what you want to try? Or is it a fresh start each time.
It depends on which type of painting I am working on. To the figurative ones I always do sketches or small works/drawings that become a guide line for the bigger painting. It is easy to have an idea about the finished work from a drawing but when you move it into a painting it always becomes something else and I of course need to adjust accordingly. For the other types of work “the surface paintings” it’s more like a fresh start each time. In the sense that I feel completely free in the process and go along with what the painting requires. I like to go in and out of the two ways of working.
Are you still working on sculptures? I noticed this was a sculpture-free show.
No, I haven't done it for some time. Maybe I will look into that again if it fits with my work, but I don't have any actual plans right now.
I'm curious about what goes on inside your studio. Do you tend to work on one piece at a time, or several at once? And this is something I'm always interested in: is there music playing? Old movies? Total silence?
Last year I got a new bigger studio which means that I now have the possibility to work on four or five paintings at the same time. I really like that because when I get stuck in one of them I can always go into another and come back when a solution appears. It´s also easier to see different ways of hanging/setting up an exhibition.
When I work I often have the radio turned on, not specific music, more like a noise in the background. I also like to be updated on news to feel a bit hooked on to reality.
What happens if a solution never appears? Do you abandon a piece after a while, if it's just not working? Some of the earlier more figurative paintings seem very deliberate, like you know more or less where you're going so maybe there's less room to keep working them. Do these new works sort of hold the door open longer? Is there more time to get a painting "right"?
That’s the good thing about these new ones, eventually a solution will come. It may take a very long time, but I have the feeling that they will always land somewhere. The figurative ones are not about more or less time they just always reach a point where they will land or fall hard. If they fall I have to give up and start all over.
When you finish up work for a big show, after it opens and things calm down, what comes next?
I always take some time off to clear my mind and try to do something else than art. I like doing sports, it clears me both mentally and physically. If it's summer I like to go kite-surfing or spearfishing and sometimes I play soccer.
It´s also important for me to see some friends or family and socialize. Especially when I am that much alone on my everyday job. After some time I find my way back to the studio and my head is usually full of new impressions and ideas, and I slowly start working again.