Quick Photocopies Become Complex Paintings in Manor Grunewald’s Ghent Studio

  • Photo by Jan Opdekamp

A visitor to Manor Grunewald’s recent solo show “Glances Closer to Blindness,” at RH Contemporary Art might be surprised to hear about the artist’s practice. The exhibition largely comprised a series of untitled canvases in shades of white, grey, and black, as well as stacks of mostly plain newsprint clustered around a column. The result was a show that appeared highly formal, minimalistic, and controlled in nature. Interestingly, Grunewald’s process is anything but.

  • Installation view of “Glances Closer to Blindness,” courtesy of RH Contemporary Art.

Grunewald, who is based in Ghent, Belgium, began his career as a street artist around age 12. Later, he enrolled in art school, but, more interested in painting than in a degree or professional validation, he left after several months. Although Grunewald’s aesthetic has evolved from illustrative to minimalistic, his artmaking process retains these core elements of experimentation, play, and, ultimately, revelation. He collects magazines, newspapers, and especially vintage art catalogues; after digitally printing the found images onto canvas, he manually erases, obscures, saturates, or otherwise alters the forms to create new ones.

  • Photo by Jan Opdekamp

Grunewald’s work has a strong intellectual component that is rooted in his commitment to exploring the relationship between artworks and grayscale reproductions of them. The pictures that Grunewald used for works in “Glances Closer to Blindness”—which look like experimental photocopies on canvas among the monochromes—come from Olivia Newton John’s 1981 album Physical. He felt that these scenes resembled Théodore Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19)—another indicator that, despite his instinctive and organic process, Grunewald is heady and art-historically minded. In the wake of his recent RH show, and in advance of numerous summer group shows—at Neighbors (a nonprofit exhibition platform that operates out of his studio), Geukens & De Vil in Knokke, Belgium, and with Hunted Projects in Tilburg, Netherlands—and a solo show at Berthold Pott in Cologne later this year, we caught up with the artist to discuss his process, interest in the printed image, and street art origins.

Artsy: When did your work take a turn for the minimal?

Manor Grunewald: It started with the process of using copier devices in the studio, to have a quick and visual way of thinking about paintings. I like the idea of working in way sort of like an analog Photoshop or InDesign program. With a simple copier you just have two options: scale and contrast. And there’s only a few seconds between your original and the output, a copy. This seems like a narrow process but it opens up a lot of freedom for me. So I started copying images over and over and zooming in a lot each time, and at the end the outcomes became very minimal, even though they started as figurative imagery. 

  • Photo by Jan Opdekamp

  • Photo by Jan Opdekamp

Artsy: What most compels you about black-and-white reproductions?

MG: My interest in black-and-white imagery comes from a historical context within graphic design and the printing industry. First, you had woodblock printing and then the introduction of the Gutenberg press had a major influence in the worldwide spread of books in general. The next big revolution was the offset press at the end of 19th century and the screenprint 30 years later. These later techniques were used for mass production and could reproduce photographic imagery, but due to economic reasons, a lot of printed matter was still just black-and-white or printed in monochrome. I collect exhibition catalogs, so I felt intrigued by the ones that were printed around that period.

I like to look at reproductions of paintings in black-and-white to focus on form and shades. Beginning in 2012, I decided to use my source material in the same way, through a simple process of handling and copying using a black-and-white copier so that all of the source material has the same value and feel. The paintings that come from these sources have that same feel. In my latest pieces I also use monochrome color adhesive films on top of the copies from brands like Letratone and Mecanorma. They were used in the 1970s and ’80s in graphic design and illustration as an overlayer.

  • Photo by Jan Opdekamp

Artsy: Can you tell us about the process that translates the photocopies to canvas? And what happens after?

For me, the photocopies are the first step within the work. Afterwards, I try to crop certain areas out of those that look interesting, or make small collages with some copied parts. Then, all original copies are scanned and digitized. Depending on the work or the show I’m working on, I make a selection out of my digital archive and try to see on what scale it could work as a painting. These are UV printed again on synthetic canvas—a canvas with less structure that is used for industrial purposes and commercial stretched billboards. After stretching them, the painting process starts.

I paint with acrylic medium, oil, and spray paint on top of the printed images. Visually, this becomes interesting for me because it’s not clear anymore what’s digital print or analog painting. Because of the blown-up size, the printed dots become more on the scale of silkscreen and small little defaults from the original copy become painterly gestures. The work questions the links between analog and digital, original and reproduction, painting and photography.

  • Photo by Jan Opdekamp

Does your history with street art influence your current work?

I guess I started spraying graffiti when I was around 12 years old. Living in a city, graffiti was very common for me; I was inspired by the colors and a certain freedom it offered. I did it for about 10 years, while also experimenting  with other mediums—acrylics, oil paint on canvas, watercolors...all terrible stuff when I think about it [laughs]. But in the end that increased my interest in art.

Within my current work I don’t think I’m still visually involved with the graffiti directly. Only purely practically, in that I use spray paint in between other mediums on canvas, but that’s all. I feel more mature in a way and focused with the current work than back then. But that seems logical, I suppose.

—Emily Rappaport

Discover more artists at RH Contemporary Art

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