Painting as Aesthetic Drug

A conversation between Harmony Korine and Isabelle Graw

Harmony Korine, INFABLINX, 2023. Oil on canvas, 60 3/4 x 73 1/2 x 1 5/8 in. Photo: Keith Lubow. © Harmony Korine. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

  • 23 December 2023

In advance of the exhibition “AGGRESSIVE DR1FTER,” Harmony Korine’s first solo show with Hauser & Wirth, Korine sat down with Isabelle Graw to talk about his hallucinatory new paintings and his recent film project that inspired their imagery. These are condensed and edited portions of their conversation.

Isabelle Graw: I would like to start by discussing your use of an infrared camera for your new film Aggro Dr1ft (2023) which your paintings are based on. I wondered to what degree you reworked the film stills for the paintings because their colors seem even more intense and brighter. You seem to push the painterly potential of the film even further in the paintings.

Harmony Korine: The film does lead into the paintings. I had set out to not make a traditional film. I didn't even call it a movie, and when people would call it a movie on set, I would laugh at them. It somehow did turn into a film because it has a structure and a narrative. I had spent two years with technical people–my cameraman and AI people and effects guys and editors–to develop something that would expand the language of film. I wanted to see what’s after films. Maybe it's because I make paintings and movies and do photography that this notion of a singularity between the forms became very interesting to me: a kind of post cinema or post picture.

Graw: So opting for an infrared camera was a way of producing a singularity that results from a medium unspecific practice that expands the borders of each art form?

Korine: Yes. Visually, I was starting to feel bored with the 2D, normal photography-based film. Video games seemed more and more appealing to me because they create entire worlds. And so we spent a year–and it got very nerdy and technical–trying to figure out what it could look like, where could we go?

The infrared was something that my cinematographer had started experimenting with. He used cameras that we got access to from NASA. They were very, very high-resolution infrared and beautiful. But then I realized that it was not enough to just film in infrared. So what you saw in the film are two or three formats that are running concurrently. Infrared is obviously the most visible one because it takes over. But there were other formats like 3D cameras that were filming simultaneously. And then all the images were laid on top of one another. You could really push the infrared or you could push the 3D cameras or whatever we were using.

We started to develop this look and it felt very immersive. Obviously these cameras are heat based, so they're related to the heat and to warmth. And that was exciting–I liked that idea. We came up with this look that was close to the idea of being inside of a video game. It felt completely immersive and closer almost to a drug experience.

It is the first show I've ever done where the paintings are directly related to the film or whatever we call it. So with the paintings, I wanted to really replicate and push the idea of infrared, of energy. And so we just spent a long time mixing paints and figuring out how to really push the strength and the luminosity of the paint. The paintings were very closely based on the imagery within the film and then pushed even further, like you said.

Graw: That was precisely my impression. And it is quite accurate to compare the sensation of watching the film to a drug experience–at times it felt like a bad trip. For me the interesting thing about using an infrared camera is that it visualizes temperature –it captures how temperature is distributed unevenly on surfaces and objects. And as a consequence of this, color gets extremely emphasized, and in your paintings even more so. Their colors–orange, red and blue and also green, red and blue–are used in a way that reminded me of German Expressionism.

Once the emphasis is put on color, a bodily sense of substance is created, a sense of liveliness is produced. And this usually happens at the expense of lines, which are downplayed in your paintings. The figures thus lack individual features, their features recede in favor of their body-substances which makes them look rather ghost-like. I thought of them as stand-ins for what humans could look like after the apocalypse. Some of the figures wear face masks–a device that you often use in your work–which further contributes to this weird effect of anonymous, slightly scary living-dead figures that only consist of substance. Why did you opt for creating figures without individual features?

Richard Prince, Untitled (Sunset), 1981. Ektacolor photograph, 30 x 45 in. (76.2 x 114.3 cm). Courtesy Richard Prince Studio

Korine: I've always been attracted to bringing an image to the point where it starts to break down. And then like you were saying: the figures start to have this other strange quality, sometimes ghost-like, or in the case of Aggro Dr1ft, there's a lot of avatars that we use–masks and avatars. They too call identity into question, blur the line between what's real and what not real. It's like a dystopian vision where color becomes like a character in the film. It's almost science fiction, where the world just consists of colors and energy.

Graw: In the painting theory since Diderot (1713–1784),, color has been associated with the capacity to produce a sense of liveliness. But your figures also look like living deads. There's a weird tension between their extremely colorful suggestion of liveliness and these nearly dead creatures that only consist of temperature-substances.

Korine: Also subject-wise, it's exciting to me because the colors are so full of life and they're extremely beautiful. At the same time the subject matter and the characters are so grim and dystopian so there's this interesting discourse between the two. Because the colors are really almost like celebratory colors, but then we exploded them. And the characters themselves are very violent and very base and kind of dark. So it's an interesting mix that happens and I think the paintings reflect that.

Graw: In the beginning of our conversation, you were talking about expanding the singularity of film. You've often discussed what you call your “unified aesthetics”–a term coined by Charles Eames. It is not medium specificity you are interested in, which is a modernist concept associated with art theorists like Clement Greenberg. In your work every medium gets expanded and de-specified: a film can turn into a painting, a painting can become a film, etc. But I would also argue that each of these artforms comes with specific histories, language games, visual rhetorics and discussions. Are you interested in these specific histories, and if yes, which painters are you actually communicating with in this new work?

Korine: This is something new. I could mention artists I love, like Oyvind Fahlstrom, a huge influence on me. Or Martin Kippenberger's use of color and even William Eggleston and the color use in his photographs. I wanted to make paintings that feel like they're basically alive. I wondered if one can make works and imagery that look like nothing has preceded them? This project is almost closer to a futurist take on visuals, painting and film.

Graw: When I first saw your paintings, they reminded me Richard Prince's “sunset” series from the early '80s in terms of color. Prince also used bright orange and yellow backgrounds and dark, in his case, photographic shadowy ghostlike figures in the foreground. But in your case, there's something else going on because your figures are much more scary: they often wear masks, they seem like creatures that attack us from another planet.

Film still from Harmony Korine, AGGRO DR1FT, 2023. 80 minutes. © Harmony Korine. Courtesy EDGLRD

“It's exciting to me because the colors are so full of life and they're extremely beautiful. At the same time the subject matter and the characters are so grim and dystopian so there's an interesting discourse between the two.”—Korine

Korine: I mean, Richard is a close friend and I love his art. I grew up looking up to him. I always think that even if you're not directly influenced or thinking about the work, a lot of times the work lives inside you.

Graw: There's something else that struck me in your paintings, which is their focus on hands and gestures. There is one painting, UOU (2023), which shows a female hand with long nails resting on a leg. And there are also several paintings of interacting hands that hold weapons, like RAVETEK14 (2023). Hands and gestures seem to be of special interest to you, which made me think of the German art historian Aby Warburg who coined the term “Pathosformel” [pathos formula]. Pathos formula according to him are pictorial conventions in the history of art that are used for suggesting and transporting affects that supposedly have universal validity. What is it that interests you about hands and gestures?

Korine: The details were important to me in this work. A big technical reason for that is the infrared camera: it is very different in closeup then in wide. In closeup, you really feel the details and the heat from the body: that´s why the hands are always there. A lot of the imagery is composed in close to mid-range framing. This is because the closer you get, the more heat is pulled from the image and the more alive it looks. So a lot of it is really technical. As you go further away, the image becomes more abstract–it really starts to look almost like an abstract painting, where it will consist of a solid color. And then because it reacts to light, you'll see the lamps or something in the background glowing, having some kind of golden haze.

The paintings really get interesting when you get closer to the body. The closer you are, the more heat and details appear. So that's why you're seeing hands, guns, torsos, faces. And again, you were talking about the line: there aren’t really traditional lines in these paintings. The colors and the grain structure start to explode the whole idea of lines. They become more about depicting the vibration of the energy.

Graw: Most of the figures that appear in your paintings are men, often armed men fighting. I was especially struck by 6LINX (2023), which shows a masked male martial-looking figure that aims his weapon at the beholder. It made me think of Warhol's Double Elvis (1963) because it targets the viewer in a similar way. Yet in contrast to Warhol, your paintings seems to be illuminated with light from within: 6LINX is literally on fire. Are you trying to underline the mythological dimension of these scenes of fighting men?

Harmony Korine, UOU, 2023. Oil on canvas, 48 3/4 x 72 1/4 x 1 5/8 in. Photo: Keith Lubow. © Harmony Korine. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Korine: Their compositions are very formal and they are attacking the viewer. They're meant to function like an attack. I wanted to play with really classic compositions. Also definitely with the guns, and in that painting particular where he's looking right at you pointing the weapon: they feel pretty shocking.

Graw: I wondered what is it that interests you about male violence, fighting men, assassins. I mean: the hero or anti-hero of the film is an assassin. Why do you confront the viewer with a man's martial world? In the film in particular, the whole public sphere seems to be occupied by men only: men are the subjects that act. Whereas women are depicted as these flexible and extremely sexualized beings who are waiting for their men to come back home. And this home is also depicted in a kind of perversely idyllic way.

Why did you opt for such an atavistic heteronormative gender plot? Maybe you want to remind us that these type of heterosexual “male fantasies” as Klaus Theweleit famously called them still exist and rule the world?

Korine: Well, I wasn't really thinking about that. I was rather thinking about the savagery becoming a kind of base reality. So this film and the paintings are of a world that's been reduced to these assassins that are floating on boats, that belong to these large armed gangs. I guess that they're protecting women. Again, I talk about the future, but it almost goes so far in one direction that there's a savagery to it. They're tribes of assassins.

Graw: But these tribes could be led by women as well?

Harmony Korine, 6LINX, 2023. Oil on canvas, 71 3/4 x 48 3/4 x 1 5/8 in. Photo: Keith Lubow. © Harmony Korine. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

“I was especially struck by 6LINX (2023), which shows a masked male martial-looking figure that aims his weapon at the beholder. It made me think of Warhol's Double Elvis (1963) because it targets the viewer in a similar way. Yet in contrast to Warhol, your paintings seems to be illuminated with light from within.”—Graw

Korine: Yeah, maybe in the next film women will be in charge. I have been using a lot of the language and the lore of gaming and role play gaming in this film, which was really appealing to me. I wondered: how can we turn that into a really distinct narrative? There aren't even that many people left in this world and the ones that are left, are just pure savage. But the main character, Bo, he even says throughout the film that as savage as it is, they are all really just driven by love. And so he's always going back to his children and his wife and that is the thing that keeps him alive. So in some weird way, he says in the end: "All we have is love."

Graw: But the film presupposes a very gendered distribution of labor and states an absolute distinction between a private sphere where women wait for men coming home and a public sphere where men fight for them. I mean: it's really a dystopian vision in that sense as well.

Korine: You mean that one could make the argument that it's a horror film?

Graw: Definitely in terms of gender. I find it very intriguing how the paintings take up the motive of the solitary male hero. Most of the depicted figures seem to be disconnected from their surroundings, they're cut off from social relations, with the exception of some of the fighting bodies. In MANT1X FAZE (2023), a green figure that seems to stand in an endless turquoise sea which made me think of similar scenes by Peter Doig. There's also this isolated orange figure in 3FF3 MANTIX (2023) who stands in a pose that suggests “I'm ready to fight” which reminded me of similar scenes the painter Daniel Richter painted in the '90s of delinquent protesters. What is it that attracts you to the motif of the solitary hero? Because for me it is a total fantasy. In reality, we all are depended on and constituted by others.

Korine: It's completely that: an obliteration of the normal patriarchal order. It's a complete repudiation of all politics. It almost becomes like a weird, beautiful nightmare. And the solitary hero is really just a transcendental savage. Do you know what I mean? There's all these questions that Bo asks and all these things that he observes. He's aware of all the beauty, but he's also just pulled by the horror. It's like a character out of a Joseph Conrad novel. It's very much in the mindset of “me against the universe.” I love characters, so what is he? He's great at killing. He's a genius of killing or of savagery, but he hates it. He's sad. It's almost like he's in some ways this genius of something that's so brutal and so horrible, but it's the only thing that he knows. But he also gets respect, he's revered: it’s really like a strange dystopian fever dream.

Graw: For me, the film’s depiction of a tribal world that exists outside the capitalist order seems to be slightly regressive. Why opt for a flight into this world of a tribal, savage anti-hero when it is complicated enough to grasp the current stage of capitalism?

Korine: I'm attracted to this world because it's so completely unreal. It really is a kind of fantasy.But I guess it has more to do with me loving the idea of all the norms just completely being obliterated and destroyed. What is left is this kind of new set of rules that these guys have established.

Harmony Korine, RAVETEK14, 2023. Oil on canvas, 97 x 84 1/4 x 1 1/8 in. Photo: Keith Lubow. © Harmony Korine. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Harmony Korine, ZION'S LAMENT, 2023. Oil on canvas, 71 3/4 x 48 3/4 x 1 5/8 in. Photo: Keith Lubow. © Harmony Korine. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Graw: That's very interesting. Many of your films–I am thinking of Kids (1995), Gummo (1997) or Beach Bum (2019) – expose a strong fascination for the life of outlaws, criminals and people who don't behave according to the rules. This kind of transgressive behavior of course has been celebrated by many visual artists since the early 20th century–from Dada to Kippenberger. But in my last book on friendship1 I wondered whether this transgressive pose of the outlaw might stand in a different light once the Trumps of this world do exactly this: breaking rules, harming others, using violent language and aiming for provocation. Don't get me wrong–I'm not trying to advocate for a return to a puritan aesthetics. But doesn´t one have to realize that one´s enthusiasm for transgressive “no rules” attitudes lose their potential in a changed political landscape where populist politicians behave like this?

Korine: I guess, I don't know. I don't really read that much into it in that way. For me, it's easy to say that it's very post political. I love the transgressive nature of it. I love the whole idea of the outlaw and the outcast even if it’s a romantic idea of a boy. I guess that the violence around it, at least in storytelling lore, in terms of a narrative is exciting for me.

Graw: Why?

Korine: Because it's troublemaking. Maybe you can read a kind of political discourse into the film, but it wasn't really meant that way. It's more about the wildness and transgressive nature of the human condition and the attraction of an outlaw mentality. It is also just about the base human instinct.

Graw: Are you referring to those “base human instincts” or drives whose importance psychoanalysts like Melanie Klein have underlined? She argued that our psychic life is marked by strong aggressive impulses?

Korine: Maybe, but this interest in base human instincts can also be found in films on cowboys and Indians or in gangster films. Often the storylines and the characters are quite extreme and the whole idea of morality explodes. Instead there emerges a kind of sub-morality that takes place within a mob identity and this is interesting to me. When these guys are basically creating their own rules of conduct and morality. It's similar to the prison systems. I've always been attracted to that type of subject matter.

Graw: I see. I just wondered if the political landscape hasn't changed in so far as we are now governed by people who ignore rules and dismiss moral codes.

Korine: Politically, I don't really feel that things have changed so much. People talked about the same things when I was a kid. I'm not even sure if it's more extreme now than it was before. It feels like we're always on the brink. I remember how people were talking about this in the '80s. My parents had the same discussions about Ronald Reagan. And then before that, it was Nixon. It's just like whatever time you're living through always seems the most dramatic. And even if the political climate at the moment is hardcore, I think that maybe comes through in the work. In some ways, it can mimic this climate or even be the opposite. But I've never particularly stood out to say anything political.

Graw: Your paintings aim at producing strong affects in the viewer, if only due to the way chroma is used in them. They make people react viscerally, their colors activate one´s sensory system.

Korine: Yeah. I always wondered how to induce a trance through the films or through the work. Since the beginning, I searched for something that had a physical component to it, something that was beyond an articulation or even a point. I used to be criticized with the early films because people wondered: what is the point? But the point for me was the feeling, the point was the discomfort or the sense of being off kilter: how the realism got pushed into something hyper-real.

I was trying to make films and paintings that weren't about any one specific thing. It was more about chasing a feeling or an experience, creating something like aesthetic drugs.

Öyvind Fahlström, Notes 4 (C. I. A. Brand Bananas), 1970. Synthetic polymer paint and ink on paper, 16 5/8 x 14" (42.2 x 35.3 cm). Mrs. Bertram Smith Fund. © 2008 Öyvind Fahlström / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Germany. Keith Corrigan / Alamy Stock Photo

Martin Kippenberger, War is No Nice, 1985. Oil and silicone rubber on canvas, 71 x 59 1/8 in. (180.3 x 150.1 cm). Photo: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. Courtesy © Estate of Martin Kippenberger, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

Harmony Korine: AGGRESSIVE DR1FTER” is on view through January 14, 2024 at Hauser & Wirth Downtown Los Angeles.

Over the last thirty years, Harmony Korine has cultivated a multidisciplinary art practice that resists categorization and is admired internationally for the improvisation, humor, repetition, nostalgia and poetry that unite the disparate aspects of his output. His practice is built upon tireless experimentation and a trial-and-error path, producing what Korine calls ‘Mistakist Art.’ Korine’s oeuvre is both deliberate and erratic, figurative and abstract, and, like his films, blurs boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ in ways that simultaneously attract and repel viewers with its hypnotic, otherworldly atmosphere.

Isabelle Graw is a Berlin-based art critic and professor of Art Theory and Art History at the Städelschule. Graw is a co-founder of the Institute for Art Criticism. Her publications include: High Price. Art between the Market and Celebrity Culture (2010), Texte zur Kunst. Essays, Reviews, Interviews (2011), Thinking through Painting: Reflexivity and Agency beyond the Canvas (2012) and Über Malerei. Eine Diskussion (2012).