Reka is an Australian artist, now based in Berlin. His style is iconic already, but he still considers himself to be at the early stages of his career. We caught up with him at his Berlin studio while he was working on his latest show opening at Stolenspace Gallery, in London’s East End on Thursday 11th September.
VNA: So we did a print feature with you a while back, in 2007, what’s changed since then?
REKA: Well, a lot in six or seven years. I guess the major thing is that I relocated to Berlin and have been here for about a year and a half. I use it as a base, so six months of the year I’m travelling. At this stage I’m very early in my art career, so I’m best to travel around and make as many connections as I can, paint walls, hustle. With intentions to exhibit my work too, which is just starting to happen now internationally. So currently I’m working on the Stolenspace show, which will be my first show in London, England, which is pretty cool, cos I’ve always wanted to show my work there. This year I’ve kind of stepped back from the walls a little bit to do studio work which is good and also bad because I very much came from a street background with no intentions to exhibit my work. I am seeing as years go by, this slow transition across to the gallery world. However I’m itching to get back out and paint walls. Like after this show I’m painting a wall in London, which will be really nice. I’m redoing a spot actually, that one in Chance Street in Shoreditch. So that’ll be really nice and then after this show I have the rest of the year to jump around a bit and get back to painting walls. It’s very much a balance for me but I’m finding right now I’m spending more studio time.
VNA: Is it really important for you to keep doing the walls as an artist?
REKA: Yeah, it feels good, that’s the fun stuff. I guess, maybe, I don’t take my walls as seriously and I want it to be fun and enjoyable. That’s how or why I have maybe changed up styles from my gallery work to my walls because I want the walls to be simple and fun. I’ve developed a style around the way that I like using spray paint and it doesn’t quite work on canvas. And this gallery stuff, working on shows gives me an opportunity to pursue a different avenue that I wouldn’t be able to push my walls in; walls is where I came from. I mean I’m not saying I’m always going to be painting walls but I honestly find it fun and I think it is important at this stage in my career and in life that I do still want a balance between painting walls and the work. It is good promotion, I understand that you are slapping it in the face of the general public and it does translate across to the gallery stuff. But with me, because I did it before the gallery stuff, it was never my intention to use this whole street art thing as a tool as some people have, as a back door into the gallery world. It is what it is, but if people can use anything to their own advantage then why not. You hear a lot of people bitch but do whatever, I think it should all be allowed; whoever’s the hungriest should be making headway. But look, I think walls in general are a young man’s sport. This is a life career for me and I’ll end up as a studio artist for sure but for now I’m bursting with energy and I like being outside. I love the action of painting walls, I love so much about it, the process is beautiful.
VNA: Has it been an important move for you, a big step in being taken more seriously as an artist by switching over to gallery stuff?
REKA: Yeah I guess. I’m not really trying to command more respect. I am trying to make a living out of my work and why shouldn’t I? I think if anybody can make a living out of their passion they should do it cos it’s the best feeling ever. But I think you do gain respect when people see you’re a success or that you’re selling well. If you’re selling for a lot of money it doesn’t matter too much about that, but I guess people give you respect when you are successful. It doesn’t always have to do with money, quite often it does, but I didn’t just do it for that reason by any means. As I said it also gives me an opportunity to pursue different avenues. I get really bored with my work, I think that’s why my style’s now kind of, not rapidly evolving but evolving enough that I can see it changing. People would be able to see it a lot more than me but it just gives me other options to play with, you know. I want to start building shit as well. I love painting and I reckon that will be my main thing, my main passion, but I want to start playing around with the installation stuff and sculpture and broaden my horizons. And it’s more fun that way.
VNA: A lot of your work here at the Stolenspace show is very figurative. Does that have a natural progression for you through to sculpture?
REKA: The way I view it I think it’s a little too obvious that if I was playing with sculpture I would be making figures or a face or a bust, I think that’s what everyone would expect from. And maybe I will cos I think that will be popular, but maybe I use it to create something completely different. I see my style progressing in a lot more abstract way to some point where the figure element will kind of drop off. Right now I really like painting figures but I feel that whenever I do get around to using sculpture or whatever, maybe I’ll just want to construct these forms. But then I really want to paint, I really want to make a face or a figure or a hat or something that links in with my work. But even in the recent walls I’m painting, I’m not painting figures any more, I’m painting objects, some animals. I guess I feel like I’ve done the figures. Of course I can always keep on painting them slightly different but I think I’ve ticked it off the list, so now what? With walls I think I’m in this transition period where I’m not too happy with what I’m doing cos I’m experimenting with things and not all of them are a success. But what is happening out of it is that I’m getting ideas and they are often through making mistakes. So with a lot of these walls I’ve been painting insects or just random objects…
VNA: Things like apple cores…?
REKA: Yeah, I think that wall [in Melbourne] turned out pretty well and I think my walls in the future I won’t keep painting figures with. Look out for the one in London, it’s not going to be figurative at all. It could actually be another neatly-assembled-objects-sitting-nicely-next-to-each-other covering the whole wall, something like that. Yeah, of course I want to show something new to the public but it’s also very personal in that I want to do something different for myself as well cos I’ll get satisfaction out of it. I want to keep pushing and if I keep making mistakes so be it. The people that I respect out there are the ones that don’t hit the nail on the head, they’re not hitting home runs the whole time but you can see that they’re really trying and not always sitting on one thing. And, honestly, I felt like I had sat on painting especially female figures – more like the face type things – I think I’ve sat on that a little too long. But I’m happy I realised that and I’m trying to find what’s next, I really don’t know.
VNA: So where did this style come from, how did this style develop cos it’s really quite unique. Quite kind of tribal and a little bit abstract and it seems like you’ve got some kind of Picasso elements in there?
REKA: I am still a huge cartoon fan and I was into hip hop characters, B boys, all that kind of shit, phat sneakers, big Kangol hats cos that was so fucking cool. And then that changed and now I’m painting weird animals and now I’m going back to more realistic, like more human forms because I like the classic element to it, the more traditional aspect to it. I mentioned I’ve developed this style around the way I like using the can and the way I like painting art around these beautiful fluid lines. Where I’m at right now I find my walls are smooth and round and not sharp and jagged or anything and I find I get a lot of satisfaction out of painting these lines, out of getting them clean and spot on. And you always like trying this one-hit sort of style so the first stroke is always the one you go with. I don’t know, it’s hard to talk about it cos you don’t really push a style, it more falls in your lap. You’re figuring it out as it goes along and the way I look at it now it’s back to the satisfaction of how I like to paint. And I think my influences definitely are abstract. Everybody asks who my favourite artist is and I never really mention the ones that are active right now although I can spell out a bunch of names that I really look up to. I studied a lot of Art History back in the day and I roughly know my Movements. But 20th Century art is my favourite, I even really get into Impressionism and even Pop Art, Abstract.
VNA: Yeah, some of that head stuff even has some kind of Easter Island aesthetic to it as well…
REKA: Yeah I definitely think there is some tribal elements whether it’s ancient Japanese or whether it’s…people say, ‘I can see you’re Australian, it must be Aboriginal work’. And I’m, like, ‘really?’ Maybe they just assume I would take influence out of my own culture. Which I can’t say I have too much consciously but, subconsciously who knows, right? Maybe the way that the body paint on some tribes often has this decoration, I roughly look at that.
VNA: Like war paint?
REKA: Yeah, for whatever reason they dress up it looks beautiful and I looked at that because there was a lot of detail that I could play with. Often I make my faces really detailed with a lot of things because sometimes I think it would be a little too simple. So if I take a tribal, or some, approach I can play with decorating the face with whatever and it gives me a bit of room to play with. And a lot of people recently have been going, ‘wow, you know your stuff looks like an up-to-date Picasso. I guess my show is very abstract and I’ve been using a lot of geometric lines and forms and a grid that is dissecting these figures. I think that this body of work is the most abstract that I’ve done to date. And, you know what, it’s really fun.
VNA: And what kind of feedback have you had so far?
REKA: Really good. Actually, really good, like some of the pieces have already sold which is a nice start. At least what I hope to get out of it is that people appreciate this is a new body of work that no-one’s seen, that I’m trying to push my work in a different direction. Who knows, it could be a little too abstract, a little too detailed, maybe I have to simplify it, but this is what I’ll learn out of this show coming up. But, in general, really positive feedback, in that they can see that I’m really trying to push my work and do a different show to what I’ve done before, not trying to repeat myself too much.
VNA: Obviously now you’re based in Berlin, much more Euro-centric, has that altered your view of Australia?
REKA: Definitely. I’m very, very pro-Melbourne in Australia, but I kind of got fed up towards the end and that’s why I jumped over here for a change of scenery. I had a show in Melbourne recently and that was the first time back since I relocated over here. I can be a little cynical sometimes and expected that I would hate it going back but was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it. There were elements I missed that I didn’t even realise until I went back there, like maybe how easy [life] was. I could see myself slotting back in there. So I think I have a lot more of a positive view of Melbourne now, having a little break from it, than I did when I left, for sure. Who knows whether I’ll move back there, but at the moment I’m really happy here. My lifestyle right now, I’m travelling a lot and really need to base myself in a nice spot. I can talk about why I like Berlin, it’s not that important but it is a really good spot to have a base for many reasons. Apart from it being cheap and on my budget I can live quite comfortably here.
VNA: Plus Australia is very far away, whereas you have a lot of the world a lot closer to you here.
REKA: Sure, I mean I’m seven hours away from New York and that’s a big thing for me compared to flying twenty four hours to get anywhere. You see a lot of Australians travel and it’s a shame that has to happen just because of where it is. You see the economy’s booming, more artists are selling than ever before and my last show there was a sell-out, but exposure-wise the rest of the world’s not looking there. And sometimes you do have to position yourself where people are looking. Like it’s a lot easier to make some noise from Europe than it is to make noise from Australia, I think that’s the best way to put it.