OTP studio visits: Mads Hilbert
An interview with the Copenhagen-based artist in his apartment.
We talk hardcore printing, conservative fear and "hand out for a handshake" art.
It’s a beautiful Tuesday morning and I am stretching my legs, enjoying the walk over warm concrete, on the way to Mads Hilbert’s Norrebro apartment. April has arrived, the sun is making its presence felt and everyone seems to have taken the day off work.
I buzz up and am soon inside Mads’ place. French punk is playing from a speaker embedded within a shelf when I arrive. I am offered a cup of strong black coffee (no milk in the house) and soon we are sitting in the high-ceilinged and paint-splattered living room where Mads works. Peggy Gou is selected as a suitable interview soundtrack.
Achieving an original chromatic density with deep pencil lines and thin flushed brushstrokes, Mads Hilbert's work seems abstract, but in the most personable manner.
OTP [I turn on the recorder and ask Mads if he will say something to test the levels]
MH My name is Mads Hilbert. I am 25 years old and I paint and draw and stuff here in my apartment. For now. I want my own atelier/studio to go to.
OTP How long have you been in Copenhagen?
MH I first moved to Copenhagen for a graphic design course at a technical college, where you learn to use Xerox machines and blend colours for industrial purposes. All kinds of printing methods: Offset machines, hardcore printing, but also lithography.
You learned all that to go into industry. But you could just take the ground course as I did and then you learned all that and had all the nice workspaces and could do your own stuff. Now they have changed it because they had this gap where a lot of people could go into that system and use all the good teachers and facilities, without finishing. You could drop out.
OTP So what happened after technical college?
MH I moved back home for a textile school, because I couldn’t live in Copenhagen with no income. I learned weaving and all that kind of thing and thought “Hey, maybe I should be a textile artist.” I got into the design school, KADK, and moved back to the city.
OTP What was the design school like?
MH It was a product-oriented education. It wasn’t that you had to replicate each other but there was a stencil. They had a structure that they wanted you to fill in. KADK wasn’t for me, I started there in the fall of 2015 and left in the fall of 2016 to do my own thing and to work at Hernik’s [Henrik Vibskov] place.
OTP Tell me about how you got involved with Henrik?
MH I built some looms for him, you know some old looms. Not for his practice, but I was just in the house. I met a girl there and then we started building on the weekends and I got intwined in this whole Henrik studio thing.
I’ve always been a fan of Henrik. To begin with, before, I went through some things about I wanted to make clothes. It was the creative mind, and then fashion was the first place where I could see some kind of plan. It was like I was in a house, but I was moving room to room. I knew I was in the right spot, but maybe I was in the wrong room. And now I’ve moved to the basement. The foundation, you know where the art is. If you build a "creative house".
OTP Have you always been drawing?
MH Yes I have always been drawing, within a regular amount. I mean I have not been crazy drawing. But it was also my escape when I went to the design school and didn’t really fit in. If I was sitting drawing I wouldn’t be picked for group work.
OTP Did they resemble the drawings you are producing now?
MH It was really chaotic actually - it was all intwined. Because of the loom and my whole inspiration within weaving and this grid structures and also all these objects - because I love stuff, I love things.
You know when you are little and you have 5 rocks and a stick in your pocket? And, maybe I didn't have that all my life but it was still this idea, Ok I never leave the house, or I never used to and I still don’t without stuff you know. I love to bring more clothes to where I am going. I know I’m not going to wear it. Or still a stick and some pencils.
But the paradox is that I don’t have a bag. I’ve never found a perfect bag. Normally I just use these brown bags [paper shopping bags] and I’ll tape it if it breaks or take a new one. I like them because they’re just a paper bag and they are not supposed to live forever. And they are meant for containing some stuff.
OTP Do you sketch your works before you start working on canvas?
MH Normally I do, but sometimes I just start with a photo. Or for one work I wanted the idea of some horses, so I started out sketching some carnival horses from my hometown. Sometimes I find one thing or some space in one of my drawings that I like and then I’ll use that. I have always had a problem looking. I don’t see that much, my eyes go to the back of my head.
The naked drawing I was never good at. I was always looking on the paper thinking “ok I see this, this is nice” you know her butt or her breast and then I’d keep making breasts. And then I would give her this big back and it would never turn out like what was sitting in front of me. It doesn’t really bother me, but it was more, to compare with the sketching before, even if I sketch, then I get the paint in my hand and suddenly I want this and this and it looks nothing like the sketch.
OTP Do you prefer working with paint to working with pencils?
MH I like working with brushes because I apply way too much pressure. In school I was never allowed to use a stiftblyant [extendable pencil] because I would just cut through the paper. I’ve always had a heavy hand, I can see that with my brushes, I like them stiff.
I paint with a lot of thin layers, that’s the technique I guess. When I get impatient, it turns more dark and then you have to wait and lighten them up again. But I prefer the faded look - the washed. I wash my works with turpentine to try and get the brightness out of it. I also like to paint on black surfaces with colour because it gives it such a nice clarity and depth. On black paper the image melts out and melts into space. It’s too clear on white, it just stays in front of you, it doesn’t melt.
OTP You mentioned your hometown, where are you from?
MH I am from this countryside kind of hillbilly town. 40 minutes north. Lots of generations just stay there. Narrow-minded a little bit, without sounding too prejudiced. A lot of ‘this guy is strange’. You’re not used to seeing that much flavour. They believe in normal and right and wrong. They have this carnival, with this beer tent and music that is kind of old, and political views that are super narrow like square.
If you talk about fear and “uh it used to be like this and now this is happening - where am I in this?” I mean it must be frightening to live out there where schools are closing and shops, the world is getting smaller, you can order things on Amazon. Everything is moving away from them - they are feeling more deserted and then the fear comes up and they hold a tighter grip on their beliefs and conservatism.
I find it interesting now to try to make nice pictures, something poetic, out of that place but showing an ugly truth. A lot of our childhood memories are too perfect to be true in a way.
OTP Is ugly truth something you think about a lot?
MH Not that consciously. I like the smudged edges of my paper and I don’t like to protect things too much, like that bag. I don’t know if that’s too sweet or too creamy. But things are supposed to break, things are supposed to fall into the abyss. It’s supposed to decay. That’s maybe a thought that I like. In general that’s how I like to live, whether its a plant over there needing water or my jacket falling apart, that’s something that happens to me and it goes into my work.
OTP When did you start painting with oils?
MH I really liked my drawing, the whole practice I had there and I wanted more, like “how big can I do it?” I prefer the large scale in that it challenged me the most. And then with oils I like all the ingredients. You have the raw oil and the pigment and then canvas. It’s like cooking but with materials and textures and you can make it so much bigger. Suddenly a pencil and a paper is so modest.
OTP You mentioned the ingredients in painting, do you cook a lot? What’s your speciality?
MH Not for myself, but I love to cook. It’s mainly the company. My speciality is everything leftover (laughing). I also like to bring food home.
OTP What about the best food spots in Copenhagen? Do you have any recommendations for the reader?
MH Ok this is a real recommendation - some of my friends have opened this place Baka d'busk - they are called plant guys or plant boys, they used to only make vegan food but now it’s vegetarian and they have spiced it up with fish and eggs. It’s these really ugly vegetables, just like lumps of dirt. I don’t know how they do it but they make it super delicate and beautiful-looking.
When you go out in Copenhagen its hard to get a big meal, so if I want that I go to these Danish kitchens where you can get a traditional national danish meal with meat and potatoes, I love that. There’s a really good one called Nyboders Køkken. They make nice dishes and you look at the royal family’s picture hanging on the wall (laughing). That is when the Conservative in me comes out smiling.
If you go to the fancy places, you get all these artistic croquettes but I always have to grab something else afterwards.
OTP What else do you like looking at? Do you visit galleries much?
MH I have some friends who are really good at bringing me to different museums and galleries. A lot of things have an impact on me in different ways. For example, I like when images are easy to read, when they are just true - easy to understand or you can see someone next to it, developing it.
That’s what I like most about exhibitions. It’s the best feeling when you understand the image and maybe you also lifted it up and thought of it in your own terms. Understood it, took it out, put it into society and then understood something else from it.
OTP If you could swap a painting with any artist, who would it be?
MH That would be Tal R. He was the first artist I understood. I really like his naïve way of painting - that whole way of creating stuff. That it’s just, ok a chopping board and then you make some prints out of that or it’s a house. He also has this with textures - some of his sculptures are really textural. They are cheap, decaying, but they are also alive and now! They are put into museum contexts but even then it still has this really nice, direct effect.
Everything I have seen by him seems to be this “hand out for a handshake” kind of art. The paintings and the sculptures offer a hand out to me and say hello. When you can feel like something heavy is behind the work, where there is some kind of consistency in an artist’s work is a big joy for me. When a work just feels like a little tile in the big mosaic. Maybe this one I don’t understand so clearly but with all the other works it becomes much bigger.
OTP Any final advice for the reader?
MH Think of your work and yourself as a conversation. In a conversation you have all these formalities, you say “hello” and “excuse me” and “farewell” and that kind of structure. Find some structures within your normal life, find already existing structures and build on them. I don’t know if that’s advice but I feel it’s character building.
OTP I’ve changed my mind, one more question, what do you spend most of your money on?
MH Beer. And then of course… No actually it must be beer.
See more of Mads Hilbert's work:
All works featured are available to purchase internationally.
Contact OTP or the artist for more information.