I didn’t find Herwig Maria Stark, this former Austrian menswear designer turned artist http://www.herwigmariastark.com found me on social media.  His work is challenging, poignant and haunting.  I love his use of dark lines and black and white contrast.  What makes him tick?  Here’s our cool chat … 

I know that these subjects are difficult for many people, but I feel that now and again, it’s an artist’s duty and obligation not to create only decorative things for an empty wall, but to show, visualize and react to actual situations and life.”

MICHAEL: Hey Herwig.  First off, what's the origin of your middle name?  Maria?  I must admit that I was a bit confused at first.

HERWIG: The origin of my middle name results in a Christian and Middle European tradition. The meaning of it is to give a child the protection of Mother Mary, hence, “Herwig MARIA Stark.” And yes it often creates confusion and I note it when I get emails like, “Dear Miss Stark…” LOL.

MICHAEL: Your work is so unusual.  I love the dark, odd expressiveness of your work.  Are they mainly drawings or paintings? What inspires you to create?

HERWIG: Hello Michael, The dark and the odd; well, tricky isn't it? My artworks are both paintings and drawings, depending on what I want to express. Of course, meanwhile, I developed a mixed-media technique of charcoal drawing and acrylic painting. The drawing is the BASE of the artwork and you can always see and feel these archaic strokes and energy with their immense power. From time to time, I also reproduce my drawings on canvas to overwork the very topic or to modify it.

My inspiration is the human being, but not so much for what your eyes can see.  My focus is the “Behind,” the “Inner World” (thoughts, emotions, fear hope etc. and an endless world to discover) and there is ALWAYS a behind! I am pretty aware that I work on topics that one might not want to know too much and that make the spectator reluctant to deal with.  It’s all of the things we carry with us inside and we know they are there, we feel them, but it might make us uncomfortable to look at them. You will find just single persons showing you multiple emotions at once or you might find a group of people interacting in a situation. It is not that I only want to mirror BAD things. I just want to make you aware of them so that you might start a journey into yourself and find a way to deal with what you find there. Hopefully, with the result that you or anyone else will feel better in the end and live more consciously.

MICHAEL: You use a lot of black and white and dark lines. It's really a big part of your work.  Tell me about these dark lines and contrasting with white. Why do you do this?

HERWIG: The dark, black and white lines emphasize and highlight the expression of the protagonist in the artwork as they are nothing to hide, but to gain the focus of the spectator. Sometimes it might seem that it is too hard, but it is perfect for me to examine our society full of vices and weakness, melancholy and agitation. This wedding of black and white in high contrast shows perfectly the latent drama of our society today.

MICHAEL: Your work has a film noir kind of vibe.  It makes me think of Europe in the 30s and 40s and people like James Cagney and Greta Garbo.  Am I wrong?

HERWIG: You are completely right! The 30s and 40s were dominated by the influence of World War II and the after pains of World War I. In our days, we have again a global crisis of which we do not know where it will lead us. People feel insecure, anxious and try to keep up appearances as long as possible. And again, as in the 30s and 40s, we have this, on the one hand, big yearning for individuality as a counter-movement to globalism and on the other hand, the equalizing of global societies and exaggerated hedonism. These movements have led us obviously into a very weird social life that mostly seems to take place in new virtual spaces creating bohemians of a new generation. We seem to live our unbridled passions, play with the symbols of wealth, luxury and power and show no interest in existing structures anymore. I would call our society the children of the, "I Want to Have and I Am" Society.

MICHAEL: Very interesting.  You are exploring a subject that is difficult for many people.  Your work is beautifully graphic and visual, but do you think people can handle such truth? 

HERWIG: I know that these subjects are difficult for many people, but I feel that now and again, it’s an artist’s duty and obligation not to create only decorative things for an empty wall but to show, visualize and react to actual situations and life. And art is one of the perfect venues to do so as the language is international and can be understood by many people. I try to pack these subjects into a - let's say - "nice" wrapping using colors of pastel, some glitter etc.  And of course, the works seems at the first sight NICE and intriguing and you have to look more than once at them. These "tricky" effects make it mostly impossible to escape from the broached subjects as you are already into them then you start to realize what it is really about. For example, the series "Zeitenwandel,", the artwork with the title "Schatten der Gegenwart (Shadows of the Present)," where you can see two oligarch daughters sitting on a pastel pink sofa in the middle of a ghetto dumping ground where little children work to survive. Both of them feel never the less, more than uncomfortable in their own situation-either being super-rich or poor. When I presented this small series in Vienna, the people were attracted first by the pink daisy duck bows in the hair of the two little girls in their silver glittery straitjackets. Another good example is the "The Beaver Cleaver’s Mum & Dad" and "The Beaver Cleaver’s Clone Twins" from the series, "Looping State of Mind."  Both are kept in pastel colors, referring to this ‘50s/’60s U.S. TV show, “Leave It To Beaver,” dealing with the “perfect family,” but when you start thinking about this, does the perfect family really exist? And who the hell is living in a world of pastels?

MICHAEL: Exactly.  When did you first become an artist?  What's your first memory of art?  Do you come from an artistic family?

HERWIG: My mother said that I was already drawing before I could talk! I made thousands of sketches in my school books, designed games on paper for me and my brother or designed fashion. That's why I first studied fashion design in Vienna and in Florence, Italy. After a nice career as a fashion designer that I finished after being awarded by the Ministry of Science, Research and Culture, Vienna, Austria for the "Best Men’s Collection 1996," I began realizing that it was too much for me. It was NOT satisfying dealing my whole life with the surface of the human being, transforming it and giving them again and again "NEW MUST HAVES.” Hence, after a while of reflection, I decided to turn my "secret passion” and hobby into my profession … and here I am.

MICHAEL: Very cool.  What do you think about the art world today and how it functions?  It's still so difficult for living artists. Most people don't understand contemporary art and artists.  They only know about Picasso and that he is dead and famous.

HERWIG: Well, that's the question I was waiting for!  LOL.  I feel that the art world of today has changed a lot comparing it to recent decades. As mentioned before, we live in a fun and entertainment society and the art world reflects it pretty well I think. In former times, a gallerist was a person who acted as an intermediary between the artist and the spectator. Now, they seem to be more art fair hoppers and the art history students that guard the gallery during their absence seem not to be that qualified to do this job. On the other side, being an artist asks you to become a “brand” like Gucci or Chanel.

In the 90s, it seemed to be chic to be untouchable as an artist, getting paid court by everybody, hiding yourself behind dark glasses etc. Now it has changed a bit again, I think. You have to be touchable; people want to talk with you about your art and are very thankful if you give them your attention. Of course, getting a photo together with the artist is like a souvenir for them. Being an artist, you need a damn good PR and marketing machinery that helps you to becoming a brand. You need a lot of money to pay for being exhibited as the costs for exhibitions and art fairs have become incredible high and hence, without the monetary contribution of the artist, it is nearly impossible to realize good shows. But it is also tricky as there are a lot of so-called galleries that offer their white walls for exaggerated amounts of money and hence, they generate a kind of passive income, but in the end, they do nothing for the artists that paid. I feel that is not fair, is it?

MICHAEL: No.  It’s absolutely not.

HERWIG:  For many people, it is not easy to understand contemporary art and sometimes it is also hard for me to understand it as I feel very often that there’s no real content or soul in what some "artists" present. Best would be if every artist would ask himself: WHY DO I WANT TO DO THIS?  WHY DO I WANT TO BE AN ARTIST? It is understandable and necessary that you can and should live from what you create. But to make it sure you should not consider people being stupid in the end and try to sell them a piece of shit as art. But go for it, if you think that your "SHIT" is art.  LOL.

I personally do not care about posthumous fame and reputation. I offer a possibility to look at things and live etc., in a certain way, take it or leave it! But I am also aware that art is a PRODUCT and as any other product, it has to provide a certain quality and content and make people feel attracted by it, also if the content is not that easy. If it is not sold then best to search for the reason why!

MICHAEL: Very interesting.  What do you think it will take to get more people interested in contemporary art?  Many people are intimidated by it.

HERWIG: I think it should start with education.  A good education gives you the possibility to get a better approach to art. Being intimidated is understandable, BUT it won't make life better right? Contemporary art can give you the possibility, in case that it is a good artwork, to start a journey into yourself and the world. If you buy an artwork, see it every day and if you are not reluctant to deal with its questions, it can tell you every day another story or give you every day another and new message.

And that is so exciting, I think. It gives you the possibility to reflect about yourself, the topic it is talking about and in time, you will see it in a completely different way and it will make you feel RICH! An inner richness of course, and maybe also monetary richness if the artist becomes famous.  If an artwork scares you, then ask yourself, WHY? There must be something inside yourself and your personal story that makes you react like that. You can take it as a chance, a sign to change or you can refuse, that's up to you. But maybe it is more convenient to do a journey inside yourself rather than pay a shrink over the years, thousands of euros or dollars.

MICHAEL: Vienna.  It seems like a magical place to me with lots of classical music, wealthy people, royalty, beautiful castles and fairy tale life.  LOL. What's it like there?  Do everyday people in Vienna relate to contemporary art? Do they buy art?

HERWIG: Well, I would say for sure there can be something magic of course when you love to debauch in the glory of the past or when you are a fairy tale junky.  As we are told, Austria is still one of the richest countries in the world and yes people have money, are interested in art and they also buy it. Everyday people, well that's a word I hardly can deal with because what is an "everyday person?” I think it depends with whom you are connected with, your social status, your profession, your friends, your general interests etc. Vienna and Austria too has a high creative potential, but often it is like in many places of the world the same "drama."

A prophet has no honor in his own country.  A guy named Helmut Lang once said: "If you survive Vienna, you will make it everywhere" and that's somehow true. You can realize your ideas here and work in a calm mood without being offended in general, but Vienna has as everything in the world its dark sides. Austrian mentality is very strange for many other people from abroad. On one hand we are friendly, polite etc., but on the other hand we do not MOVE very easily. If you have a new project in mind, you might get a reaction like: “Are you sure it will work?”  “Hmm, well let's think it over, let's see etc.” People often seem to be envious that someone could have more success than themselves. And then they might try to stop you before you started. "Something NEW? Oh my God, No!" LOL. So, you have both sides; open minded, interested and helpful and the contrary.

MICHAEL: We have that here in America too.  Believe me.  Finally Herwig, what is the point of art?  Why should people even care?  Art isn't curing cancer or ending homelessness.  What role does art really play?  People are not even buying art ... only wealthy people.  No?

HERWIG: ART is food for the soul I would say. So if you do not want your soul to starve, you should also care about art. Sure, it cannot cure cancer or end homelessness, but it can give you access to something that everybody can and will understand, a world apart from the everyday struggles and fights.

You can see in art things that you might not experience in your everyday life. And as it is an international language, it can people bring together too. My experience is that not only wealthy people buy art. If they feel a big need to have an artwork and earn not that much, they might pay for it in installments or buy a fine art print. And that's why I also offer fine art prints or artworks that can be affordable for many people – even if it is just a poster. Art should be accessible for everyone. That's the way I see it.

MICHAEL: Thanks Herwig.  This has really been a great chat.

HERWIG: Dear Michael, I thank you very much for your interest in my art and my person.

Check out Herwig Maria Stark at http://www.herwigmariastark.com.