Michael Wallner Captures the City

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Focus LDN is proud to be an event partner with Urban Soup's exhibition A River Runs Through It.

September 6th-10th | Oxo Gallery.

In the build up to the exhibition, Tom Cox interviews fellow artist Michael Wallner to discover how he has been navigating the art world.

What is it that you do?

I create pieces of art based on photographs of London, which I digitally manipulate, colour, and then print on large sheets of brushed aluminium, which comes out with an etched effect. Mainly cityscapes, but anything which is city based.

How did you get to where you are now? Because you worked in media for twenty years, did you always know you wanted to be an artist during that time?

Yes, I worked in TV, which is a brilliant thing to be in, but 1. You have a shelf life and 2. You can burn out, so I was always doing art on the side, taking photographs always ever since I was younger and I wanted to do that full time. But I never had enough money, so I saved as much as I could whilst I was doing TV and then one day I found a leaflet for Wimbledon Art Studio’s Open Studios in the pub. I thought ‘oh’ and it was twenty minutes from my house, I had never been. I went round to look at it and I was so amazed by the brilliant standard of artists there that I moved in the following month and gave up my TV career, and that was that.

So, you’d been creating the work for a while and then this moment happened and this was your calling.

Yes, I think so, and I thought, should I do it? Should I spend the money to get a studio? It is very expensive in London to have a studio, but I did it, I wanted to be surrounded by other artists, I thought that might give me inspiration and make my work better which is has. I completely changed the style and standard of my art to what it is now.

And how long have you been there?

This is my sixth year.

At Wimbledon they do two open studios a year is that correct?

Yes, one in May and one in November and they are pretty good actually, we usually get around 4000 visitors over four days which is great.

What is it about being in a studio, surrounded by other artists which helped you become the artist you are today?

One of them is a psychological thing, art can be very solitary, you can be on your own for a long periods of time and that can drive you nuts, so you get cabin fever. Secondly, if you only do it on your own you never get a critique of your work. Nobody ever says ‘have you tried it in that colour?’ or ‘did you know you can print on this material?’ And I wanted to be around people with knowledge that I didn’t have at the beginning and learn from that, which is what happened.

You choose the city as your subject matter, why?

Because I think the thing with art is that you have to change all the time, you can’t just paint one thing all of the time, and a city has so many different views. I’ve lived here for twenty-five years in London and every single day I discover something new, that I didn’t see before, and that can be a new piece of art. I like the complete variety of buildings, culture, people, views, aerials views, basement views, and the river particularly; it is changing every single day, for me it is an endless opportunity for creating art.

Do you have certain motifs that you look for?

Often I look for angles and perspectives, a lot of my pictures contain aerial views looking down and patterns, I’ve just done one for A River Runs Through It exhibition which is an aerial view of Greenwich which has got the Old Royal Naval College, the river, and the park from above. It is all grids, patterns, the buildings have very defined angles, domes, and very recognisable shapes.

These aerial ones, were these originally shot from a helicopter?

Yes, it was from a helicopter which is great, the trouble is with the tourist flights you can only fly above the river, they don’t let you fly over the city. So if you want to get better shots you have to rent a helicopter and fly over the city, which I’ve done. They take the seats out and the doors off and they strap you in and you hang out of the door.

You don’t have any problems with vertigo then?

Erm, yes actually. In fact, when we did it last time, the pilot said to me, ‘you strap is is round your waist, it is not as good as the guy next to you, so you need to hold on when we take off’

That’s not what you want to hear is it?

He said, ‘otherwise you’ll fall out and knock yourself out’ I had three cameras up there, one of the wrist and a big heavy on which need two hands, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to hold on. When you first take off it goes a little faster and higher that I thought it would be, and its just air in front of you.

What kind of angle are you sitting out at?

Well you know the landing things underneath, your feet are resting on those. But when you see the Gherkin in front of you, or whilst you are hovering above the shard. We were able to hover over oxford circus which I wanted to capture, because there is a circle and then roads leading off like spider’s legs, it is a really nice pattern. Once you have that underneath you you forget where you are.

So you are willing to go to extreme lengths to get the right angle of the city.

Up to a point, I’ve done helicopter rides elsewhere in New York, Dubai and Hong Kong, those are quite hair raising ones with those kamikaze pilots.

Take us through the process of how you make your images.

I take thousands and thousands of pictures, as some of them don’t work with my process. When it is a really sunny day and blue skies, people say ‘oh, you should be out taking pictures,’ but for me that is actually terrible because the definition of the sky against the buildings is very hazy whereas if there are grey skies then the buildings have a very distinct outline, so it is better for me to pic up the patterns.

I use photographic software which picks up the outlines and if it is a bit hazy the outlines are a very vague. So, that traces the outlines and then I have a massive Wacom graphics tablet the size of a big TV which I use to colour with a special pen straight onto the screen at 600% magnification, so I can colour in specific details like people on a bridge.

Once coloured I send them off to industrial printers and they print it onto a sheet of brushed aluminium which has little ridges in it which absorbs the ink. This gives them this raised, etched appearance. The bold colours like my pinks and blues offset against the silver of the metal.

You have been on the art scene of a number of years now, where have you exhibited?

New York, Milan, Singapore, and London.

What would you say has been the biggest one so far for you?

When you first start it’s a bit like a needle in a haystack, you are thinking ‘I have got my pieces, now what do I do with them?’ You have got to get seen and that is the key, so I had them at first in pubs and restaurants then I found a pop up gallery near my house in an old estate agent, chatted to them and then they sold stuff for me. Then I did a few art fairs like The Other Art Fair and then soon as I did that people came to those shows, galleries and then represented me from there. And it was sort of word of mouth, I did 16 shows last year, and then when you do that people who need to spot you like gallery owners and the ones who put on the big exhibitions come and find you. Now I exhibit at the Affordable Art Fair every year. It is all a progression, it would be lovely to have a solo show one day, but one step at a time.

How do you see the artist’s place now in 2017 in their role as an artist, as well as a business person? Because I think that things are changing very quickly, business rates are going up in the city, a lot of galleries are closing down because they can’t afford to keep up with it. Art fairs are becoming a bigger thing. As well as the evolution of the galleries and the economic world in which we are existing, how do you see artists developing with that?

I think it will be very interesting to see the relationship between us the artists and the galleries in the next ten years because we have more access to media which has changed everything. Especially Instagram where a lot of the collectors and dealers look for pages, I know people who have been picked up by major companies, like Marks & Spencer's who wanted their pictures on their clothes. I think all these kinds of things are making the artists more powerful or will do. But shows are key for me, because gallery spaces are reference points like an office, but they do the fairs and then people come back to their ‘office’ but the exhibitions around the world now are the key.

Personally, what do you think is the most difficult thing about being an artist?

Having the courage of your convictions, to stick to what you want to do, because you get a lot of advice, especially at the beginning from people saying ‘why don’t you do that like that, in that colour or in a different colour?’ And you could do what people want and then the next person to come along will say ‘why didn’t you do it in another colour?’ You have to stick with what you think is right. You have to be prepared to accept failure, and that is the next step to success, because if you don’t fail a few times you can’t work it out.

A difficult thing is that you spend ages on the work, you make the work and then people might not like it, but then it is too late. Some pictures work better than others. Some people like one particular picture and other people hate it. One of my best selling images is a picture of the national theatre which has a bright pink sky, at the last show I did two old ladies walked by and said ‘oh, who would want that on their wall?’

You have got to decide what you want to do and what your thing is so that people can recognise your style and know your work when they see it.

What advice would you give to any emerging or early career artist?

I think you have got to decide; do you really really want to do it? Do you really want to be an artist? Because it can be quite difficult and it can be quite soul destroying, and you have to put in a huge amount of work, at the beginning especially and then you have to keep it up, you can’t drop off social media or off networking for six months, you have to do it all the time. Get out there to all the shows, and then meet the gallery owners and talk to them at their shows. Sometimes when they are trying to sell it is difficult, but when they are at their galleries at a PV talk to them, follow them on social media so they know who you are and then they will keep an eye on you.

Experiment and decide your style, which is different, and go for it no matter what!

Tell me about Urban Soup.

I am obsessed with London and I absolutely love it. I always wanted to do an exhibition as a regular thing to show the different ways that artists portray the city. So, last year I got a group of artists together with different styles and we went to the Sky Garden for a coffee and tried to come up with a name, Urban Soup came up and we really liked it because a soup is a nice mix of different ingredients, and urban was the city so we stuck with it. And then we made an exhibition called A River Runs Through It. Over the years we can keep the name and brand and do it in different countries in different cities.

So Urban Soup is a collective of artists, but an evolving collective portraying the city, but not necessarily just London.

In September 2017 the second year of the A River Runs Through It exhibition, so if you love London then follow the link and join us from 6th- 10th September at the Oxo Gallery. All info and event tickets can be found at www.ariverrunsthroughit.art.