Oliver Rico: What is your professional background? What are your particular interests in the art field? How would you define your artistic practice? How would you describe your mission/purpose and point of differentiation on the Zurich art scene? What was your most interesting/successful project/exhibition, and which was the most challenging?
Giampaolo Russo: I'm a painter, etcher, and I also draw. I’ve been living between Italy and Switzerland. I studied fine arts painting at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan and later at the Art Education Department of the University of the Arts in Zurich.
In the last twenty years, I have had to take the initiative and organize 90% of my exhibitions independently and with other artists. I noticed early on that in Zurich classical art media like painting and sculpture are undervalued after all by local institutions and that I had to organize things myself to exhibit my works regularly.
In my artistic research, I’m always inspired by life itself. This curiosity led me towards the medium of painting.
In Zurich, I see very little fertile ground or a welcoming approach towards classical media like painting or sculpture by city institutions. The cultural background of this town, the harsh Calvinist thinking are reasons for this radical view: constructive and concrete painting was possible in Zurich but not fleshy figurative painting.
The Zurich University of the Arts, originally a school for the Applied Arts, has a tradition in design and graphics for industry. It and also the main juries in national art awards like in the Museum Helmhaus or Canton Zürich. The Institute of Fine Arts of the University of the Arts has focused for over twenty years on conceptual and intellectual forms of art, the idea being making to the detriment of handcraft and artistic technique.
If you are interested in doing painting—figurative painting—and developing your artwork only in the painting medium, you don’t find much understanding for that. Through my part-time job at the library of the University of the Arts, I have had many conversations and exchanges with students from the Fine Arts department on this topic.
Many students don't stay more than a year in the same medium, because the concept is more important than developing yourself in one medium.
There is currently no professor in painting: the last one was Thomas Müllenbach, who left many years ago. So, the students combine their work in art with other media: the work should be "transdisciplinary" and political, otherwise you are not "really contemporary."
When you declare yourself a painter, you are often confronted with the word "conservative" here. Zurich is a little rich town (in terms of money) with interesting galleries and institutions, but at the same time with a limited, closed attitude in general, but also towards classical media.
In other parts of Europe, if you think of Berlin or London, cities with which Zurich likes to be compared, you don’t have such epithets for painters: in these cities you notice that painting is deeply rooted in the cultural tradition. Painting has there an equal validity with other art media.
There are people interested in painting, also here in Zurich. And people who really understand are always few, everywhere. People who really "venture" and "risk" giving you a space for exhibitions are few and far between.
I remember speaking with the curator of the Kunstmuseum Luzern visiting the Leon Kossoff exhibition in the Kunstmuseum Luzern more than ten years ago. He said to me: “This exhibition is a risk here in this place.” In his own words...you see in these words also what I mean, what the general view and mood is about painting and about a great painter like Kossoff here.
I think it’s important to promote dialogue with other artists, especially with artists of other media.
To keep up this interchange, I have organized exhibitions with other painters of the region: I see "my mission" to show that there are some very good painters in Switzerland, even if they are not well-known internationally.
Switzerland has produced some good artists in the last forty years internationally, but not painters. In Germany, there are names like Markus Lüpertz, Anselm Kiefer, and younger ones like Daniel Richter and Neo Rauch who have gained international recognition.
I founded the painters group SALON DER GEGENWART 2014 in Zurich. In the statement of the Salon der Gegenwart it is written: “THE SALON DER GEGENWART IS A GROUP OF PAINTERS FOUNDED IN ZURICH. The group came about to fill the gap in figurative painting. A loosely connected group of painters see figurative painting and sculpture as a central pillar of the contemporary art.”
It’s in the consciousness of all painters who have participated in a Salon-exhibition and all the people who have come to see the exhibitions, that there is a “gap” in Zurich in figurative painting.
I think it’s an interesting experience to see painter friends of many years developing the own artwork in group exhibitions. BENDICHT FIVIAN, ERCAN RICHTER, ROSINA KUHN, CORINNE GÜDEMANN, HEINER KIELHOLZ, ANDREA MUHEIM, and other painters from the region have worked for thirty to forty years as figurative painters.
Art must be challenging to be interesting. So that every project can be different, and show new aspects of the participating artists, it has to be challenging. For example, in one of the Salon-exhibitions, we chose works that highlighted our artistic biographies. In another Salon show, the next one, which will be shown in late May 2021 in the former Hallen für neue Kunst Schaffhausen, we will exhibit works as a thematic development at the edge of abstraction.
It’s very challenging to organize these exhibitions (which began in 2008 with Dichte Gegenständlichkeit, Kunsthalle Wil/2011 All Diese Altmodischen Sachen, and oxyd Kunsträume Winterthur, then to the series of exhibitions with the SALON DER GEGENWART). In all this organizational work, what really remains at the end is to see your artworks and those of the other artists grow and mature through mutual encounters.
OR: How did you find the space in which your exhibitions take place? Does it belong to a private person or maybe to the City of Zurich? What rent do you have to pay? How do you finance your project? Do you have funding? From whom?
GR: Let me return to the example of the SALON DER GEGENWART ZÜRICH, the painter organization, which has already shown the works of almost forty important painters of German-speaking Switzerland. The SALON DER GEGENWART ZÜRICH has put on four exhibitions since 2014 in different places in German-speaking Switzerland, (2016 Salzhaus, Brugg 2017 Museum Villa Flora, Winterthur 2018 Villa Renata, Basel 2019 Zeughaus, Uster). The next exhibition will take place in the Kammgarn West (former Hallen für Neue Kunst) at the end of May 2021 in Schaffhausen.
Even though the organization SALON DER GEGENWART was founded in Zurich, we have never found a place in Zurich to exhibit. I have made many attempts at requesting space in Zurich, for example, private ones like the Kunstraum Walcheturm or the Stiftung BINZ39 (where I had a studio grant for two years) or those under the purview of the City of Zurich. For example, the Museum Bärengasse: the museum was administered for like two years from 2012 for art projects by the City of Zurich under Miss Basting and the Cultural Council of the City of Zurich. I tried many times to apply for exhibition space at the Bärengasse, also for a group project before the creation of the SALON DER GEGENWART. The first time I was told that I have to wait and to ask in half a year, and when I asked half a year later, the place had already been booked by other projects until the end of programming period. As you see, it’s a very diplomatic way to throw you out by the town cultural office
So, I looked for spaces outside of Zurich, where I was more successful. Growing up in Italy, you learn to be less dependent on national institutions and more self-reliant.
For the projects I have arranged, the Canton Council of Zurich sometimes contributed a bit. But most support came from private companies and individuals.
OR: What role does your project space play in the city of Zurich locally (or internationally)? How are you connected in Zurich, with whom?
GR: I think the positive thing about Zurich is that it’s not such a big city, so you get to know people fast, also people that are into art. I’m connected with many artists from Zurich and throughout German-speaking Switzerland.
The projects I initiated like the SALON DER GEGENWART have given me the opportunity to become acquainted with many people and many artists, also with people that might help in organizing an exhibition.
My studio in Zurich is in an old building in the oldest artists’ association in town: the "Südstrasse."
There are like ten other artists in this location.
Through competitions such as the portrait award of the National Portrait Gallery in London and some exhibitions in Italy and Germany, I have been able to get in touch with other artists and to exhibit in some places outside Switzerland.
In general, you have to persevere and work tirelessly to develop your art; in parallel, you also have to persist in the search for opportunities to exhibit and from time to time ask people who have art locales. Doing the artist is about being attentive and active, in sense of initiative and not to be discouraged by negative responses of juries or other parties.
OR: What do you wish for the Zurich art scene?
GR: In the last few years, with the closure of many private art galleries in Zurich, I wish that the Museum Helmhaus and also the new Kunsthaus would look to exhibit local artists more often.
I would also like to see more variety in the artists chosen in the city’s and canton’s art prizes and the national art prize as well. There should be more regular people on the juries for the city and cantonal art scholarships and not only curators and artists from the “Zurich art scene,” so that the same artists and the same kind of art don't win all the prizes.
With the phenomenon of globalization, many exhibitions or artists are passed around from one curator to the next, on loan, as a “product” or object, without looking more closely at the artworks themselves.
In general, I wish that experts would take more time to look more carefully at works of art.
Giampaolo Russo was born in Zurich in 1974 but grew up and went to school near Lecce (Italy). In 1990, he came back to Zurich and attended the Liceo artistico (arts high school). Subsequently, he completed his studies in painting at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera and the ZHdK. In addition to scholarships from the Hulda and Gustav Zumsteg Foundation and Steo Foundation and several exhibitions in Switzerland, he was exhibited at the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2010. In 2012, he lost almost his entire life's work in a fire in the Rote Fabrik, where he had his studio. In 2014, he founded the group SALON DER GEGENWART, whose aim is to make figurative painting and sculpture visible in German-speaking Switzerland. His paintings are exhibited in renowned galleries and museums in Switzerland, Italy, and England.
Oliver Rico (b. 1980 in Zurich) studied sociology and law in Zurich and Lucerne, after which he completed a Master’s degree in communication and organization sociology in Lucerne. He was a visiting lecturer at the Department of Design/Cast/ Audio-Visual Media at Zurich University of the Arts during the 2011-2012 semester. In 2017-2018, he gained the CAS Curating qualification, again at Zurich University of the Arts. He has worked in Switzerland and Spain as a recording manager and script consultant for short films. Other posts include work as a producer and dramatic advisor for the Actaeon Production Theatre Group and the theatrical association Hengst & Hitzkopf.