Originally from Cologne, Germany, Mario Wagner is an artist and illustrator now living and working in Berkeley after relocating from the Mission District in San Francisco.
His work has been included in 3×3 Magazine and Illustration Now! and regularly appears in The New York
Times Magazine, Wall Street Journal and Wired Magazine. He has also contributed work to advertising campaigns in the United States and abroad, including Absolute Vodka, Cheerios and Ikea.
Wagner’s fine art has been shown in exhibitions in Berlin, Los Angeles, San Francisco and London, including Lazarides Gallery, LeBasse Gallery, and 111Minna in San Francisco, and art fairs including ArtBasel Miami and SCOPE.
You have been quite successful as both an illustrator and fine artist. Which career came first?
I studied illustration at FH Aachen, a University in North Rhine Westphalia in Germany, very close to the Netherlands. I began in University doing black and white graphic novels. I made hundreds of pages, but eventually became tired of it. One story would take five pages—I wanted to create one image to tell the story. I had also always loved collage, but hadn’t used it before in my own work.
Around this time I went to an Andy Warhol retrospective in Berlin, and the color, and these old images—it was eye-opening. When I saw the Warhol exhibition, it came to me: “Wow, color is awesome!” More than any process or style, it was the color in his work that influenced me to make my work more Pop-y, more contemporary.
Was this when you began to work as a fine artist as well as an illustrator?
Yes, my thesis show was all on canvas. I made the switch to collage from illustration right before graduating university.
I had never done anything like that before. But, I had a lot of freedom in school. My flat-mate and I at the time would work like crazy. At night after school we would just keep going, so the professors gave us a lot of freedom to experiment.
Do you think this good advice for artists in general, to make a lot of work?
Yes, I do. That is something I struggle with myself of course. Time is so valuable; you don’t want to play around so much, because you want to produce. But if you don’t have the playtime, you won’t discover new paths in your work.
Fine art takes so much longer—all this work cannot have a definite outcome, where with illustration you can get into a mindset where you have to produce. But for any career if you keep going, you will learn to make your own style.
How does your process begin with the collages and paintings?
I will look through old magazines, and find things that I like. I don’t go through them looking for something in particular. I will find an image that sets off something—I just want to use them.
Then I will scan these images and work with them in the computer. I lay everything out in Photoshop first, then print it, and cut the images out by hand before collaging. The basic work always happens in the computer. Before I begin working, the layout of the painting is also made in Photoshop.
I will paint on canvas first, sometimes on top of older paintings, then collage on top of the paintings with these images I’ve cut out.
You could print out these images you create in the computer and that could be the final product. However your fine art always has an element of the hand in it, especially when seen in person. Do you enjoy that process of working by hand?
Yes, there is spontaneity in the making of work on canvas, drips and such. There is a lot of texture in my paintings—I love texture. I like paper, I like drips of paint. Working in the computer is my sketching technique, then I keep going on the canvas, where the outcome is spontaneous.
For example, at one point, I didn’t like the face of somebody in an image, so I painted it over, then I kept doing this in other pieces. I like the idea of not identifying people. You can tell one guy is in a suit, for instance, but you don’t know how old they are, you don’t know what mood they are in. I like to keep their individual identity out of the work; in the end you don’t even care who it is.
You spoke of Warhol as an influence on your choices of color, are there other artists who have influenced you? Where do your ideas and images come from?
My wife just finished an art history program, so right now there are so many artists I can list who I like. I always liked Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, and Neo Rauch—Rauch mostly. Bauhaus is also a big influence.
I also love music. I like opera, I like classical, I like electronic music, I like new wave, I like the Smiths. I love the Smiths.
The vintage magazines are often a starting point for the collages. But more than drawing influence from any artist or anything, I like to create a mood. I’m not trying to make things make sense. I like to create a mood in my work where there is something going on, but you can’t figure it out.