An interview with Falk Lehmann aka AKUT

The work of Falk Lehmann (aka AKUT) has seen many phases and variations over the last 3 decades. As one of the founding members of the MACLAIM crew and one-half of the former artist duo HERAKUT, one fundamental aspect of interest that accompanies the artist to this day in his solo work is the notion of the portrait.

In his solo exhibition INSIGHT at the METROPOLINK Commissary at the Patrick-Henry-Village in Heidelberg Germany, Lehmann shines the light on a project that has been over 10 years in the making. The exhibition which runs from December 11th, 2021, till February 25th, 2022, features 80 digital photographic portraits, 4 collaborative hand-painted canvases, and an on-site collaborative mural which you can all be seen here: THE “INSIGHT” EXHIBITION BY AKUT – FOR METROPOLINK

INSIGHT sees AKUT exercise a multitude of his capabilities which lie between the spectrum of painting and photography. With the basis of the work stemming from Lehmann’s own interest in portraiture, photorealism, and the human face, he explores the marriage of the faces and artworks of his peers, friends, and artistic colleagues. With such a large number of works taking such an intense amount of energy and effort to create, we took up the opportunity to speak to Lehmann directly to get some in-depth insight into the exhibition.

An interview with Falk Lehmann aka AKUT

MC- You are located in the German capital of Berlin and were born in Schmalkalden. Between then and now were there any points in your life that are significant to the conception of the INSIGHT project?

AKUT– The INSIGHT project among other things is an extension of my existing way of creative thinking. Even since the days when I created painted photorealistic images with the MACLAIM crew, I was always engaging with the idea of “photo” realism. But I was always a little intimidated by the idea of making photographic work in an ocean of photographers. With my painting practice, I used a camera to capture a moment which I then transformed into a painting, as if I had one foot in photography and the other in painting the whole time. However, two distinct moments have led to this point. The implementation of the original Montana GOLD black and white transparent colors. These two colors opened the doors to the development of my photorealistic painting techniques going forward. And the discovery and use of transportable mini-projectors which only need a small room and no light. From there on the INSIGHT concept fell into place.

MC- How important is the role of graffiti for you, and regarding the people, you have chosen to work with?

AKUT– I am now at around 80 portraits. Not all subjects have graffiti backgrounds. Upon some personal reflection, I started to realize that the element of graffiti in the stories of my chosen subjects could have been a stronger focal point. It is the connection between me and my art practice. Although I appreciate all artists, for INSIGHT there is a certain flavor that artists with a graffiti background have that I appreciate and want to explore.

MC- Do you have a rapport with all the subjects before working with them? Or did you meet some for the first time?

AKUT– A bit of both. I knew some of them beforehand and jumped at the opportunity to work with them. Others I was aware of from afar, as fellow artists circulating in the street/urban/graffiti art circles. After all, the urban art community is a relatively small cosmos. I knew about them, and they knew about me. Which I think worked in my favor as some subjects were more open to being photographed by a fellow artist rather than photographers from outside of the inner sanctum.

MC- Were there criteria you used to choose the people you worked with?

AKUT– With the photographic portraits, many of the artists I reached out to and asked if they wanted to participate as they were also invited to events that I was going to be present at. So connecting to chat about the project with them and taking the shots was relatively simple. However, regarding the collaborative canvases, this was another situation altogether. For each collaborating artist, the level of trust in me must have been immense as they were delivering me a finished piece of their artwork that alone, already had a high monetary value. Then I needed to create a photographic headshot of them which I transformed over their artwork via manual painting. Essentially like the photographs I had already created digitally of them for INSIGHT but in a form of handmade analog painting. Not every professional artist would be willing to run the risk that their artwork could be destroyed.

MC- For INSIGHT, you have chosen to project the artwork of each artist on their face. How significant is the face for you considering you could have projected onto any parts of their bodies?

AKUT– I believe that most of our communication happens through our facial expressions. And in particular the eyes. As they say, “the eyes are the key to the soul”. In everyday life, we are always reminded of the importance of eye contact. This notion I try to project into my work. Through the features of the face, I try to capture the essence of the human being it belongs to. Regardless of if it is a painting or a photograph. The process never really gets any easier to do. The better you get, the more nuances you realize exist and the more compelling it is to try and capture them. It also changes and influences my technique. And it drives the palette I work with. Portraits and more accurately faces are for me the genre and symbol of life. The key to a person.

MC -Did the process of creating the INSIGHT portraits look the same in the beginning as it does in the later portraits? Did the result (or focus) change in any way.

AKUT– The process was a long one. And relatively early there were some technical changes and decisions that needed to be made relating to equipment. Like the type of tripod, analog or digital, and which projector I would settle on working with. But the conceptual line I was working on with the idea of the face as the focal point with an artwork projected on it that I saw as relevant to my ideas, remained.

MC- Who was the hardest person to capture and why?

AKUT– I can’t say that anyone was particularly hard to photograph, more so that some people had less patience to sit in front of the lens and projector until I thought I had captured the right shot. And ironically, the person that was least motivated to stay seated for a long time was Martha Cooper, a photographer herself.

MC- Did you or the subject decide which artwork was going to be projected onto their face?

AKUT– I usually chose the artworks that would be projected on their faces with the idea that these works were those that best represented them. In the best cases, I already had a work in mind that the artist agreed with. Then it was just a matter of finding the right portion of that work and how to project it. In other cases, the artists gave me a selection of works in advance that they chose and I selected the final piece. Generally, they were all happy with the work being projected on their face. I had to put some thought and effort into balancing technical issues like color and the morphing of the projection etc, to respect the sensitivities that some people may have had about how their faces were going to look concerning their sense of self.

MC- What role does the level of fame or public awareness of your chosen collaborating artists play in who you work with? Could an unknown non-established artist also play an equal role as a famous one?

AKUT– The level of notoriety and privacy of artists is mixed. There are both well-known artists and lesser or unknown ones that I am connected with that I feel are ideal participants as an INSIGHT subject. As mentioned previously, the international touring graffiti and urban art communities are a relatively small cosmos. So, I was exposed to a lot of artists whose work I liked. However, there are a lot of artists in my private sphere that are equally as engaging for me. And more importantly, make equally as interesting work.

My other motivation was also to gather extra material that could accompany the INSIGHT portraits in a printed publication about the project.

Falk Lehmann (aka Akut)

MC- Did your connection or relationship to any of your chosen subjects change during or after the project?

AKUT– In general, any of the connections or relationships that were loose before developed into being tighter ones. Some people who were role models for me stayed that way. Some people became peers. But none of the connections or relationships changed for the negative.

MC- Was the location of Patrick Henry Village important to the showing of the INSIGHT works?

AKUT– On many levels, it was super important to show these works in this location. Firstly, seeing as it is the headquarters of the METROPOLINK festival I had close contact with the curator Pascal Baumgärtner who was a great supporter of my work. Over many years Pascal had shown interest in the INSIGHT progressions and supported its development. The collaborative canvas idea was a suggestion of his, to further the idea and bridge the gap between my photographic and painting work. The architecture of this space also made it possible to realize the collaborative mural with the Swiss artist KKADE. Which again, closes the circle of all my artistic practices.

MC- “How did you become unique”. What is the origin of this question? What is its significance to you?

AKUT– I realized that all the artists I had taken the portraits of had created their original visual language. A language that is unique to them and their experience. Just like their faces. I wanted to get closer to their essence, and for that, I needed to know more about them. But sending artists a 20 question interview sheet would most likely of never resulted in a returned questionnaire. So this one question was the one I cared about the most. And they all replied to it in one form or another. My other motivation was also to gather extra material that could accompany the INSIGHT portraits in a printed publication about the project. Something like a recipe book for other young creatives to be inspired by.

MC- Were there any surprises for you in the responses given by your subjects to that question?

AKUT– There was a large spectrum of answers submitted. Everything from 4-page essays to single sentence answers. But all in all the artists were as genuine to themselves as possible.

MC- Did the sittings happen via pre-arranged meetings or ever spontaneously?

AKUT– A mix of both. But there was always an element of pre-organization needed. I needed to find a space in advance that could double as a studio to take the portraits, and I also needed to reach out in advance to make the selection process for the images I would project on their faces. Strangely enough a space to shoot was always available. We used bathrooms at festivals, the dark corners of lobbies, or the hotel rooms that either I or they, were staying in.

MC- Were there any portraits that didn’t make the cut, and if so, how did you make these choices?

AKUT– NO. They all made it in, in some form or another. There are some I would love to do again as the context of that person, their work, or my relationship to them is different now than it was then. Some I am glad I shot when I did as there was something special about that moment.

MC- Do you prefer working with photography or with painting? Is there “a line” for you in the act of doing either? Or is any method just a means to an end for an idea?

AKUT– I love to paint. But as my painting method is so time and concentration-intensive, I like the speed of photography. Both have different dynamics that I feel offer me something unique to that technique. Even if I shoot photos quicker than I paint, I still take a lot of photos consciously to reach my goal.

MC- Are there any non-living artists you would have loved to work with for the INSIGHT project?

AKUT– I had to give this some thought, but there is one person I would have liked to capture. And that is HYURO who was born in Argentina but resided in Spain. We had met each other on different occasions. Although I didn’t get to know her well on a personal level, I very much liked the spirit and style of her work. Unfortunately, I missed out on being able to photograph her before she sadly died of Leukaemia in 2020.

MC- Does the aspect of storytelling play a role in the INSIGHT project as it did with HERAKUT work, or what journey do you want the viewer to go on?

AKUT– INSIGHT is like a formal meeting diary for me. It records my time (or meetings) with the featured artists and their work. In some ways, they almost remind me of a set of artistic collector cards featuring artists I like and their masks.

MC- After having worked with a female partner for so many years, does the issue of feminine/masculine play a role in the INSIGHT project? Does it play a role in the contemporary work of Falk Lehmann in general?

AKUT– On some levels, the issue of a lack of representation of female artists seemed to have died off a little (thankfully). In the past, it was often noted that someone was a participating female artist, rather than just a participating artist. Now there are a lot more female artists included in events and the focus seems to have shifted to the merit of their work rather than any kind of gender quota that needs balancing. Regarding INSIGHT works, I see an imbalance of male to female sitters for the photographic portraits. Possibly this reflects the imbalance of female to male invited artists that were present at the events I attended at the time. The issue of an artist’s gender was irrelevant to my work though. If I liked who they were, what they were doing, and they agreed to participate then it was a green light. For the collaborative canvas works, I did put a focus on balance. I wanted females to have a strong representation in the works as per the males. And the females I worked with are all exceptional artists anyway.

MC- Your rise to fame or exposure for most Montana Cans audience members was through your involvement with the MACLAIM crew and of course HERAKUT. When you look back at these periods, what do they represent for you then and now?

AKUT I am someone different now. We now live in a period of a lot of self-development and reflection. Back then it was a lot about team works that were dependent on each member of the team. It is different when boys (young men) get together and do graffiti together, or even being one half of a 50/50 male-female artistic duo. Each dynamic produces a different result. Now I am a solo artist, a husband, a father. A period of my life that is strongly complemented by many of the experiences I had before. As you get older you often discover how many things you don’t need in life. Back then it was a lot of innocent blind steps forward on an exciting path of exploration. I can now rediscover myself as the real person I am. On that same exciting path but with different experiences and a very different level of maturity.

MC- Your involvement with Montana Cans and the history you have with the development of the Montana GOLD cans and the Montana MACLAIM caps through your photorealistic artwork goes back over decades. Are these tools as relevant for you now as they were then?

AKUT– Definitely. However, my main tools are still the Montana GOLD can range. I change my focus on which colors within the range I use, but it is still a fundamental element of my work. Particularly the transparent colors which completely changed my world, and more recently the Montana ACRYLIC marker range that has also enabled me to further the intensity of my paintings.

MC- Do you think your use of aerosol paints and markers is a factor that is appreciated by your collectors? Or are you at a point in your career where people follow and support your work regardless of the medium you have used to create it?

AKUT– I honestly can’t answer that. I’m still at the start of this path as a solo Photographer / Painter. I can’t see a trend yet and thankfully most of my work is well received.

MC- What is your favorite Montana Cans can-and-cap combination?

AKUT– It is always a MACLAIM Cap on the Montana GOLD can I am using at any given moment.

MC- For you, what is the “hottest” city on earth as far as its art scene and the possibilities for young artists who are active there?

AKUT– I’m not sure. I was never a fan of hot spots. I and a lot of my peers come from the countryside or smaller towns and cities where there is less destruction or distractions. I am very aware of what stimulates or influences people’s artworks. For me, life and the daily act of living should stimulate ideas to make art, rather than using other art as a basis to make art. So with this mindset, you don’t need a hot spot to make art. We are living in a global community. If you use 360-degree vision in life and are aware of all its elements, then there is enough food there to feed your ideas indefinitely.

As with all Lehmann artworks and considering the INSIGHT concept is far from over, we wait in anticipation of new developments in the project over the coming years. No doubt the work will become an important part of art and urban art history. 

Follow Falk Lehmann (aka AKUT) on IG

Interview by René Van Kan / MONTANA-CANS & Images by Falk Lehmann aka AKUT / Martin Pötter for MONTANA-CANS