An Interview with Sebastian Schrader

Deconstructing Form with Light

Portrait of Sebastian Schrader. Photo: Sebastian Neeb (c)

Sebastian Schrader (born in 1978 in Berlin, Germany, living and working in Berlin, Germany) is a contemporary artist best known for his figurative body of works. Primarily painting with oils on canvas, Schraders’ paintings are populated by human figures in an in-between state. The depicted figures seem to be part of a décor, as if they have been staged by the German artist in a surreal setting.

Julien Delagrange (JD): Dear Sebastian, thank you for taking the time for an interview on CAI. We are delighted to have you.

Sebastian Schrader (SS): The pleasure is all mine. Many thanks.

JD: Congratulations with your current show at REITER Berlin titled Useless Light. Could you tell us a bit more about the show and the surprising title?

SS: The exhibition includes about twelve to fifteen works from the last year. It is dedicated – like all my exhibitions – to painting and its aesthetic manifestation. A recurring motive in this show are the knot-like formations. They appear in different variations. There are figures wrapped in bandages, there are simple knots and also intricate vegetation. This is the first time I have painted plants and exhibited them as well.

The title should give room for speculation, allowing associations and raising questions. In addition, I liked the sound and the mood or connotation connected with it. This incommensurate character of the title embodies a certain melancholy that fits well in the current time. I find the useless, casual and unintentional very likeable and light interests me anyway.

Installation view of 'Useless Light' (2021) at REITER, Berlin. Photo: REITER (c)

JD: Indeed, light clearly plays an important role in your work. Over the past five years the contrast in your paintings has continued to increase resulting in an impressive claire-obscure as the white draperies seem to float in those indefinite spaces with dark backdrops. The result is an uncanny intensity which has a very direct impact on the viewer. Could you talks us through this play with light and shadow and your overall aesthetics?

SS: Yes, that's right. I use this spot lighting that creates the chiaroscuro effect. Thereby I am referring to Renaissance and Baroque painting. The harsh light deconstructs the form of the object as fragments are created. This is something very interesting for me. I can use this kind of light to highlight things, but also to hide them. The emergence of fragments reveal the loss of unity and the world as a whole.

The classic pictorial space does not exist within my work. Basically, I paint an abstract picture. My compositions are more like a Piet Mondrian construction kit. There are surfaces in which forms are clamped. There are structures and textures, contrasts and rhythms, as if composing a song.

JD: What was it that made you paint the way you paint? What incentives urge you to make these images?

SS: It is the result of a long and ongoing process, fed by experiences and certain interests. To list them all would be tiring. Over the years, I've wandered through art history and picked up what seemed interesting to me. Those seperate elements functioned as building stones and from all these findings I have build my own house in the end.

Further, the confrontation with different opinions was also an important matter. Only when one's own work is questioned one is forced to think about it. Nevertheless, it is important not to deny oneself. Sometimes I hope that my paintings will answer me. That they would whisper the secret of the world in my ear. So far they are silent, so I have to continue painting.

Sebastian Schrader, Untitled, 2021. Oil on canvas – 80 x 90 cm. Courtesy REITER Galleries.

JD: What are the main recurring topics throughout your oeuvre? What motives or metaphors are essential? Could you describe the conceptual foundation of your paintings?

SS: I am a bit reluctant towards this conceptual idea. It's based on sitting down, thinking something up, and then making art. That is perceived as positive, but in my opinion it overestimates the human mind. For me, art is not a drudgery heavy in content. My goal is not to illustrate my thoughts. I want to create something that is unknown to myself and not limited by my thinking. I have to follow my intuition and give space to the interplay of control and loss of control. There are no certainties.

In my opinion, this is also the beauty of art as a person can be completely human, with all his flaws. This represents a great value, because it is a unifying element. I am looking for beauty!

Nevertheless, there are several recurring motives in my work. For example, the question of human existence. Lonely heroes in seemingly senseless situations populate my paintings. Figures that threaten to drown or to get entangled in this in-between state. Perhaps this is a feeling that many can share, because we live in a time that no longer tolerates to continue like this. Climate change is grasping us and capitalism is undermining any counter-strategy. We are paralyzed within our systems.

JD: Sadly, there is the issue of the ongoing pandemic, still. In what way did it affect you as an artist and did it transfer certain developments on your painterly works?

SS: The pandemic hasn't affected my day-to-day work that much. I'm used to working alone. However, interesting for me is how society deals with the pandemic, such as politicians, the people or even the media. The increasing polarization within society is scary. Certain days, you would think the world is losing it.

I also found the multiple reactions of artists mostly disappointing. Too often, an egocentric interest imposes itself to me. The difficulty of finding a social consensus does not bode well for the future. I am pretty sure that the experiences I have gathered will certainly influence my work, but probably more indirectly.

Sebastian Schrader, Untitled, 2019. Oil on canvas – 200 x 160 cm. Courtesy REITER Galleries.

JD: Since 2018-2019, your figures are covered in draperies, bandages or cloaked by white garbs. Was this a premeditated decision or did it occur intuitively?

SS: That was generally intuitive, even if it was in fact announced along the way. I had already discovered the piling up of fabrics and garments for myself in earlier paintings. I'm thinking of the Aufgeschoben series [see image below]. These mountains of laundry refuse a message on the one hand and on the other they satirize it. For there is probably nothing more incidental than a mountain of laundry.

And yet they embody so many things. Lying down for example, or procrastinating, a kind of laziness or the result of perfectionism. In any case, it is a rejection of the meritocracy. We also encounter these mountains of wrinkles in Frank Gehry's architecture, who wanted to bring more humanity into cities. The whole history of art is full of loincloths and robes. So it resonates a lot.

Formally, it gave me the opportunity to create figurations in which the human being doesn't actually appear anymore. The figuration transforms into a still life. All that remains is the shell. The denial of a narrative gives painting the opportunity to become the center of it's own manifestation.

Sebastian Schrader, Aufgeschoben 13, 2016. Oil on canvas – 170 x 210 cm. Courtesy the artist.

JD: How does one read your paintings?

SS: I leave this decision to everyone themselves. When I look at a painting, slowly scanning it with my eyes, it's a sensual process. I see how the painter approaches his subject. How he deals with his medium. That is, as it were, an approach to the world. Is he cautious, groping, or rabid and haughty? It's more about the 'how' than the 'what'.

I look at the form. In my opinion it is underrated. People are looking too much for a message, but the medium is the message, to bring Marshall McLuhan into play. Of course, the motives play a role as well, but if I would explain them now, everything would be said.

Installation view of 'Useless Light' (2021) at REITER, Berlin. Photo: REITER (c)

JD: I have one final question to conclude the interview; you are part of a wider movement in painting, marked by a representational visual language and an often existential or strong psychological emphasis. How do you approach this tendency in painting and in what manner is it relevant in a contemporary context?

SS: That's a difficult question. I have not yet perceived myself as part of a movement. But it's true, there are a number of painters who are pushing a similar visual language. How relevant this movement is is something I can not judge. I think that images spread more quickly through the internet creating certain groups of interest. It remains to be seen how this will affect society on the long term.

I see the bigger trends at the moment in movements like Fridays for Future (international movement of students to fight the climate change), or also in identity politics, which has an effect on culture. This means that the message becomes more important than the form.

JD: Thank you very much for your time and for your paintings of course. Good luck with the current exhibition and all exhibitions to come. We’ll continue to follow your projects closely!

SS: Thank you for the interesting questions. All the best!

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