Schwanzwald: A Conversation with Willehad Eilers aka Wayne Horse
When entering the website of Willehad Eilers, aka Wayne Horse, you are greeted with a message that reads "80.000.000 Hooligans." What does it mean? Does it matter? Because whatever you see in the works of Wayne Horse is an entry point to a bizarro world that is a bit ghoulish and definitely full of debauchery. But, oddly, as we soon find out, also a place of hugs. What started as a career in graffiti has evolved into highly-detailed, intense works that possess an element of longing, frosted with glorious depictions of hedonism. You know, the good stuff. Interviewed for our Radio Juxtapoz podcast a few months back, we took an excerpt for our Summer 2023 Quarterly in time with Eilers solo show, Schwanzwald, at Harlan Levey in Brussels, closing on June 3, 2023. —Evan Pricco
Doug Gillen: Question number one, do I call you Wayne or Willehad?
Willehad Eilers: It's really up to you. I go by both names. One is my birth name, and the other is the name I gave myself.
How do casual acquaintances address you?
I don't really have casual acquaintances, but I think English speakers tend to go for Wayne and then some people go the extra mile and say Willehad.
You've been known as Wayne Horse for most of your artistic career, but are now in a different place from when you chose this moniker. Describe your relationship with this name because I know it's such a thing for graffiti artists; so many of them will just pick a name when they're 15 and when they get to 25, they're like, “Err.” But you're still sticking with it and you operate on this dual sense. So, what’s the deal with this handle?
I was lucky, I kept changing the last name. I began as Wayne McSteel and went to Wayne Champagne, Wayne Lacrosse. At some point, it was Wayne Horse. I made a website at that point, too, and I guess that's part of the reason why it stuck. But, actually, I do think a horse is quite a glorious animal and I'm happy to carry that animal in my name. Plus, I love to paint horses. I have the feeling that whenever you put a horse somewhere, there's this urgency that comes with it because obviously, you have the four riders…
Yeah, plus Wayne Horse, Willehad… it's really similar phonetics. So, I made my peace with it. At some point, I thought to maybe choose one or the other, but then I think time is going to do that for me.
Is there a difference between the two? For your studio work for example, how do you sign, Wayne Horse or Willehad?
I sign everything as Willehad. I think, maybe the difference is Wayne Horse can also do some bogus jobs every once in a while that I would never do myself, obviously.
What attracted you to graffiti in the early stages? Was it literally just because the other kid was better at drawing than you?
Because also it was like I was listening to hip-hop and rap music and it was just cool. We go to all these abandoned factories and have an adventure. It's the same thing that I still appreciate about graffiti, the whole adventure sense. You go and sneak around and there’s some romantic stuff to it I find.
So, where was this originally, since you're now based in Amsterdam? You were born in Germany, right?
I grew up in Bremen, which is in the north of Germany, an hour from Hamburg. It's quite a lot smaller than Hamburg, but growing up there were still enough kids to have trouble with or to look up to. It was an alive scene, that’s for sure.
Walk me through the process of one of your paintings. The way I have heard you describe it in the past is like some mental gymnastics that you go through in order to try and create these canvases.
I start with the blind drawing underneath as the very first thing on a prepared canvas. Either I go through sketches I made in my sketchbook or just some thoughts I wrote down. Sometimes I even mix either nighttime photography or hooligan fight photography with a classical painting, replacing a few characters. But I don't formulate that on a computer or anything like that. I will take pages from a book and my sketchbook, walk to the canvas and collage them together in a blind drawing manner.
So you'll have your image, you'll take in the image, and then just blindfold yourself?
Well, the image is not really there. I have the topic, I have a vague idea where I want to go and then basically what I have to do the whole time is mess it up and save it. The earlier I mess up a painting, the better because I’m able to take the holiness out of it. The white canvas is pretty holy, so to speak, so you're careful about what the first line is going to be. The quicker you fuck up, the quicker you really destroy it and there's no way back anymore! The more I put myself in the corner, then comes the fists. You act quickly and do stuff you don't think about too much, so you can't be careful. That's the stage I try to provoke numerous times within creating and finishing a painting.
This might sound weird, but to have a great idea often is really a problem. It's nicer to create the idea together with your work because then you get an honest testimony of what you're building. Otherwise, you're trying to live up to this idea, which also can be stifling. You can be a bit more careful to keep this holiness there and I got to destroy all holiness. I have to just save. I run around hectically trying to keep it together and then comes the moment at a certain point at which I see, okay, this is the story that's in this painting, and from that moment on, all decisions are being dictated by the work and I just serve it and then eagerly finish it off. That is very relaxing—and fast.
When does the relaxing part come in?
It sounds so funny, but I get to talk directly to the painting. At some point, it starts talking back and that's what I need. Then I get something that excites me, as well, and then come the ideas for new things. I suppose I'm also a bit addicted to that feeling because that's a lot of long laborious effort until the moment where it starts to happen by itself. But, in a way, those moments have to be prepared through this laborious routine.
There's the joy, there's the fear, and there's a permanent battle between multiple different senses. Is that how you feel when you're creating this?
That’s how I feel and it's also the feeling I try to transport. I'm very interested in balancing on the knife's tip or dancing on the volcano's edge. You have that in a party often, the thing you desired the most a second ago is the last thing you want to see once you return from the toilet! You're having the best time, you go to the toilet, you come back, enter a room of monsters and you just Houdini out of there. I like this. It's too much of the goods. You stuff yourself so much with the best the world has to offer and it just makes you sick. That’s something that really intrigues me.
In a lot of these scenes, the upper class is also reflected, not just seedy dive bars. Many of them portray high-class venues.
These are people who have reason to blind themselves. These are people who have a reason to get their nerves numbed down. At the same time, they're people, which is also important. I'm not pointing my own stinky finger at anyone here. I actually have sympathy for each individual and that's something I hope comes across. For a long time, I was concerned that it might come across that I loath people or something, but it's not at all the case. Also, all people make wrong decisions, so I don't believe in a single actually bad person... I don't think that exists. I think it's just like we get caught up in constructs and a lot of bad decisions happen and there's regret. All this results in overboard behaviors and excessive luxury, and I don't know, you're eating the nervous system of a rare monkey or some bullshit like that!
It goes to extreme lengths and I find it very fascinating to see. I have a lot of sympathy for each and every one looking out of their own skull from deep within some scared animal, looking through the bars. You look into the eyes and see a shaking soul in there. I want to transport that warmth somehow. I have the feeling we're all so lost, it's obvious and we need comfort. All we really want is to hold each other when we don't know how. And that's another thing.
My therapist told me the other day, "Those paintings look like you put some aliens in two baggy human suits and they're trying to figure out how to touch each other." And that really speaks to me. I love that one because it's like they're trying to get close, but then you actually end up strangling someone or something. It's just joy and pain; really close together.
Do you finish a painting, then show it to your therapist and go, “All right, this week let's unpack this. We need to get what's going on in my head.”
It came as a bonus or something like that. At some point, I sat there and she looked at me all weird and I was thinking, so what's happening? She said, "Yeah, I had a look at your paintings.” I thought, “Oh man.”
But I have this story, maybe it's a fairy tale. My studio is in a restaurant, or above it, but you can walk up into the studio. And sometimes when I have a show coming up, I will work late. So when the restaurant is open, I'm still here until the end of the day. This old man walks up the stairs one day and asks, “Do you mind if I have a look around?” And I say, “No, go ahead, knock yourself out.” He stayed for a long time, I had a lot of paintings up and then he comes to me and says, "So young man, you would like to embrace the word." And I was, "Excuse me, what are you on about?" He says, "It's very obvious the one recurring theme of your work is the hug."
And I thought, wow, I’ve never seen it like that. But then when I looked at all my work again, I saw a lot about this idea of touching. I’ve thought in the past how I’ve come across as this loathing hater, and then to hear this it's so simple, and actually, the embrace could easily fill years of work. It's a fantastic theme, but again, so simple, I would've never dared to formulate it myself like that. I was grateful to this guy and then I wanted his details because I thought he was some muse or something. He said, "I'm not going to give you that, but I come to eat here all the time." Then he disappeared and it smelled like lemon mills or something for an hour afterward. I wasn't sure it even happened. That's a beautiful moment.
Eilers's solo show with Harlan Levey Projects in Brussels was on view through June 3, 2023. This interview also appears in the Summer 2023 Quarterly