Willehad Eilers (b.1981 in Peine, Germany), also goes by the pseudonym Wayne Horse. His artistic journey commenced within the German graffiti scene, eventually culminating in his graduation from the prestigious RijksAkademie in Amsterdam. Presently, he calls the vibrant city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands his home and creative hub. Eilers boasts a multifaceted repertoire spanning across various mediums, including painting, drawing, video art, and installations. His art is celebrated for its lyrical, whimsical essence and its ability to convey intense emotions. Eilers has a penchant for delving into the unconventional and occasionally less appealing facets of human existence, which he beautifully translates into his artwork.”
You can think of Willehad Eilers as an artist who observes and studies society. He describes his art as a way to understand the politics and culture of our modern world. Through his paintings, videos, and drawings, he helps us see ourselves and society in a new light. His work is bold and confident, offering a unique perspective on the flaws and changes in human behavior. He doesn’t shy away from showing us the strange and sometimes excessive parts of our lives. Eilers uses a style that might remind you of “ethnographic surrealism,” a concept from the theorist James Clifford. He takes everyday situations that we think we know well and transforms them into something unexpected. By challenging our usual ways of thinking, Eilers encourages us to engage directly with his one-of-a-kind art.
Could you take us back to the early days of your artistic career? How did your experiences in the German graffiti scene lay the foundation for your later work? And what inspired you to start studying at the RijksAkademie in Amsterdam?
Willehad Eilers: I have always been drawing. At a certain point, during my teenage years, graffiti came into my life. It allowed me to turn an otherwise rather geeky pastime into something social and cool. As it turned out later, also something rather stressful and dangerous. Graffiti were early lessons in creating a character beyond the images you see. It is much more about attitude than about skill. I like that. I also see a lot of peers of mine who originally came from graffiti having a different approach to creating art than people without this background. I think it broadens your horizon. Not aesthetically, but more generally speaking. Graffiti teaches you that the things you are not allowed to do are things you can choose to do anyway. Often this ends in a more hands-on attitude than many others have. I started studying art because it was the only constant in my life. I was not planning to become an artist, but looking at my life from the outside, it was the only thing I always stuck to, so it only made sense.
That’s a fascinating journey! How have these diverse experiences influenced your current artistic practice and the themes you explore in your work?
Everything I experience has an influence on what I do. Some parts are more obvious. One can probably make out the lessons I took from graffiti, or that I discovered Robert Crumb at a young age, while it is a little more tricky to point out the self-doubt I deal with. In general, I see my work as a sort of filter of my surroundings. The more I take in, the richer and more defined the language of the work will become.
Who or what are your main sources of inspiration that have had a significant impact on your artistic journey?
There are too many to name. There are the artists, musicians, writers, or filmmakers that I discovered and admire, then there are friends and peers whom I exchange with. I do not think that it makes much of a difference in what field one works. It is all about the approach. The way the craft is used to deal with the issue that concerns the creator. Creating works is for me not a matter of making certain statements, but a way to deal with, or digest, what I am confronted with in life.
Very often you practice blind drawing, when you draw contours without looking at the paper. What caused you to start this technique?
I used to work in the exact opposite direction, trying to create the perfect, vector-like shapes. Formulated every line until the last bit of life had been sucked out of it. At some point, I started to feel terribly ashamed of this. I knew I had to throw out what I had built and relearn to use drawing in a way that would match what I want to say, instead of trying to create something that is so slick that all feeling gets repelled from it. Like, you know, these plants, where water just turns into little balls and rolls off until it splashes onto the ground.
Your art is both light-hearted and explores darker sides of humanity. How do you manage to combine these elements effectively?
Light and shadow go hand in hand and act as ways to measure each other. I believe as humans we strive for some ‘good’, or at least humanly relatable goals. Our ways there, as the result of there being so many of us now, are rather complicated and abstract by now. Masses without face allow for cruelty. Tunnel vision towards your desire. And before you know it, cruelty paves your way left and right.
Your art features a mix of the unusual and common. How do you decide what’s bizarre and how do you use this mix to show specific aspects of society and human behavior?
Taboos and what is considered ‘normal’ are constantly changing. I am interested in that. I do not look to shock or upset. I do believe that taboos are a great way to test a society’s values. You may not burp here, you may not blow your nose there. All possibly unnecessary rules, but they go deep. I do not like it if you spit on my pillow, I prefer to smell of lemon melisse than of sweat. I live by these rules, but they are made up. I think it is good to face the facts.
Your art has been compared to that of an “artist-ethnographer.” Could you explain how you use your art to study and show the cultural and political aspects of our society today?
I use my art as a tool to digest what comes my way. I use it for myself. That’s the job it does for me. I don’t intend to give somebody a lesson. I don’t have an agenda I try to bring across for the viewers. I see it this way. I deliver a battleground on which the morals of the viewers can clash. There are enough recognizable situations for people to apply their moral code on. Enough beacons for them to spin their own story around. The story any viewer sees in a painting is just as true as the story I went through while making it. My dictatorship of meaning ends when the work sets to sea.
Your works often draw inspiration from toilet and bathroom graffiti. Could you elaborate on the significance of this unconventional source of inspiration and how it ties into your exploration of the human condition?
The toilet is a place of bottom-level expression. It is often frowned upon. Flat, easy, dirty jokes. We pretend to be better than that. And true, we do have more sophisticated ways to say the same things. It’s a matter of having the guts to speak out and say what you want. Putting words to what you desire. You expose yourself if you stand by what you need or want. We prefer to remain mysterious about our intentions. I think it is good to face the facts.
In your videos, drawings, and paintings, you often present images that convey the disposition of the modern individual towards grotesque and sometimes masturbatory obsessions. How do you intend for viewers to engage with these provocative themes, and what kind of response are you hoping to evoke?
Similar to what I said above. I use my works to deal with problems I cannot find solutions for the words in my head. I use them as ‘thinking periods’ in which I do not have to formulate my thoughts. Sometimes I walk away with new insights, sometimes I don’t. I keep my works, be it video, text, or painting, recognizable enough to trigger associations in each viewer. My aim is that they will then take their own conclusions. Often hearing these helps me a lot in continuing my work. It is a steady exchange. That is what I hope for.
Your practice spans various mediums, including video, drawing, performance, and installation. How do you decide which medium to use for a particular project, and how does your creative process differ across these different forms of expression?
I actually really focused in the past 5 years. Before that, it was much more difficult to say what I’m doing. The drawing became prominent again in an attempt in 2018 to push everything out through one vessel. In a way, I imagined it like a Trojan horse I would ride into the gallery world, that at a certain point a lot of video and audio pieces would jump out of. Something that is still in the cards. Discovering oil diluted this plan. There is so much to learn there. It has been such a joy to discover this medium, that I am still resting in its haven. Eventually, I think it does not matter much in which medium an idea is expressed; there are ways to find the right tone in all of them. It is just important to be very aware of the medium one speaks in. Every medium comes with its own connotations.
And the last question: Amsterdam has been your home and base for your artistic pursuits. How has this city’s environment and culture influenced your work, and how do you see your relationship with Amsterdam shaping your artistic future?
Amsterdam is a small city with the flair of a bigger place. I like that I could potentially walk anywhere. I have a good network of friends and feel at home here. Also, my daughter grows up in this place. That is the most important. Otherwise, I could see myself exploring different places too. Everyone has to play the cards they are dealt.