On June 13th, 2006, artist Jeroen Witvliet bought a number of newspapers and proceeded to cut out images from their pages. From this collection, he would select those which he responded to most and paint them. In doing so, they became something new; stripped of its context and caption, the painting forced you to confront the image for what it was.
As Jeroen writes:
“I come across images of people described as insurgents and a mention of their nationality, no other description given. Persons are being categorized and abstracted by the caption, and the language used. A number gives the score of the dead, even further abstracted. A system of classification starts to take place. A value is attached to the words describing an event. Described one way a life has value, classified another way it loses value and this way of description can be used for many, including political, reasons.”
Jeroen’s exhibition, “In this light…whisper, 24″, opens tonight at the Cristall Gallery from 6 – 9pm and runs until the 22nd.
Read my interview from last year with Jeroen here.
Jeroen Witvliet sent me a link to his latest project entitled Pan-orama, a collection of paintings that are intended to wrap the viewer in the pop culture imagery and those similar themes that Jeroen has explored separately in his previous work.
No show dates as of yet. For now we must be content with the online version.
When I first stumbled upon Jeroen Witvliet’s work at the Cristall Gallery in Vancouver – his larger landscape canvasses and the starkly impactful airport series – they immediately felt important; seemingly capturing the shared sentiments of this young but already harrowing century. Jeroen, who moved from the Netherlands to Canada in 1990, has stated that his painting is “both materiality and ghost like lingering”. You can sense this when you are standing in front of them. The lack of colour is haunting. An unnerving mix of silence and electricity permeates the landscape. To walk through these canvasses would be to experience both desolation and a frantic joy. To stare at them is to understand intention and the relationship between subject and method.
We recently invited Jeroen to the Industrial Brand studio for a discussion on influence, process and the history contained in a brushstroke.
KB: I’m not sure if you are aware of it but we blogged your summer exhibition on our website.
JW: Yes I was. It came up on the search engine.
KB: Oh cool.
JW: Every last day of the month, I search my name to see what’s going on. It gives me an understanding of where work is or what people are doing with it.
KB: Do you see the web as a good source of promotion for artists?
JW: Actually I just got into it. I’ve been kind of shy about it because it is a digital format, so it doesn’t show what a painting really is. First of all, there are the size restrictions. Especially when paintings are textured, you just never get that sense. There’s so much more involved. So I was very hesitant about that. I think what happened later is that I saw more and more artists taking on their own websites and I started seeing their names with dot com after them. I checked out a lot of these websites. Interesting, but the platform becomes one of selling and not necessarily critical attention. But I managed to get a website up. There are no price tags, no sales, nothing involved in it; it is just a platform where people can go, look at the work and read the statements that people have made on the work.
KB: It does seem like your work requires seeing it in person in order to get the full effect. It is very much focused on the actual surface of the canvas and the process of painting in itself.
JW: The surface is very important. I am trying to figure out what “surface” actually is. It can take any form or shape. It’s playing with painting. It’s art history. I can’t separate what I’m doing from everything that has come before me or what’s happening at the same time. There have been many discussions about where painting stood in the 20th Century. We’re both a little too young to have fully experienced what that was really all about. But we can understand why the trends happened as they did with the influence of new forms of media coming into the picture especially with what’s happening right now at an even bigger scale. So you do pick up on that.
Going from there into your own studio where you have all these ideas which you want to put out to people, you realize that talking about it is one thing but how do I get people interested in something in visual form. You realize quite quickly that you are in full competition with everything that has come before in art history plus everything that is being pushed on you on a daily basis which these days is more and more.
At the same time, there needs to be a conceptual side. Hopefully larger than just commenting on art history because that has been done so many times. I think what is partly happening in my work is that when there is a brushstroke or the application of a certain brushstroke it can make direct reference to a painting or painter before me. So I do feel that people need to have a certain understanding of art history. Imagery doesn’t just come falling out of the sky. You have to have some understanding of what’s going on while at the same time, especially in the abstract work, I try to find formal, contemporary visual solutions to concepts.
KB: You commented on where your work sits in relationship to what’s come before. Where do you see painting sitting in the 21st century with all the different media and new technologies?
JW: I think that painting is more relevant than ever. Once again. It seems that every 20 years or so painting re-enters the spotlight in full competition with whatever new media comes along.
KB: Similar to what happened with photography at the end of the 19th century.
JW: Photography really was the first one that really started pushing it. Painters started to ask what am I really doing now that I have this competition. Which I think is great. It really wakes you up as a painter.
But I also think there is something very primal involved in painting. You’re pushing materials around, you’re getting dirty with it. It has its origin in cave painting no matter how you look at it. No matter how it evolved, it is something which you can do with your own hands. You can do it anywhere as long as you have something that leaves a mark.
KB: In terms of your inspiration and your influences, as designers, we were commenting today that there are a lot of design elements in your work. There seems almost a typographic or architectural structuring in how you are thinking about your compositions. Do you have a design background at all?
JW: No, I think what you see are simply influences from my surroundings. As soon as you become conscious, hopefully you start to investigate what’s going on around you. New media are responsible for introducing new thought processes and new ways of perceiving that did not exist 50 years previous; the influence of television being a big one. So the editing of information is very much informed by the environment that I live in. When I do a landscape painting it is quite easy to say it came from the landscape that I just looked at. That’s where the initial information comes from. As soon as you start manipulating that landscape, there is a reason for doing that. Either you are fed up with traditional ways of landscape portrayal, or there is the political situation which is exposed or laid over the landscape and you try to capture that and then the question becomes how do I capture that? It’s a lot of trial and error and experimentation and just being in your studio.
Other times, you have some sense of what’s going on but the material does something different and the outcome is different again. So interpretations of the work are varied. I do believe that when you start painting, it’s like anything else there is a certain structure underneath it. It is structured, there is a certain balance there. It needs to be something you can look at. At the same time you can also turn around and completely destroy that balance and completely destroy that structure so you get something else which is interesting. It raises questions. And I think for me, painting and now the video work too, is just an extension of questioning the world that I live in. And probably feeling very helpless by not being able to radically change anything.
KB: Right. I’ve noticed a sense of desolation in your work, but not necessarily hopelessness. There is a silence that is almost post-apocalyptic, as though the human race has long since disappeared and this is what we have left behind.
JW: And something else is left to make the judgment. Yes, I think that my work is actually, well, I can’t say it’s happy work. It’s not being interpreted like that. I’ve heard that a few times. People pick up on a certain darkness in it. And maybe that is just a sign of the times. You are being pushed to become highly individual and the desires are that you can survive by yourself without a structure or a network around you, be it family or co-workers or any social construction. So maybe that has a lot to do with it. Seeing that isolation, not just in myself but in a lot of other people as well. And a lot of times, there are issues that subconsciously you feel are at play and they come out in your work.
A lot of the buildings I paint are stand-ins for what society is. It has its foundation, it has its pillars and a seemingly structural integrity built on top of that. But then it’s left in such a state that you don’t know if its just being erected or torn down. At the same time, you can walk up to those paintings and go “well I can see myself living on the third floor and doing all this interior decorating and it’s really going to be a lovely place.” But then there are these elements outside of it which kind of pull you back into the reality that we are living in so I do think that my work is actually very positive. It’s just that a lot of people get somewhat put off by the darkness and the bleakness and the heaviness of the subject and the application of the materials.
KB: It’s in your subtle use of colour that I see the optimism coming through. It is almost as though even in this dark world, you can find subtle moments of happiness or joy.
JW: I think what it comes down to is that the beautiful is so awfully beautiful. And that’s what we have to cope with. If you are aware of it, this can be a most beautiful place to live. But in another sense very hostile. I think we are alienated from that very biological sense of who we really are. And again, I think it probably comes back to that sense of consciousness: if you are conscious about your surroundings then you will pick up on the beauty and that beauty contains a certain poetry, a poetry that exists not despite, but because of an awareness of the darker side of reality. With my European background I was exposed to a lot of stories about the Second World War and the Concentration Camps. Even in those concentration camps art was still being produced. It is something which can’t be dismissed. Creation is as humane as you can possibly get.
I think it is also one of the main things that defines us as people. If you look at what happened in the Second World War for example the biggest prized items were works of art. In all this chaos, in all this destruction, the Nazis themselves would set aside or plunder these art pieces. The same thing is happening in Iraq as well. The first things that went were the big museums. That was where the national treasures were; it wasn’t a certain amount of money, it was art. It defines a culture.
KB: Also in those instances, art was used as a balance of power. With the degenerate art exhibits put on by the Nazis for example.
JW: And you see that it didn’t work, that’s the power of art, it just comes back with a vengeance. It is even stronger after those experiences. And for me, I find it interesting that somebody like Adolf Hitler would respond so strongly to art because most people basically will tell you “Well no, it is just art”. If you look at history from an artistic perspective, you could argue that the entire Second World War was based on the failure of one person who wanted to become an artist and who became so obsessed with this failure that other venues were opened up. There are these underlying foundations in our history and they go back thousands and thousands of years. As an artist, I think I have to take that into account. There are consequences to what I produce.
KB: You mentioned your European background, you were born in the Netherlands and received your Fine Arts degree from Rotterdam Academy of Visual Arts and then continued your education at Emily Carr, here in Vancouver. What brought you to Canada?
JW: I’m not quite sure what brought me to Canada actually. I have family members living in Toronto who occasionally came over to the Netherlands talking about Canada. So the first time I came to Canada it was to Toronto. I got a Greyhound bus ticket for a month of travel and came out to Vancouver. It was a nice city, and I had this sense that if I ever had a chance to go back I would. At the same time, the European Union was taking more and more shape and form and I was a little bit worried about it. There was, and still is, the economical situation and the responses of regular people to what was going on and it almost seemed as though the Union was being imposed on them. I felt like I needed to see it from the outside instead of being on the inside so that I could get a clear view of what it meant to be European in light of all these changes. Also, the wall had just come down in ’89 so that was a big shock and the changes progressed even more rapidly after that. Coming to Canada, for some reason felt as though things were moving at a slower pace and I had some time to think. So the year after I visited Canada, I got a scholarship to Emily Carr and moved to Vancouver.
KB: And do you feel that Canada has had an influence on your work?
JW: Yes, Absolutely. I think it gave me an opportunity to explore my European identity away from Europe. It forced me into feeling physically and mentally lost, having no connection to my new surroundings other than a sense of rediscovery.
And at the same time, all of a sudden I found myself in a different landscape which I completely didn’t know. I have no roots here, I had no childhood here, so the distance really gives you better understanding of where you are. You start investigating what it means to be an immigrant quite quickly actually. And then you realize that this is pretty much a tradition in Canada. What is it to be an immigrant? How do you respond to that? More and more artists are responding to that immigration process, and I think it is kind of telling of what is happening all over the world: being displaced, either being an immigrant or migrating, or being forced to move in order to survive, or simply being displaced because you don’t feel as an individual you fit into that specific locale anymore. So it comes in different forms and shapes. And I think in Canada the beauty of it is that this is very much a shared experience. You realize that you are physically not in the same space as where you grew up. You’re pushed towards that faster than if you were, for example, still living in Europe. Sooner or later you realize that this is not quite what I envisioned, this is not what my childhood taught me was going to happen. So a bit of disillusionment sets in and I think that’s what has happened for me in Canada as well. After so many years you get disillusioned, and then you respond to that and start to recognize certain emotions and you find that they are very universal. There are so many people going through that process. And the good thing about being an artist is that you actually have an outlet. You can do something with it and communicate it.
KB: Has most of your work been produced since you moved to Canada?
JW: Everything I did in Europe I left behind.
KB: And that was a conscious move on your part, to start fresh?
KB: From some of the things you’ve been saying, it sounds like you do have a political side to – at the very least – your thought process and philosophies. Do you think that is a prevalent influence in what you’re painting?
JW: I think it is more and more so. At the same time, I don’t think I’m in a position to make straightforward statements because nothing is black and white. So if I respond to a situation, it’s always going to be indirectly. Some part of the idea or the concept behind that painting will be rooted in, for example, the war on terrorism but when you are looking at the painting, it is not straightforward; there are other things at play as well. Somehow, it does creep in because it is all around me. I respond to it.
It’s the same with emotions, relationships and all those other things as well. They are in those paintings. But it’s not just my personal relationships because I think that is actually quite boring. If I start telling my life story in my paintings, it doesn’t go anywhere; there’s not enough depth there. So you start to look for what is universal, what are we all subjected to. Everyone has his or her own interpretation but I have to start somewhere. And therefore, for me it is very important to hear other people’s responses to the work. I am always surprised how many times people do pick up on what’s been placed in there and sometimes they come up with something or see entirely different things and I think “Maybe that is what is in there and I was just not aware of it”. You have to be open to multiple interpretations, it creates a certain freedom that you have to allow yourself as an artist and it’s actually quite difficult. Especially in my case, because I am such a control freak.
KB: There does seem to be a sense of control in your work. I feel I can see the point in your paintings where you stopped. Is that a very conscious thing that you do?
JW: Yes. It’s the hardest thing. To start a painting is easy. The ideas are difficult but as soon as you start it is easy. The first so many hours, so many days so many weeks, you just work; you need to visualize what it is that you have written down or what’s in your head. And then you have those last hours, minutes, days, where it needs to be finished and control shifts from me to the painting and the painting starts dictating to me what needs to be done. It’s a very intense, very tiresome process. And very frustrating.
So yes, I push the painting to a point where things fall into place. But what I am starting to do in my newer work is to push it until it falls into place and then very consciously destroy that balance and see what happens. I know how I respond to it, but I want to see how other people respond to it. This is something that happens in our culture too. You think everything is nice and pleasant; you think the way you perceive it is the way it should be but there is something nagging. And I just want to make it clearer that something is nagging, maybe something has been disrupted. And for me that is the biggest step in my work right now is to find almost a certain unbalanced ugliness in it and go towards that ugliness and be comfortable with it and present it to people with the confidence that I can stand behind this work.
KB: There is a juxtaposition of depth, in your landscape paintings for example, and then you have these flatter more painterly elements.
JW: It’s all about layers, one layer on top of another, on top of another. It’s just like how you live your life. You layer pieces of information on top of each other. Sometimes it blends into the next layer and you make sense of it. The paintings I’m doing right now are going to be an overkill of information. But each single layer in itself is valuable. There’s something to it. The next layer will disrupt it or give some other dimension to it in the same way as when you walk outside and you see an advertisement juxtaposed with something that was not meant to be there but the reading of the two gives it a third dimension. It becomes something different. So how many layers can I apply until its reading becomes so strange that you don’t even know where to start anymore or so that it forms a dimension which is not in the painting but is the sum of all the separate components. And I am not sure if I can do that.
IBC: It does remind me a lot of the stencil art that I am seeing more and more of in the streets and the way that sits on top of a rock poster that is then peeling away to reveal the poster below it. It creates something altogether new in itself.
JW: The interesting thing is that where I currently live, you don’t see that very often and perhaps that’s why I am so aware of it when I do see it. It also has a lot to do with new technology. Photoshop for example, allows you to layer things and then flatten the image to create something altogether different. I simply feel more comfortable translating this into painting rather than doing it on a computer. For me it has to have that juxtaposition of tradional materials with a very modern concept. I do think that my work is very layered. It’s the same with my video work too it’s just layer on top of layer and it’s almost like, “There you go. Now you figure out what’s going on.”
KB: What is your take on your contemporaries right now in Canada or the world. Are there some people that you are admiring?
JW: There are always people doing very interesting work. As long as you are serious about what you are doing then I think it is justified right there whatever it is, whatever form it takes. It might be the complete opposite of what I do or what I believe should be in my work, but the quality and the investigation, the struggle is there.
But one of the things that is nagging me is the lack of content. There is a lot of visually stimulating work but it is just that one layer. At first glance it looks very interesting and even the materials look interesting or the application of the paint is interesting and it gives you a good feeling. But you go back to that painting the second time around and it doesn’t have that anymore or you think about it and it loses it. It is lacking a certain maturity. So I think what has happened is that a lot of beautiful work – but immature work – has been promoted as the next greatest thing.
I see it with myself. I’m turning 33 and finally getting a sense that maybe my work is finally maturing. It wasn’t ten years ago. Which probably comes down to life experience, getting through your rebel years and kicking against everything and then actually taking the time to look at it from every angle. Because I do see that the work I’ve always liked tends to be by people who are mature about what they are doing. They are professional; they are serious; they really go deep and they really delve into what it means to be human. And whatever form or shape it takes, it doesn’t really matter. You can feel that intensity in the work. Whether it is a big abstract painting or a piece of poetry, or a film or whatever, you can see it’s in there.