Ronald Ophuis - 2008 - Licht weerkaatsende, pokdalige obstakels [NL, interview]
Subtly Reflecting, Pockmarked Obstacles
In conversation with Ronald Ophuis
I visited the Dutch painter Ronald Ophuis (Hengelo, 1968) in his studio for the first time in July 1998. I was happy to make the acquaintance of this gentle, open man. His work, however, made an anything but gentle impression. Not so much because of the weighty subject matter (a miscarriage, a rape assault in a locker room, a poor man with a gun), but because of the rich facture of his paintings, which was unusual at the time. (In the rest of this text I will use the world ‘structure’ when referring to the facture - the construction or execution - of a painting because that is the word Ophuis uses.) Moreover, in a seemingly naive way this structure remained faithful to the contours of the things, as in the sea and townscapes made with a knife which are offered for sale in places visited by tourists.
In 2003 I saw his solo show at Aeroplastics in Brussels. There Ophuis’ particular way of painting proved to be an excellent technique when painting wooden beams or boards to bring certain scenes (for example, images of concentration camps) unbearably close. Most unbearable of all, however, were the faces whose rough structure even gave the impression that they were made of wood, as if people were also dead objects: implements, consisting of the same monstrous scaly, lumpy or fibrous matter as sawn up, dead trees.
Again today, something new seems to have happened in these paintings. Sometimes a wooden floor is painted flat, but the black background is in relief. The structure of the painting seems to have become recalcitrant, less faithful to the depicted objects, as if the painter has found greater freedom. A new pictorial space has emerged, but I can’t see exactly what has happened.
It is evening. I have only just arrived at the museum. The preview and the dinner have already finished. Not finding the artist in the function room, I make my way through the many galleries of the museum. Eventually I find him, sitting on a window seat all alone in a small room. Visibly moved, he is looking at a painting depicting a scene from a ‘rape hotel’. He is moved not only by the painting.
“After an opening, when you’ve heard all those reactions, you start to see things more intensely again,” he tells me. “And you experience the works not only through your own eyes, but also through the experiences of others. This evening I met a woman who told me about a child from the former Yugoslavia who is upset every time she sees the word hotel. That child’s mother was in one of those hotels.”
- In the introductory text you write that you want to hurt people with your paintings. ‘You still suffer far too little and you still love yourself too much,’ you write. And: ‘I want to influence the question: how do we want to remember ourselves? Sudan, Congo, Guantánamo, Georgia, Armenia, Israel… The experiences of people further away matter just as much as the story of our family, friends and forefathers.’
What is extraordinary about your paintings, as far as I’m concerned, is that it is essentially their structure that makes them shocking. Yet, when talking to an artist who is trying to be a witness of his time, I do feel slightly embarrassed talking only about structure.
Ronald Ophuis: But I, too, am absolutely fascinated by the way other painters work. Recently I read your interview with Jan Van Imschoot. I really enjoyed it. I just thought it was a pity you didn’t ask him if he had used a projector for his latest paintings. I assume he never projects, but in his most recent paintings, which you saw in his studio, I thought: maybe. Especially that interior in which the glassware, the tables, sofas, flowers, fruit etc. are so effective.
Jan paints quickly, carelessly, unpredictably. He uses the hand of the amateur, of the commoner, and juxtaposes it with narratives about power and about the serving people who worship and snigger at their leaders, their idols, their ideals. And Jan creates an image: because of his handwriting, his distinctive style, the icons fall away, painting falls away and what is left is a cynical and affectionate Van Imschoot like a new, trampled, futilely inspiring autonomous icon. I really admire his rich anarchic spirit and work…
I am also always curious to see how painters use their palette. Some painters mix and keep their colours in jars. Others squeeze the paint straight from the tube onto the brush... I once saw palettes from the 1930s in the Soviet Union: on the far left were the white and the ochre, one on top of the other like melting blocks of flats. They skimmed off the very wet paint with soft brushes, one brush for each colour, and allowed the colours to run into each other on the canvas.
- Do you project images yourself? I don’t think so. Even some anatomical details, like the legs in ‘The Miscarriage’, seem to be deliberately wrongly positioned.
Suzanne Oxenaar (Ronald Ophuis’ wife, who joins us briefly): That’s true. The Miscarriage is about different women, about all women who have lost an unborn child. They are legs of different women.
Ophuis: If you don’t project, your handwriting becomes more emphatic. I think that’s important. For me a painting is always about a sensation: that is the domain of painting. Just as the concept is the domain of the philosopher. But there’s more to that sensation than just the expressionist brushstroke. With virtuoso painters like Bacon, the stroke is much more important than it is with Géricault, whose subjects essentially arouse a sensation... In general, in the history of art you see that the handwriting becomes more important when the painting features just one figure. In the case of Willem De Kooning, for example, or Francis Bacon. With painters like Rembrandt, Géricault, Fra Angelico and Giotto, whose work often features a number of figures, the handwriting is less important because it is secondary to the story that has to be told. Narrative painters or paintings cannot do much with an expressionist handwriting. When it’s a question of showing reality and making it feel familiar, a wild gesture is too detached… So, I try to make work that doesn’t dissipate the interest in the handwriting, while at the same time I try to tell a story.
- The groups of figures in your paintings are often shown in a larger space with the result that the space (or parts of it) has as great a presence as the figures because of the pasty structure of the painting. The result is not that the space becomes more human, but that the people seem to become objects: subtly reflecting, pockmarked obstacles. Consequently, the spatial elements also become somewhat bestial, compelling and inescapable. The closed space is the instrument of power... The space collaborates and corrupts…
But we should talk about the structure... Now that I see so many paintings together, I notice that the relationship between the structure used in your paintings and the suggested object is less unambiguous than I thought. Sometimes I spot strokes going in the opposite direction, or parts rubbed very flat, just where you would expect texture, like the wooden floor in the painting of the masturbating man. The pictorial space seems to have become deeper and your recent paintings seem to work less directly, but I cannot really see how that has come about.
Ophuis: The difference is that the finished painting no longer consists exclusively of layers which were intended as final layers. The whole of the definitive surface used to consist of a third finishing layer. I worked in three layers. With the first layer I marked the contours and the large areas of colour. The second layer was applied lightly: it indicated what would be light and dark. The third layer had to be right in terms of structure, colour and form.
The last layer used to be the dominant one, but that is no longer the case. In the recent paintings you can see bits of the first layers showing through. These days the second layer provides most of the structure. The third layer is now much less controlled. Less imperative and definitive. I dip wide Spalter brushes in the paint and skim the canvas, leaving just a trace of paint here and there. Occasionally it’s what I want. That’s how I did the grass in this landscape, for example... I only use the paint after leaving it to dry on the palette for three or four days. That gives it a stiffer, less oily consistency. I detest lubricated paintings.
- What we call ‘wet on wet’?
Ophuis: Yes. That’s what students do. They let the paint flow freely, they don’t use many colours and there is not much difference between the first tones and the last. The difficulty when you work wet on wet is heightening the colour contrast or the contrast between light and dark in a single paint stroke. There’s a painting by Rembrandt (Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul) in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam of a figure wearing a light-coloured turban. That turban was painted almost in one movement and really does look as if it is wrapped around the figure’s head. The result is very spatial and incredibly beautiful, because the stroke seems to change from ochre to white or from dark to light. Actually, that’s impossible. Everyone admires Rembrandt for that virtuosity. In reality, he achieved that effect using lead white, which has become more and more transparent over the centuries. In his day his light strokes were much heavier…
(We are now standing in front of a painting of the skull of someone who has been executed and our attention is immediately drawn to the blindfold finished with thick red spots.) Here the first layer consists of ivory, Van Dyck brown and raw umber.
- The brains were painted using paint of a paste-like consistency. The skull itself was scraped away with a palette knife.
Ophuis: The background needed less definition, so I could allow myself a degree of abstraction, of aestheticism.
- Jan Van Imschoot said that you have the courage to make your works less seductive than other painters. But in fact you shift the attention. You scrape away the skull and allow the background to well up. Our attention is drawn to the thickly painted, flamboyant blindfold, which speaks to the green in the background through its red spots. Finally you draw three black lines over the skull to suggest cracks. You finish another painting with thick white marks – almost caricatures of highlights – which represent the teeth of what seems to be a screaming skull. The pictorial space you create is subtler because it has to serve the image, but it is there.
Ophuis: The pictures we see in the press often look very innocent. Like that dictator with a full beard they pulled from his hideout: the image was almost touching. I want to create images that make you feel something is wrong. It’s a challenge I want to take on. Painting vs. CNN. Media images convey information, but are not really able to arouse emotions, so in the end they don’t affect us, they don’t traumatize us and so we don’t believe them either. The visual language is worn out. Just as philosophical thoughts can become meaningless with frequent use. Therein lies the opportunity for the artist. He tries to visualize things and just doing that brings him much closer.
Montagne de Miel, December 22nd 2008
Translated by Alison Mouthaan