Elly Strik - 2009 - Over raaf worden en donkere suikerbroden [NL, interview],
On dark sugar loaves and becoming a raven
A Conversation with Elly Strik
Wednesday, 5th of August 2009. My fourth visit to Elly Strik’s studio. She still has very long hair, bunched up and held together with a hair band decorated with a zigzagging motif that succeeds itself in a variety of colours, like a rainbow of thunderbolts: brown, orange, red, yellow and white. The pattern reminds me of the large drawing that I saw last time, on which there was also a rainbow pattern. I tell my old joke about an art historian whom I had heard proclaim during a lecture that Gaudi’s work was merely decorative. When I asked this learned man what the word decorative meant to him, he answered that decoration is something that did not have any architectural function, for example because it was simply stuck onto a facade.
ES: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia is incredible. No architectural function? The whole city’s character is influenced by it! Splendid towers, reminiscent of those mud towers children make. Those towers have dizzying spiral staircases inside of them. Above, you can step from one tower to the next across very small bridges with low railings… Whoever claims something like that about decoration does not want to see what decoration actually is… I used to have a friend who developed a sustainable energy resource from the seeds of the jatropha plant. When he was on his deathbed, he asked me if I would make a coffin for him. I found it a difficult request, but I finally chose to buy a simple white tinted oak coffin and to decorate it. With coloured pencils I drew a frieze of semi-transparent jatropha leaves in various shades of green. When I saw my friend borne up it was as if he were floating. The coffin, adorned with the frieze, held him aloft. He looked like an angel. It was really beautiful… The making of a drawing with a repetitive pattern has something ritualistic about it; you turn off your thoughts. You draw your first line and repeat it; you take it with you like an echo. Slowly you forget that first line, which means you get a new line that serves as a model. This is how patterns occur, which for me are systems for transmitting energy.
- A rhythm or a grid.
ES: Yes, what you are always talking about: a collection of holes, little balls or curls out of which an image can emerge.
- We are looking at ‘Orakel’ (Oracle), a series of three drawings from 2008. On the second drawing we recognize a dark, sugar loaf shaped silhouette (a woman with a burqa or a woman with long hair seen from behind) decorated with white, painted links. Did these links evolve out of a desire to paint a kind of crochet pattern, like the knitted dresses with large holes in them, of the 1970s, of from the placing of lines that start to behave as links?
ES: Both happen simultaneously… Those knitted dresses also had something folkloric about them, don’t you think?
- The drawing is of course also reminiscent of hands decorated with henna, face-paintings and tattoos, which here take on the form of a kind of trelliswork, something like a hairnet, that reins in a head or a woman like a veil with large holes.
ES: Crocheting or knitting of course also comes about as a result of a repetitive ritual… For me the drawing also has something to do with the continually opening and closing of an image. The woman with the burqa is an image that inheres this opening and closing. On the first and the third drawing we see the companions of the woman with the burqa, which give her an added dimension.
- Besides the concrete logic of painting, are there other reasons why so many woolly hats appear in your work? Where do those hats come from?
ES: One day I was the first visitor in the Orangerie in Paris and after looking at Monet’s water lilies, I was also the first visitor to go to the toilet. There lay a little red hat, no doubt left behind by the last visitor of the day before. This hat has been left behind especially for me, I thought… Before I always used to have unheated, cold studios, which is why I would wear a hat now and then. One day I decided to make a work about the hat I had found in Paris. The way in which I painted the hat was similar to the paint handling of the water lilies. Later the hat also transpired to be a useful metaphor.
- What did you think of the water lilies?
ES: I am not a fervent admirer of Monet’s work, but looking at the paintings of the water lilies is a special visual experience every time. The movement on the surface of the paintings is extremely wild, rich and overwhelming. With all that movement you no longer see the shapes, you don’t see where they come from. So many details that all lead a life of their own, and still compose a coherent whole. Incredibly beautiful… The special thing about the treatment of the surface of the water lilies lies in the fact that you become aware of the underlying layers. There is a notion of death in these works.
- Like in the first and the third drawing of the series Orakel, in which you a have a face loom out of dancing and knotted pencil lines which evoke the image of pubic hair? Or in this large drawing which represents a dark skull with a woollen hat. The image of the skull only tentatively appears from planes, which seem themselves to be composed of a disintegrating matter.
ES: Sometimes I start working again on older drawings, because I have the feeling I can push them further. It is my intention to push a drawing so far that it becomes an autonomous work; that something new occurs. A work that is not finished misses tartness and tension. In this work I made the cheekbones of the skull more yellow.
- So that they come forward and the painting becomes more spatial?
ES: I would like for the image to evoke the illusion of a dark, transparent depth, which at the same time is very present. In my drawings I distinguish parts where you could have the feeling you could stick an outstretched arm into it, and other parts that are rendered more solidly.
- The planes seem to consist of little lines, which makes them look as if they are falling apart. It is a bit reminiscent of colouring books that have been filled with cross-hatching.
ES: They are ordinary grey pencil stripes on a coloured background. The lower layer of my drawings consists in a mixture of lacquer and oil paint, which I use to give the paper the colour I want it to be. It is actually a juice, that’s how thin it is. It draws into the paper. The lacquer serves to give the juice a bit of substance and to prevent an excess of oil eating up the paper. The oil paint serves to give the mixture exactly the colour I want. Sometimes I draw over it with pencil and graphite. Then new paint layers come on top of that. Some of those layers, or parts of them, are erased with paper and thinner… Sometimes a drawing is first applied as a painting, very lightly, whereby you achieve a change in focus. I like to work with graphite or pencil. It is a tool that is geared towards making; it changes shape. I use pencils and graphite sticks of various makes. Some makes are shinier than others. And then I use all thicknesses and gradations of soft and hard.
- The skull falls apart into various different planes, which have come about in different ways, but they still form a whole, like Monet’s water lily paintings. On top of the skull sits the image of a painted, woollen hat. Both should also form one coherent image, whereby the hat in the first place seems very present and the skull seems to disintegrate into the darkness. Both parties hold each other in balance. The eyes’ illuminating intensity, as a kind of echo of the illuminating hat, prevents the disintegration of the skull.
ES: In ideal circumstances the portrait becomes a kind of landscape, an expansive space in which you don’t immediately recognize a figure. In many of my drawings I try to evoke a hollow space, into which the viewer can be absorbed. I would like you to have the impression that the image is touching you. Every image touches you in a certain place. When I compose a series, I combine drawings that touch you in different ways. I mean that physically… Do you think that it is possible to experience an artwork in a physical way?
- I think we can view all of our experiences as physical, also our thinking.
ES: Can you hear my drawings?
- No. Unless you are talking about a kind of humming? Like we sing internally when we are drawing or writing?
ES: No, no humming. For me they are incredibly noisy.
- Do you also experience that with other art works?
ES: No, only in my work. This is why I think that the noise doesn’t come out of the drawings but out of myself.
- You remind me of the young hero of the ‘Recherche’ who looks at things very attentively, because he wishes to find out where their aura comes from, until he realises as an older man that they just evoke old images in him… why shouldn’t images evoke sounds? If it is possible for people with perfect pitch to associate notes with colours or shapes, whereby these notes obtain an individual character, then it must also be possible for certain people to hear sounds upon seeing images. Maybe this happens with your own images, because they are stored in your memory like a kind of music, like a sort of musical series? Oliver Sacks writes somewhere that our sense of identity could be a kind of melody we sing to ourselves. I believe we can experience everything as melodies or dissonance, as rhythm, as a succession of colours, sounds, smells, shapes, holes or bumps and that all our experiences are stored in our brain like rhythmic series, of which the form is determined by the manner in which we perceive (light and dark, great and small, faraway and close-by, point, line or plane) and the way in which our memories are embedded in neurons which are constantly connected in a different way, like giant, three-dimensional networks of rosaries. (And each network contains neurons which are also connected with other networks, so that it is not actually about three dimensions, but about countless, interwoven, bunches of grapes.)
ES: It’s funny that you should say that, about light and dark. I was just telling you that I sometimes continue working on older drawings in order to push them further. Often that has to do with a good balance between light and dark. You surmised that I made the cheekbones of this drawing more yellow in order to bring them forwards, but for me it actually had something to do with the purple areas next to them. That purple is so present that I needed the yellow to crash into it. I like to bring the drawings to a kind of autonomy. I work on until the image has such an extent of realism, that it starts to lead a life of its own, that it has brought its own existence into the world. That takes a long time. The danger is often that you stop too soon. Your drawing evokes a certain feeling and you stop. But you must continue, and pump up the image until nobody can escape the feeling that is being evoked. Sometimes months go by in the making of such a drawing. It also has to do with wanting to understand myself what is in it. The purple is nocturnal, but there is also yellow in the night. Through the emphasis of the yellow, the work gains a landscape-feel. It becomes something that you cannot grasp. It also gets another scale.
- Like in the five-part series ‘Snake and Bride in Blue’ in which a drawing appears of a knitted hat that evokes the image of a sugar loaf shaped mountain?
ES: That is not a hat for me, but a female figure. I try to represent that shape in such a way that you can see landscapes in it, for example at top left.
- In another painting of this series we think we recognise a veiled woman, where a blue string of pearls ties the veil at the top and bottom, which reminds us of people who get a hood over their head before they are hung.
ES: The veiled woman is the bride. Each bride that I paint is invisible. The drawing with the blue pearls is the first drawing that I have built a series around. The necklace is of course also a snake. The first drawing of the series represents the hanging head of a snake.
- Hence that strange decoration, which reminded me of tattoos or face painting, but which looked so strangely isolated.
ES: The drawing isn’t based on a real snake, the motif resulted from the act of drawing.
- We see the string of pearls again in a vanitas drawing in which we recognise decorated skulls and a wandering Ensor.
ES: The necklace springs from the act of drawing. It is a chain of little balls. It is an image for a drawing or for a series of drawings. We do indeed see two stacked skulls that look at the viewer. On the edge between the two heads, two new eyes seem to come into being. Ensor is also watching us. At the top of the drawing is the opening phrase of one of his speeches, in which he says that he was born on a day devoted to Venus… Birth and death meet in this drawing as in a cycle, like in a necklace, a string of vanities and desires. I am fascinated by Ensor’s work. The surface of his paintings seems to fall apart, but at the same time it forms one world, one image… The beads are also eyes… The work is about more than Ensor, but I needed Ensor for the awareness of our gaze, because of that looking back. The figure with the walking stick activates the looking, whereby it holds us in its grip; it is difficult to wrest yourself free from it, it is like a farewell that lasts forever. More I do not want to say about this drawing. I don’t like to explain my work. The work itself says more, it is smarter than I am, as Richter says.
- There is no point in explaining all of your works, but if you look at some pieces with us, we will know how to look at your other drawings.
ES: That is true…
- The image falls asunder, but at the same time it forms a single world…
ES: Every drawing begins with one line. That first line you will never see again, drawing is always saying farewell to that first line. You know where you want to go, but along the way something happens and you digress. That’s how a drawing grows. It’s about the things that you meet along the way, and that charge your drawing. Suddenly all of the lines meet and a sort of implosion or explosion happens, making all the lines into one world and they coalesce into a figuration, into an image that appears. The past weeks I have tweaked some drawings a bit, for example the drawing with the anthuriums, so that there would be a bit more volume. There is more tension in it when a volume is suggested, when there seem to be things under it.
- At the moment there is just one reproduction hanging on the wall, on which we recognise the folded hands of a praying person, with prominent fingers. Who is this work by?
ES: The image shows a detail of the Crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald. I like the turbulence of the sleeves, but mainly the way in which the fingers are pointing in all directions. Grünewald does that very often: he represents bodies in a very artificial manner, which makes them very expressive. The hands are enough. There is so much tension in them that you don’t even need to see the rest of the body. You know how the rest of the body is feeling… I also love the raven that flies in with two pieces of bread in its beak, in The Meeting Between Saint Anthony and Saint Paul. One piece of bread per person. The shape of the raven is fantastic.
- In these days they didn’t know what flying or running animals actually looked like, which meant that they also could not suggest those movements.
ES: That is probably what makes it so beautiful. It is very well resolved in terms of form. You should also look at the way in which the mountains or the clouds are painted in the background: incredibly modern. Washed away.
- Just as you also wash away parts with paper and thinner?
- The raven reminds me of your drawing of a so-called panting crow. I think that you consider that to be one of your most important works.
ES: It is a work that introduces everything. It is an animal that has become human. The work is very big, three metres wide. I think it is important that as a viewer you have to look along from left to right.
- The crow is breathing on the earth. Why?
ES: He is pre-heating the earth. A bird on the ground is something different than a bird on a branch. The crow is an ancestor. When I visited India later, I saw huge swarms of crows. The Indians try to get them to come close. They see them as pleasant messengers.
- Did you want to say something else about Grünewald?
ES: That you experience his works in a physical way. You can physically imagine what is going on in those scenes. I increasingly think this is important. As I said earlier, it has something to do with the tension between dark and light. I think it is exceptional that you can descend into your own body when you are just breathing in and out. It is one of the themes of the series Para Goya.
- In which Goya’s face emerges out of swarming sperm cells?
ES: Actually the appearance of Goya’s face attracts the sperm and egg cells. Nobody knows where Goya’s head went. He is buried headless under his own fresco. Each part of the series deals with a different body part. The series gains something cosmic that is at the same time very physical. As if those drawings develop you and touch you somewhere.
- In this drawing you have cut out the face. The character holds up a sword that is made shiny with a thick layer of graphite. The sword mirrors the part that has been cut away. Below we see a chopped off, but not filled-in head. Is it a drawing of Judith?
ES: Yes. It is a drawing after the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder. The best are those hands of his, with those wriggling little fingers. It looks as if she is still fiddling with the hair of the decapitated head, as if she is contemplating whether she has just done the right thing. I have exaggerated that a bit, which gives her those strange little stubs of hands. First I had let the face of Holofernes appear out of her face, but that did not suffice. Then that hand appeared on her shoulder. I don’t understand it fully yet myself.
- It isn’t finished yet.
ES: No. I am still searching. Something has to happen that makes it all make sense. The cut out head now looks like a bit of a freak show attraction, I think.
- You beheaded her, but you are still fiddling a bit.
ES: That big hand was meant as a consolation, but it doesn’t work. But it has a certain something. You just keep on looking through that hole. Then it does work.
- And this drawing?
ES: That is a piece after Lucas Cranach the elder, namely the painting The Virgin with child under the apple tree. I made an Eva out of her who is being chased and driven out by two apples. Of Eva all that remains are her hair and her ear.
- There are many ears in your drawings, for example, surrounded by the fur of monkey heads. I saw them as images of female genitalia (an entrance shrouded in folds) and did not want to ask anymore about them. But maybe they also have something to do with the fact that you hear your work? And that we gather more immediate, physical impressions through our ears and nose than via our eyes (as Proust shows with the tinkling spoon and Swann’s little bell)?
ES: Ears are strange. They all look different. A lot is exposed through them. Sometimes you can see an embryo in them and sometimes half a skull. Life and death. I rubbed out Eva’s face, but on the left side of the drawing I rounded the corners in black, so that a world seems to appear. Her face that has been left out coincides with a whole world. One human being coincides with a whole cosmos. If I touch something of that essentiality, of what it means to be human, then I am satisfied. At the same time I would like to impose the drawing, which in art is mainly used as a starting point, as an independent form. This is why I always work on paper. I cannot bear any other form any more…
Sometimes I can repeat the same gesture four hours long. Sometimes I stop after a minute. Why? I think that the noise then stops, and that is why you have to take a distance and have a look. Because what are you actually doing as an artist? It is not ourselves, but about the movement we can lay down. The hand does things that you don’t know about. Luckily, because the hand doesn’t lie, the head does. I recently saw a beautiful documentary about Giacometti, who talked as he continued modelling. I could never do that. His hands stayed in contact with his work the whole time. He kept on kneading from top to bottom, and from below upwards, as his eyes kept following his hands…
I thought a long time that, after completing a drawing, I would become increasingly lighter, but that is not the case, because you keep on learning to look better, and because it becomes more and more difficult to develop things from the place of not knowing. You know too well how it works. The challenge is in the not knowing. When you discover as you go along, you also understand more…
I have often asked myself why someone would want to buy a particular work of art. I think such a person buys time to spend with it. An artwork stops time, I think. But someone who lives with an artwork always discovers new layers in it, just as you only get to know your partner by living with him or her for years. Year after year you lift up veils and only in the end you discover the bride. Such a monkey’s head with woman’s curls: you can disappear in it. You can lose a lot of time in it. It has something of a ruin about it: a hollow space into which you can disappear. Hair! If you could only see what dance can take place inside it! I love the fact that the banal and the exalted come together. Hair can overrun you; you get caught in it again and again. It gives a visible form to your own being, as a body, an animal, or a landscape. Hair is that which keeps on coming. It wells up from inside of you.
- Last time you told me you worked with Spalter-brushes.
ES: They are the finest brushes; you can work with them very finely. You can easily take them by the bristles, which allows for very supple painting. You pull it in the direction of the back of your hand. Sometimes I turn the paper around in order to make certain movements with the brush. The nice thing about these brushes is the dancing. Every little bristle begins to dance by itself. At times it is as if such a brush gets a will of its own. I also used to cut pieces out of it, in order to paint parallel bands of different widths. The brush lies very close to your hand. It is also nice to hold them in such a way that your fingertips are resting on the bristles. It then looks as if the hairs are growing out of your fingertips.
- So that you become a monkey, or a crow? A crow that paints with its wings?
Montagne de Miel, 2nd of August 2009