ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Ronald Ophuis - 1998 - Laarzen en pantoffels [NL, interview]
Boots and Slippers
A conversation with Ronald Ophuis
Monday, 20 July. Ronald Ophuis has tidied his studio. Brushes and palette knives have been sorted into separate piles. A row of palettes has been propped up against the wall. His painting clothes are hanging in a corner. On the wall is a large portrait of a young black man who is holding up a gun. He is leaning slightly backwards and you can sense his skinny legs through his jeans. The sandal on his left foot reveals crooked toes. Next to a number of opened art books is a row of photos of a fat man and a blonde woman with naked breasts, her right hand is holding a wooden handle that is wedged between the man's legs. Above the sink is the portrait that Holbein made of his wife and two children just before he left for London. Ophuis shows me a small book called ‘Piss on it’ (Een ondergezeken pistool) and was written by the Russian poet Aleksandr Brener, who was sent to prison for five months in the Netherlands for spraying a green dollar sign on a painting by Malevitch. I open the book and discover that the poet once disrupted a cultural event by dressing up as Batman and yelling out 'Batman forever!' He also attempted to give a pair of slippers to a general “so that he would be less inclined to think of boots”. Country music is wafting softly from small loudspeakers. And it is Ophuis who asks the first question.
Ophuis: Do you know this music?
- Hank Williams?
Ophuis: Yes… Just regular, everyday stories. I find them powerful. When I was a kid, I tried to draw comic books but I never got beyond the title page because I couldn't make up stories. I want my paintings to tell stories.
- Do you have a story for your next painting?
Ophuis: I'd like to make a painting about old people in a convalescent home. I'm pretty clear about that. Now the question is whether they will be sleeping on their beds or sitting on chairs. Are they in a rehabilitation room, are they bowling or do they have to be bathed? All that's something that still has to be worked out. I also want to make a painting about the Second World War. Right now, I'm reading books written by people who survived the concentration camps. And I'd like to paint it in the same way as the painting by Van Eyck that you can see over there: the one with the three crosses. It’s a painting with lots of people and up till now I've never included more than four or five people in a painting.
- Do you always work on one painting at a time?
Ophuis: Yes. I’ve just finished ’Miscarriage’. Generally, I spend three or four months working on a single painting but this time it's taken almost a year. Not because of problems with the painting, but due to other factors in my life. In fact, it's still incomplete. The drawing of the woman's head is slightly to sharp. At first, I liked it that way but since then I made a drawing that I think works better.
- Why have you painted the tiles in relief?
Ophuis: Because I believe that’s the best way to paint tiles. You can feel that they’re tiles.
- Van Eyck wouldn’t have painted them in that way.
Ophuis: No, but Rembrandt would have.
- There’s an iron clamp that attaches the lead pipe to the wall. The relief technique gives it a humorous appearance.
Ophuis : I’m particularly pleased with that dingy brown layer of glue where a sticker has been removed.
- Why do you read books about Piero della Francesca and El Greco?
Ophuis: Because Piero della Francesca made a painting with an old man and an old woman… I don't know many painters who have painted old people… Recently I've been studying El Greco's work because he uses so much white. That's something that l always do although I'm trying to change my ways. Yet, when I try a different approach, it ends up looking yellow-ish… And for me, it ceases to be credible because it looks like something that was painted.
- You could also opt to paint in layers.
Ophuis: Yes, but then each layer would have to succeed immediately because you can't make corrections without having to start the whole thing over again.
- Where did you meet the toilet bowl?
Ophuis: In a house where I used to live.
- And you went back there to photograph it?
- On your studio floor are photos of a corpulent man behind the wheel of his modest family car who's being jerked off by a prostitute. Do you first direct these scenes and then photograph them?
Ophuis: I do.
- Bacon also worked from photographs.
Ophuis: As did Munch and Courbet. I think ‘The Funeral at 0rnans’ was made from photograph. And then there's Max Beckmann… This is a great work by Beckmann…
- ‘The Night’ from 1918. What do you like about it? Is it the composition?
Ophuis: It's the composition but also the narrative elements… The fact that she's naked… those shoes… that the man is strung up… the pipe in his mouth… the sickle moon, that it's all taking place in a living room and you still believe it.
- Do you like Soutine?
Ophuis: There’s a painting by him called ‘Mother and Child’ that I really like. I can't paint things that simple. I always need a strong subject so as to be able to create a similar level of emotion.
- There's a scene in your painting ‘Soccer Players l’ where a number of players are holding down a team mate and are shoving the neck of a Coca Cola bottle between his buttocks. Is this something you've actually experienced?
Ophuis: Yes. I've played soccer for years. And that's what happened. The mud on the floor from your boots, the shirts and the changing room looked just like that.
- Why was that kid picked on?
Ophuis: He was rather stout.
- Like the stout guy in the film ‘Deliverance’ whose backside is exposed when he tries to scramble away.
Ophuis: And who is forced to grunt like a pig… I was really impressed by that film. I first saw it one evening at home… Later I realized that these things also happen here. Not just amongst the Cajuns in remote areas of the United States but also right here in the Netherlands. Here too, there are villages that are both relatively isolated and religiously fundamentalist. Outsiders are excluded and the inhabitants have little contact with the ‘outside’ world. These things happen here as well. Inbreeding… It wasn't that bad in Hengelo, at least not quite… But take, for instance, my painting ‘Boy and Girl’. The scene is in a kind of park, in a lake area. When I went back some years ago to take photos, it all looked far more threatening than the way I remembered it. There was a marshy bit where the gay men met, there was a beautiful island for the nudists and there was also a place where the weirdos congregated. One evening I was lying there with a girlfriend and we were disturbed by someone constantly riding back and forth on a moped until finally I chucked a beer bottle at him. At exactly the moment that realized that he was a relative of mine, another relative was emerging from the bushes behind me…
- Two realities that exist simultaneously: a harmonious one and a sinister version. This sounds like something out of a David Lynch film.
Ophuis: Yes, like in ‘Blue Velvet’ where first you see a pleasant scene of a man watering his lawn and then the camera zooms into the auditory duct of a severed ear.
- In ‘Fire Walk with Me’, the image is like a fragile membrane stretched across the white noise which occasionally breaks through.
Ophuis: Really? always thought that there was something wrong with the copy I rented.
- When Laura Palmer is murdered in the train carriage they added several frames of graphically designed lightening to the noise.
Ophuis: I didn't know that.
- In your painting ‘Boy and Girl’ the intimacy is palpable yet is virtually disintegrating in the noise of the leprous and clotting paint. The scenes in your paintings often take place in enclosed spaces. In 'Sweet Violence' even the ceiling has been painted yet in 'Boy and Girl, where the theme seems to be the intimacy between people, you were left feeling unprotected. Even the yoghurt-shake carton is left standing on its own.
Ophuis: When my panting ‘Sweet Violence’ was removed from an exhibition in 1997, I sued the Dutch state because I did not want to be viewed as a painter of child pornography. Finally, the authorities were forced to return the painting to the show. I hadn't expected that a painting could cause so much commotion.
- People think that the things that aren't discussed simply don't exist. And then you depict them.
Ophuis: The opponents of ‘Sweet Violence’ feel that a painting should not be too explicit. If the viewer can use his or her imagination to complete the suggested scene, they feel that there is no need to show more… Do you know ‘The Judgement of Cambyses’? It's a diptych by Gerard David. The story comes from Persia and concerns a judge who is condemned and is flayed alive. The painting was intended to promote the integrity of judges. Look, here it is…
- The judge is wearing boots and slippers. In the first painting, he is wearing them on top of each other and in the second painting they are standing at the foot of the torture table…
Ophuis: Perhaps there's not enough blood but otherwise I don't see that much has been left viewer's imagination…
- You mentioned earlier that you're currently reading about people who survived the German concentration camps. Are you also familiar with the work of Primo Levi?
Ophuis: My decision to make a painting about the Second World War is actually based on the end of Levi's book ‘If This ls A Man’. The Germans have abandoned Auschwitz but, although they expect that the allies will arrive soon, the ailing inmates still have to try to survive. They have barricaded themselves in the field hospital so as to protect themselves against the dying. Constantly they hear the cries of people perishing. Then they discover potatoes. They dig up a mass of frozen potatoes and they begin to cook for each other: potato soup and other dishes with potatoes. That's an extraordinary moment. I once made a painting of people sitting in a kind of hut eating soup. During the opening of the show, an old lady kept approaching me with all kinds of questions although I couldn't quite work out why. But then she told me that she'd been in a Japanese camp and that my painting reminded her of that. Later I read that at first Anselm Kiefer's paintings were mainly bought by Jewish collectors and I thought that perhaps they did this because Kiefer's aesthetic makes sense of what they have been through. Now I believe that they may experience the paintings as a kind of liberation because their trauma is actually being discussed. It is difficult for them to talk about the past because nobody understands them. Even if the artist has never experienced anything so terrible, perhaps these people are happy that he or she has tried to give shape to the horror and may have possibly succeeded.
Montagne de Miel, 27 July 1998