ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Koen Delaere - 2011 - All About Doing [EN, interview],
All About Doing
A conversation with Koen Delaere
I meet Koen Delaere (°1970) at his studio in Tilburg. The paintings I discover are beautiful. The newest paintings move me the most. Touched, I recognize textures and juxtapositions of colors which my old friend, the painter Michel Frere, tried to make surface from the depths of the material, with a traditional brush. While I look around Delaere begins to speak enthusiastically about his work. I pen down his words quickly so you can listen along.
Koen Delaere: I haven’t painted anything in the last two weeks, because I’ve been making large prints in Middelburg, in Piet Dieleman’s studio. We’re printing on paper size double A0, that’s about 168 cm by 118 cm. Because the press isn’t big enough for the paper, we have to fold the paper. The folding provides a way for me to gain and lose control over the work at the same time. Such methods are present in all my work these days. Through doing I try to come to methods by which I gain control and then lose it again. The four paintings you see before you are the most recent. I made them by sliding the canvases against one another, turning them 90° and sliding them again. This way of working began in Curaçao where I spent some time, at the invitation of David Bade, to work with young artists. Curaçao has a population of about 140,000, the same as Tilburg. There is no art there. In looking for a way to work with these young people I started thinking about what it could mean for me to make work there. At the same time I was noticing patterns that are common to the cityscape in that area. In Curaçao, just like in most South American countries, bars in front of ground floor windows are the norm. We Northern Europeans associate these with prisons or fear of the neighbors while in fact this system makes it possible to keep all the windows open to create cooling breezes. The houses are built to catch as much wind as possible. Often they have narrow gaps in the walls or concrete louvers, which due to their form inevitably recall modernism and thus call to mind Schoonhoven and Mondriaan. I decided to do something with these patterns. In this way I could work with a visual pattern that referred to the local political situation. By the process of sliding the paintings against each other patterns of a more personal nature are obtained. And the more personal they are, the more universal they will be, because others will be more likely to recognize something of themselves in it. I used to try to obtain this effect by placing photos I made myself, cut outs and other personal relics in my work. Now and then I’d clean my studio, stick the meaningful bits I found laying around to a canvas, and pour epoxy over the whole before beginning the painting. My work was more premeditated. Now I start from the physical process of painting.
- There are bars on the windows of your studio here.
Delaere: That’s right. (Laughs)
- Because they are both painted white, the bars create a shifting pattern in relation with the borders of the window.
Delaere: I was consciously taking into account the work of Schoonhoven and Mondriaan, knowing that these painters mean next to nothing to young people in Curaçao. But when I went snorkeling I recognized Schoonhoven’s patterns in the coral and in the light refraction at the bottom of the sea. When I went to São Paolo and Los Angeles a little while later to make wall paintings, I invented a way of working through which I could begin immediately on arrival, because when you arrive in another city you want to work instead of being a tourist. It’s not obvious to look for new ideas when you arrive in a new place. That’s why I invented this way of proceeding. I thought I had to do something Dutch or European and that I shouldn’t think too much, but act. In Curaçao I had made a few works by sliding painted pieces of cardboard against each other. In Los Angeles I filled a canvas with paint and slided it against the wall first horizontally and then vertically. It’s something physical, but it offers a structure. It’s a method, but it offers a lot of freedom. The movements are geometrical, but the visual result is reminiscent of plants, coral, and the movement of light on the sea floor. The method has something human because it provokes accidents. I feel that's where it gets interesting. We’re not allowed to use the word creative anymore these days, but originally, it must have meant something like problem solving. I like to invent problems that want to be solved.
What also interests me about this way of working is that all the manipulations take place on the canvas. The paint isn’t thinned or mixed before I start, I don’t use a brush, palette or knife. I apply the paint squeezing, directly from the tube, onto the canvas and then I rub. If I want a certain amount of saturation it has to happen on the canvas. The nice thing about this approach is that it makes the paintings readable. Nothing is masked. Every mistake is still on the canvas. I’m not interested in paint either. Everything comes directly from the store. I’d rather paint with a broom or a piece of wood than with a brush. This, for example, is a painting that I use as a tool to make other paintings.
- You squeeze out paint tubes in different places on the canvas. By sliding the canvas against a second one you obtain unexpected meandering or broken up lines and planes, color combinations and textures. The places where the paint gathers with a flat top, like a miniature plateau, are very beautiful. Sometimes they find themselves next to virgin areas of canvas.
Delaere: The possibility of sparing some virgin canvas is a bonus. You never know where the plateaus will start or stop, and the result is always a surprise… For other painters the process of making isn’t important of course. They look at the result. But I think in terms of procedures or a combination of different ways of doing that form a method. Young people are surprised at the amount of paint on my canvases but for me that material isn’t an end, it’s just a medium I can manipulate.
- At the corners of the canvas surprising masses arise.
Delaere: That's because of the frame. The canvas yields when I push down on it so the edge of the frame holds up the paint. In the past I made paintings based exclusively on this circumstance. Traditionally, if the frame leaves traces in a painting this is seen as a flaw. I made it into a procedure to obtain new paintings. Because the canvas yields you’ve got to invent solutions and tactics in order to get some paint in the middle of your canvas.
- What do you think of Bernard Frize’s work?
Delaere: What he does is always perfect. It’s too clean. It never fails, or he doesn’t show that part. It’s work with no problems. I like work with friction in it. Its good to be able to think that you could do it yourself as well. With Frize it looks industrially made, so there’s always a certain distance. The work is about a kind of beauty that justifies itself. But art shouldn’t be about art. I’m convinced that the form of an artwork can convey meaning. A form that only seems to be about art doesn’t mean much to me. I apply myself to the task of making paintings that through their form express a mentality and opinion about things other than art. Last summer I put together a show at Aschenbach en Hofland in Amsterdam. The title, The Platinum Metre, referred to an interview with Paolo Virno. In this interview (The Mismeasurement of Art) Virno claims that each time art produces a new form the old ways of measuring the form fall short. It’s as if the platinum meter, housed in Paris, would suddenly be 90 or 110 cm long. Virno calls this ‘the mismeasurement of art’. In this he finds a connection between artistic avant-garde and radical social movement: both say the old ways of measuring are invalidated and that we need to look for new norms. For Virno the formal research is the most important: the form of a poem, or of new surroundings, or the structure of a new idea. To him looking for new forms in art is the same as looking for new ways to approach society. I agree with Virno. What I find most important in his ideas is that changes in art are intrinsically bound to the artistic form: with the 'what' and 'how' of the artistic process.
- How do you use brooms?
Delaere: I use them for specific works where I first apply a layer of enamel paint to a canvas and then sweep a layer of acrylic over it. The paint writhes in the tracks of the broom. In the beginning I applied the paint with old hard brushes, but I needed a broom to get to the middle of the canvas. It’s got something day-to-day and stupid to paint with brooms, but the visual result is interesting. I think about the enormous potential in mundane daily operations that according to Michel de Certeau could be used in art. I try to apply this idea when taking part in residency programs abroad trying to combine my own experiences with new information I come across. For example in São Paolo I was impressed by the absence of commercials in public areas and by the presence of orchids growing in the trees. The sidewalks in front of the homes in the city are private property so the citizens use the trees as a kind of garden in which they grow orchids. I have an affinity for the orchid’s parasitic unbridled form that’s been added to a structure borne from urban planning and political decisions. I also like that this might say something about personal freedom. Then, in São Paolo, when I started sliding painted canvasses against the walls I saw it as an operation resulting from my Dutch conceptual painting background as well as from the orchids and the Pixacao graffiti which were rampant in the suburbs.
- Do you have a system for applying the colors before you start rubbing?
Delaere: I apply the colors at random. Then I sweep in one go from the one to the other side of the painting, and then move on to the next stroke, and so on. Sometimes I scratch in it afterwards, like you would carve your name in a car door or train window.
- These paintings present a different kind of tracks, they look like the tracks on the broom paintings, because they are horizontal, but they seem different.
Delaere: I made them with my fingers. They are softer lines. The broom gives a more expressive sharp line. The problem with working in abstraction is that you get compared to expressionism, so you need the softer lines of a sluggish movement or a sort of slowness to contrast with the fast, so called, expressive action. I’m glad there is still virgin canvas visible in these too, so there’s still some air, so it’s not all caked full.
- The paintings you make with your fingers have a rougher surface. The traces have raffled edges.
Delaere: The broom paintings emerge in one go. They’re all over paintings, also in time. They arise from a few small controlled actions. The finger paintings, on the other hand, are painted over a longer period of time. Sometimes they have dried during the process. Dried oil paint gets a skin on top, if you zip open that blister you get a ridged effect. You can make a painting in an hour or a day, or you can spread out this making over ten days. Then the result is different. After the paintings have been made, the selection process begins. You’ve got to make decisions. Lots of good things happen coincidently, but you’ve got to give the flukes a place.
- You said that you’ve only been working like this since your last summer, spent in Curaçao.
Delaere: I finished school in 1995. The first years I did a lot of performances and made installations, but in the end this was too indefinite for me. I made photos and videos as well but I’ve got a greater affinity for paint. It is a limited medium, but I find the most freedom within the limitations of painting. One day I decided to form clear formal parameters within which to work. Actually I had to build it up from scratch again. I’ve been painting for about ten years now.
- When did you start paying attention to the patterns?
Delaere: My introduction to patterns took place at an early age, when I was a teenager. It happened at an exhibition of war flags from the Fante Asafo, an African tribe. The flags were based on the British military flag with smaller versions or echo’s of the flag and pictograms attesting their invincibility. “We can stand on an ant hill without fear! ”They also used the image of ivy. “We are like ivy and conquer obstacles!” An obstacle in that case is not seen as something that holds you back, but something that allows you to grow. Years later, in 1990, I had a studio in an old school building that hadn’t been used in years. Because of its dilapidated state the playground paved with cement tiles was covered with weeds. On the one hand you had the strict geometry of the tiles, on the other hand you had the weeds that ignored or made use of the system. Before I started working with abstraction I painted this kind of coming together of grids and wild organic forms: tiles, plants, ivy. But when I came home at night I’d find the paint on my hands more interesting than my paintings and I began to understand that they were the random result of a system. I understood that I could create a strict system and use it to produce organic forms. In the end you could ask why I was interested in African flags when I was a young man. I lived in South Africa when I was young, in Johannesburg and Capetown. I imagine that this had some effect on my perspective. Its not uncommon for a dominated or colonized society to pick up elements of the culture of the oppressor, like tribes in South Africa that have taken elements from cricket and use them in dance and rituals to communicate with each other.
- In an invisible way there’s another link in your current process. Claude Lévi-Strauss describes structures (based on convention) and events (things born from coincidence). He proves that the patterns or grids used by so called primitive people to represent reality or to organize their society, are actually empty forms, that do not answer to archetypes. If something new happens, the structure is changed. Basing their ideas on nature, for which they have a fine eye, they think of juxtapositions with which they can split their society in such a way that the different casts, classes or ‘moieties’ will overlap. That’s how they avoid war. But if, for instance, part of a tribe disappears they will invent a new structure. The structures are used to organize the world. Paradoxically, without them events are invisible. Without structure there is no place for chance. A living structure allows coincidence and changes with it. The same happens in your work. You apply procedures or tactics, but the goal is variety and difference, the goal is to produce events.
Delaere: Do you know Bayrle’s work? He sees grids everywhere: on computer screens, in the woven fabric of our clothes… He gives form to the paranoiac potential within grids. In an animation of his you see, for example, a telephone that turns out to be made of lots of telephones which in turn are also made of telephones and so on.
- Here it seems like you’ve used another working method.
Delaere: I told you I’d learned at the Art Academy not to paint the linen into the frame. I spent a while doing that on purpose. After that I turned the idea around and clamped narrow boards on the painting. I allowed myself to do anything on the condition that every brush stroke hit the board. The result was an unpainted strip where the board had been.
- It looks like the paint collected under the edge of the board, how did that happen?
Delaere: The canvas gives way, so I’d sweep the paint under the board. Sometimes I’d use different sized boards, then you get this kind of painting. (He shows a painting.) A horizontal line in a painting often reminds one of a horizon. So you use that. I’m not trying to paint landscapes, its more about giving shape to an array of possibilities.
- How did these paintings come into existence?
Delaere: First I created a texture with a hard dried out brush. After I’d spray enamel over it, which is dry, almost in powder form, by the time it lands on the canvas. Because the powder drizzles downward it doesn’t land on the underside of the ridges. That’s how you get the tantalizing difference in color… You get kind of a friction between the rigorous brushwork and an atmospheric, mistiness from the sprayed paint molecules. They are hybrid works that occur through the encounter of spray enamel paint with oil paint. That’s how they remind us that paintings are always hybrids. We experience the applying of paint as something normal, but actually it’s a strange thing to do. These paintings are the result of videos I used to make based on night shots. Night shots are green and pixilated. There’s no green in the paintings, but a green haze is achieved through the use of yellow and black. Every once in a while I’ll make one of these paintings. I’ve only made six or seven. Every time I start one I have to work to remember how to do it again… The combination of spray paint with oil paint applied with a brush is reminiscent of street art. Graffiti itself doesn’t interest me, but the making of it is one of the only ways to freely intervene in public space, a little like the way skaters see the world as a situationist playing field. I like that tension between freedom and absence of freedom. In Curaçao there’s only one type of orchid, of which thousands of varieties exist. This type is protected, you’re not allowed to pick it or take it with you, but on the other hand the orchid seems to be smothering all the other plants.
[In the work of Guy Debord I’m interested mostly in the idea that the world is a place full of opportunities. The situationists went about making up and implementing their own rules and logic in the city. In the punk movement those self defined criteria and that vision became principle for all facets of life. I try to use the fabrication of rules as a working method.]
Every thing depends on how much you control or let go. During a lecture someone pointed out to John Körmeling that the car industry would do everything in their power to stop the production of the Stirling engine, because water is free, and oil is not. Körmeling answered that we’ve only decided based on a convention that what comes out of the earth costs money and that what falls from the sky is free. Why couldn’t we tax water? At the same time we as individuals seem to become ever less powerful. You used to be able to fix your car or washing machine yourself, but not anymore. I’d like to give the viewers of my work the feeling that they can decide the conditions. That someone might, for example, find the courage to build an addition to his or her home; that he or she can take an initiative instead of functioning within systems stipulated by masses that neglect the value of individual action.
Montagne de Miel, 28 March 2011