A FLOUNDERING BEETLE
Raymond Cuijpers – Jacco Olivier
translated by Cole Verhoeven
With Jacco, the paint always had to flow, have movement. The few months that we shared a studio together, his canvases remained flat on the floor. To dry, he stacked the paintings horizontally with pieces of wood between them. At a certain point he felt the paint should continue moving and not lie dormant. He began making animated films comprised of hundreds of paintings and exhibited them all over the world. His thoughts about painting still reveal a lot of doubt and searching and the desire to avoid defining the work. He has always been reticent of the sanctity of painting. I think the medium of film is a good fit with his tendency towards temperate and small-scale. Maybe that is also true of each final image he conveys. Upon stepping outside after watching one of Jacco’s films, what remains is a fleeting frame that does not impose itself upon the viewer but rather subtly nuances your experience of the things around you. After seeing a beetle struggling on its back you might imagine a fly as a bit of moving paint… In this sense his films resonate in the future (although they’re often born from a memory). They continue to be animate in your head. You enter a world of memory, paint, movement, dream and sensory perception. And you exit with a sense of calm, easily recalling images and letting them go.
I want to know more about these feelings of doubt because I suspect them to be in fact an important catalyst in his process.
The framed print I saw in your studio on my last visit was a nice discovery. I imagine you could make a print of every still that you like, perhaps even a thousand…(it looked like a complicated, multichromatic silkscreen, each layer was visible). What determines your choice of one still over the other?
Why choose one still over the other? In this case I chose the precise moment that best illustrated what I had in mind when I started the film. An abstract landscape containing the same colors as the location where I made the film. I found it difficult to go abstract with it, for me it becomes immediately too random. That’s why I started the film with an urban landscape, with apartments etc., but then painting them with fewer and fewer details. So it slowly meshes into something abstract. This is a still from the first point that the film becomes completely abstract; no more water or sky or trees, just color and form.
It’s actually quite mad. You paint a wooden plank. You take a photo of it. The photo becomes a still in you film (video) after some manipulation in Photoshop. You then isolate that still and print it out. So you now, in four stages, arrive at a two dimensional, static image, a reproduction. What is the difference for you between the board and the print?
The boards are rough, a surface on which to experiment, allow for chance and to make a mess. The print is completely filtered. Both the print and the board come about through a guided chance. The print is more controlled and guided and more is omitted.
When you are creating animation on the boards it’s all about the film and elements emerge that are totally different from a stand-alone work. Your new abstract works on board are intended to be autonomous paintings. The significance is greater perhaps you are more restricted. How do you see that?
My newer abstract wooden planks are no different that the other boards. I try to remain open and unbiased while painting, hoping to make something that feels right intuitively. To achieve that, I must silence my own inner critic. To overcome the difficulty of that I tell myself that the end results don’t matter. As long as I encounter some beautiful colors, ideas and forms along the way that I can use when building my film. Sometimes one of the boards has something extra and works on its own. In which case it becomes an autonomous painting.
The abstract film will be exhibited minus all the narrative? Will the viewer miss the layers of the story, the dream, the thoughts, the autobiographical?
I can’t create something abstract out of nothing. I have tried making abstract work just for the sake of being abstract. But it’s so random that it becomes indiscernible to me. I need a figurative head start, or a clear sensation, such as a memory. I have made films that appear completely abstract but in fact have a very clear story for me. Only they contain no figurative elements. The story is just the framework I hang the film on. I don’t intend for the film to be ‘read’. I don’t want to tell a clear story but I do need a clear narrative to start with. I then eliminate the clutter of the narrative and hope that the sentiment and the mood still resonate in the film.
OK. The newest boards are worked with the expectation that they could possibly fit into a film. I think that that is an important given. Of course you’re thinking about creating a painting. But that painting can ultimately become a film still (after some digital manipulation). In the classical sense, the painting is more or less the finished product. And the goal of painting is the painting itself. For you, the painting on the board is more of a point of departure that could possibly wind up being autonomous later on down the line.
When the painting is meant to be the end result it is virtually impossible to turn off that inner critic. Every action is being measured against the fundaments of your own vision of what a painting should be. Sometimes the thinking and doing will coincide and you’ll work intuitively but the moment always arrives that you take a step back and see a finished work. But then you break through the notion of a finished work and continue painting. By switching off that inner critic you circumvent that conflict between what you see and what you want to actually make. In fact you are superimposing that conflict onto the film during the editing process. It is no small matter of coincidence that you work for months at a time on one film. Is this true or is it too far-reaching?
It is true what you say about the conflict between what you see in front of you and what you want the painting to become. That tension is omnipresent until you’ve made something that dissipates the conflict. Even if the end result is not what you originally intended. I have a lot of boards that are not quite paintings and a lot of scenes that don’t quite add up to a film. Perhaps I am postponing making a choice. Maybe my conflict is between wanting to show work but never knowing definitively what I want to show. Creating a painting in the classical sense like you do, for example biking a few hours until your head is completely clear and then making a large abstract painting, requires a certain type of self-confidence that I don’t have. For me it starts with a painting in and of itself. A painting is an object. The size of a painting also communicates something. And if that thing is going to take up space then it must really have something to it. And so doing I mentally destroy everything before it has even begun. I am very good at discerning what I don’t want but no good at all at discerning what I do want. I hope to find something in the process, in the painting itself rather. Those moments of taking a step back you mentioned occur for me in the moments when I take a photo. And then I continue on with layering and painting. And then when I see the photos later I am better able to see what works and what doesn’t and what it was that captured my attention when I was painting. And if I can filter all those elements out and reveal them placing them in a bit of a fluid line-up, then I have a film. And yes, sometimes that takes months.
Actually if we are talking about your work we should discuss elements of film like tension, sharp editing, story line, that sort of stuff. But I know too little about all that and it doesn’t really interest me. Whenever I watch one of your films I see the origins. I see, so to speak, the first plank that is to become the basis of the film. A painted seed of information that you grow and through which you weave fragments (to me autobiographic) of events, objects and stories. The total of those elements delivers a film that is not at all narrative but rather dreamlike, ephemeral or painterly. In that sense your films do contain the typical elements found in a painting. The difference is that with the painting you take everything in at a glance while the film requires a longer gaze in order to really experience it.
On both the painted boards and in your films the purely abstract splotches gain meaning through the sudden introduction of figurative elements: a dot turns into a rock or evolves into yet something more when a human figure appears…Your paintings contain narrative space. When you’re doing purely abstract work and when there are no planets, people, birds, automobiles or soda cans popping up, then the space is pure painting. And even then you are still making use of that narrative space in the film. How would describe that space in your work?
Thinking space perhaps? Crawl spaces within a painting? I do still think it’s about a painterly space though in the sense of how elements are distributed over a flat surface. But indeed, the element of time is strange. I haven’t yet mastered it. I generally take a practical approach to time for example, this or that action takes this amount of time or I use time as flow or to make events more plausible by prioritizing images. But I’m just as disinterested in all that film rhetoric too.
I still occasionally thing about the time that you told me about your first memory. About how just before going to sleep you crawled into your imaginary abstract forms. And how consequently the plank that you painted from this memory is actually an archetype of your abstract thinking. Do you think that painting comes close to the core of these memories and that you are in fact still attempting to recreate them?
That memory you’re talking about was about going to bed and if I turned my head towards one direction I’d see only organic forms. And then if I turned to the other side, onto the other ear, then I would see lines that made up geometric shapes. I could quiet myself by imagining myself in one of those shapes floating past. It is a tempting idea to think it’s all about archetypal memories that we’re trying to recreate or make something recognizable that makes a connection… There’s something I once heard Marc Manders say. He said that all of his ideas sprouted from one short moment in 1996 and that he was still working those out. I sometimes wish I had something like that to fall back on…I don’t know… Those basic ideas, that mixture of origin, character, upbringing and circumstances make you create what you create I think. Those are at any rate good reference points.
In the beginning of June 2013 Jacco and I talk further in his studio, a space in a former school building in the heart of the Jordaan neighborhood. There are two worktables teeming with tubes of paint and small wooden planks and a computer where he edits his films in the large, luminous studio. There is also a cabinet, an archive of hundreds of painted boards, a comfortable sofa and a piano. I am automatically drawn to a couple of abstract boards on the ground. The paint, predominantly red, green and yellow, has been poured onto them, the erratic surfaces of color flowing partially into one another.
You’ve got enough here to do an exhibit, don’t you?
Yeah yeah…You never know…Yeah, I don’t know.
What do you think is not good about it?
This is all really just coincidence. And there is nothing wrong with that, and I would actually like to….it is good, because you do want to be disconnected from painting, to just let it do its own thing and turn off your own internal critic. I’ve wanted that for a long time, always have. If you can just draw then you can achieve beauty.
It’s still recognizable as your work, even if your signature is not on it.
You can see that some of the paint has dried. Sometimes I fail or reach an impasse but even then there are good bits to make photos of.
Those will be used as stills?
Yes, I’ll use those for my films. That plank is actually very ugly, could easily be thrown away.
Isn’t that too easy? I mean there are also some nice pieces on the floor that could be used too.
Yes, and I have already used them. That’s even more spontaneous. Take a splotch of color like this (he points to a yellow drip of paint on the gray wood). This has instantly more body.
That is an example of really using chance and then making the actual selection with stills.
That is also a possibility.
But it is always a question of personal choices and taste. Of which blobs of paint you like and which you don’t. I’ve always been very specific about that.
I can’t just make anything and then throw it all together. I’ve tried that. You think, ‘I need something yellow, a yellow shape. And if I can’t make one, and there is one on the floor already, then I just use that one.
Yes, that comes about because of the films you make, because if you say ‘I need this, I’ll saw it out of the floorboards and hang it up’, then that’s another story.
I think has to do with being insecure and thinking it all amounts to nothing. Then it is in the small bits that are just a bit different from the rest, like here where the more vivid color is pushing through, that you say to yourself, ‘that’s what I want, that’s how I want it to turn out’. And then if I go on to make of photo of that and do something with it, then the quality of what I was going for reveals itself.
And have you ever consciously tried to paint something like that finished product?
Many times. But then you need brushes the size of a broom. And that too is possible but I’d have to work on a canvas that size for about three months…
And then you get a kind of a Katharine Grosse effect with 12-meter wide canvasses, and very sterile works…
And then it becomes about Japanese Zen, and about signifiers and everything I don’t want.
If you’re going to work like that (pouring the paint out onto a wooden plank), to what extent can you still call that painting?
Oh, it’s still just as valid as painting with a brush, just a continuation. I have to find the balance. Are you going to throw the paint around just like one big circus or are you going to guide it more towards your own taste? Then it’s alive. (He points to a few planks where the paint has dried up in random areas) Beautiful edges and everything but I’m immediately reminded of the 1960’s and 70’s. And that one (pointing to a more saturated plank), that’s something I could use.
Use for a film? Or as a stand-alone work?
Well, I’m not thinking about autonomous work at this point. This one is completely warped. That doesn’t bother me mainly because I have to pour paint onto it. A lot goes wrong. This one will go onto a stack and I’ll take pictures of them later and then see which ones remain as stand alone work. Allowing for coincidence is part of the job.
You are guiding coincidence. You allow for it, but you guide it too.
Yes it’s guided.
And that action, of guiding the paint and the coincidence, is also a painting technique.
Do you always use acrylics? Or sometimes oil as well?
Acrylic. Because if I utilized oil in this process, we wouldn’t be standing here now.
We’d be dead.
It is of course a lot different than working with oil, but you can paint layer upon layer.
These boards have been through 5 or 6 sessions.
If you work that way you can’t really paint wet on wet…
Oil is better, the colors are more vivid. But then try carrying off taking a photo, layering a different color on top and then for example messing around with a syringe.
If it were oil then you could say ‘I can present this as a finished work’. But this way you can still think of them as studies for stills.
With oil it’s all thicker. If you want to keep a color in then you put a good bit of it on. And if I take a picture, micro or A4, then the difference in dimensions and the difference between glossy and matte are so irritating. Acrylic dries up matte and evenly.
(We walk over to a board on the floor by the window)
Here you were not thinking about composition, you’ve completely skipped that. Different worlds come together. You would never make this if you were just painting this as an autonomous work.
I’ll probably throw that one away. But it wouldn’t surprise me if I were to go looking for it again later.
Jacco lines up some figurative works on a ridge. A small painting of a stranded ship, a car stuck in a swamp.
They remind me of the whale you made earlier. It was also stuck although there was a lot of movement, an immobilized object. Is there a film in one of these boards?
Yes, I think about making a story from them, but then I’d have to infuse more drama…something small like a captain who abandons ship like with that Italian cruise liner…
The drama is definitely in there; it was in the whale too. And in one of your first films of the polar bear walking through an icy landscape. But you also took elements of your own life, and put them in; your family…
Yes there should always be a small, personal marker in it.
There is always that autobiographical element. In the abstract works that actually disappears. Or do you try to introduce it in a different way?
I am not able to work in a purely abstract way. I can’t make an abstract film without a basis. In my last film I used a story as a starting point. I lie on the beach with my eyes half closed and my child is nagging me to come along and play, but I really don’t want to because I’m too sluggish. And peering through the red of your eyelids, through your eyelashes and you enter a kind of landscape with many different suns, but even that doesn’t matter because it becomes an inner landscape and you sink down and enter a world with all sorts of colors where you navigate through a myriad of blue layers as if being pulled into your subconscious and then falling asleep. That is what I see before me and I then try to create a base underneath with sound.
So, sound has taken up a more prominent place in your films. With the figurative elements it used to be that if you saw a bird, you would hear chirping. Now it seems to be more of a soundscape.
Yes, but now there have to be authentic sounds under the abstraction. Now there are rattling cups, something is happening, footsteps… You feel that something is going on and that adds a certain tension.
The sound does add the figurative layer.
Yes, I do need some form of framework.
That scene that you describe, that you are on the beach and looking at your child through half closed eyes, or hearing your child rather… could you capture that in one image in a painting….say a Rothko-esque canvas?
…No, I couldn’t pull that off.
Does a painting have to be about that, as an abstract work?
No. I use it…but I then secretly hope that an extra layer will appear.
Microbe (sedition), omin55, 2012, Jacco Olivier on Vimeo
When you work figuratively you have a nicely laid out starting point, you utilize certain colors, you want to create a certain kind of light. Without really over thinking it you organize all of these elements before you paint. It is the same with abstract work; only you have no framework or point of departure other than the paint itself. What do you want to see in terms of painting in your abstract boards?
When I paint with a brush a lot of elements start to look the same because your personal motor skills work in a certain way. Sometimes you require bigger gestures for in the background. In pouring the paint you arrive at the more monumental forms and colors. You get something that you normally wouldn’t.
Can you also imagine them at ten meters wid?
Yes, because I know someone who does that: Barbaby Furnas. A furthermore we’ve seen Helen Frankenthaler and others as well.
And Katharina Grosse.
Then it becomes so monumental that –
Then it gets so big that its really not a painting anymore, more a set decoration or something.
With a painting, you can relate yourself to it in some way.
I don’t think we really need to work on such large formats any longer. You still do because you require certain physicality. But other than that it’s not necessary to make such large work.
I want to in my large paintings literally and physically place myself in the work, physically in the canvas.
If it is a good painting then no one’s going to be whining about it being too big or too small.
And still the size matters. You approach a 3 to 4 meter canvas a lot differently than you would a smaller canvas.
Yes…for me the size of the small boards is purely practical. They fit under the scanner and they fit in the cabinet