BEING THE UNIVERSE
Raymond Cuijpers – Marie van Vollenhoven, translated by Gertha Sijbers
RC – For your new paintings you initially make designs using Photoshop. The designs are comprised of multiple layers (which is distinctively Photoshop). Subsequently you start painting and “copying” your design, as it were. While many things happen along the way, the image itself essentially stays the same.
MV – The image is not uniform. So far I’ve made three canvases using this technique and within all three of them some distinctive type of transformation has formed within the design. With the latter of three this is most prominent, scarcely resembling the original design, save by composition and stratification. Since this is the first series to evolve out of using this technique I deliberately kept close to the original design. When creating the subsequent three I will undertake new steps, such as:
-interaction between Photoshop and painting, “alternating” the two, if you like…
-mating them with a 3D-designer
The experiment has only just started. In fact, I’m utilizing Photoshop in order to surprise myself.
RC – In truth this goes against the principal of “The Act of Painting”, meaning that the process of creation determines a large part of the finished painting. While creating, awareness, intuition, thought, acting and watching coincide intensely at times; from my point of view this is only possible if you start from nothing.
MV – This I don’t understand, because there is always a cause to make a painting, whether a thought, a feeling or a design.
RC – Well, let me say “nothingNESS” then. Nothingness in the sense of abstraction; you’re not taking an observation, like for example a still life, a nude model, a landscape or if need be the universe itself, as a starting point. No, you start with an empty canvas, you intervene, you mark a spot, and from there you proceed, you paint and you do things you never would have been able to do had you started taking a perceived image which already exists outside your “self” as a point of reference, thereby “copying” it as it were. That’s also what I mean by painting following a design. Your action, the action as a painter will much sooner be in the design than in the canvas. But as you’ve said yourself already, using Photoshop you effectively work more intuitively than in your paintings.
MV – That’s right, and one might wonder whether the Photoshop-part is actually a form of painting in itself. I don’t know, it does feel that way for me. For example, using Photoshop is much more like painting than drawing on paper. Within Photoshop I always start from scratch in an empty file. In any event I’ve noticed that starting from nothing then works, then doesn’t. I think that, through my experience using the Photoshop-technique, painting from nothing receives a new input and because of that will become different again in the future. As is clearly visible within the painting “Light light mentality”; no design was used here. I think I’ll continue working in both manners. I think, presumably! The other day I was reading “What the internet is doing to our brains” by Nicolas Carr, about how technological development directly relates to the development of human thought, even to such an extent that changes occur on a neurological level. As man started mapping the world long ago, they learned to think in a more abstract way. In that sense I suspect the layers of Photoshop are becoming my new reality.
RC – You’re painting an intangible image present somewhere within yourself.
MV – For me working with Photoshop is part of the process of creation. I draw and work with the computer since I was eleven. It’s just as natural for me as sketching on paper. The way in which I work with Photoshop is very playful and intuitive. Possibly even more intuitive than painting. From the moment I started working this way, I’ve noticed I’m able to create much more than before, that which you call: “an intangible image present somewhere within yourself”. I also think man is currently living in a strange time where his cognition is partly taken over/influenced by all kinds of computers. In my way of painting all of this converges. The books I read are also part of the process of creation. I would say your bicycle rides are also part of your process of creation. Or is it?
RC – That’s correct, these particular bicycle rides are an essential part of my paintings. In essence the process of creation in fact starts there, it’s just that it’s not truly creating as it is more like experiencing. During cycling you experience the sensation of cycling along a landscape. For me it’s important the speed is relatively high; the physical aspect, you feeling your body working, your muscles, your heartbeat, your breathing, the urge to climb a hill as quickly as possible, all this defines my experience of the landscape. I am a dynamic eye that performs labor in order to be able to be dynamic. Those are things I want to see again in my paintings; it would be a totally different story were I to leisurely cycle through the polder with my son on the back. The pace, the speed, the dynamic of the athlete, these are a large part of my source; I unconsciously draw from that whenever I paint and in fact I strive to achieve the same state while painting as during cycling. Concentration and relaxation coincide. You are ultimately focused and at the same time you don’t know exactly what it is you’re doing.
By creating a design you more or less fix that image to begin with and maybe the intensity of the eventual act of painting, the creating of a painting, might be less intense?
MV – More intense. Things I initially couldn’t work out during painting no longer thwart me and I can concentrate on the act itself and on the cohesion of all separate elements.
RC – So, what things thwarted you?
MV – I find that to be a very difficult question to answer. It may be the following: the things I painted lacked a sense of urgency, because I simply made them up as I painted and they were therefore never what I “actually” meant to express, while more a story of a particular moment in time. Because of this I painted hesitantly; not constantly by the way, but often. They made me feel like they were “just another painting”. It did work with the series “Being the Universe” was part of, because I actually had something to tell and it all seemed to come along by itself, and I didn’t think out beforehand why the canvas needed that particular dark colour, but as it got that colour it became apparent why. A series like that may reappear. I personally think that particular series really emerged from my most inner self, and I don’t get to that level of purity all the time, it needs to be nourished. Simply following my intuition isn’t enough for me, because I get a lot of pleasure out of the process which develops from the interaction between unconscious thought and creation as opposed to conscious thought and creation. It’s the system whereby your conscious thoughts bring you – through your work – to your unconscious thoughts, and because of that change constantly. That’s probably what suits me best. It is conceivable – though I don’t have a crystal ball – that at some time I’ll be solely painting in a very abstract or intuitive fashion, but at this time there are still too many questions and ideas that need exploring via this method.
RC – You mentioned the triangle as a shape which contains continuous power and tension. Does this particular shape have additional (symbolic, religious) implications besides geometrical or physical meaning?
MV – To me the triangle is a symbol or a metaphor for intrinsic movement, a condition that can’t be solved you could say. Intrinsic movement will continue to be important within my painting, though I imagine the triangle will probably disappear; I needed it in order to go “back to basics”. There are two different phrases often floating within my head: ”Never stop moving otherwise the theory is false” and “Keep moving in order to be able to stand still”. I’m currently reading “Cycles of Time” by Roger Penrose.
RC – Now and then I’m also thinking of glass shards floating in an infinite space.
MV – I like to call these triangles or for that matter all wafer-thin floating shards “slices of time”.
RC – The painting “Being the Universe” really works for me, because within it your thought, the things you think of beforehand cease to be important, in the sense of: your thought becomes pure artistry, and yet you could never have created it hadn’t you taken the universe and your position within it as a point of reference. You say you sometimes, or maybe always, direct your gaze as though you almost literally identify with that which you perceive. Am I describing it correctly?
MV – It’s difficult for me to put into words, maybe I’ll be explaining it differently a next time. Impossible of course, but whenever I’m preoccupied with a subject I sometimes try not to be human; in painting this is most apparent to me, much more than during drawing or photoshopping. I try to enter the thoughts I paint, as though I “am” them. The more urgent or personal these thoughts are, the more I succeed at it. I’m thinking – almost on a daily basis – “who are all these people?”. How can it be that all of them continually seem to be going somewhere? That they get into cars, have arguments, laugh, that they continually have something to do et cetera… Then I feel like I’m in a bad B-movie, then I become intensely cheerful by the whole thing.
RC -I think it’s a good thing not to imagine yourself “human” during painting, or even better; during painting you’re farthest from all those banal traits we seem to be burdened by. But one can’t ever escape the fact one’s a human being, that wants to understand and at times shape the world. Could you have yourself exist as a comet and from that perspective approach the world you want to paint?
MV – That’s actually a tricky one, but I think it would be possible.
RC – After having just left the academy in Maastricht I was very much preoccupied by the transformation of scale one undergoes; for example, I was present within the space of a fly on a dead hare’s skin, I was crawling into the paint, I wanted to find another space, even thought of constructions using which you were only able to look at a painting at for instance ten centimetres distance.
MV – Are you still using that in some way or another? Or has it even become part of you, maybe? I think that if you do something intensively for some time it becomes part of your system and never disappears. Maybe even to such an extent that whenever you paint while having the feeling of racing through a city on a bicycle, the patterns, rhythm or perhaps elegance of a football player become part of the cyclist, as well. Are there novel ways of thinking or thought-experiments you’re currently exploring? Or have you entered a phase in which absolutely everything becomes one, and painting itself is the purest form of thought?
RC – Yes, you’re right, this whole act of thinking, from the moment you start contemplating things consciously, has become part of your system. With me, in everything I do, somewhere that footballer remains ever present, the dynamics of a footballer; also this thinking within one particular moment, the intuition, something needing to be exactly right from the start, can be found again within my paintings I think. Also, I sometimes try to crawl above myself, a bird’s flight above myself while I am cycling above the city; I was already doing this in the paintings and drawings in which I recorded the trajectory of a ball during a football match.
My canvases now have more of a ground perspective, let’s say, me being in the action. I have often wondered what it would be like if you could step outside yourself during a football match, to sit in the audience and observe yourself while you would still be in contact with the you in the field, so that you would at all times see exactly what option or solution would be the best. I was inclined anyway to be in the action, to perform an action and at the same time analyse that action. That’s what painting means and somewhere in there you can also find the meaning of The Act of Painting, I think.
RC – You would sooner say that the space in your canvases is infinitely big.
MV – Yes, you’re right. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the aspect of layerdness of Photoshop is so intriguing to me because it makes me feel this infinity even more. Ouch, Freud.
RC – In first instance your work seems rather cool and distant. Maybe this also has to do with the way it has come about:
you reason yourself towards the image using a philosophical/scientifical reasoning. In your view, what makes the paintings more than a mere illustration of this reasoning?
MV – Painting takes my thinking further along. It looks like I can stand straighter, I can breathe deeper, I can absorb more while at the same time everything becomes simpler and more real. Often of my best conversations happen when I communicate with my paintings. It is a combination of conscious thinking and intuition. I try to analyse everyting that happened intuitively in order to understand what I am thinking. If I wouldn’t paint, I wouldn’t be thinking the thought. All the things that I do form a unity. For example, today I asked myself why I painted certain things so differently from the way they looked in my design. Later on I realised that during the process I gave the painting the working title “Nano summer” and it strikes me how much it reminds me of the Dutch summer. I then ask myself if this is a coincidence, if I make this up later on or if the working title has had an influence on my way of painting. I can’t document the multitude of thoughts I daily have, but I think I do filter the thoughts that are essential to me.
RC – A recurring theme in your work, also in your drawings and computer work, is space, the layerdness (MV layerdness goes in all directions, linear thinking is a thing of the past). The objects float in an indefinable space. The canvas therefore gives the impression of a frame – the space goes beyond the canvas, as if looking at the universe through a long-focus lens. In that sense your paintings become windows rather than objects.
I do also understand, or at least I think I understand, why you apply the paint so very thinly. You want to create an almost matterless image.
MV – I like that. I often wonder why I paint the way I do. Thanks, I’m sure this has something to do with it. I want to show a lot at once and at the same time I want to show that multitude is one single item. Maybe I also want to sound out and build up as I paint, until I’m one with it. Almost as if every painting is a new love relationship to explore.
RC – Do you see paintings as objects; an artistic thing of which the size is only right when the painting is finished?
Or do you see it as an excerpt of something bigger?
MV – I think a bit of both. It will be no coincidence that when I paint, everything flies off the canvas. But at the same time, it doesn’t bother me – a painting is a painting and I do really love them. Let me list some paintings that come to my mind… Mondriaan, the mill (lots of red and yellow), Caillebotte (the floor scrapers), all kinds of paintings of Kandinsky, a specific painting of Manet, a large canvas with lots of green, trees (and at the bottom some people at a table), the abstract work of Gerhard Richter. De Kooning, I don’t remember the title but I saw something really impressive once in a museum. David Schnells work is impressive though he uses too many tricks to my liking. And not to forget: Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt. Furthermore I really like the work of Richard Serra and some Anish Kapoor.
RC – On what base do you choose the size, the proportions of a painting?
MV – This has come about more or less by coincidence. I’ve tried several sizes, also did some large murals. This is the size I like now. I have to feel at ease with it. And I have the feeling that the size works well in combination with my technique – sometimes a rougher touch and sometimes more detail and precision. The size is not too small for rougher work and not to big for precision and detail.
RC – You make abstract paintings of an abstract concept (the universe, meta space and nano space). What is it that gives you grip?
MV – That’s a tough one. Sometimes I can feel myself floating. I myself am the grip. I relate all these abstract data to one single abstract fact, which is: how everything that is or is not, is one. All paintings are partial examinations.
RC – You yourself are the grip, that’s what I think as well. As a painter, an artist, you are always the centre of the world you venture into. Of course you are aware that you are merely a tiny part of the immensely greater whole. But it is exactly because of your distinctive sensitivities, peculiarities, deformations if you wish, that you give form to the world. You for instance want to work on a painting for a long time and you also want to paint the details. Details that hardly matter to me, for me they are the holes in the painting, – MV What a beautiful thought, I will remember that. – the things that you did not paint but that have come into being during the painting itself. They are the traces of footsteps. You do not only take the steps but you also paint the imprint… I think your paintings are very controlled. You can see your entire train of thought in the form, as it were… – MV That’s right – maybe what I want to say is that in your paintings you can hardly see traces of the act of painting and when there are traces, they are very deliberate. What do you think?
MV – I think this is true if you experience the act of painting the way that you do or if you define it as you do. That’s basically a discussion about what the act of painting is. I think you’re right in that it is controlled but not that controlled. It is rather introvert. Deliberate but absolutely not compulsive. Soft and balanced, sometimes with an extrovert outburst if that’s what the work asks for.
RC – How do you get a handle on these phenomena?
MV – In all kinds of ways, by thinking, by reading, by fantasizing, by associating, by talking about it with other people, by imagining them and then take that as a point of departure again.
RC – Sometimes you incorporate an figurative element in your paintings, why is that?
MV – That depends on the subject of the painting. I don’t have the feeling that I have to choose between abstract and figurative. Figurative all too soon becomes narrative and that is something that doesn’t go well with me (anymore). And if I do weave something figurative in my work, then it should really add something to the painting. Besides, some paintings are a little more concrete than others. You could call a triangle figurative, or a line.
RC – And the other way around, you could call a car, a stone or a tree abstract.
MV – Yes, exactly.
RC – As long as it has been painted with the abstract intention. I once mentioned in an interview that everyone can paint a shoe, so the shoe in itself is not so important (I was talking about a football boot) – it is the way that you paint the shoe. That’s what determines who you are, or that is determined by who you are. For instance, I would paint the shoe directly on the canvas, clear the canvas if I didn’t like the shoe and paint another shoe over it. I would repeat this process until a shoe would appear that appealed to me from an art-of-painting point of view. You yourself would play around in Photoshop and finally come up with a design that you would use as a point of departure for a painting. In fact, you are placing a layer between it. You don’t paint the shoe one-on-one but you paint a mediatized shoe… Here you can replace the shoe by anything you like… That also explains the distance in you work, I think. You have added a layer, you’ve placed a layer between you and the painting.
MV – What happens now is that I can see that what you’re saying in front of me, visualized, right here and now. Maybe that is why my own reasoning is translated into form. I see full movies projected against the crown of my skull.
RC – It seems to me that the speed of Photoshop and the relative slowness of oil paint the way that you use it (I take it you let a layer dry first before you place another layer over it?) – MV I often do, but not always.- lead to a different way of thinking. In your painting you take more time to make decisions…. Could you perhaps conclude that you work more intuitively in Photoshop than in your paintings?
MV – Yes, you could say that. At least with greater ease in Photoshop, although my intuition during the art of painting sometimes surprises me. I can sit and look and think that I want to paint something in one way and then I do something completely diifferent. I look and I think, that part over there, that should be lighter, and I walk up to the canvas and start doing something quite different. (This always makes me smile at myself)
RC – Does it also happen that you experience moments or periods when you don’t judge yourself at all anymore? That you’re not laughing inside yourself but that you really become one with the action, and that it is only afterwards that you can conclude that you didn’t do what you actually wanted to do? Meaning you have left the surface of your thinking and you have reached a deeper level?
MV – Yes, that happens. I find that miraculous. But loosing myself altogether is something that only happens to me now and then and it never lasts very long. In the past I have suffered a lot from what they call ‘fear of failure’ – but I myself think it is something else. A moment or an environment quickly feels unnatural to me and then of course that I can’t become one with the action, because this unnatural feeling distracts me. I’m happy to say that when I’m painting becoming one with action does often happen, and it happens more and more, a couple of hours at the most. The same happens when I’m playing table tennis. Sometimes I play very well and that is because I forget everything around me. Then it looks like magic. But I can’t do it at will and I can’t keep it up for very long. That’s why I don’t often win a game. My trainer used to say that I think too much. And he was right. It has pros and cons.
When I’m drawing it happens most often. I think the act of drawing is most natural to me – apart from breathing that is.
(Today I spent all morning playing table tennis with a friend, in the green fields of Limburg, without keeping score. Because of the wind the game was extra unpredictable, you had to concentrate even harder. I was super happy.)
RC – Ah, sports! Do you see, imagine or feel a connection between your playing table tennis and your painting? The concentration, hitting the balls well, and sometimes finding yourself in a zone where you no longer think but have such a physical focus that it is almost frightening. I once played at a tournament for instance and every ball (I played in the forward line at that time) I aimed at the goal was a hit. I became the top scorer of the tournament; my prize was a ball. Later, much later, I often remembered that tournament. It was fun to score so many goals, but actually it was no fun that I hardly had to work for it, that it was so easy. Sometimes when you paint, the same thing happens, that you put something on the canvas, thoughtlessly, and that it is good as it is. Yet there is more to see and I see more of myself in canvasses that I had to work on for a longer time, for which I had to force myself past a certain point, for which I really had to work hard.
MV – Indeed, I can see some common ground. In both there is an area of tension between performing and the game itself. That is why you train: the results become better and the game becomes nicer and more interesting. When experience and insight fall together, your play or your painting becomes virtuoso because there is great logic at the moment of action; a few moments in a row, or even during every nano second, or even: a timeless logic. And yet all the less masterful moments are just as logical because they prepare for virtuosity. You can then only distinguish between actions in which a lot of different factors come together and actions in which more of the same factors come together. It is possible that when many different factors come together, they boost and accelerate each other to the point where you can’t keep up with and analyse them anymore. That’s why you were in a trance and it seemed as if you didn’t have to do anything special. Little internal Big Bangs.
But there are also huge differences. When playing table tennis you depend on another being as fellow player, but when you paint there are numerous fellow players, just not human. Visible and tangible: the canvas, the music that’s playing, the room in which you work. And less visible: the spirit of the moment, the political situation, scientific developments, the generation you belong to. Another big difference is that I’m an amateur at sports but a professional in painting.
RC – What does a painting of yours reveal about you, your essence, your thoughts, your being?
MV – A lot. Hanneke van Dongen told me the other day: ‘Your paintings are a nice mix of thinking and feeling.” And that is also how I see myself. When you say in first instance my paintings give an impression of distance, I think this not thanks to Photoshop but rather has to do with who I am. People experience me as warm, but I experience the world with a great distance while at the same time I am super sensitive. I think one has to do with the other.
RC – Or maybe you don’t want to see this reflected in your painting at all and it is more about a total understanding of the world, your place in the world, in the universe?
MV – I more or less assume that I will never understand a thing about the world and the universe. That’s an irritating thought but I can live with it very well. I’m not interested in my position at all. One of my recent new paintings is called: ‘What is important?’ Why do you attach more value to one thing over another? Or: what is important at all?
RC – Can (and would you please) answer the last question?
MV – I can answer it – I often do so in my mind – but the answer may change in the course of time.
My answer is “trust” but the question usually makes me think of love, family and friends.
Why would someone value the one more than the other? I know why, but I like to tell people that it is possible to view and experience situations as equally important. Once you understand something consciously, it can have an influence on your feelings. You can give something that burdens you a place emotionally and become less sad, or you can have a better understanding of a situation and therefore act more pragmatically. That is why the answer is “trust”. A kind of modern variant of faith. In the painting you see a moth that crashed and a car that crashed, both caught in my ‘slices of time’. Which death is more important, If you didn’t know you were a human? They are equally important and equally unimportant.
RC – How do you translate (this) trust into a painting?
MV – The trust is there. It will be there as long as I live. It does not have to be converted or unraveled. If I would go blind and wouldn’t be able to paint anymore, the trust, the faith would still be there in anything else I’d do.