THE INNER VOID
Raymond Cuijpers – Jeroen Hofhuizen – Translated by Cole Verhoeven
Early in 2011 Jeroen and I walked through a dreary Amsterdam to my Studio. Since leaving the Academy in Maastricht in 1995 we’d lost sight of each other. But we made contact again via Facebook. Effortlessly we picked up the discussions on painting we had had during our years at the academy. At the time we felt that intuition was the basis upon which we approached painting and we still feel that intuition is still at the core of the paintings we make now. In my studio Jeroen, short hair, a bright look in his eyes through small glasses and slim body under a medium length grey coat, pointed eagerly to a large canvas I was working on. He was talking about color, light, depth and the thickness of the paint. Elements of painting itself. I said I tried to disable as much as possible my thoughts while painting and that I trusted my intuition. I have found that after 20 years of painting that the technical aspects of painting are no longer a mystery to me. I wanted the energy, the state I am in (both mentally and physically) visible on the canvas.
We knew that a painting only really existed when it left the studio. We talked about exhibitions and came to the conclusion that we had to take matters into our own hands. No curators, no galleries. We would have to do it ourselves. That idea began to take root and grow. We talked on the phone and e-mailed back and forth. We brought together a group of painters who would form the core of a traveling exhibition, The Act of Painting.
I visited Jeroen a few times in his studio in Heugem, a suburb of Maastricht on the east side of the Maas river. With each visit I first had to get past Pierre, a large dog that barked loudly that later lie down quietly in a corner. Next I had to switch my mindset. Jeroen’s work was small and subdued. In his canvases there was a sensibility that showed a lot of contemplation, and represented a great respect for painting.
My contract at Athenaeum Bookstore was not renewed. I got a new job as a bike messenger. At the same time I had a three-month period in which I worked almost every day in my studio. Although I lived with my family with almost no money, I managed to scrape together enough for paint from time to time. I crawled deeper into my paintings. I also delved into other artists works of art simply because I had the time. But also because I wanted to know what position we take up in today’s art world. My canvases were more layered, more intense. Jeroen’s canvases grew more silent. He was coming close to the core of what he wants to say. His canvases are a temple of emptiness, of peace. Yet in the density of my paintings and in the void of Jeroen’s canvases there is similar a constant: intuition. Jeroen’s work being more controlled, thoughtful and mine more wild.
Below is a summary of the e-mail contact Jeroen and I have had over the last six months.
RC I’ve been in your studio a couple of times now and there’s one particular piece that got stuck in my head. This canvas transcends you, it’s as if it’s made by no one, not by a person, it has an almost unreachable distance … maybe that distance is good and I could have a name for it … the sublime?
JH. To answer this question I would like to get clear what the sublime means to me. Kant, Burke and Lyotard, those three have most clearly written about the sublime. They differ a lot on the subject: Reaching the sublime by the aesthetics, by a mathematical grandeur, by fear and trembling for the overwhelming nature, the transcendent but also the unattainable of the sublime. I think the sublime is given in the experience. It is an experience that reaches beyond the phenomenal world and gets in contact with the transcendental. You write that ‘ Who are you?‘ rises above me as if it is painted by no one. I think I understand what you mean by that. I painted the painting. It comes out of me. Your experience is a result of what you see and what you see cannot relate to any form in the ‘sensory’ world. There is at least no reference framework anymore. The painting stands on it’s own. It makes something tangible and that might well be the transcendental. This work is painted in two sessions. First the background and during the second session the three other elements. During that second session I was also working on other canvases. At the time I picked up this work I was in a state of total ‘Zen’ concentration.
It seemed as though all the other pieces I was working on sublimated into this one canvas. There was a momentum where I was the action of the painting itself. There was no thinking, just doing, carrying out an act of painting. My ego was no longer here and it shows.
RC. In our home a few art books from the library are scattered around, including ‘ Looking East ‘, three American painters having an exhibition linked to Oriental art, ‘ Zen ‘ and …. Pat Steir, Brice Marden and Michael Mazur (Mazur, according me, has a lot to do with your previous work). Steir makes large paintings where the paint literally is thrown onto the canvas; these actions become ‘waterfalls’. Jackson Pollock was in the canvas while painting: Inside. Steir is more outside the painting. She looks for a long time at a work, a lot of contemplation and then at once in the proper way the paint is brought onto the canvas. I think I have more the Pollock-way of working, though sometimes I also step away from the painting. In any case I am not sitting and staring for hours at the painting before acting. You think a lot more about what you’re going to do. Are you more the Pat Steir who after long contemplation gets ‘the sublime’ on the canvas?
JH in addition to contemplating I do look a lot before continuing. I visualize steps I could perform. Because my work is minimalist, the fact is that every action I take has a huge impact on the image that surfaces. The purpose of my paintings is to unite the visible and the invisible through paint on canvas. What does the paint do when I perform a certain action and then what is my intuitive reaction to this? What happens if I do not immediately move but delay the next decision, put the canvas away for a couple of weeks? Delaying, slowing down the process. After a month, a week or a few days I start again on the same canvas. The choices I make are different than if I would have continued during the very first session. I don’t know if this results in a better or worse painting. In any case, the process is different. Both ways of painting are important to me. It very well may be that I make a decision and the newly applied strokes do not result in what I had visualized. Now only the physical reality comes to the surface. At such a point I must return to my intuition in order to get the essence, the soul of the painting again.
RC What you say about contemplating a canvas for a long time, and then taking action when it then may not turn out as you had visualized it and thereby throwing you back onto your intuition, I believe is correct. I think that this is a good starting point. Because at a certain point you pierce through something. You’re then going to be more conscious about being ‘ in ‘ the canvas. But what we must seriously look at concerning The Act of Painting I think is what the content is of our paintings besides the thrill of painting itself, the magic of the paint, the stains and the lines? Why are some abstract paintings excellent and other abstract paintings not? I mean: abstraction in and of itself is not a quality.
JH Abstraction in itself is, of course, not a quality, figurative art either. Why certain abstract/figurative works have a certain quality is always hard to describe except that in one way or another one recognizes that specific quality. I suspect that you are confronted with a different dimension at the moment you’re dealing with quality. Something is made visible and comes from a depth inside. The soul and the conviction of the artist him/herself. The attitude with which a work of art is created. If all that isn’t there you will get superficial work, and this will be evident. A void or emptiness without an inner soul.
RC You began with landscape paintings, made abstractions of that and now you have come to the conclusion that the pure abstraction is in your head and is not in what you perceive. I’m often in the studio with my young son. Last time, for the exhibition in TACKETT, I painted many soccer goals on wooden panels. For me these goals form an icon and they represent a symbol of a large part of my life. For my son it is just a form, he doesn’t know anything about soccer and gives no meaning to the painted goal. He just wanted to paint the shape but it resulted in a mirrored, upside down goal. His way, his approach, I would also like to reach that. This way of thinking…that everything can be abstract. It’s the way you look at things in your mind and create image of them – so basically the most figurative things you paint (portrait, landscape, tree, House, river, shoe, ball, coffee cup …) can be abstract. As long as you imagine it as abstract.
JH That’s well said; wanting to achieve the way of thinking your son does whilst painting a goal. I think you’ll be confronted with the following problem. Our ‘mature’ thinking is shaped by the way we’ve brought up in this world and the worlds deterministic view on almost everything.
During the Academy I was interested in the ‘chaos theory’ by Ilya Prigogine. He discovered that within closed dynamic systems a process is going on. A process of order to disorder, to chaos. This chaos is actually a complex order. One of the most important elements within this theory was given to the function of ‘randomness’. In some way or another I have always associated this with intuition. The philosophical consequence to me was an eye opener. Life as an indeterminate, non-linear process. According to me this is still an urgent and abstract thought that can render our deterministic views loose again.
L’importance de vert
oil on canvas
There is order. The white canvas and the disorder or a complex system in development slowly materializes. Purely on intuition of applying paints to the canvas. Searching for spaciousness and dimensions. I let the process freely evolve and want to reach the ‘borders’ of what a painting could be about. Where does it stop? When does a balanced complex system appear? This was important to me because this way I could stretch my abilities within the boundaries of painting itself but also let a painting evolve via my intuition.
RC I still think back to what Peter Wherens (1945-2013, former teacher at the Academy) once said. Seated in an old armchair in the Hof van Tilly room: “now you are still working with so much attention to detail but soon in the real world, no one has an eye for these details.” He said it in a melancholic way, with a bitterness nearing depression but there was a lot of truth in his words.
No one sees the attention yet. But we must show exactly that attention! Nothing more, nothing less. You are working on your new paintings, abstracts in color, in a dedicated manner, in painted texture, in everything! If I had to make a choice from your paintings now, I am thinking of the purple blue with light blue stripes (the small sensitively painted Frank Stella), the vertical blue-green with the impressions of the bubble wrap and the ‘ bars ‘ that you have put on with spray-paint …The painting ’ The metaphysics of smarties’ is more thought out, also good, but not as sensitive as the three paintings I just mentioned. The attention you show there, that’s what painting is about and at the same time, you do feel there’s a lot of thinking in the process of making as well.
When I walk into your studio, Jeroen, it seems I need to convert my mind to a more subtle and sensitive way of thinking and looking, perceiving. I think this is due to the small formats in which you work and certainly also the seemingly minimal painterly narrative that you are showing. I think your new paintings enforce this new mindset quietly, purely by their presence. A good painting doesn’t look made up, but has a natural appearance.
This appearance and presence, if it’s good, still has the energy of creation in it. And at the same time it is an image in itself, a work that you immediately see. At a glance you can see the complete history, without necessarily a need to understand.
These are all general descriptions that can be applicable to virtually every painting made in The Act of Painting-mode. What I would like to reveal is what a painting of yours makes a ‘Hofhuizen’ and one of mine a Cuijpers …
JH – I think my (and everyone’s) autonomous need, that which I have reflected on which is also an inner need and therefore not only thought, is the need for a massive simplicity within myself, and around me. Within this simplicity I can concentrate on a number of aspects of painting I would like to explore further. ‘L’importance de vert’ is a challenging work, not only because of its size but also because of the enormous complexity of the work. The paintings I paint now are actually ‘cutouts’ of that particular way of working. This has taken me further in my search of what painting is about. In my development as painter, in my vision of painting and my relation to the world. Through utilizing a complex procedure in painting I discovered sub-areas, I saw a dimension in the painting(s) before me which previously did not understand. I went through something and emerged from something.
RC -Which aspects of painting do you want to further investigate?
About silence, grey, light and L.W.
oil on canvas
JH – I work in a traditional way on my paintings. Painting to me is about visualizing my dialogue with the outside world. The canvas itself that I am working on and my inner world, via paint, turpentine and my brushes. What happens to me during this process? What does it evoke? My way of working has changed in recent years because I continue to acquire more subtlety in my work. I handle paint in a quiet way. There’s a need for a huge simplicity. The brushstrokes have grown into their own essence, more and more is becoming visible. The work has also become existential. If I paint a diagonal ‘zone’ it has to be functional. This is a subconscious issue or actually even more urgent – this is the intuitive. I cannot argue with it. How is it possible that you have to paint a stroke in such or such a way? It cannot be done in any other way. Otherwise the ‘it’ is gone. What then is gone is not the effect but the function of what was painted. In advance I never know what something is going to look like. For example, I want to paint the following statement Wittgenstein makes: ‘I could now see weak luminous, now as grey.’ The fragility and the silent power of what is written. How in god’s name does one paint that? The painting ‘silence’ I think comes close. I also think that in my life I am currently experiencing a need for this calm. You can say that I paint a longing: Quiet, fragile and yet powerful.
RC- How would you describe your artistic nature? And how much of the walking to your studio with your dog is visible in your work? The need for a huge simplicity, you mention… where does this need come from? In any case that simplicity means that all there is to see on the canvas has a greater meaning. And explain to me quite specifically how things carry you away with them, and how does that show up in your paintings?
JH. The need for simplicity stems from having a lot that has happened in recent years. I worked in commercial business part time and later even full time. Process & Change management. Deadly to my creativity and my inner. After I had had two burnouts and I knew I needed to move back to my paintings and solely concentrate on that. Now 4 years later, I am regaining my inner peace. This is reflected in the development of my work and is still apparent. Everything is easier for me. Because of this there is simplicity. The hikes to the Studio bring me a sense of calm. Walking in Maastricht is a different experience than the experience of a bumper-to-bumper traffic in Amsterdam. I would not be able to live and work there. My surroundings are too important for my ‘state of mind’. The environment, the way of living, nature: these are all key elements that for me create the right framework and conditions to make what I want to make.
How does a painting carry me away? That can happen at any time during the process. For example, the way I paint a monochrome background determines a great deal for the canvas. I push it in a certain way that I like, a way that suits me. I paint on until the painting starts to breathe… Until something happens which makes the painting connect with something deep down within myself. Something I can’t put into words. The painting has to reach a certain state of being. And I have to get into a momentum. If that happens the canvas takes over for me. I have nothing left to want. If I were to start thinking again, making decisions by thought and not by being, then the deeper state of action is gone and the momentum messed up.
RC-In your recent canvases, and in your work in general, there is a great commitment to aesthetics. At the same time, you say you paint your nature. Simplistically put, you could say that your nature is extremely serene, balanced and understated. And perhaps that is true. You think a lot about what you do, you take painting seriously. You honor painting, as it were. And yet you have times when you’re too carried away while painting and your intuition takes over – but I have the idea that you never lose yourself completely, so that the term thoughtful intuition perhaps applies. Is this correct?
JH – Thoughtful intuition, that’s a nice one. I actually think so. Contemplation and action. What is just as important, as I wrote earlier, is that while I paint, the action of painting itself takes control. This does not always happen but I experience this quiet often. I am an aestheticist indeed. I can’t deny that. How come? It has to do with my realization that when I look around I can be overwhelmed by nature in all its manifestations: the butterfly bush in the garden in bloom, the butterflies themselves, the crimson will soon be showing it’s dark red color again, the sunset which casts an orange glow on a silver birch, all these kinds of visual experiences. The seaside where I love to be. The magnitude of the sea itself. I know the danger of the currents out there. I am aware of my ‘nothingness’ compared to the sea. I also know how the plankton light up at full moon. I will never be able to paint these things, not true by nature. What I can paint is my respect for all this, in a way that joins and connects to my inner nature. It is a devotion to nature and painting itself that I show. Maybe by this devotion the aesthetic notion becomes visible.