I have to admit it’s somewhat awkward. Starting an e-mail knowing where it will end up. Let’s agree we’ll edit them later. I’ll not look at linguistic imperfections just yet, because that stymies writing. So I’m not taking potential readers into account for now. I hope you’ll understand. I recorded our conversation. Listening to it in peace andquiet, I often hear meanings between the lines. Small hints in the form of unfinished sentences, or remarks that don’t seem relevant on the face of it. Asides made without much conviction and then forgotten in the enthusiasm of the conversation. However … a week later, and I’m still not curious enough to listen to our recorded conversation.
I realize I’ve remembered enough to make a start, to investigate. In other words: enough has been left unsaid to write about.
I remember we wanted to discuss the definition of ‘the other’ in your paintings. For the very reason that ‘the other’ seems like a prominent subject in your work. In your earlier works, for instance, you captured the essence of the other in paint. The skin, the fine lines in a face, the echo in the eyes. Representing the essence of the other in a painting was to become an exploration of the possibilities of paint. Can paint help put yourself in the other’s shoes? O r is paint too transparent for that. Since the contact with feelingsgets engulfed by reasoning and informed choices as to where to place the paintbrush?
In your current works, we encounter ‘the other’ in the alineating characters and shadowy spectators. The context in which these characters are situated – or from where the actually seem to emerge – makes for an even more alienating, almost objectifying effect. So not surprising that we decided to talk about ‘the other’, to give our conversation a focus. Possibly even because I was concerned that it would otherwise be too tame, too superficial, too bland and too predictable. And looking back to that conversation, there’s suddenly a paradox – that of ‘the other’ as seemingly the exact opposite of ‘the self’. The outer self is not (for most of us) present in your paintings, but the inner self is omnipresent. How can we otherwise find a meaning, apart from the aesthetic experience, in a painting? It is ‘the self’ that is reflected in the eyes of the other in the portraits, searching for recognition. The self that makes a story out of the context (that doesn’t exist). And the self that sets is own boundaries, face-to-face with the figures in your story.
But also ‘the self’ that, the more we look for and find a context, becomes part of the painting. The compilation of our experiences, mood and psyche seeking to assign meaning to what we see. Are we in fact looking at ourselves? I wonder what you’ll be replying to!
Many thanks for your mail! Nice reading it . And indeed, strange writing when you realise the purpose and where it will end up. It means you take a bit more care with your words. In that respect, it feels rather like a letter written by hand. Where shall I start with my answers. You write that the longer you look at the work, the more the spectator’s ‘self’ is absorbed by the work. That means a painting is a blank slate when it is first shown to the outside world. I agree that a painting only acquires meaning when it is visible to the outside world.
To my mind, an art work that has only looked into the maker’s eyes doesn’t exist. Because, even if the maker is the first spectator, I think that, as an artist, you only turn into a beholder of your work when the work has undergone several experiences. For me, a painting is ‘finished’ only when it’s left the studio and stands in the world as an independent object. As long as it’s in the studio, there’s a possibility you can continue working on it. A painting that feels finished today, isn’t necessarily so in six months’ time. My knowledge and experience grow and it’s possible the work will have to grow too.
The moment the work actually leaves can be seen as the moment of its birth. Only with the spectator’s glances, comments and appreciation does it acquire the status of an autonomous art work. During the process of its creation and growth, it is subject to the maker’s whims, and so is a reflection of the maker’s ‘self’. And although I’m not concerned about revealing that, it obviously does play an important part. Ultimately, it must be possible to ‘feel’ or ‘experience’ the work. If that doesn’t happen, the art work is mere exterior.
Incidentally, when I’m painting, I’m not concerned with the other. Not even with myself or the self, at least not directly. The best moments are when I disappear into the background and react primarily to the painting and what is happening in front of me. Music is important in all that. In fact, when I’m painting I’m involved with outward form, with exterior. I start with a plan, but as I go along the plan is set aside, because the painting has different questions and needs. The plan sees to the first layer, a layer of humus from which the painting can grow. As I paint, there is, ideally, room for several tracks: on the one hand, the focus and concentration on the act of painting. Focus on the battle with colour and form, texture and matter, transparency and cover. This concentration on outward form clears the way for thoughts to go in a different direction. The physical concentration needed for painting makes way for greater mental space. Problems and day-to-day worries vanish into the background and the mind is cleared, as if a lingering fog has lifted. That very space enables a specific energy to flow and find its way on to the canvas.
A question for you: when you look at my work, do you experience much of the maker or does it feel more like a projection screen of your own feelings and experiences?
I’ve been struggling for a while with this mail. There are so many roads we can take and it’s hard for me to choose. I don’t know if you can say that the ‘self is absorbed by the work’ and forgive me if I stated that literally. I’m more inclined to think that the associations we make with a painting, together with our imagination, add to a story about what the painting is thought to represent. Not forgetting that, as spectators, we also gauge the intentions of the maker and the depiction we are looking
We see a finished product, a human activity that is represented by the painting we see. To understand what is in front of us, we must have an idea of what the maker has done. So, within which (artistic) perimeters an artist has worked. We just happen to have expectations when we look at art. For instance, that the paint has been spread on the canvas with the intention of becoming an art work.
I also interpret in that sense your point that your painting ‘only acquires meaning when it’s shown to the outside world’. Art is a shared experience. We experience art partly in the knowledge (or at least expectation) that it was the maker’s intention to make an art work. For example: the knowledge that we are looking at a forgery or a painting made by an elephant’s trunk contributes to our experience of the work.
Do I see you as the maker in the work or is it a projection screen of my own feelings – these are things I interpret as different aspects of the art work. The meaning behind the your methodology as a painter and the meaning of the painting as a psychological mirror. I recognize your style, even if you occasionally paint differently. I recognize you as the maker in the techniques, in the use of texture and transparency. Do you think you can pin down the processes and actions that characterize the way you work? What I mean is, not a description of the style of your works as such, but how a painting comes about, with choices being made about adding and subtracting. Which parts are conscious and which are unconscious? And do you think that balance between conscious and unconscious is your style? Can that specific balance between conscious and unconscious, as well as the choice of materials, be your signature?
I often understand what you’re referring to, or where you get your inspiration from, and so perhaps also more about your feeling behind an image or figure, but that’s because I know you. Your role in channeling the story is actually quite limited. The cultural history research resulting in your taking the figures out of the context and reinstating them in your canvases plays an unobtrusive role. You supply the idea and the outline of the story, but the viewer has to determine the direction him-/herself. Of course, as a viewer you look for clues the painter has left behind to tell you what he means with the figures on the canvas. But can they be found? Is there a helping hand and a meaning?
On the one hand, I can identify a great deal of you as painter in the style, technique and subject matter. On the other hand, I have sufficient scope for my own experience. A story without beginning, without end, in which I can wander for as long as I wish. There are shared experiences, like the references to figures in the painting. And also idiosyncratic parts, aspects of our inner life or personal connotations that we experience in art. In that respect, art is perhaps a language that we speak: an inter-subjective reality in which various people meet. Do you think art works like that?
Lots of questions, lots of incomplete bits of theory looking from the context for an answer. Allow me to look at it again once a selection has been made for the book. Just as a
painter’s work is subject to the whims of the maker, a text is subject to the whims of its writer.
Again, thank you for your mail! It’s taken a while for my reply, there’s a lot to ponder on.
It’s great the way you express how you can wander round in my paintings. You ask about the inter-subjective reality of art. Does art work at the same level as language? I believe the answer is ‘no’. Admittedly art can be interpreted as language and considered to a language, but it is based on an entirely different sign system than spoken language. They are two different expressions for seeing and shaping sensory and inner reality. They can be mutually reinforcing, and be of help when considering each other. After all, we do refer to visual language and metaphor. The words encompass the image, and the image emerges when words are read and spoken.
As far as language is concerned, concepts are more or less unambiguous. At least, that is the arrangement. In practice, it’s a lot more complex, to my mind. Take the word ‘apple’ (there’s one on my desk looking at me). A simple term that everyone knows. But the image is different for everyone: green or red, sweet or sour. It sometimes makes communication so difficult, but we know all about that…;-) The image is silent and is therefore less unambiguous, and is open to several interpretations. For that very reason, the arrangement between the work and the spectator, or between the maker and the spectator, is considerably clearer – i.e. it is not final, everything is fluid.
Language presupposes clarity, art doesn’t. The art work evokes a variety of associations and memories that hang above the work like a cloud. Every viewer enters that cloud and adds his bit. The painting is a magnet that draws in the tides without relinquishing its attracting force. Looking at art is both a highly universal and a highly personal experience. Perhaps the readability of the image is influenced more by the cultural context than is the case with language. Is it Dutch or Russian? It’s important to know, in order to understand. Incidentally, I am presenting this very simply, I’m fully aware that language is also rooted in the cultural context, and learning a foreign language is different from actually understanding it. Hmm, the more I think about it, the more problematic the term inter-subjectivity seems. It presupposes communality and unambiguous reality which I don’t think exist. We should debate that sometime.
You ask if I can pin down the processes that take place when I’m making something. Good question. I do think it’s possible, but is it desirable? I start a painting with an idea, an image in my mind that takes shape by way of collage and sketches. I usually envisage the parts of the final painting. I try to get the picture as well-defined and complete as possible, so I know how to start. This may be different with each painting – I may start from a bright, vivid colour, or else build up the painting with layers of raw umber. Sometimes I paint the surroundings first and the figures later, with another picture the figures are the start.
As soon as the first layers of paint are on the canvas the original image disappears into the background. You could say that every actual brushstroke erases the original image from the mind’s eye. As the fictitious painting disappears to the background, so does the plan. The painting is overtaken by its own reality and has wishes of its own. As I proceed, I try to be as open as possible to the moment, to the energy, rhythm and intensity involved in the hours that the painting and I spend together. In those days, which fuse into weeks, I want to use as little ‘system’ or ‘procedure’ as possible in my painting. The painting goes its own way. Painting is an extension of myself and so, by definition, personal.
To adhere to a particular method hampers penetration to a deeper level. It’s good for the painting that in this way it has the opportunity to form its own reality. Every work
has its own needs. No doubt it’s an interaction between the point of departure, my mood and the physical circumstances: a work that is produced mainly in the evening or at night has a different intensity from one that’s painted in daytime. For example, the triptych ‘shuffle off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and join the bleedin’ choir invisible’ was mainly painted at night-time. That’s tangible, for me, now the work’s finished. I understand that this might sound somewhat vague for someone who doesn’t paint, but perhaps you experience the same in other areas, for instance when you’re writing.
There’s enough left to go on writing and talking about, but for now I’ll leave it here. I’m curious how you’re going to react!
Casper Verborg (1981) graduated in 2003 at ArtEZ art institute in Arnhem, the Netherlands where he followed the program of Fine Arts and Design (DBKV). In 2013 he graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) in Ghent. In 2016 Casper won the Sieger White award. In extend to this award he published the book about his oeuvre: The Pink Elephant. This email conversation was published in his book.