[This essay was written in April of 2011 for a forthcoming exhibition of Witvliet’s work in Holland. Exhibition details to be added as available. See Witvliet’s Website for images and text.]
I am painting a soldier in a desert, nameless. All what is identified is his nationality and his location (1.)
Growing up in the Eastern part of Gelderland, in Holland, Jeroen Witvliet used to look out over the fields along the Dutch-German border, a Kieferesque flatland riddled with little dips and incidents subdued by a general grey, weaponry half-buried (the wings and fuselage of a doomed Spitfire and Focke-Wulf in Paul Nash’s wartime Totes Meer) like the spontaneous gestures of action painters fallen to earth.
Anonymity and threat as indistinguishable forces that nonetheless compose a continuum analogous to ‘nature’ (whatever that is) are at the centre of Witvliet’s work. This is not a conventional nature, nor really a romantic wasteland awaiting restoration and renewal. If anything, it resembles the post-Eastern-Bloc terrain of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, which Slavoj Zizek characterizes as, “wild vegetation overgrowing abandoned factories, concrete tunnels and railroads full of stagnant water,” suggesting that Tarkovsky’s wilderness is shadow to Western materialism, ‘the capitalist drive at rest:’
[…] nature and civilization overlap, but through a common decay – civilization in decay is again in the process of being reclaimed (not by idealized harmonious nature but) by Nature in its decomposition. The ultimate Tarkovskian landscape is that of humid nature, a river or pool close to some forest, full of the debris of human artefacts (old concrete blocks or slabs of rusting metal). The ultimate irony is that it was a director from the Communist East who displayed the greatest sensitivity to this obverse of the drive to produce and consume (2.)
Witvliet, who has adopted the West Coast of Canada as his home for over a decade, lives close by the rocky beaches of Swartz Bay, where he often observes the mingling of this decay firsthand in the form of tidal refuse: half-devoured wooden pallets, Styrofoam packing sheets and frayed and oxidized steel cable, strangely out of scale and in its utter abandonment (thrust higher than thought possible onto the shore by winter storms) seems not merely discarded but dispossessed.
His studio is a modest wood-framed outbuilding smelling strongly of linseed oil. It suggests an atmosphere segregated and preserved from the landscape around it, but coloured that same coastal grey, prone to those same ineluctable cycles or surges; a centre of gravity where things stir, albeit more slowly, at the behest of sustained concentration. The studio imposes its own duration and variability. It is a kind of history-making, if we think of history not as a traceable chain of cause and effect, but as a waiting game whose outcome is ever the accrual of substance; a hazardous mass negotiable only through the imposition of structure. Structure in painting is a business of testing: compositional models must be applied in a way that is blindly experiential. Looking at the dully gleaming, porous but obdurate surface of a gridded grey painting that fills one wall I think of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus on the beach: “if you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.”
The images are first of all subject to a general lay-out. Addressing if and if so at what stage in the editing process, the general lay-out of a page in the newspaper or on the canvas becomes superior to its content
The trial and error of composing a single painting is a weighing of the internalized histories of painting in general. I recently thought of Witvliet’s pictures when I read Jeff Wall’s explanation of his 1978 photographic work, The Destroyed Room. The image was based on the compositional construction of Eugène Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), which depicts the Assyrian monarch on his deathbed, commanding the destruction of his possessions and slaughter of his concubines in a last act of defiance against invading armies (3.) Wall’s image, clearly staged (“Through the door you can see that it’s only a set held up by supports, that this is not a real space, this is no-one’s house”) was influenced in part by the contemporary prevalence of the emergent punk-rock aesthetic in fashion-window decoration. The compositional rhythms of Delacroix’s original (the stern tyrant as blocked-in in geometric profile as a kind of bracketing rejoinder to the undulating swoops and humps of concubines and killers, the reflection of a scared horse head in the man-shaped vacuum of negative space that seems to attack all sound) echoed by dumb, distended objects in Wall’s room, also transmit their lavishly fulsome combination of sex & death via the proxy of punk as transgressive advertisement. Compositional tropes have residual memory for painters who learn primarily by watching paintings as opposed to looking at them, a spectator of an event whose duration is both the immediate compositional narrative – the layout- and the pentimenti of its progenitors.
I focus on the safeguards we throw up when ‘looking’ at the barrage of images, on our choices or inability to concentrate on the lives behind the stories when we are exposed to a flood of visual news-media information
For Witvliet, painting’s self-reflexive character is a safeguard and a means of access, door and gate. This is why the resolution to declare the greater composition (the gestalt of the picture, the ‘layout’) comes inevitably at the expense of the individual figure: The Unknown Soldier, the faceless insurgent, the statue viewed in silhouette, the ubiquitous victim. Wittvliet is critical of the media’s distancing ‘safeguards’, the way images are controlled and edited to establish values, but participates in this same control himself, but only after a process of painterly inquiry has complicated things:
A girl being rushed into a hospital, her hands covered in blood, frightened. Normally I would read the captioning and move on. Now, however I spend more time with her. I am painting her hair and it is then that I realize that not too long ago, maybe hours before the ‘event’ her mother might have braided this thick, black hair.
It’s tempting to view this process in redemptive terms as the declaration of ground through sacrifice, as in the formula Heidegger lays out in “On the Making of a Work of Art”, in which “truth establishes itself as a strife within a being that is to be brought forth in such a way that the conflict opens up in this being, that is, this being is itself brought into the rift-design. The rift-design is the drawing together, into a unity, of sketch and basic idea, breach and outline.” (4.) Violence – aligned along a series of breaks with representation – in Witvliet’s work is an attempt to uncouple himself from the process of alienation that has first rendered subjects anonymous. Their reconstitution as painterly facts presents us with the evidence of that violence memorialized within a serial dialogue of painting’s matters (both the matter it resembles and the matter of its history.)
This is one way to consider the role of ‘ground’ in Witvliet’s work, as his consistent use of Abstract-Expressionist-style invocations of painting’s flatness and horizontality (the drip, the splatter, the pour, the scrape) in assertive counterpoint to the will to render via illustrative line, depictive modelling and deliberate relief. But there are other problems.
Recently, the artist and I discussed the challenge of painting a riot scene without resorting to painterly clichés, a challenge that dates back tellingly to the secular mayhem of David’s Tennis Court Oath and Goya’s Disasters of War. In a mob, there is no divine order, no ladder of angels with which to organize one’s position. As anyone who has ever been part of a mob will tell you, there is no certainty about which side you’re on. In Witvliet’s time, we cannot take a common domain of history for granted in even the most fundamental ways. And this applies to both artworks and historical narrative. And of course this applies to art’s most conspicuous history (its history of representation). As Jean Baudrillard said, drawing from Walter Benjamin, “you can never really go back to the source [of an artwork], you can never interrogate an event, a character, a discourse about its degree in original reality.”(5.)
Without a domain of history, memory is unreliable, peripatetic, decomposing and recomposing itself within disposable frameworks of referential topography. Belgian painter Luc Tuymans characterizes the outcome of this refuse-history as a revenant, a nagging sense of spiritual deja vue that aligns itself with the memorializing faculties of oil paint:
Pictures, if they are to have effect, must have tremendous intensity of silence, a filled silence or void. The viewer should become motionless before the picture [and] freeze [in] a kind of picture terror. […] The effect they should have on the viewer resembles an assault that he or she does not experience directly, but from a distance, initially. When he or she comes closer, this assault should loom again, but on a different level. Something quite unmistakeable then triggers certain emotions, makes certain demands. This can only come about in a certain silence [like] the silence before a storm. It is not about developing feelings of melancholy, but about a certain form of déjà vu…everything could be painting…or, in fact, everything is painting. (6.)
Tuyman’s distinction between a first and second ‘assault’ is a movement from one kind of apprehension and unknowing to another, should be familiar to anyone who has turned away from stories of catastrophe on the news and tried to reason with them either fundamentally (as an individual) or historically (as part of a self-identified community, citizenry or nationality.) Zizek invokes, for instance, the holocaust as both remote myth and untenable reality:
Here, however, are we not confusing two different modalities of trauma that is impossible to integrate into our symbolic universe: the fantasmic narrative of a special event that ‘did not really happen’ (like the Freudian myth of the primordial patricide) and the traces of an event that definitely did happen, but was too traumatic to be integrated into historical memory (like the Holocaust) so that we cannot register it as neutral, ‘objective’ observers, and accept it as part of our (past) reality. (7.)
Moving back and forth from myth to historical (un)reality, we leave a trail of misapprehensions and vexations, like the snail’s trail that Francis Bacon felt his figures traced within the void of his blackest backgrounds. Paint’s ability to shift from terrains vagues to figuration, from glancing film to durable skin (to paraphrase John Cage on Jasper Johns, a surface both naked and self-concealing) is what makes it possible to dwell on both possibilities simultaneously: the horror that the worst might be true and the realization that everything (identity, care, memory, values) will continue inevitably – mythically- just the same.
Painting these people doesn’t give me more knowledge about them. However in the process of painting I start to see them as less abstract. I can no longer see them as disconnected entities, but start seeing them as some ones farther, mother, daughter, son.
Intimacy is produced in the act of transcription and translation. This is never a sure process for painter or other participants, all of whom share some responsibility in the work’s outcome, acknowledging that widening clearing as after all the exhibition space rather than the studio. Hakim Bey coined the term “Temporary Autonomous Zone”, to define the space in which the body can still regard itself as a free entity in an age that spiritualizes the traffic of information at the expense of the body’s more rudimentary duration, compass and ceiling:
Every “fact” takes different meanings as we run it through our dialectical prism and study its gleam and shadows. The fact is never inert or neutral, but it can be both good and evil (or beyond them) in countless variations and combinations. We, ﬁnally are the artists of this immeasurable discourse. We create values. We do this because we are alive. (8.)
Here I’m reminded of Witvliet’s architectural sites with their insistent motifs of making and unmaking history: the multi-sectioned supports as if erecting the image (of a tear-down), the anti-monuments of unknown statue and persistent corpse; the Cartesian split between perspectival tunnel and horizontal matrix an insistence on the past’s ruthless access to the onrush of present and future as singular, simultaneous tense.
- Jeroen Witvliet “IN THIS LIGHT…, WHISPER, 24”, [NB. All statements in Italilics are taken from this source], http://www.structure365.com/statements.html
- Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, (London: Verso, 2000) 41.
- Martin Heidegger, “On the Making of a Work of Art”, Continental Aesthetics: From Romanticism to Postmodernism, edited by Riuchard Kearney and David Rasmussen (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966) 201.
- Jean Baudrillard, “The Work of Art in the Electronic Age”, from, Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art Since 1945, edited by Paul F. Fabozzi (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002)486.
- http://www.anu.edu.au/hrc/research/WtoS/Turner2.pdf [full quotation at http://wd.blogs.com/wisch/2004/01/%5D
- Zizek, 69-70.
- Hakim Bey, “The Information War”, from, Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art Since 1945, edited by Paul F. Fabozzi (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002)497.