A conversation between Dineke Blom and Irene Veenstra
You mentioned the generosity of the 17th-century Dutch painters, especially of Gerard Dou and Pieter de Hooch. What exactly did you mean by that?
It has something to do with the desire to participate in the painting. 'Het buitenhuis' [The country cottage] by Pieter de Hooch, in particular, had this effect upon me: I wanted to stand in that soft and gentle light myself. In another of his paintings, 'De linnenkast' [The linen chest], the light has a more neutral quality, but there is such movement in the painting that it is easy to stroll past the events. This renders the painting so generous to me, as a spectator. I do not feel like a voyeur, I have no fear of entering. A painting showing events that are difficult to share, provokes fear in the spectator. De Hooch is always concerned with simple actions; there is no reason not to join in. This invitation is what I find most important.
How is this effect produced?
Through the story, the composition, the light. I have wondered sometimes: why do I end up in the 17th century? I suspect that the art from this period is so far removed that it does not imply statements that offer interpretations, as is the case, for instance, with abstract modern art, which always contains a statement about art itself. In the 17th century, the story is closely aligned with life itself, the actual life of perception. The painterly commentary is implicitly present. In many of Gerard Dou's paintings, for example, what attracts me is what is going on in the background. That is to say, I initially move beyond the central theme into the background. It is there that I can see the ambition to make something significant. I admire such ambition, to try to say something important from within the darker, obscure parts.
Is significance linked to the darker parts of the work?
It takes a while before you discover that all kinds of things are going on in such obscurity. As a spectator, you can easily overlook such things, but the painter, of course, has wanted to paint them in exactly this way.
Do you mean that you ask yourself: what is it that I do not see?
Yes, you gradually begin to see more depth. It seems as if you are looking at a kind of brownish shield hanging in the painting, and yet there is a wide variety in color. In terms of narrative, this part of the painting is not very interesting, although one often finds figures in the background that somehow play a role in the painting as a whole.
So you follow in the footsteps of the painter, as it were, to become the second spectator?
Looking at 'Interieur met vrouw die het virginaal bespeelt' [Interior with a lady, playing at the virginal] by Emanuel de Witte, I cannot discover much going on between the two women, apart from the fact that they slide very closely by each other, grating against each other, one might say, without seeming to be really aware of each other's closeness. The kind of tension produced by two cars passing each other at hair's breadth, and nothing happens. There is also a difference in social status, they live in different worlds, the woman and the servant. And yet, their closeness is very moving.
Do you wish to realize such intimacy, as a kind of empathy, in your own work as well?
In the series Zout en Zeep [Salt and Soap] I wanted to bring about intimacy. Intimacy may be a problematic word in connection with perception; you could also call it the closeness of different worlds that you normally would not readily associate with one another. I once slid one of Pieter de Hooch's paintings over another on my computer. 'The linen chest' shows an interior scene, while 'The country cottage' features a garden, yet it struck me how similar the two compositions are. The figures and the views are almost identically positioned on the canvas. In 'The country cottage', the house is seen from within the garden. For a long time, I thought that I could not see anything of the interior scene in this painting, because I could not look inside; the windows and doors are dark holes. Yet, I was strongly aware of the silence and intimacy of this painting, precisely the concepts I most readily associate with 'inside'. 'Inside', for De Hooch, is apparently a state of mind, which he can also evoke outside, in a garden. This discovery allowed me to disconnect myself in the drawings from the interiors on which they were based, and to find my own images for silence and intimacy.
Does intimacy give the spectator the opportunity to move into a different world?
Yes. One of the drawings after Pieter de Hooch was finished as soon as the two rectangles unmistakably emerged in an otherwise rather hazy space. At that point, it was as if you could jump through a hoop to end up in the drawing. The spectator can move in all directions, including from the front to the back and vice versa. The rectangles, the grey spots, and the white patches, all those elements have a part to play in this.
Does your use of the word 'elements' suggest that there are no perceivable references in the drawing?
The chest initially formed part of it, but the more the drawing began to convey what I found important in the 'The linen chest', the chest itself disappeared from view, just as most of the other references.
You make an image fade into a new one?
Yes, all the individual parts have been newly translated. What you are left with is something like movement, weight, presence.
Is it important for the spectator to know what has been transformed, or that a previous work has served as a source?
Not necessarily, but I liked having these references in the titles. I think it works without them as well, however; that some kind of access is possible without any references.
Do you have a plan when you start drawing, or does that which comes into being become visible only in the process of drawing?
There is a plan, but the purpose of the plan, the point of it, only becomes clear in the process. One of the drawings in the series Vast [Attached] shows several faces merging into one another. This drawing began after a work by Philipp Otto Runge, featuring a number of angels' heads grouped together as a kind of ornament. The dark lines in ink originally were the beginning of a drawing that did not come through. They were already there, and this fact, I feel, has become part of the drawing. The emotional world giving rise to these lines was what I could connect to when I started the new drawing. It formed a kind of orientation point.
The position I assume when I start drawing - by which I do not mean 'left' or 'right', but rather the situation I enter into when I begin to draw.
Is such a situation a form of mental concentration?
Yes. I would like to have a certain awareness of my mental position, of everything I think and feel, in relation to what I see. There are only references, and it is their job to take me somewhere. For instance, when I take one of Runge's works as a starting-point for a drawing, I appropriate Runge's image to such an extent that the final result probably has nothing to do with him anymore. This does not matter; what is important to me is the transformation into something new.
Do you feel that the process of transformation is essentially connected with drawing as a medium?
For me, the only possibility lies in drawing; this has to do with the empty sheet of paper. When I imagine myself starting a painting, I immediately see nothing but matter. For me, drawings are present in a totally different manner. Drawing materials are so particular: charcoal, graphite, eraser. That the work takes a painting as its starting-point is of no relevance. This drawing, for example, [fig. p.47], after Emanuel de Witte's painting with the woman at the virginal – in the painting the woman is present but turned away from everything. She is sitting with her back towards the spectator, and in the mirror in front of her, you cannot see her face. I wanted to represent a trace of her in my drawing, the way someone is visible in memory. My charcoal barely touched the paper. There is another layer there, and yet another, erased and added on again. The image became quite immaterial, as if you might just blow it away. I cannot do such things with paint.
When you take an existing work as a source, do you identify with the other artist?
No. The image is the only thing that counts. I identify with what is represented, just as with the twins Chang and Eng - with the representation rather than with its maker.
In the series Attached, there are several drawings showing a plait. How does this image fit into your work?
Such an object evokes different responses in me. Sometimes I inspect it meticulously with my eyes, and take the trouble to perceive every separate detail. A plait, a basket, the faces of identical twins, or a mass of angels... one has to look sharply when one wishes to know what gives the elements their individuality. Sometimes, however, I want the details to remain part of a mass, not unlike Runge's faces. In such cases, I explore the kind of image that emerges once they have lost their individuality.
In the drawings in Salt and Soap, I notice a great deal of shadow, as if you are working from the shadows, and make a new world arise from them. It is as if the image emerges from the shadow, a kind of twisting of presence: not the light but the darkness renders something present. Do you recognize yourself in this?
Yes, I work towards the light. It is like the left hand playing the piano; that is the hand I hear most clearly, and the moment I can hear it, everything has turned upside down, and I hear the right hand responding to the left. Salt and Soap emerged from the shadows, was made with the left hand, as it were. It grows darker or lighter until a space comes into being, a space you can walk through. When I take very colorful paintings as a source, a similar reversal occurs, a transformation into something different than the painting; a transformation into drawing, which makes it necessary to abstract from color. It becomes more austere, and that sparseness is a quality I very much appreciate. Something scanty, which can nonetheless be turned into something full of feeling, full of warmth. I would be very happy to succeed in making something like that. A drawing must contain feeling. The spaces I create do not have fixed contours; they invite you to step into them. That is the generosity I am looking for. I want to reduce matter to the minimum, to make room for something else.
You additionally draw a kind of landscapes. Are they very different from interiors for you?
No, these, too, concern elements that somehow relate to one another, that forge a connection between what is light and what is heavy, between speed and stasis, or between holding on to something and floating away from it. The drawings with the disks suggest that the circles have a certain weight. This springs from the fact that they are floating above something they appear to be holding down. There is an image underneath, but its presence is very light. It is a trace of something no longer there.
Amsterdam, april 2004 / Translation: renée hoogland