Jeroen Witvliet is an artist who has two homes: The Netherlands and Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. When I first saw his work online http://jeroenwitvliet.com/home.html, I was stunned by his use of dark and light to create drama. In fact, I was going to subtitle this interview, “Nomadic Drama,” but changed it to, “The Structure of Things” because Jeroen is a very insightful artist in more ways than one …
“… We as humans are inherently creative and curious. It might even be a condition for survival to be creative. Humans need to be able to express themselves, we always have done so. Art and expression are not folly. They are means to survival ...”
MICHAEL: Hello Jeroen, Your work is very cool. First off, your paintings really seem to be studies in darkness and light. Am I right? What is it about dark and light for you?
JEROEN: Yes, darkness and light are very important in my work. Painting relies heavily on the use of light within the painting, but also as a necessity to see the actual work; its content and physicality. A dark field within the painting can be highly suggestive of the presence of something not seen but still felt. Sensations, feelings and emotions can be evoked by the use of contrast in light and dark, but light can also be used to portray a very clinical situation. The use of light in Netherlandish painting has unconsciously influenced me for many years. Getting an understanding of the symbolic meaning of light and darkness in these works (both historical and contemporary) and how these works have been built up allows me to feel a strong connection to the history of painting and the ways it interprets life struggles and follies.
MICHAEL: Looking at your work, one might think that you live in a place of dark, introspective, nomadic drama. Your work is quite striking. What inspires you to create in this way?
JEROEN: I am not certain of why my work has become the way it is. It evolves slowly within series and over time. There is a lot of uncertainty I feel or maybe sense within my environment - at least I seem sensitive to the constant shift in what takes place around me.
To solidify this fleeting sensation, I find that creating work that gets under the skin and reveals itself slowly over time fits me best. Of course, I find that some responses to the reality I see need to be bolder and more aggressive, but in general, the more contemplated approach fits me best. The nomadic has become something that I recognize to be part of myself and others. It might be the realization that the mind is nomadic and sometimes the body follows, sometimes it is the other way around, either by choice or involuntarily. I have lived between two continents for many years and that has for sure influenced the way I stand in the world.
MICHAEL: You've lived between two continents. Now we're heating up. Where have you lived? Isn't living in different places a great thing? It's like being a purposeful jet setter ... especially for an artist. Travel can help you feel free of geographic and time constraints. No?
JEROEN: It has been a blessing and a burden to be living between two continents for many years. The Netherlands is the country of my birth and Canada has become my adopted homeland. I studied art in both countries and did my MFA in Canada. It has given me new ways of looking at what it means to be a citizen of a country. It has made me experience landscape, both natural and urban in different ways. Studying the different approaches to portraying the landscape in both countries has been very informative of how we relate to landscape and how we place ourselves within the landscape. It also makes that one has to reconsider a sense of belonging and the meaning of home.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Where is home? Is it here or there? How does this impact your work?
JEROEN: Challenges in finding your own place within a new culture and as it were fitting in, creates a fertile ground for an artist to work with. It also shows me how contemporary art crosses borders and can become part of a local visual language, enriching it, but sometimes also challenging its existence. By being between places, I have to reconsider the local and the private. I find new ways of looking at current events and how different nations interpret their own histories. My past and my being are challenged by new narratives and interpretations of landscape, social agreements, cultural understanding and what collective memory is or can be and how my work functions within these constantly shifting frameworks.
MICHAEL: I'm very intrigued by the courage it takes to leave one continent for another in an attempt to carve out a meaningful life. Even if you do have friends and family in both places, it has got to get very lonely at times. We never know where life will take us. As you know, immigration is a big, complex, worldwide issue. Any thoughts about this?
JEROEN: Some of these feelings of isolation that are encountered by living in different places find a reflection in my work. Objects or hands rendered within the same frame can conjure up feelings of isolation, longing or even desperation. Paintings of crowds in stadiums seen from the rear make me part of the audience, but also isolate me from the events that are taking place.
I belong and then turn around and am no longer part of whatever it is I wanted to be part of. In all of this, I try to find something tangible, knowing very well that none of it ever will be straightforward and that it’s something you can hardly put your finger on. A diagnoses of being and of times lived in are hinted at, but will never be fully disclosed through the work. It is as if the work is both promising answers and at the same time is revealing to be nothing more than a lie. Carefully looked at, it is at times showing uncertainty of where one belongs, what role to play and what position to take.
MICHAEL: Yes, I can see that in your paintings.
JEROEN: Working as an artist gives one the opportunity to confront many issues. Sometimes it is not immediately clear why I choose to work in a certain format, color palette or why some works need to be more informed by and hint at narrative while others are more engaged with a formal visual language.
It might be a reflection of the uncertainty that dominates contemporary life. But then again, I do see parallels in historical painting. Sins, uncertainty, struggles, reference to belief and judicial systems, myth and perceived reality mixed together on canvasses painted 500 years or more ago don't seem to be much different in trying to contain and name what it means to be human and constantly in flux. Migration is nothing new, maybe a reconsideration of what stability means is necessary.
MICHAEL: What's it like in The Netherlands? As I'm sure you know, Americans have almost idyllic impressions of places like that although they've never been there. My impression of The Netherlands is that you have an elegant royal family with Queen Beatrix and everyone shares resources and rides their bikes everywhere and everyone recycles and families and friends often dine together and people tend to be happy. I know that's silly.
JEROEN: It is interesting to hear how you see the Netherlands. I am wondering why your impression is the one it is. When do fiction and reality cross over to become a mixed impression that lingers to become the general idea of a place? There will be a lot of stereotypes that have roots in the daily workings of a country. Some will be very exaggerated and be used to promote a culture for various reasons, to create capital and some are linked to nationalism, etc. I don't know if I can answer what the Netherlands are like. To me, it is home and a place of memory, both from childhood and adult life. It is a place with a tainted past, a place of progressive thinking and experimentation, but also a place where conservative thinking can be very much present. Yes, bikes are ridden all over the place and a pragmatic approach to problem solving prevails. Currently there is a King Willem-Alexander.
MICHAEL: Your paintings really seem preoccupied with the structure of things. I see lots of architecture and architectural materials. Your other works also seem to have a kind of structure to them. No?
JEROEN: The way I relate to architecture and how it makes me feel is very important to me. Growing up between so many old structures with a history almost tangibly inscribed in them made me very aware of how I am influenced by the invisible form architecture can take when it does function well or not. It made me very aware of my own physical and psychological relationship to man-made structures, but also through this to history and natural landscape.
It might also be that I am trying to constantly get past the surface of things and get an understanding of how the world is structured in order to feel more grounded. I have been referencing architecture in many works, in part because I am intrigued by how we manipulate space in order for it to become functional and purposeful (and that purpose might vary from shelter, to the museum space to the infrastructure created to support warfare).
I see painting to be a structure, a situation that can invite or repel, envelop or make one aware of being alone. Painting could be seen as a place that communicates about and can expose the workings of other structures (and systems) without ever losing a certain sense of its own mystic, never fully being the other or that other. I have always been very intrigued by the workings of architectural and natural space, how we respond to being in them or being shut out of them.
MICHAEL: This clearly shows in your work.
JEROEN: In a sense, my work is about that as well. It can be inviting and comforting, but it is never that straightforward. It can shut you out and question place and what the viewer’s relationship to the work is. The structures I paint are all imaginary, borrowing from my memory and source materials of places I have visited.
Painting a building that could exist, a place that could provide shelter or be used as the seat of power makes me realize that it is a suspension of disbelief that makes us feel we can enter a situation, relate to space and art in a way that makes us feel part of something. That might sound bleak, but it gives me solace to think that we can create all these “structures” to comfort us, shelter us and challenge the way we relate to space and as an extension to the other.
MICHAEL: When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist? What was going on in your life?
JEROEN: The realization that I could be an artist came slowly over time while growing up. One of the things I remember clearly is that I was looking for something that could be an umbrella that would allow me to look at the world, research her and respond in a way that was not limited to one field alone.
I did want to become a biologist and then an archeologist for a few years in my early teens. I had a keen interest in History and Philosophy as well. An aunt and uncle were artists and the occasional studio visit sparked an interest in the practice of being an artist - different from the interest I was developing while seeing paintings and sculptural work in museums, at public places, during art classes in high school and in churches. I always enjoyed taking time away from the street noises and spending time under the vaulted ceilings of theses massive structures.
I started to rebel a little in my teens and found in Dada and Surrealism something that seemed to respond well to the absurdity of life. It became clearer that in art I could find ways to incorporate all my interests and create something that could potentially engage with my direct surroundings, but could also respond to the politics and social issues I was becoming more aware of. Seeing lots of different works and exhibitions in my later teens cemented the belief that I should attempt to become an artist.
MICHAEL: You know Jeroen, it seems to me that artists and writers are on this deliberate and intentional path to self discovery and understanding of life. We want to make this our career and life's work, but is it reasonable to expect such as thing? I mean, how much true value is my writing or your art really creating in the world? If everyone were writing and creating art, wouldn't that be almost the same as no one doing it? Couldn't creating art be seen as ultimately self indulgent if not self delusion?
JEROEN: Maybe so, but what is the alternative? Complacency? We as humans are inherently creative and curious. It might even be a condition for survival to be creative. Humans need to be able to express themselves, we always have done so. Art and expression are not folly. They are means to survival. Art can both disrupt and stabilize, it can change the way we value ourselves and aid in the struggle of what it means to be human. If something can give us new ways of looking at the world, ourselves, our politics, etc., however temporal this might seem, it is to me, an act of defiance.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the contemporary art world and art market today? Do you see yourself in any of it?
JEROEN: It is a complicated place with many different players and people of influence, a universe in its own right. It exists and that is enough for me. I do move through this world since my work is represented by galleries, but I don't have any concrete thought about it. Once in while, I let the construction of this art world play a role in some of the works that I make. I have portrayed outlines of my gallerist and other artists in my work, standing in front of buildings, etc. It is a nod toward my collaboration and in part my dependence on them. They could be seen as architects of the art world systems.
MICHAEL: Given that we live in a world where even many well-to-do people don't buy art and living artists struggle to carve out a living as full-time artists, how are you managing?
JEROEN: Managing to create work and to focus on my practice can be a challenge when finances are tough and due to this many distractions are entering into your daily life. When a feeling of working in isolation takes hold, it is for me paramount to have friends around who can respond to the work and ideas. I will say that there are definitely times that it is a major challenge to keep going.
MICHAEL: And so, how do you support yourself? As you know, so many artists are struggling to even buy materials. Would you choose this life all over again? You can still go to med school or get an MBA, No?
JEROEN: To reconsider choices made is sometimes to drive yourself crazy, but yes, I do think about what other ways I could have found to support a practice by means of another career. I do not question my choice to go to art school however. When available, I apply for teaching positions and end up teaching one or two courses a semester. Unfortunately, that barely covers the basic living expenses, but it is a great challenge to be in front of a class. The exchange of ideas and seeing how people approach creativity is a rich experience.
I am very grateful to have been supported by the Canada Council for the Arts for projects. The uncertainty that comes with having to always apply for teaching jobs and grants, galleries etc., can be very difficult and having some time to focus on work is the best feeling. It is indeed very tough sometimes, but it is not just artists struggling to make ends meet. Community has become very important and a strong form of support but, yes it is not easy.
MICHAEL: I totally understand. Finally, what do you think is needed to garner more public support for contemporary art and artists? It seems to be getting more difficult as society becomes more tech-driven. I mean, what's the point?
JEROEN: I would start with having contemporary art and art history included in the educational system from an early age. Technology in itself is or can be a creative factor, different maybe than what some people would recognize as contemporary art, but many artists work with new technologies and address many of the same historical ways of dealing with life. So many ways of doing things can exist next to each other and cross-pollinate. Maybe the richness that art brings and its influences in society need greater recognition.
MICHAEL: Thanks Jeroen. Very cool chat.
JEROEN: Thank you Michael! I enjoyed the questions and answering them.
Check out Jeroen Witvliet at http://jeroenwitvliet.com/home.html.