Oscillating between painting, sculpture, installation, architecture, fashion and performance, Bas van den Hurk’s upcoming show ‘Once Upon A Time You Dressed So Fine’ (21 March - 26 April 2014) at Rod Barton explores art-making in its many forms. Revealing traces of their modes of production, the works are simultaneously presented as autonomous agents and active participants on the exhibition’s stage. Entwined in their respective networks of histories, temporalities, locations and materials, they speak of Arthur Koestler’s Holon philosophy, of the auratic dimension of art and of the subjectiveness of representation.
The artist talks to Ariane Belisle about his artistic practice, in light of his upcoming solo exhibition at the Rod Barton gallery in London. This interview was conducted via a telephone conversation on Friday 14 March 2014.
Ariane Belisle: In your work there is a tension that exists between painting’s autonomy and its dependence on modes of production, and historical and social contexts. How fundamental is this to your practice’
Bas van den Hurk: I think this ambiguity is very crucial to my practice. Over the last few months, while preparing for this exhibition I thought a lot about ghosts and spectres, existences that are ambiguous by nature. So on the one hand, it’s striving for autonomy in the sense that I want to create my own conditions or rules. But I’m not nostalgic or naïve. We live in a time that is dominated by networks and by media, I’m very aware of that. The autonomy that I strive for is not the same as it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
But sometimes I feel like there’s no other way as to disengage myself from the world, from all the images that are there, all the theoretical discourses, crisis and media spectacles. I think I strive to detangle myself from these contexts, while at the same time being aware that that is impossible. That is ghostlike: it’s being there and not being there at the same time. This striving for autonomy might sound like something quite private, but I think it is not; I see a whole generation appearing in art that has a renewed confidence in autonomy, in the fundamental possibilities of art, its basic formats like painting, drawing and sculpture. A generation that has a renewed commitment to explore their relation to minimalism, abstraction and formalism, its disintegration and possible reconstruction.
AB: A recurring theme in your work is the subjectivity of representation - you explore the idea that representations are never passive or innocent. How has this belief shaped your artistic practice’
BvdH: Beyond the image, there’s a void. When an image is representing or symbolising something, it is the last shield between the thing that it relates to and the beholder. It’s only through images that everything occurs. The image itself is the light in which we appear. It’s a philosophical idea that representation is not innocent. Images are often thought of and used as means of communication. Through this representation as communication the world we live in is made understandable to us.
But I believe a lot in this the world is not understandable, at least not so directly. Many of the things in life are hard to get a grip on. Art can emphasise this by using not ‘what’ images represent, but the fact ‘that’ they represent. Art can make you feel that meanings and relations are never fixed, they’re always fluid, have to be negotiated. If you relate this to my exhibition, you will see a combination of works that are on the one hand autonomous, as I said before, but on the other hand they strive to question how they relate to each other. They are almost ghost-like copies in a void. They are there, searching for each other, and they are not there, being lost, at the same time.
AB: You argue that figurative and abstract painting have reached their ‘logical conclusion’. Is your work a product of art history or a reaction to the art canon’
BvdH: We live in a time in which the idea that you can make new remarkable gestures seems exhausted; we have lived through the end of art, the end of history, the end of painting, so in a sense we are after-art. But instead of thinking in negative terms about this, I productively use this idea of ‘the end’. History and painting are like empty vessels that I can work with in new and unforeseen ways. So in that sense I don’t know if I have to choose between being in line with art history or a reaction to it. Time will tell. But if I had to choose, I can say that I’m very aware of all my answers, I’m aware of minimalism, formalism, abstraction and expressionism. I’m aware of art history. The difference is that once there was a fundamental debate about all this: Are you minimalist’ A formalist’ etc. Now, we can work within all these different isms and be all these things at the same time and still be very specific, that’s what’s relevant to me.
AB: You describe your work as permanently unfinished. How does this manifest itself’
BvdH: I don’t see my works as illustrations or products, I see myself as being in a constant process in which I think and work. And not only me on my own. More and more, I work together with others. I’m in a permanent dialogue. So my works can develop in the sense that they can appear and reappear in new contexts. I can discuss them in new ways; I can paint over them or reuse them, in that sense the work can take other shapes.
AB: Interdisciplinarity is very prevalent in your work - you juxtapose abstract canvases with familiar everyday objects (namely, handmade clothing: coats, suits, dresses, knitted bathing suits). How does one inform the other’
BvdH: This is very much in line with what I said before about the differentiations between abstraction, figuration, formalism or expressionism not being that relevant anymore. They all merge into spectral relations. This interdisciplinarity can also apply to the merging of painting and fashion, performance and architecture. Basically I still think of myself as a painter, so all of these things are still related to painting for me. But I work now with painting as what David Joselit calls transitivity: an action being transferred into an object. In the exhibition for instance, this manifests itself through a glass wall which becomes a blend of sculpture and display, midway between showing and seeing. On one hand it’s an object you look at; on the other hand it’s a device to represent something else. This is also the case with patterns like the grid, colours and shapes. All these things come to form reciprocal connections.
AB: When exhibiting your work, you place a lot of importance on object placement - every configuration is part of the cohesive whole. Does your artistic practice have a curatorial element’
BvdH: Definitely, I think this also relates to a lot of things I said before. Representations are never innocent. I can’t just make a painting in my studio, it’s only in a specific place, in a specific moment, for a specific viewer that that image occurs or that the image becomes visible. The relationship between all the things exhibited is a negotiation between the autonomy of the object and the dependence it has on the other objects. For me, this is crucial because this is also my experience in the world - on the one hand you feel like you are on your own, like a rolling stone, an autonomous person, you have ideas and longings, but on the other hand there’s the Other. It is only in relation to this other that you appear and that your ideas become discussable or that your longings can be related to.
This back and forth between you and the other being or also the work of art you encounter is really important to me. I’m constantly negotiating my surroundings, and in that sense I hope that my works of art and the exhibitions that I do allow viewers to become mutual witnesses. You are there and you meet each other through a work of art, so the formal abstract qualities of a work negotiate the mutual witnessing of that moment, the sharing of that moment and the possibility of exchanging ideas and feelings. This is crucial. It also has to do with the first thing you notice when you step into a space, for instance a gallery. There is an atmosphere that is there. Even before you see any specific object, you experience something that cannot be defined, something that is in the object and also in between the objects. It’s inside you, it’s something you bring, but it’s also something that is there.
AB: Finally, what can we expect to see in your upcoming exhibition at Rod Barton ‘Once Upon A Time You Dressed So Fine’ (21 March ’ 26 April 2014)’
BvdH: In a very descriptive way, there will be two hanging devices with clothes, a triptych of three larger paintings, one medium-sized painting, a glass wall, another hanging device with clothes at the other end and bottles with fabric dye that are the remains of paintings that I did over the last few months. The exhibition is a combination of painting, sculpture and architectural elements. It’s a film still. You may perceive the objects you see as being still but maybe they are inherently moving all the time and presenting us with the opportunity to become mutual witnesses of certain ideas and feelings.