Jeroen Witvliet spoke to me about his path to contemporary art making and the curiosity that continues to drive his work. Witvliet’s art practice is a response to contemporary times; to be aware and to find a sense of the poetic while questioning current events, historical accuracy and memory.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My country of birth is the Netherlands. I would like to be objective and without irony when describing myself but that is an impossibility. Therefore what I can say is that I see myself as a person who tries to make sense of the world by being inquisitive, sensitive and creative. I screw up many things and occasionally do something that makes me take a step back. It then makes me realize that the complexity of being in the world for me means that I should accept the mystery and wonder but also the anguish and solitude.
What is the first thing you do when you start a painting?
Spending some time just looking at the canvas. It might take me a while to determine the dimensions of the painting. I tend to work on canvas before it goes onto stretcher bars, this give me some freedom to find the right measurements for the images I intend to set up.
Walk me through a day in the studio.
It starts when I ride my bike to the studio. Clearing my mind on the way. Switching on the lights and taking some time to look at the previous days work. Make some tea and start circling around in the studio till I feel ready to pick up a brush. Then it is painting, turn on some music, turning it off again and keep working till I feel something has happened on the canvas. I will write down some thoughts and do some quick and small sketches here and there.
Has your work always taken on the style it currently embodies?
No, my style shifts according to the subject matter I choose to work with.
Jeroen Witvliet, The Silent, oil on canvas, 190 x 150 cm (74.8″ x 59″)
From where do you draw your inspiration?
From challenging myself to keep working and letting one series flow into the next. At one point early on I started painting grids made up of hundred of small paintings based on my memory of childhood landscapes. Even though I was still a child in many aspects the repetitive action of recreating one image made me realize that it is important to not over think why and what you want to create but you should just simply set out to solve the problem of getting something done to the best of your abilities.
How does one become an artist?
I have not the faintest idea. You most likely stumble into it.
“Johnie”, oil on canvas, 180 x 120 cm (70.8″ x 47.2″)
When did painting first enter your life?
Paintings were always around. My mother’s sister was an artist as were other family members. Spending time exploring the cathedrals and churches around where I grew up exposed me to the mystery and quality of narrative painting. Being in close proximity to museums made it easy to be exposed to a wide variety of art. One day I realized that all the time I spend wandering around in forests and through farm fields and cities could provide the basis for my own narrative. Dada and the surrealist had entered my life at this point through a book and I had seen a few surrealist works at the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam. By seeing their paintings and spending some time with them I connected the mystery of the church paintings to what these artists had been doing. I was young enough to not understand any of it and I thought it to be a good idea to give it a try myself.
“The King (koning)”, oil on canvas, 250 x 180 cm (98.4″ x 70.8″)
They can not be seen as they were seen before, glorified and without fault. There is a clash and violence inherent in most of the statues and the era they represent.
Who are the figures in this new body of work?
In the current series (Vessels) they are based on statues of historical figures. Some are political leaders, kings, commanders and a painter. All are seen as of importance to the building of a nation or in shaping a culture. They can not be seen as they were seen before, at the time the statues were erected, glorified and without fault. There is a clash and violence inherent in most of the statues and the era they represent.
Are the spaces that you create based on source material or imagined?
The backgrounds to the Vessels series with statues or boats in front slowly came to be over time. Growing up in an environment that is rich in design and beautiful in architectural details it was only a question of time before this made its way into my work. The patterns are something of comfort and a reference to my upbringing but also to the risks and misuse that can come with organization and order.
In my practice I have always been interested in using geometric shapes and patterns to define space, control and chaos. The multi-coloured geometric backdrops in these paintings act like a curtain of sorts. As a curtain it closes off a space that potentially could lie beyond the object. It plays with the potential of there being a perceived space that stretches into infinity. Some of the squares and rectangles are semi-translucent and one gets a sense of depth instead of solid closure.
“The Rider”, oil on canvas, 150 x 120 cm (59″ x 47.2″)
What stories does your work tell? What are you looking to communicate?
If the work sets out to tell a story I don’t know what that story might be. The imagery creates the possibility to be interpreted and be referential. However I do not set out to create a narrative and if one emerges it is through the combination of the different elements the visuals are built from.
How can history matter in the present?
It is what has shaped everything and lies at the basis of every society and culture. It mixes with and influences everyday decisions. It is both highly personal and extremely broad as it casts a shadow over everything. It can function as a blueprint, showing how problematic human behaviour is. Where the root cause for so much violence and injustice lies. Nothing happens without reasons and cause and effect. Having an understanding of the past and its complicated structures can be a guide to not repeat the same extreme behaviour and might make for better decision making, more respect for others and our contemporary times and install a sense of responsibility.
“The Painter”, oil on canvas, 180 x 120 cm (70.8″ x 47.2″)
What do you hope people will experience when they look at one of your paintings?
A sense of beauty and wonder. I hope the work will raise some questions or evoke a reaction, one of emotion or intellectual.
You can see more of Jeroen Witvliet’s work on the Artist’s page and the artist’s website at www.jeroenwitvliet.com (top: “Shipwreck, breaking of the vessel”, 2020, oil on canvas, 180 x 240 cm (70.8″ x 95″))