On the Politics of Art: An Interview with Nigel Van Wieck

Words: Karan Kaul
Edits: Priyanka Sutaria

 

On an evening in January 2017, I began having a conversation with, artist Nigel Van Wieck. Although, there were several manners, through which I could have conducted this interview, I stuck with the space, I had discovered him in. Our relationship still remains in the realm of social media, but through this conversation, I am hopeful that it will break the distance social media itself has inevitably created.

K: Seeing your paintings on Facebook, I believe you come from a particular sensibility that today’s generation is aware of aesthetically but not in its entirety. To change that, I feel it is important to understand the artist’s life from the artist himself. How would you describe your artistic career? What are the events that led up to it?

N: I was shown how to paint a realistic sky when I was ten by wetting a piece of paper and then with a brush loaded with blue paint run it across the top of the wet paper; as the blue ran down the wet paper, it diluted becoming eventually white and rendering a perfect realistic sky. The result gave me a satisfaction I had never experienced before and I was hooked on painting and that feeling has never left.

K: Wow, you just painted the most vivid image for me. I don’t even know if I can understand that feeling in its very flesh since it is your memory. I feel that memories are a recurring theme in most of your paintings and I am not sure if we as audiences can rightfully claim to have understood them wholeheartedly just by seeing your artistic interpretation of the same. Would you call the act of painting an act of sharing a memory?

Also, I may have just made an assumption that you work with memories. If you don’t, how do you go about painting something that isn’t derived from a memory?

N: I told you about that memory because it answered the question of why I paint. That first experience with painting gave me such a rush and pleasure, I knew then what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Without memory there is no painting, I use sensory and short-term memory all the time; one makes a series of marks on a canvas and then decide whether they work, that judgement is based on remembered information.  If one paints an apple from life, one looks at the apple, then to the canvas and paints from memory. The memories that are in my paintings are long-term, I don’t use them all the time and do not see them as biographical, rather they are a tool for telling a story. I want to ask questions and I make observations as opposed to sharing them. Sometime I paint from my imagination and sometimes from memory.  It also can be pure observation, i.e. something I’ve witnessed in a bar. But I always paint what I want to paint and the endeavour is to compose an image that is relevant to our time.

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K: When you say ‘our time’, what time period are you referring to? I am asking this because through your paintings I have observed certain elements that may not be visible in the contemporary society. They remind me of a gone past, one that many of us haven’t experienced. Having said that, do you feel the aesthetics of your work have changed as the time has changed?

N: Give me an example of” that may not be visible in the contemporary society”.

K: I am personally unsure when you might have painted most of your paintings, but as a 21-year-old living in India, I feel they come from a particular artistic sensibility that belongs to a certain period. For example, the attire the characters wear reminds me of the early 90s America. Also, most of your paintings with nudes also seem reminiscent of classical Greek paintings. I might be assuming this but maybe you could tell me if it is true? If not, what role does time play in your paintings, if any?

N: When I say ‘our time’ I mean the time in which we exist, we are both citizens of 21st century. Nietzsche 1 said “Art is essentially the affirmation, the blessing, and the deification of existence.” When civilizations die all that is left is the art. The three paintings that you cited were painted a decade before you were born. When you are twenty-one, the decade before your birth would seem foreign. Ten years is half your lifetime, for me ten years is part of a long life and in a hundred years the difference of ten years will seem minuscule. I’m interested in painting universal truths like love, friendship, betrayal and solitude. I painted a girl sitting alone on a subway, it’ titled “Q Train”, she’s dressed in 80’s clothes because that’s when I did it. It connects with people and today I still get messages from girls from all over the world telling me that the girl in the painting is them and how I knew how they felt when I painted it. Some of these girls were born many years after I painted it but the universal truth in the painting speaks to them. I never start my day concerned with what I am going to say, I take that for granted, the concerns I do have are about the formal problems of painting. I want to paint a “moment in time” because it makes my paintings real and the emotion timeless. I achieve this by painting the light; whether painting daylight or the lights of the night, light is familiar to us; it’s like music, it evokes a memory or an emotion, and crystallizes the moment. Vermeer 2 was extremely successful at this; even though he was painting a 17th century scene, the way he paints light allows today’s viewer to connect to that moment thus making the painting both modern and timeless.  It’s true there are references to the past in some of my paintings of nudes, besides, as well as an admiration and great respect for the painters who went before me. They used the best poses and I have no qualms in doing the same.

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K: Thank you for the honest answer. It has put a lot of things into perspective for me. I completely agree with you when you say that you paint facets of life that are timeless. To me this a reminder that we are gifted with a common ground that contains a sensibility devoid of culture, age and gender. A sensibility that is cross-generational and that will forever be part of everyone’s life. Like loneliness, what do you have to say of that? There are quite few paintings where we see people/objects devoid of emotions and devoid of people around them. For example, the girl in the subway and the lamp on the empty street. Isn’t it rather ironic that a painter has to paint a state of being that in itself is supposed to be empty. How do you go about painting something like that?

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N: I agree there’s a common ground, art should speak to everyone. I have always seen art as a language, and language to be successful needs to communicate, that is its power. When art becomes esoteric, it contracts its audience and thus its power.  Art is judged on aesthetics and its intellectual brilliance, but when it becomes elitist, it speaks to less people and usually to people who think alike; art should expand or change people’s mind. An example of this is Jazz, an American art form that was born in the brothels of New Orleans and became the major musical expression of the first half of the 20th century, it gave birth to the blues, bore great geniuses and changed music. The footprint of Jazz on our culture is enormous.  It was brilliant with its inventiveness and expression, it made people feel, they were connected and more importantly they danced, an expression and an art as old as man. Then in the 50’s it evolved into Beeb Bop, a free-form jazz, where its brilliance was introspective and intellectual. Although it still created great music with geniuses like Parker, Coltrane, and Davies, it was the end. Jazz was looking inwardly and had turned its back on dance, it stopped being music for the people, it was the music of aficionados. This left a vacuum and in that vacuum another major musical expression was born: Rock and Roll, an art that has been powerful; it was important in the struggle for civil rights, in anti-war movements, and for promoting social change. But it was an art that was born from simple needs and grew to be much more, as did Jazz. I know I spoke of loneliness, but I prefer to think that many of those paintings are about solitude rather than loneliness. The difference being that with loneliness there’s unhappiness and with solitude there’s a contentment with one’s self. Q Train being an exception; I would accept your description of it as lonely. I like your thought about the irony of loneliness with respect to painting; true to experience loneliness is an unpleasant response to isolation or lack of companionship and it is emptiness. But when painting, it becomes an emotion on the canvas that elicits empathy from the viewer so the painter with his painting connects. Painting loneliness is the same as painting any other emotion, it relies on two elements: a personal understanding of the emotion, and the execution of pictorial devices which convey that feeling. When you said “where we see people/objects devoid of emotions” in my paintings, it is incorrect, my paintings are never devoid of emotion, I’m a narrative painter and without emotion there’s no story. Body language is important to me, I work hard to give every figure in my pictures an attitude, it helps me create a narrative and the feeling for the painting, the body language of the girl in “Q Train” speaks volumes, a different pose would be another picture. I paint light in the same way, it’s beautiful, expressive and can create emotion in a painting. As Marlene Dietrich said “lighting is everything”.

K: I agree with your distinction between loneliness and solitude. And I completely agree when you corrected my statement regarding the same as well. This proves that it is indeed the artist who knows his artwork the best. Having said that, I would like to ask you something peculiar I have noticed though our interaction. Or let me rephrase, through your interaction with your viewers on Facebook. I feel your Facebook account mirrors a virtual museum, where the viewer doesn’t only interact with the artwork, but with the artist himself. For example, the little anecdotes and stories that you write in your caption won’t be available to the viewer who is seeing your painting in an actually gallery. This sort of new interaction really changes the way audiences are experiencing art today. To me, that is a paradigm shift in the art world. How would you look at this?

N: It’s a new world, modern technology has created new avenues of seeing and expressing oneself.  Being able to write anecdotes on Facebook is one way, though it’s something new to me and I feel it’s a work in progress. As I have already mentioned, I believe art should be accessible, I don’t like elitism, anything that facilitates seeing I like. But I hope it’s not an end in itself.  By that I mean that seeing an image of a painting on a screen is wonderful, I’ve fallen in love with many painters after seeing them first in books, but standing in front of the original work of art and experiencing it for real compares to nothing. I have noticed when I’m in museums today young people take photos of the paintings rather than look at them, they move through rooms in minutes just snapping away. I wonder if their taking of photos is just a memento and part of our new instant life or is it a new way of seeing, or are the pics viewed on screens in depth at a later date. If so it becomes a different way of seeing, it’s turning painting into photography and will that change the next generation of painters?

I think what is interesting about this paradigm shift is the democratization of art. Options for an artist have been limited to the gallery system which has become increasingly commercial. Gone are the dealers who have aesthetic values. Today a work of art is judged by the price it fetches on the open market and how quickly it can be flipped, it’s purely a commodity like stocks and bonds. So, an artist who is out of favour in this system had little chance of being seen by a large audience. Now with the Internet and a new art community it’s changing, it allows for new art and ideas to find their way into the world. In the 19th century, the art establishment was the Academy, it had the last word on what was art; then the dealer with the gallery was born and that changed art. It was the dealer who discovered what the academy had previously rejected (Impressionism all the art that came after), it now promoted it and all the art that came after, but alas the gallery system has become what the Academy was and a change is needed.

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K: You have beautifully articulated the uncanny similarities between the Academy and the dealer. Can you elaborate more on democratization of art? What are its implications on art and audience interaction?

N: What I meant by the “democratization of art” is taking the power away from the gatekeepers and giving it to artists. When the gatekeepers have the power they decide what is art. Art was first created to please the gods, the primitives drew a bison on the wall of their caves as a charm for the hunt; when they became a farmers that drawing became art to the god of fertility or rain; when religion turn from henotheism to monotheism, art paid tribute to the single god and as civilization grew art glorified its desires and achievements as well; with this came the gatekeepers.
In the beginning the gatekeepers were the kings, the church and later rich merchants. They decided who deserved the patronage and what was to be painted, and at the same time guilds were formed to decide who could be an artist. It was a rigid system but it produced great art.

Then in the 17th century, the Dutch gained independence from Spain, this freedom created for the first time a rich middle class which produced a new variety of patron of which there were many; this changed art. Gone was the church patronage with its monolithic demands, the tastes of the new patrons were egalitarian; during this period, still-life and landscape painting were elevated, and genre painting, maritime painting, flower painting, cityscape painting and more were invented.  This happened because art was democratized, and for the first time, the result was an art for a middle class, and the beginning of modern painting.

Today the gatekeepers are the dealers and museum curators, but I see a potential for change as had happened in the 17th century; we live in a time of monumental technical change, communication has been revolutionized, we have the ability to instantly connect with anyone anywhere in the world. This ability to communicate with people has great potential because it gives power to the artist and makes them a gatekeeper. It’s easiest to see this new power at work with music where broadcasting power has been democratized–there was a time when the record companies made an artist’s career, but today we have the example of Justin Bieber being discovered on YouTube, and Adele on Myspace. The democratization originates with ideas from the ground rather than dictates from the top. This is what is interesting to me; when the power shifts, it all changes. When the Dutch middle class replaced a powerful church, there was new art and now that the power is shifting I expect there will be changes again. It is still early and one can only guess at what the future will be, but I think the artist is going to become more of an impresario and with that freedom the artist will to do what they want.

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K: We have arrived towards the end of our conversation. I can only imagine meeting you and your paintings in person. Although, I have one last question. If the gatekeeper is the artist today, how would you as a gatekeeper define art? I personally am a strong believer that art 3 is can be anything and everything, as long as it consists of a unique creative disposition. Reflecting on your paintings as a viewer and as our conversation has proceeded, I feel that I can see that in your paintings. Would you agree?

N: In our conversation, you asked about a paradigm shift in the art world, and I said that I found interesting was the possibility of the democratization of art and explained what I meant. It was an objective observation, none of it affects my art. I paint purely to please myself and have little interest in the art world and its politics. In fact, one form of democratization, Conceptualism, has destroyed painting; its basic belief is that everything is art and therefore everybody is an artist, which is not true. What interests me is purely the art of painting and when I’m painting, only formal problems consume me, the subject matter is intuitive. The aim is to make a good painting, which is rare these days. It was a pleasure talking to you.

 

Notes:

  1. Fredrich Nietzsche was a late 19th century German philosopher and cultural critic. He wrote extensively on morality, political theory, and culture amongst many other topics that contributed to modern western thought. He was also the author of the statement, ‘God is Death’, that sparked debates during his time and continues to even today.
  2. Johannes Vermeer was a 17th century Dutch painter who mastered the art of using monochrome shades of grey and brown to pictorially preserve the middle-class life. His popular works include The Milkmaid and Girl with a Pearl Earring amongst other visually powerful paintings.
  3. Clarification: I wrote this in January 2017 and it went onto being published only in August 2017. After visiting Kochi Muziris Biennale, having few conversations with the artists who have come my way since, reading and writing papers on aesthetics and assisting in the curation of an art show, I have come to terms with the fact that I do not hold this opinion as close to my heart as I did then.

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