Speaking with the Artists of Double Dutch at Victory Gallery, Portland

by Sarah Vaeth, September 2011

Yvonne Lacet and Gijs van Lith are the two young artists selected for Victory Gallery’s debut exhibition Double Dutch. The new gallery, under the direction of Jane Kate Wood, will focus on contemporary international artists, filling a unique niche in Portland. Lacet and van Lith’s parallel responses to the urban landscape make them a suitable combination. Lacet’s photographs of paper maquettes are intimate constructions that create imagined cities. Van Lith’s paintings explore a territory encompassing referential and nonobjective abstraction that blends cubism and Pollock-like splatters. I caught up with both artists this month to ask them about the show and their respective practices.

Gijs van Lith

SV: The work you’re exhibiting in Double Dutch shows a range of intersections between abstraction and observation: some images have a clearly identifiable landscape reference, while others read as “pure” abstraction and others fall somewhere in between. How has your relationship to abstraction changed in recent years and what is your approach now?
GVL:
 Well, I started out as a figurative painter; I don’t think in terms of figurative or abstract. For me there’s no difference. In the beginning I worked a lot with pictures from the Internet and my own photos and others’. I knew I liked to paint and wanted to show that. I thought the more paint and painterly actions I showed, the more I showed my love for materials and the medium. I was interested in the image itself—what draws me to it. I was looking to find that essence, those extracts. In that process, my work became closer to the image. But associations and links with the contemporary society of those particular helps the work become more than just a painting about a specific subject.

Homage to the flat surface is a shout-out to the audience to learn to read paintings… Instead of looking, to truly see a painting, because there’s much, much more than meets the eye. Work ethic is a big part of the content for me. Because there are too many choices to make in a painting, I made my rules; I built the image from the leftovers and consequences of painterly actions and reactions. They dictate the process and therefore, the painting. The last three years, I not only developed my skill, but I also developed as an artist. I’m coming closer and closer to my core, and closer to a form that can carry it. It needs to be all, one and nothing at the same time. I believe Willem de Kooning said something like that.

In the US painting continues to be beleaguered in academic and curatorial circles, in keeping with a (probably outworn) postmodern paradigm. The charge that “painting is dead” still gets aired; and notions of originality, beauty, transcendence and craft are still treated as suspect. At the same time, painters continue to innovate and thrive in our top galleries and some of the most exciting artists today are painters. How is painting viewed critically in the Netherlands? Is it similarly problematic?
I think it’s world-wide; there is a taboo on craftsmanship within painting. I think the problem is there are a handful of people that can read a painting. Ironically we live in a picture/image society but we can barely read and understand the one form that started it all. I think we need to re-learn to look at a work and it will take more time than looking at something on YouTube. Because so many smart, brave and wonderful decisions are made in the “skin” of the painting. And if you see it, a whole new world opens up for you. I believe that painting is only as dead as art is, so it’s still very much alive. And yes, painting took a bit of a beating from the more hip and modern arts like performance or film, but it’s making its comeback.

Regarding Homage to the Flat Surface: Was there a photographic source for this painting? Does the source have significance to you, or is it more a pretext for developing an image?
In that period I still used some pics more as a starting point. In that case, I used satellite pics because of their almost “Mondrianic” visual qualities. I like them for the depth in these lines, shapes and color.

When I made Homage to the Flat Surface, I was at a turning point. I started to use pics less and less. I felt they were too concrete and, in a way, too limited for me. I wanted it be more open, more abstract. So I made two pieces, one with and one without pics. The one with pics is of course Homage and the other one is called ‘ockin’ in the second dimension. They both salute painting and together symbolize that turning point for me.

How would you explain your own commitment to painting?
Although there are many choices and maybe almost as many within painting, I still like the restrictions. You still have a carrier (mostly the canvas) and an applier (mostly paint). And in those two I can put everything I hold dear. My love, energy, frustrations and most of all I can keep myself challenged mentally. And sometimes surprise myself with something beautiful.

If you can make generalizations about contemporary art in the Netherlands, what are they?  What stands out to you as unique about being an artist in the Netherlands today?
I never considered myself a Dutch person or artist; I don’t think in those terms actually. But maybe I am. I see some similarities in painting with some German, Dutch and Belgian artists. All use thick, massive lumps of paint on big canvases. Maybe it has something to do with our background as Germanic farmers. Plowing the earth and feeling the earth.

Yvonne Lacet

SV: In Double Dutch, your work has been selected from different projects (Movements of a City, Playground, Virtual Relief, Template of a Sleeping City). On your website, you talk about some shared themes centering upon construction and dissolution, man-made structures and ephemerality. I’m curious to know how you feel these different series diverge. In what ways are you getting at something different in each series?
YL:
 Every series has a different approach to these themes. Everything could start with a small and curious detail in some building, it could also be the total sensation of a landscape that breathes something I try to capture. The work is, in part, about real and fake and the sometimes vague or perhaps irrelevant distinction between the two. An inexhaustible array of approaches is possible here, in some series I emphasize the sentimental element of perception, where blank, soulless paper structures bathe in beautiful, almost melancholic lighting, in other series I focus on exaggerations of actual patterns or situations that seem almost too absurd to be real. The work is also, of course, about transience. About the everlasting changes of the landscapes and the emotions they evoke. Maybe it’s also about combining these two themes: about how many things never seem to become real because of their temporary nature.

In all of the images in Double Dutch, the impression is of a convincing invented world (it feels “real”), but at the same time there are hints of its status as an artificial construction, a maquette. How important is the “tell” of artifice in your images?
The tell is important, but it needs to be a natural aspect of the image too. I don’t go around my way to deliberately create them as a layer in the image; they are actual seams, cuts and glue spots that I choose not to hide. These tells are aspects that contribute to the experience of the cityscapes as quickly built scenery, often destined to exist only briefly. It is as you say: I intend the images to seem real, but at the same time feel artificial—that something’s not quite right about their realness. More than the seams and cuts and glue spots the actual tells are the absence of things: the absence of movement, of wear, of growth and decay—of actual existence, in short.

I don’t have a background in photography, but I can feel intuitively that it’s important that your constructions are photographed instead of being exhibited as sculptures. Could you talk a little bit about how the act of photography transforms the maquette into something new in the final image?
The paper sculptures are often of a very small size, for example 30 cm high and 20 cm wide, while the photographs often have a much more massive sort of feel about them. With photography I can bring the paper sculptures into a whole new dimension, where I control the light, the crop and the point of view. I decide how the viewer has to see to it all. Photography enables me to have a frame within which I can very specifically control nuances of realism.

If you can make generalizations about contemporary art in the Netherlands, what are they?  What stands out to you as unique about being an artist in the Netherlands today?
I don’t really have a very strong feeling as to what’s unique about being an artist in the Netherlands. Attributes such as humor and minimalism are sometimes assigned specifically to Dutch photography, but I don’t know if these are just assumptions or if it’s generally true. To me it’s not really an issue of importance—I just create my work as I want it to be.

Double Dutch: Works by Yvonne Lacet and Gijs van Lith
4 August—30 September 2011
Victory Gallery
733 NW Everett St, Portland