By AMARIE BERGMAN, FEB. 2017
Interview with Richard van der Aa / a preview of Pictures of Paintings, 57W57 Arts, New York, 3rd March – 8th April 2017
The images of Pictures of Paintings by Richard van der Aa hold our gaze: the sequence is hypnotic - an extended repetition of a rounded square in duo-toned variations of black, white and an elusive colour palette of muted creams and greys.
Amarie Bergman: Tim Page wrote something in the libretto of Philip Glass’s opera, Satyagraha, that I think might apply to the sensation of viewing your works at 57W57: “…like watching a challenging painting that initially appears static, but seems to metamorphose slowly as one concentrates. Compositional material is usually limited to a few elements, which are then subjected to transformational processes.” How do you feel about this comparison and would you agree it applies to this series?
Richard van der Aa: I’m not familiar with that specific piece but I’m flattered by the comparison to Glass’s work in general. He is a true minimalist. My work is not so pure but the idea of working in series with repetition and subtle shifts to build something runs all through it.
AB: Abstraction of Confusion, a 2016 immersive work by Taro Shinoda in the 20th Biennale of Sydney, specifically had its initial serenity of floating on a platform offset by the infrequent yet sudden sound of dry plaster falling from the surrounding walls onto the ground. But it didn’t seem to matter. Similarly, at first glance, this series of yours appears to be super-serene yet within seconds we cannot help but notice the edges interfere with that illusion because of their varying degrees of raggedness. We want to smooth out those edges with our eyes and, maybe, in our imagination, we do. However, realizing this is actually impossible we become reconciled, even calm, with what we cannot ever control. Daniel G. Hill beautifully reveals this effect your work has on viewers in his 2016 essay, Margins of Tolerance, “…we find ourselves at the margin between the pictorial and the concrete, questioning our comfort with distinctions and categories that enable us to make sense of the world, not with unease but with the pleasure of wonder.” Would you like to comment on what Hill calls your “subversive flirting” with edges?
RvdA: I like the way Hill describes my work as flirting with ‘margins of tolerance’. I am not offering perfection – rather to some degree I am letting the material be itself and this sometimes results in uncomfortable irregularities. Uncomfortable for those expecting or hoping for something clean, precise and predictable. In looking for those things each viewer has a certain acceptable leeway – push things too far and the viewer struggles to tolerate the irregularity. For me this tension is paramount in the work. I think this this what Hill speaks of when he says ‘subversive’. I don’t consider myself subversive in the sense of undermining all that has gone before.
AB: Related to this, in the 2-line statement for your work for Saturation Point, an international survey of reductive art in London 2011, you wrote that “A painting is an object with heart. I strive to present such objects with maximum clarity and without complication.” Six years on, would you say your work at 57W57 still is/will be uncomplicated?
RvdA: Sure – there is nothing complicated here. I consider simplicity an important characteristic of my work. Two colors seen in relation on a given shaped ground: what could be more simple? Simple doesn’t necessarily imply easy though.
AB: Is this new exhibition a continuation from a previous body of work of yours, Present Tense, which you showed in January 2017 at Le Pavé d’Orsay? In what way(s) are they different?
How have you been influenced/affected by the, seemingly too frequent, terrorist activities in France?
RvdA: Actually this body of work for 57W57 was completed before the Present Tense series. In a way these pieces were the technical run through for that later group. Here is where I developed the palette and process before the form also became a part of the equation. With the Present Tense work, the outside shape is an important differentiating factor. The works are all squares with different sections removed. With the ‘Pictures of Paintings’ I kept the format consistent and worked with shifts in color and variations in paint application.
Although by nature I am not a political person - the recent current events in France have found their way into the work in some of the titles. ‘Soft piece for hard times’ for example… and indeed the ‘Present Tense’ exhibition title as a whole…one does not live and work in a vacuum and these things can’t be ignored.
AB: In what single way has your earlier, pure white series of idyllic, confectionate sculptures, More Reasons to be Cheerful, influenced Pictures of Paintings?
RvdA: Among those white pieces was a series entitled ‘Mere Formalities’, which were made to hang on the wall. The ‘Pictures of Paintings’ began as paintings of those ‘sculptures’, i.e. 2 dimensional renderings of 3 dimensional work. I have always considered the painting to be an object before it is anything else. Now I’m bringing the idea of painting as image back into the conversation.
So therein lies another little bit of subversion. This so-called ‘abstract’ work could be perceived as pictorial/figurative. Hence the title of the series ‘Pictures of Paintings’. I named them that by way of confession… to my non-objective friends.
AB: You are noted for your witty, often playful, titles. For this exhibition at 57W57 it is rather clever of you to come up with Pictures of Paintings: ‘pict’ is Latin for ‘paint’ while ‘ure’ means ‘forming; as a result of action or process.’
It’s really an accurate phrase you’ve come up with when referring to much of the art you do: you emphasize that your “work is more about exploring the properties of these particular objects called paintings - how they take on meaning and the nature of their relationship with other objects and the space around them.” Hill pinpoints this exploration of yours has created “a metalanguage of painting with which to ponder its own object.” Would you like to comment?
RvdA: It’s true that at a certain point – early on – I became more interested in how a thing may be said than in saying the thing. I like to think the work reflects that.
Richard van der Aa lives and works in Paris. He was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1963. After studying painting at the University of Canterbury and graduating in 1985, he moved to Sydney, Australia. From 1998 to 2004 van der Aa was Faculty Head of Visual Arts at the School of Creative Arts, Oxford Falls, Sydney, and he completed a Master of Fine Arts at COFA (University of New South Wales in 2004. In 2005 van der Aa moved to Paris. In 2009, he and his wife Anna established the ParisCONCRET association for the dissemination of reductive abstract art. The work of van der Aa has been exhibited extensively in Australia and New Zealand and, in recent years, in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Poland, the UK and the USA.
 Tim Page, introduction “The Sense of Peace” libretto Satyagraha by Philip Glass. New York City Opera, Orchestra & Chorus (New York 1980) 4.
 Daniel G. Hill, Margins of Tolerance
 Richard van der Aa, statement “more reasons to be cheerful” group exhibition catalogue Non Objective to Site Specific (Elblag, Poland: Centrum Sztuki Galeria EL 2011) 16.