Interview with Ronald de Bloeme
They are big, they are bright and they are busy – Berlin based Dutch artist Ronald de Bloeme’s works engage with the complex systems of meaning integral to the overwhelming reality of our consumerist society and its constant urge to communicate. Sampling and appropriating it, the young artist, who has been referred to as a ‘visual pirate’, creates abstract and very formal paintings, which while recalling familiar patterns and codes, resist easy reading and speak in a language of their own. I visited him prior to the opening of his show ‘Diktatur’ at the Hamish Morrison Gallery in Berlin.
Nadine Poulain: Working with the sign systems of mass communication and living in a capitalist society, do you understand yourself as a political artist?
Ronald de Bloeme:
That’s the big question. A lot of people ask me that. In one sense, I am not a very political artist with my finger high up, like Hans Haacke for example, but of course there is a political aspect to my work. I mean I appropriate from advertising and so on and erase every text there is. It’s censorships in a way. You could call it political. The thing is that if you are a political artist, you don’t only ask questions, you also give answers. I don’t give answers. I only ask questions, and that is a very big difference. In that sense I am not a political artist.
NP: That is very clear in your work that you are not pointing at something and putting yourself aside. It seems to come from within...
Yes, it definitely comes from within, from the belly, but also from the mind.
NP: I guess there is also a sense of fascination involved, from being part of it…
Absolutely! There is fascination, joy, anger, frustration and so on. It’s all in there. I am part of this society, this consumerist society, and I find my surrounding world pretty overwhelming at times. That surely goes into it. I transform that feeling. If we walked in the street, you and I, you would register different things than I would. I would register all those packagings, advertisements and visual colour information. I guess it comes from ones belly, from ones background.
NP: It certainly does. When you look at your finished paintings. Do you think back at all those source materials that went into them?
Of course I know where everything comes from, but I don’t know if it is good to explain all that.
NP: Oh no, there is no need for that.
In the end they are paintings. I am a painter. That’s where it all starts and that’s were it all ends.
NP: Right. But your paintings do actually have a very specific background. Do you want people to be able to ‘read’ them in terms of recognizing the elements that went into them? And what role do your titles take in that?
My titles are pretty important. They are little hints, little doors into the works.
NP: I guess that is the fine line you are after…
Yes. I am not interested in copying the exact thing, so that you can see Lucky Strike, or whatever, but it fascinates me to experiment with what people actually recognize in terms of shapes and colours and how much information they need for that. What I do is I manipulate the original material, which I call found footage. I make it more abstract, I stretch it, invert and grade the colours and so on to create my own language. But it still happens that people pick up on the original material I appropriated. In ‘Irony’ for instance, I combined the aesthetics of napkins with an army colour code. My father used to be a pilot in the army in his younger days, and when he came to the gallery a couple of days ago and saw that painting, he said: “Ronald, that’s a fruit salad”. He recognized it! I used a code that the generals in the army have on their chest. Each colour code means something, and I actually used the original colours. So, yellow, blue, yellow, white, yellow, blue, yellow is one colour code and it means you shot down a helicopter, or whatever, and in the army they call that a ‘fruit salad’. I find that amazing! It’s a language on its own. Look at the London tube map for example. It’s a communication system everybody knows. It shows how we move. I find that fascinating. I mean designers think about how to get our attention and how to get a message across, how to communicate. It’s all information and often we don’t even realize it anymore. But, yes, it’s that fine line between recognizing something, or not, that makes it interesting for me.
Ironie, 2009, Enamel on Canvas, 220 x 350 cm, Courtesy Hamish Morrison Gallery
NP: How do you develop your paintings? Do you plan a lot?
I plan everything in the beginning. I always keep my eyes open, and collect things that interest me. I put them onto the scanner and erase all text, as well as all figurative elements. What is left is a colour structure and then I start working on the computer, making collages. Sometimes it takes months, sometimes it takes only a week, and I got one. Then I make a print of it and start painting. But then again, a lot can happen between the little printout and the painting, things you can’t foresee. Though one thing I am very strict with are the colours. The colours on the canvas have to be exactly the same as the colours on the printout. Any slight alteration in tone would change the whole visual experience. I put a lot of effort into working on the colours on the computer. It just has to be accurate and exact.
NP: Your work is very clean and clear. You never see a brushstroke or a change in tone. What kind of paint do you use?
That is the very nice thing about enamel. Also I paint with the canvas lying down, so it really floats. I couldn’t use acrylic or oil, because my background is advertising and packaging. I need that very straight and clear colour.
NP: How important is the studio process for you? You spoke of things that can happen between the printout from the computer and the painting. Can you tell us more about that?
Sure. The studio process is very important to me. That is where a lot happens. Accidents happen and I integrate them into my work. They become part of it. In a way, the making process shows in the finished pieces. It is something I do not want to hide.
NP: I assume you are speaking about the handmade traces that are left in the otherwise clean perfection in some of your works. It’s a nice contrast I think. Is that a relatively new development?
I am definitely becoming more open towards those ’accidents’. And I follow them. I use masking tape to get those hard edges and sometimes when I take it off, some of the paint comes off too, and then the edges are anything but clean. Sometimes I decide to leave it like that, sometimes not. It’s a back and forth, a give and take. Recently I made an interesting discovery when I was using copper. After I finished with the copper, I taped the area to paint the black parts and when I took the tape off, quite a bit of the copper came off, leaving irregular patterns. So all of a sudden I had some texture in my work. It’s a process and I experiment and let things happen. At the moment the copper actually begins to oxidise, which I find very interesting.
NP: What about those white areas in some of your paintings?
That is something new.
There is a little story to that: When an artist friend came over to my studio to look at my work, he said: “Ronald, I would like to know what you are thinking when you are painting”, and then he left. I was sitting in my chair, looking at those unfinished paintings, and I literally thought now I have to fill in this with pink and that with orange. I thought, hey, that is what I am thinking. Great, I leave it like that! That was a huge step for me, because before that I was always painting it through to the end.
NP: There certainly is a sense of quietude that evolves from that, from giving less. Is that a path you might follow in the future?
Maybe. In the work ‘Full of emptiness’ for example, I used a sanding machine and actually went into the ‘finished’ painting, taking out information yet again… And then there is ‘Extract’. As the title indicates, it is another example for a more reductive approach.
Full of Emptiness, 2009, Enamel on Canvas, 220 x 350 cm, Courtesy Hamish Morrison Gallery
Extract, 2009, Enamel on Canvas, 220 x 350 cm, Courtesy Hamish Morrison Gallery
NP: How did you get into art? Was it from an early age on?
As a child I was always into drawing. I was drawing Donald Duck, Lucky Luke and so on. It was an engagement with the world for me to copy all those comic figures. Actually that is what I am still doing. I am still copying. (laughs)
NP: And actually I can see Donald Duck in your work. (lots of laughter)
I did that for years and then when I was 12 I came into contact with a guy that made graffiti, and I became a graffiti sprayer.
NP: That’s very interesting. There is that street aspect to your work. Also, graffiti has that very formal and coded language...
Yes, it had a huge influence on me. We called graffiti a ‘piece’. Those paintings are pieces too. They are closed off, of course. Walls are more open, but then again you can’t spray the whole wall, so you are still making a closed figure in a way.
NP: Is that a concern in your work, the narrowness of the picture-space?
Well, it is something that interests me. There is for example Katharina Grosse. She is very important to me as an artist, but also as a former graffiti artist. When I saw the first Katharina Grosse show, I was blown away. She just goes over the border of paintings. I mean she literally does it and I love that. Most of my paintings actually work in a similar way. Although they are cut off, they continue outside the frame, stretch into space in a way.
NP: What do you think of Banksy?
Graffiti doesn’t belong to the museum. It belongs in the street. That is my opinion anyway.
NP: What other artists do you like, were there any big influences?
I like a lot of artists. There is Rothko, de Kooning, Sol LeWitt, many. I am loving and respecting them, but there is not a particular name or influence. They are there and I am here, doing my own thing. It’s about having one’s own position. That’s what is important to me. Well, actually, there is someone who influenced me: Sigmar Polke. He was important to me when I was studying. He painted on existing material, on cloth, which was what I was doing in my earlier work. He opened that door for me. He is a great artist who opened a lot of doors for a lot of people.
NP: What about your Dutch roots? Dutch design, de Stijl and so on certainly comes to one’s mind when looking at your work.
Oh, of course, I am very Dutch in my work. My colour combinations are very Dutch. I work with horizontals and verticals. I studied at the Willem De Kooning Academy in Rotterdam. It was a very conceptual place. It totally influenced me.
NP: All your paintings in your latest show ‘Diktatur’ are huge and of equal size. How important is scale to you?
Scale is very important. My works are big for a reason. They are very stressful and very complex, while my smaller ones are emptier.
NP: Those works just couldn’t be small.
Exactly! And I think it is bad to put a small version of the work next to a big one. I find that very commercial.
NP: If you can’t afford the big one, just get the small one.
Yeah! (laughing) But generally speaking I prefer to show works of the same size together, as there is less distraction in terms of formats.
Installation view, Diktatur, 2009, Courtesy Hamish Morrison Gallery
NP: I see. How do you like living in Berlin?
Oh, Berlin is great. I came here ten years ago. There is lots of space, lots of anarchism, cheap rent…
NP: …while Holland is a very full country.
Funny that you are saying that, it was the main reason I fled this country. In Holland you see culture everywhere. Even our forests are planted.
NP: I guess that brings us back to your work and the overstimulation it refers to…
Definitely. I have a little story for that too: A friend of mine who is a figurative painter went to Holland and when he came back he said to me that now he totally understood why I was an abstract painter. He said that there was so much of everything in Holland, so many people, so many things, so much ‘Gegenständlichkeit’. How could one possibly choose what to paint?