by Amarie Bergman
Four prominent artists with dual roles as directors of project spaces specializing in non-objective / reductive art are featured in “small gestures of exultation”: Pam Aitken (Factory 49, Sydney AU), Richard van der Aa (ParisCONCRET, Paris FR), Iemke van Dijk and Guido Winkler (IS-projects, Leiden NL). These interviews, beginning with van der Aa, are complemented by three related articles to be published later this year in Whitehot Magazine. The underlying enticement for this series of enquiry began with two inter-related quotes by Agnes Martin: “In our minds there is an awareness of perfection and when we look with our eyes we see it.” “Art work…(is) A very small gesture of exultation.”1
1 Agnes Martin (edited by Dieter Schwarz) Writings Schriften (Cantz, 1992)
SMALL GESTURES OF EXULTATION
RICHARD VAN DER AA
Richard van der Aa is, foremost, a painter, exhibiting his work regularly since 1985. Born in New Zealand to immigrant Dutch parents, van der Aa was educated at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch (Diploma of Fine Art) and at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney Australia (Master of Fine Art), teaching art for six years before a series of coincidences and astute plans resulted in a move to Paris where he initiated ParisCONCRET with Anna van der Aa in 2009. Under Richard’s direction, the project space has since become a premier locus for reductive | non-objective art. Currently, van der Aa is also a Committee Member of the Salon Réalités Nouvelles.
Amarie Bergman: Describe the essence of who you are in 4 sentences.
Richard van der Aa: I am a person who makes things. These objects are to be understood as art. They emerge out of my view of the world. From my viewpoint, spirit can have substance and meaning is to be found in relationship.
BACKGROUND TO THE WORK
Bergman: Can you reveal your artistic philosophy?
RvdA: I can say that I identify with Matisse who said he wanted his work to function as an armchair does for the tired business man returning home. We have so many images in our lives already, why add more? I hope to provide some calm in the storm.
Bergman: What attracted you to non-objective/minimalist art?
RvdA: I wasn’t attracted initially – it seemed to me this sort of work is not about anything aside from art itself. I had things I wanted to say beyond a discussion about what art is. However, during my time at art school I became aware that there were possibilities for abstract art to be more open ended than figuration in telling a story. I began to paint in an abstract expressionist manner and experienced the thrill of a spontaneous painting process. Over time I became more interested in how a thing is said than in saying the thing…
Before long I began to question what actually constitutes a painting. I came to understand that a painting is not a window on to the world but rather an object made in response to it. It should be seen and considered in relation to it. Fundamentally, a painting is merely colour applied to a surface. I became interested in attempting to reduce painting to its essence. Now I try to produce painted objects in a straightforward way and without complication. I realize that the work is about everything and nothing all at once.
Bergman: When and how did you establish your style, and why has it continued to be entrancing or compelling for you?
RvdA: In fact I am not sure I can say I have a style. I aim to produce simple objects which exist somewhere between painting and sculpture, and have a convincing presence. I like to set myself formal limitations to work within. The trick is to come up with something novel within that framework. I find that, even when working with an extremely reduced formal vocabulary, the possibilities are almost unlimited. The challenge is always fresh to me. What keeps it compelling is the feeling I get from sitting back and looking at a new piece of work. Especially, to have made something that really sings! That thrill is extremely addictive.
Bergman: Is there a rationale or an emotion that is a constant influence on your discipline?
RvdA: The idea of relationship is probably the most constant thought in all of my work. I believe that things only make sense in relation to other things. Nothing can be known in solitude – in and of itself it is meaningless. I think this is true in all of life. Relationship in every sense is crucial to our knowing anything. With that in mind I tend to work in series and to think of the pieces as units of language made to be read together and understood in relation to each other and the exhibition space. Beyond that, my general intention is to present a certain lightness of being through the simplicity of an aesthetically pleasing object.
Bergman: What is your view about the relationship between non-objective art and sublime introspection or what Agnes Martin likens to “the void-pure mind, freedom”?
RvdA: I do think non-objective work can steer the viewer towards asking questions about the spiritual side of life. The non-didactic, open-ended nature of much non-objective art, it seems to me, often gives rise to fundamental questions about the nature of art and life itself. I would say though, my pieces are about the opposite of the void. Rather the work is about a positive presence. They are full – not empty.
Bergman: Which artist (and / or architect or musician or fashion designer) has pervasively inspired you the most? Why?
RvdA: I could site numerous artists and musicians, but if I was pushed to pick only one it would have to be Henri Matisse. I choose Matisse for his simplicity and his lightness of touch, his push towards flatness, his marvelous colour sense, and his willingness to expose the process of making. He has been accused of being merely decorative but he was a radical. He went where no one had gone before – pushed the limits of the acceptable. Yet his work is so calm. It remains fresh and relevant to me today.
Bergman: What is the principal medium and scale of your work? Why is that?
RvdA: There is no principal medium or scale. Right now I have three series of work continuing side by side: Reasons to be Cheerful, these are paintings in acrylic on aluminium which highlight colour relationships; Mere formalities, which are monochromatic 3 dimensional forms shaped from wood; and the Easy pieces which are monochrome paintings on found panels. So, for me, the scale and material varies but the ideas carry over. I am a painter and all my work comes out of a painter’s way of thinking about the art object.
Bergman: Do you do the work mainly for yourself or does it have a gallery exhibition as its focus / motivator?
RvdA: I never stop making work but it is true that having a specific exhibition or site in mind is a great motivation. Time frames force me to tighten up my thinking and get things done. I also like to make work with a specific space in mind.
Bergman: When you start a new project do you already have the end result in mind or does it keep changing during the process?
RvdA: To simply reproduce a preconceived idea is not interesting to me. I enjoy working in a spontaneous way. So although I begin by thinking I know what I am going to do – I am always open to change. In fact, that process of ongoing action and reaction is an exciting aspect of the work for me.
Bergman: Over these years, which series or project of yours has given you “moments of perfection”?
RvdA: ‘Moments of perfection’ maybe be overstating the case, but my installation, Morphemes, at Pendulum, Sydney in 1994 and the exhibition, Soundings, in the same venue, 1997, are two projects I remember fondly. RE:presentations in 2003 was an exciting change of direction for me, also the Easy Pieces exhibition at Campbell Grant Galleries in Christchurch NZ in 2007. More recently, Mere Formalities at Galeria EL in Elblag, Poland 2011 is something I feel was successful. Each of these projects was conceived specifically for the exhibition site. I suppose in each case, at the time, I felt (in Agnes Martin’s terms) a brief moment of perfection.
Bergman: Does the configuration of a venue space or the status of a gallery come first, or are you inspired to do the work and then set about finding the right place for it?
RvdA: Both of these scenarios do occur. I work where I can. I’m not concerned about the status of the venue but am very particular about the physical details of it once an exhibition opportunity arises. More often than not, my work is made with the location in mind. I want the work to resonate with the place.
Bergman: Is there a fascination you have found when non-objective art interacts with the architecture of a gallery?
RvdA: Indeed! I think most non-objective work is not complete until it has been seen in relation to the architecture of the exhibition space. The context in which the work is presented is very important and when it is situated in a different location it is appreciated differently.
Bergman: If you could stage an exhibition in any space, in any scale, in any format, in any era, what would be your ideal?
RvdA: Perhaps to be given the opportunity to create a chapel, as Matisse and Rothko were able to… that would be something.
GALLERY DIRECTOR ROLE
Bergman: How has your practice formally been affected by exposure to the repeated viewings of other artists’ exhibitions, along with the intricacies and constant responsibilities of running / keeping financially solvent / being associated with a gallery?
RvdA: I don’t think my practice has really been affected formally by my position as director of ParisCONCRET. Of course the role takes a lot of my time and focus so I don’t get into the studio as often as I might like. The balance is the interesting connections that have been made as a result of the project.
Bergman: Is curating collaborations with international galleries a vital part of your role? And if so, why?
RvdA: One of the goals of the ParisCONCRET initiative is to foster an international dialogue amongst artists who are working in a similar vein. We call it success when we see artists getting involved in projects alongside others they have met through ParisCONCRET. Certainly one way of achieving this is through collaborating with other international initiatives.
PRESENT AND FUTURE
Bergman: Have you visited an exhibition recently that has made an impression?
RvdA: I saw Light show at the Hayward Gallery in London a few months ago. It was a beautifully installed, major survey of 22 artists working with artificial light. There was work dating from the ‘60s until today. I also saw an exhibition of Fred Sandback's work at David Zwirner gallery. Such simple ideas which engaged the space in a really compelling way. He was literally drawing in 3 dimensions. The last real knock-out was Richard Serra’s Promenade at the Grand Palais in Paris, 2008. The scale, physicality and subtlety of that piece were magnificent.
Bergman: How do you see the relationship between what you are doing and the (apparent) inception of non-objective art by Kasimir Malevich?
RvdA: Malevich was an important precursor to what many of us are doing today. In trying to find an essence, he took painting to an almost zero degree. He gave us a vocabulary, both visual and verbal. Rather than the end of painting – I see what he did as a starting point. Of course he was not the only one – we could equally speak of Mondrian. I feel I am working within and out of a tradition. I don’t claim to be radically innovative. There are many artists working today who feel the same way. There is always the possibility of taking a more cynical (postmodern) approach to formalism but more and more artists are responding to the non-objective history without cynicism. The task for us is to bring something fresh to the table.
Bergman: How do you foresee the evolution of non-objective art in the next 5-10 years?
RvdA: I have a feeling the non-objective side of things will continue to grow in stature as an important and permanent branch of contemporary art practice. It will be recognized as such and become a major issue in contemporary art discourse.
Richard van der Aa