Studio visit by Valerie Verhack

Valerie Verhack You have studied in both Antwerp and Amsterdam but you finally decided to live and work in Brussels…

Vincent Geyskens After my studies at HISK, I left Antwerp. In 1998 we moved to Ixelles. I had been several times in Brussels to visit exhibitions for example but I did not know Brussels very well. I did not really get a clear picture of the city. The interesting thing is that once you live there, it remains very difficult to obtain an overview of the city; it keeps bewildering. I have really learned to know Brussels by working in studios in Ixelles, Uccle, Anderlecht and Laeken. Brussels is a dirty and free city. It is a true compliment for the city that architects often cannot get a grip on Brussels.

VV Your current studio in Laeken is one continuous space which forms a sequence of different smaller spaces. You have really used these spaces in your studio to group the media you work with.

VG I have indeed grouped my paintings together in one space to be able to observe them thoroughly from a distance. In my studio I have also gathered all the collages on one single wall. In June 2012 I will publish a book with 105 of my collages created during the past one and a half year. The collages will be accompanied by poetry from the experimental poet Jan Op de Beeck of whom I have been the promoter at KASK in Ghent. Another old student of mine will do the lay-out.

The collages are based on different themes. One of them is the ash cross the priest applies on the forehead of catholic churchgoers on Ash Wednesday. The ash cross of course implies ‘ashes to ashes’ but to me it is also a meaningful gesture concerning matter and skin, important elements in my work. Another theme in this series is fascism, embodied in the figure of Léon Degrelle, leader of the extreme right political party Rex between 1930 and 1945. I became interested in this theme by the book of the French-American writer Jonathan Littell The dry and the wet in which he compares the characteristics of fascist aesthetics to an impenetrable tightened muscled body: all good and beautiful is dry while all hostile is wet, awkward and sexual. There is a continuous danger of infiltration. Still today current populists speak in terms of ‘a tsunami’ of illegals, we are ‘washed away’ by islamists… By using a medium like collage, I can play with this: by making tears and holes in the fragmented pictures, the plasticity of the glue and of other images can infiltrate into the composition. A third theme is the imagery of nudes drinking milk. Skin, fascism and infantile erotica are themes that fascinate me for years already.

VV How do you gather the images you use in your collages? There are a lot of cuttings of magazines in your studio. Are you principally led by what you accidentally can find in magazines or do you deliberately search for certain images?

VG Both. Some images I find in magazines, while I deliberately search for others on the Internet. What fascinates me as well is how images from the Internet can change colour depending on the quantity of ink remaining in the printer. Some images containing a lot of black for example turn blue. I have made some collages with this as well. What does not interest me at all, are images printed one on top of the other. I do not make photographs either to use them in my collages. I am not a photographer but I do keep a file in which I preserve some of the photos I have taken because of the strength of their composition. I have not used them in a specific piece yet.

VV When do you consider an art work as finished?

VG A series is never finished. Sometimes I frame works but afterwards take them out of the frames again to continue working on them. If a composition does not feel well, I destroy it rather quickly. I hang the compositions I consider being finished the farthest away from my desk… I guess a work is finished once it has been exhibited. I sometimes work on pieces without knowing right away what to do with them. They remain in a kind of purgatory: a stage between creation and destruction. An example of this is the series Concentric downers, compositions I have taken on again years afterwards and with which I then really could do something.

VV You principally make collages and paintings. Do you consider both media being complementary?

VG Both media are based on the image as a traceable construction. I nevertheless consider them as two different media with their own characteristics. I try to interrogate each medium about its own specificity. As I already said, I also physically separate both media in my studio: there is a space in which I assemble my collages and another one in which I paint. I think collages are more direct because I can work with recognizable images and meanings. In this respect it also offers a lot of possibilities I can continue to push further. Painting is more about a fundamental research on matter, on how a line is created… I do not exactly feel the urge to link both media to each other and do something with collages in my painting practice. That would probably lead to an artificial pop arty result. I also do not see the use in making my collages bigger to make them gain importance, at least in size. The interesting thing about collages is the traces of working on them, getting your hands on them. That would be surely lost in works that big a size.

VV How do you live your creation process?

VG I live it as a trance, a form of extreme concentration driven by a profound hate towards the Image. Every work is created from the destruction of the image. My whole practice is driven by an aversion for the image. During my work in the studio I do not think of a possible spectator, although visitors are welcome here. Students come once and a while to my studio. I think it is important to show them what a studio is, how you work as an artist … It can help them in the confirmation of their choice to become an artist and that brings me satisfaction.

VV As a painter your work is often positioned in art history. Your work has been compared to that of Lucian Freud…

VG I understand where the comparison comes from. The material of the body in Freud’s work is also present in mine… I see rather different comparisons. For me personally painters like Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Edgar Degas are very important. The monotypes of Degas especially are very special. The materiality in the work of Walter Sickert is also very interesting: the doglike look of Sickert in the way he observes the body in his series about the Camden Town Murders or his painting ‘Jack the Ripper’s bedroom’. In the self-portrait Sickert painted, I can see a lot of parallels with my own self-portrait…

VV When you confirm in previous essays or articles that ‘painting is dead’, is this a way to polarise the subject and start the debate about this?

VG No, I am truly convinced of that. It is no provocation: I truly sense it that way. Legitimating the medium of painting is a historical question and a tangible problem in contemporary painting practice. It was only in the middle of the 1990s – when I was a student at HISK – that I became aware of the fact that painting was in a crisis. Many artists who were trained as painters started to experiment with new media and several guest teachers at HISK started to ask me ‘Why do you still paint?’. It was a historical question: ‘Why do you still paint?’. So how come painting was no longer obvious? I never even questioned the medium of painting before… First I convulsively looked for an answer to defend myself. The question kept me busy. So I turned the question around: ‘How can one justify the new media?’. Artists experimenting with it were obviously a minority in search of an artistic identity. I subsequently started asking the opinions of different painters and I soon established that there was no overall justification for the medium. Everyone had another opinion… Painting is synonymous to western art history. The crisis of the medium implies a crisis of a civilisation coming to an end, but that has not ended well. Besides there is no perspective in the future that assures that painting will ever be realized. Painting is dead but keeps coming back from the dead as some kind of zombie. The medium can not be buried because it can not really be replaced. Painting thus keeps coming back as a rotten spastic from the past. One can compare it to the legitimacy of social systems. Francis Fukuyama pretended in his The end of history that history was over and that the free market system was the final result of social evolution. There was an overall consensus about this years ago but today this conviction is no longer valid… Every solution is essentially problematic.   

Vincent Geyskens will show his work in a solo exhibition at SMAK in Ghent from June 23 until September 2, 2012 www.smak.be