Elina Cerla and Lorena Kloosterboer are artists whose creative styles diverge considerably within the realm of representational art. While Cerla’s paintings are constructed in broad, spontaneous and expressive brushwork, Kloosterboer’s paintings are precise, detailed, and carefully rendered.
They met at TRAC 2018, the Representational Art Conference, in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, which prompted an ongoing conversation about art.
Art is supposed to make us feel something important/valuable. Do you agree with a statement like that? How do you see it from both the observer’s side, and as an artist?
I want work to engage me, make me see things differently and confront me with another person’s vision. By being displaced into seeing from another perspective, I might just question myself and learn something new, experience an emotion or engage more fully with this crazy thing called the world. But that’s maybe grandiose and I in no way see it as prescriptive of what others should define “art” to be for them. It is also complex as it presupposes that I believe art to be communicative, and I am not sure that self-expression necessarily posits there to be an interlocutor. It might just be an act of screaming — or singing — into the void.
I’d love to know what you think…
I do not expect all artwork to give me the same degree of impact. The effect can range from mild pleasantness that gives me comfort to profound amazement that makes me examine the big questions in life.
I believe that what I see and what I experience when looking at art is mostly related to myself at that specific moment in time — my mood, my energy levels, my attitude. All of which are momentary extracts of me, influenced by outside circumstances. So, the same artwork that one time leaves me lukewarm, may well impact me at another time. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder — I accept that as true. For example, I’ve looked at a painting that to me seemed heart-breaking and tragic, while another viewer described it as romantic and even sensual.
And while I do believe art to be communicative — in the best of cases, it’s a vehicle to describe the human condition in order to interconnect us — I’m not sure most artists succeed in truly translating complex ideas through their chosen medium alone without offering text, words, or even a title to underpin their intentions. In the end, it all comes down to the viewer looking at the art, being impacted by it in large part because of personal circumstances, preferences, mood, taste, personality, and so on.
Do you agree? And if this is true, is art a mirror?
I agree entirely that what we bring to a “conversation” with a piece of work fundamentally affects the way we view it, and that no two viewings are ever the same. I wouldn’t go quite as far as the analogy of a mirror that reflects the viewer, because I think other factors influence our response.
We are conditioned to see work, especially figuration, in a specific — very limited — way. The majority of display labels still focus on narrative or symbolic content and this hermeneutic approach to representation reinforces the completely mistaken idea that the formal tools painters use are of no interest to others, aside from occasional passing references to composition. I think such externally imposed limits are patronizing and stem from reinforcing particular interests; Sontag’s call in Against Interpretation for an “erotics of art” is still as valid as ever.
Certainly, labelling of art is often lacking — sometimes even the mention of medium is omitted. This frequently happens on social media. To me, as an artist, knowing the medium and size is important, but I can imagine that many non-artists are also interested in knowing more about the methodological and interpretative background of an artwork.
I think this lack of explanation may be due to the fear of being patronizing. In his book entitled The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker calls attention to the “curse of knowledge” — the inability to put ourselves in the shoes of a less informed reader/viewer. The curse of knowledge is one possible explanation why display labels are often lacking. It simply doesn’t occur to the composer of labels that viewers may not be familiar with the art jargon, or have no way to visualize a series of steps in a process without the necessary details. The same all too often happens in art galleries, where the clarification of an artwork often limits itself to relating the artist’s resumé but no significant procedural information is given.
It makes me want to read Pinker’s book. Going back to your point at the beginning, I do think that the intentionality of the painter remains to a certain degree and that visual language is complex and suggestive in its own way; closer to the idea of an aphorism than a clearly verbally expressed idea.
I remember a clear shift in the way I looked at paintings when I became a painter. Suddenly paintings became teachers and what they were telling me changed, then I started muting the teacher voice to quieten the interruptions of technical scrutiny; the quality of looking continually evolves. Even looking at our own work we shift between a gaze which is that of the painter and the viewer. How do you navigate this in your studio — do you think it is a conscious jump, do both coexist or does one dominate?
It’s pleasing to know you think that the intentionality of the painter remains to a certain degree, because I hope it does — even though I’m not entirely convinced of it.
While working in the studio, I start out looking at a new composition with a viewer’s eyes. Once that passes muster, I switch wholly to the artist’s eye while I work. This is probably due to my obsessive planning of the piece well ahead before brush touches the support. Outside of painting hours, I take time to just sit and stare at my work in different lighting situations, switching from viewer’s to painter’s gaze consciously. I also often ask trusted fellow painters to critique my unfinished and finished work privately, especially when there’s something that bothers me but I can’t see what it is. While I can switch between the viewer’s and painter’s gaze, my painter’s gaze dominates.
Do you ask fellow artists or others for critiques during or after you finish a painting?
It is important to find a few people whose feedback you know to be constructive. Many painters offer critiques from the viewpoint of their current formal interests, which isn’t usually helpful. I rarely ask for feedback during the process mainly as I work with so many layers that it is nigh on impossible for someone to imagine the end result during the intermediary stages. I like keeping things in uncertain terrain whilst I pull everything together. When something is finished, I listen to people’s critiques and it is a process of sifting through and keeping what might help me move forward, often a minimal part, and discarding the rest.
We have talked about switching gaze as artist and viewer, about communication, about texts as well as intentionality and emotional responses. But who is this recurrent viewer? I don’t think I make work for an “ideal” viewer as in Umberto Eco’s “ideal reader.” I am fascinated by ideas of estrangement and distancing effects, but in the end each viewer will make what they will of my intentions, even if I do think that a residue of that guiding principle triggers their response.
Who is the viewer for you? Are you your own ideal viewer or do you have an ideal response in mind when you paint?
Unlike writing, which I do for others, I paint for myself, with only my own response in mind. The ideal viewer knows my intentions and my underlying thoughts that form the basis of my work. Since I’m the originator privy to that information, I am my harshest critic and, in the end, also the ideal viewer. This form of self-absorption changes once the painting is finished.
Once I show my finished piece, I enjoy the admiration of others, but there are a few fellow artists, collectors, and others whose opinions I greatly value — and fear! However, I consciously try not to let outside reactions influence my body of work. As soon as I notice that I’m taking others’ opinions into consideration, I know I’m on the wrong track. I have an irresistible need to dance to my own tune.
Originally published in TRACT Magazine, 2018