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.
The idea of materiality comes up regularly in painting especially when talking about painting different objects and textures. I remember spending hours with Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, reveling in the transparencies and opacities and the ingenious textures. And yet I feel there is something problematic about this ultimate concession to a mimetic tradition which sees the painter adjusting their register according to such a literal understanding of the depicted content. As if something were lacking, it leaves me feeling stimulated but undernourished like a hit of sugar.
For me, figuration becomes engaging and interesting when medium and subject are in tune, which leaves ample scope for interpretation. There are many levels to representation; the subject, or content, can be made up of objects, but it can also be symbolic, thematic or emotive. I find painting more deeply satisfying when these wider elements of content relate to the mark-making and when there is a logic of the materiality of paint. It is useful to mention Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas, as a case in point, where the logic of the mark-making unifies the subject matter, beyond a notion of discrete objects.
This is one of the cruxes of painting and something that I am currently questioning in my work. By materiality, I don’t necessarily mean texture; a coherent use of the materiality of paint could be to flatten the image. You said, “My work is as flat and brush-less as possible — perhaps to avoid leaving a trace of myself?” I like this idea and was wondering how you developed your pictorial language. Did your interest in a smooth surface dictate how you wanted to paint, or did it develop over time?
As a young art student, I dipped into an array of possible work methods, sometimes influenced by teachers who insisted pupils paint as they did, at other times copying a certain artist or genre I felt attracted to at the time. I seem to naturally tend to flatten brushstrokes, so my endeavors into impressionism and other looser, more expressive styles inevitably resulted in disappointment.
One of my favorite artists is Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. Regardless of whether one admires the subject matter he painted, seeing his work up close shows his impressive skill in handling his medium expressing various textures using color and value through very subtle and delicate brushwork. Not sculptural, but not entirely flat either.
Perhaps I find a sense of comfort in smoothing out blobs of buttery paint into a precise representation, possibly linked to my love for drawing which maintains a flat surface. At art school I was berated for drawing with my brush, not painting. It’s not that I’m interested in a smooth surface per se, but the challenge to depict textures realistically without the benefit of a sculptural paint surface and without the support of visible brushstrokes just appeals to me. It fits me. It’s what I do. Even when I try to leave certain areas untouched, messy, or fragmented, I ultimately return to smooth, cover, finish them. This phenomenon has to be a personality thing!
Compared to boldly brushed paintings which often seem to exude the artist’s personality or state of mind, my work hardly shows my hand. I’ve jokingly suggested I avoid leaving a trace of myself… yet my paintings exist and I was there to paint them.
I’ve never seen your work in person, explain your surface materiality to me. How do you describe it? Has it evolved over time and would you want it to become different?
It’s always evolving as I am continually learning but one constant has been an interest in broken color. I use value to bring form together which gives flexibility to fracture the color. I love the vibration on the surface you get when you cannot easily identify which strata a mark belongs to. Movement in stasis. I intentionally isolated forms before but now hope the drawing will emerge through the chaos rather than dictate the structure from the start. Although in many ways I find it easier to start with drawing as a foundation, this methodical approach never quite satisfies me. So I’m starting to make peace with controlled chaos.
Recently it has been translating into a lot of scumbling and always having sandpaper at hand. It’s a process of creation and destruction, of tightening. I am fascinated, within figuration, by the possibility of this overall logic of mark-making with its own modus operandi that works with but goes beyond the recognizable content. It is complex as I enjoy interruption as well, something that consciously changes the facture. I’m still very much battling with these complexities.
As you say, personality is decisive, although I’m sure trends and taste play a role. Work that excites me often looks like a symphony of marks that just had to be exactly where and how they are. Soutine on a good day is electric. Areas of Chardin, Courbet and John (Gwen of course) have less chromatic and yet incredibly active surfaces.
In your process you talk of meticulous planning before painting. Do these stages require a different register and do you see them as discreet parts of your practice? Your paintings are hugely chromatic, what is your relationship to color in your work and that of others?
There are times I mourn the loss of wild spontaneity that I could, perhaps with some effort, have embraced earlier on in my painting trajectory. However, I do find comfort in the logic of following a fairly unrestricted personal register and for each area being able to think four or five steps ahead to achieve a specific depth of chroma, value, and texture. I paint inside my head first and often feel I’m doing the work twice.
My relationship with color changes all the time. Currently I mainly work in glazes of paint straight out of the tube, so I achieve nuances, value, and depth through optical mixing. While my still lifes are firmly based on mimesis, I take lots of liberties when it comes to color, sometimes completely changing it, other times enhancing or toning down. I’m partial to near-monochromatic ton sur ton compositions where the challenge is to depict volume and contrast using a restricted analogous palette. After painting a few of those I deliberately break the routine by painting more multi-colored pieces so as not to bore myself to death.
I admire all color ranges in artwork — from vivid to monochromatic, from bright to very dark — but I’m not entirely sure color is the first thing I notice. Movement, compositional lines, and multifaceted textures are often, for me, more eye-catching ingredients. I especially enjoy the enormous variety of nuances of human skin captured in figure paintings. And look, for example, at Viktoria Kalaichi’s still life entitled Dishes — to me this is a masterpiece where elusive yet strong colors and brush strokes perfectly unite to capture surface textures in their full glory.
But regardless of color, I’m fascinated how value is the most important factor to convert a flat space into seemingly having volume. How do you select your color palette for each piece — do you hold on to representativeness or do other factors play a role in your choices? How do you feel value vs. color influences your work and that of others?
We always come back to the idea of representation! Under this word lies a convention; rules that belong to a tradition. Color and value are the main components of human vision, so it is normal for a primarily visual medium to use these two qualities as basic tools. However, I am always reevaluating the ideas of unity imposed on both in Western painting, which are not inherent to our visual relationship to the world. I see many chromatic shifts when I look and have no idea if this is purely subjective or if it is influenced by an early love of Expressionism. I usually choose to abide by the convention of unifying value but not so much color. If I notice a color shift, I run with it and enjoy it.
I have just seen the Bonnard exhibition at the Tate and, apart from the disconcerting unevenness within individual paintings which suggests that his interest in areas of light completely trumped any desire to make ‘finished’ paintings, his use of color could be spectacular. There are sections in which he absolutely mastered the complexities of light and reflected light by opening the spectrum and pulling out pulsating colors.
Have you seen any work recently that embodies an interesting search for this fundamental connection between color and value?
Thanks to social media hardly a day goes by that I’m not astounded by at least one piece in my newsfeed — the kind that make me do a doubletake and make me thrust up close to the monitor to scrutinize the content, wishing I could see the painting in person. One such piece is Masks by Juan Jr. Ramirez, which to me embodies the perfect consolidation of color, value, and glorious brushwork with the additional fascination of the artist’s courage to leave areas unfinished.
There’s so much art to love and admire — both old and new — and it is often so hard to pinpoint why a certain piece resonates so much. For an artwork to capture our full attention it needs to contain a combination of meaningful qualities that, in one way or another, unite poetically; color, value, surface quality, subject matter, all of which in concert pings our emotional state at the moment of seeing it… And perhaps there’s even an element of magic when art takes our breath away. You know, that miraculous ingredient I suppose every artist tries to encapsulate in order to connect the artwork with the viewer on a deeply profound level.
Originally published in TRACT Magazine, 2019