Easy Pieces – Richard van der Aa
Brent: Finding. You come out of a bit of a painting history; gesture; hints of constructive; a kind of record keeping; painting that pays attention to relationship more than heroics, though the mark and scale suggests that’s where you were initially coming from?
Richard: Yes, I do feel that what I do comes out of, and actually continues within, a history of painting. I trained as a painter initially during the early 80s in Christchurch, NZ and my teachers were predominantly abstract expressionists who were extolling the virtues of the New York school and the theories of Clement Greenberg (20 years after the fact.) Being young and impressionable, I came out loving that stuff and have been working my way out of there ever since. Even now, I feel that what ever I do is inflected by a way of thinking about painting which I took on board way back then. In brief it is about: The painting as evidence of process and most importantly for me, the painting as an object. When you say record keeping you are bang on. Perhaps it is more obvious in my earlier work, but I would say even now – I think of the artwork as a kind of physical residue of a physical activity that has taken place. I don’t try to hide the evidence of an artist at work – touch is important to me.
You do well to speak of it being about scale/relationship more than heroics. I had dreams of being the next Franz Kline or Motherwell or de Kooning – a big gestural guy – but soon found that I had a tendency to want to structure things more and tidy them up, to some extent. So I veered towards the Rothko and Newman side of the NY school, and with a touch of Mondrian thrown in, my work became much more about simplicity, solidity, scale and proportion than the grand gesture. I think that to this day relationship is key to everything I do. In fact that word could well summarise it all.
Brent: An Untitled painting dated 1986 oil enamel on canvas 180 x 120 cm pretty much shows what you have explained. You can see Kline, Mondrian, maybe Motherwell; the scale is there. Though in this painting you can see that you are also playing with disparate scale, teasing with object and window.
Top left sits an enamel black square created by the white over black. It’s also brushed with white marks just inside, bottom and side of the black square. There is a different logic working, constructive while playful, less strictly formal, or emulative of the victories of past heroes. Here you inserted a little window, a painting within a painting, a two-in-one.
Richard: These paintings were a long time ago now. I do remember deliberately messing with that play-off between space and surface. (Object and window as you put it, which I saw as an important issue in the NY painting.) I enjoyed that push and pull in which the materiality of the paint along with the play of the mark and juxtaposed colour planes both created and negated space simultaneously. This positive/negative thing remains interesting to me. Colour-wise – there was a lot going on beneath the seemingly black and white skin of these paintings. They were about building an image.
The most memorable aspect of this early work is the element of surprise I felt with each piece. Each painting was about resolving a visual problem. In fact I could produce whole series of works, which were all different out-workings of the same starting point. i.e.: A certain division of a canvas of certain proportions. Perhaps this is the constructive element you speak of? The final image was always a surprise and never quite what I had in mind at the beginning. The spontaneity of the process was very exciting for me. I loved the idea of an image which came about as the result of a struggle. In fact I believed it was impossible to make a bad painting. There was no such thing as bad painting, only paintings which were not yet finished.
Further down the track, I began to appreciate the work of people like Stella, Kelly, and Marden. Things were simplified down to a single image. One form placed within the rectangle of the canvas that in itself really functioned as an object in literal space.
Brent: And ten years later you decided upon a canvas as thing, in this case cut and shaped mdf panels. It seems you were able to work with the asymmetry because it was also an object. You didn’t need to surrender the idea of design because you could achieve the frontal, with every part reading the same value. Was that the case?
Also with this you are very much in the material world. And luckily in that world there is color. With Soundings 1997 you have large mdf panels cut and placed in architectural positions in a physical gallery space. There is a vertical shape that has a foot or a diagonal added at the base. It brings to attention the vertical area above the foot articulated on the left by the opening: Oddly the space between the opening and vertical panel kind of hops over to the greater expanse of wall. You get the sense that everything is kind of filled up and working. On an adjacent wall a symmetrical panel, an upside-down ‘U’, hugs the edge of the wall. Again this brings the thing off-center. Here dark panels and the white walls are the major contributors to color. The description reads ‘and sand.’
Richard: At a certain point I came to the conclusion that a shaped painting was more immediate and literal than playing with shape within a canvas. By opening up the form the whole wall was integrated into the work. So you see the exhibition Soundings, 1997, was really more of a total installation than a show of paintings. Instead of being played out within the rectangular canvas format – the positive/ negative play became more about the cut form relating to the entire wall. In a sense this was site specific painting. Each piece was made to work within the specific scale and dimensions of the room. The shapes were made to be seen in relation to the space. Now there was an illusion of space on/ in the wall created through the placement of the object. You are absolutely right when you say I hadn’t surrendered the idea of design because I was able to still compose in a fashion while making a monochromatic, single image work. What inspired me was the objecthood of the minimalists but also the undermining of that.
I mixed sand with the colour on these pieces to create a very dense velvety surface, which seemed to suck up light and ensured that the image looked the same from wherever it was viewed. Each work also had a title as in traditional painting. The dark one in the slide was titled In Through the Outdoor as I recall.
The idea of the painting as an object to be placed and read in relation to other objects occupied me for some years after that. (Still does.) The scale decreased and the form became more three-dimensional. Some referred to the work as wall jewelry. I didn’t mind that. Matisse was often accused of being merely decorative so I’m in good company! The pieces were monochromatic – almost sculptural and with great emphasis on the surface quality. The relationship with the wall remained important. The work was often presented in rather unorthodox positions in terms of painting – but it never really became sculpture either. Just coloured objects that were beautiful in themselves and activating the space.
Brent: In New Day Art I can get the wall jewelry. With Spirit Level 2001 I see where you are engaging the space, what’s already in it, and drawing attention to both color and the things that are without it. Are you making these objects yourself and coloring them up? In New Day Art did you look at the space first and then go about getting or making the objects?
Richard: Actually with all these pieces I was just making one after another in the studio. Each one inspired the next. They were made from MDF, which I laminated and then carved and shaped. The colour and surface quality had to relate to the form and those decisions were very intuitive for me. Certain forms seemed to suggest certain finishes. I used various paints and sand occasionally to give a variety of finishes from matt velvet to high gloss and even iridescent at times. It was all about the similarities and differences between the objects. I was trying to build a sort of visual logic between them and again relationship was key. These pieces were not made to be seen alone. I thought of them as units of language (albeit an ambiguous one.) or an alphabet. I find that I am not as interested in saying something specific in my work so much as I am in thinking about how it may be said. How meaning is found. Usually it is in relationship: Hence the title of the Soundings installations. Sounding is a way of measuring the depth of water through the relationship of time and sound. We come to know the world through our understanding of the relationships between things.
Presenting these things in a public space was the final (and most exciting for me) stage of the work. I never considered them finished until they had been situated somewhere outside of the studio. They needed to relate to one another and the space in a vital way. Placement in relation to the physical details of the room was paramount. I liked to emphasize the fact that the art was functioning visually on the same level as what ever was already in the space so yes I highlighted those relationships as well. You are right – that thinking was probably more pronounced in the spirit level show, which was a much sparer installation than the new day one.
Brent: With RE:presentations a number of things are happening. You have stacked. There are pedestals on the wall on which you present color or colors as form. The proportion of the pedestal or shelf, or lower part, is the same as the color objects.
On the floor, you are on the floor now; a circular blue shape sits close to a very waxy looking shape learning against the wall. It appears the same shape. You can get the very different color and material playing off of each other, just as you do with painting, when you want to do it that way. The blue disk looks like a 16mm can. The leaning piece appears to be wax. Both wear symmetrical motives in the center to mimic the outer shape of the disk.
Richard: This next body of work came out of my Masters degree research. I wrote a thesis alongside it entitled Romancing the Minimal. It could well have been called ‘Putting the fun back into Modernism’. There was definitely an element of humor in the work – sometimes a gentle dig at the seriousness of high modernism. (That was hinted at in the titles.) It was a serious attempt though, to get away from the severity of much reductive work and to warm things up a little if you like. It was also an effort on my part to revitalize my own studio practice which I felt had become a little dry. I wasn’t surprising myself any more – the spontaneity was gone. To go back to abstract expressionist painting was not an option, but I did want to make work in which the process was an integral part of its meaning. I began working with found objects. In this way the work became more closely related to my everyday life – I was always finding things to work with where ever I was. The process involved a lot of spontaneous decision-making and I found it very stimulating. Sometimes I would go to the studio with nothing and no idea. I would try to make work with what ever was lying around there: maybe a bag of nails and some rubber bands or whatever. Usually it was a matter of finding an object and deciding how I was going to present it as art. I developed a series of works in which I made containers to house the objects. I would present them as a pairs with each object seemingly giving the other a reason for being. Other times I would make shelves or plinths that echoed the form of the object and present them together. While the thinking was related to Duchamp, and arte povera as well, my aesthetic remained minimalist and I presented the work in the form of installations, which activated the space and worked at times to highlight the physical eccentricities of it. There was often the question about what was art and what wasn’t!
The waxy disc piece you mention was just that – a disc of wax which I had cast using the blue plastic film canister as a mold. This work reversed my normal procedure of finding an object and making a container for it. In this case I found the container and wanted to produce an object to go inside it. As you say there were painterly issues at play in spite of the fact that for a few years there I didn’t even pick up a brush.
Brent: Easy Pieces 2007 consists of a number of found objects slightly altered in some way. You continue to mention your painting as a reductive aesthetic. In Easy Pieces the taxonomy of objects of different colors and shapes are presented on a wall, close to each other, one after the other.
Richard: The Easy Pieces were a deliberate turn back towards painting. I was excited with the direction my work had taken during my Master’s and wanted to continue down that track – but also wanted to see if I could bring that way of working with the object more squarely into the dialogue of painting. So I narrowed down the field of objects I chose to work with – selecting only those that bore some resemblance to reductive painting already. I tended to work with square or circular pieces. Fundamental shapes… more two dimensional than before. I looked for interesting surfaces, color, and proportion. Many of these didn’t need much intervention from me to be read as painting – only to be placed on the wall. Some I coloured and some of them needed extraneous parts such as legs or handles removed.
Once again the installation was critical to the reading of the work. With this 2007 show I only decided to hang them close in a line after two days of playing around with various other options. I chose to condense the relationships by presenting them all on one wall. I also liked the way that by doing so there was a hint of a left to right reading – a kind of narrative.
You mention the taxonomy of objects which suggests perhaps I am collecting and classifying things for display with regard to their former identity. I don’t think that it is though. I really am only concerned with plastic form – the physical qualities – not any other sort of reading that may come out of thinking about the history of the object etc. I do enjoy the poetic resonance that a found object seems to carry though – a sense of time – and the relationship to the non-art world.
Brent: With your show Pièces faciles some of the work is larger, they bring back some scale, yet ably sit within the domestic and our notion of what a painting is: They are reductive and monochrome.
Is it important to know the background, the location of the part to the whole, as something historical, where it had hinged off or taken a turn? Is it important to know where on the streets an object was found, and what part it may have played in a previous life, a while ago? Or is it enough to call up the beauty and let the viewer do the rest?
Richard: With Pièces faciles I really wanted to make a traditional painting exhibition – so the objects I steered towards were those with the proportions and scale of easel painting. The surface and material quality was an important consideration in my choices. Paris is great because much of the stuff thrown out is still solid timber and really substantial. We are not talking chipboard here… The domestic scale was almost a matter of course because most of these tableaux were originally tabletops or desks or benches. Those are the kinds of things that are out there on the streets. I keep the pieces around home and I live with them until they seem to suggest what needs doing for them to be complete. What paint – what colour – what finish? I rarely change them physically – don’t cut them – just add paint. I do feel that rather than merely finding supports to paint on though, I am using paint to draw out the inherent personality of the object. The group works as an ensemble because of the consistency of my approach but each piece really does have its own unique character. I work with each one until it sings.
The work is not all about art historical references but those who are interested will see it does operate out of a particular history. Perhaps it does help to know something of what I refer to here. I do find myself thinking about a line of progression in painting historically and imagining where I fit in or how I am adding to it. I see this work coming out of what I have identified as a European sensibility towards the object/painting. By that I mean a poetic reading of the object. This is something I see in arte povera and also in the French support/surface movement. There I find an approach to the object that takes into account both the process of art making and the allusive qualities of material. I am attempting to apply this understanding of the art object to the rigorous reductive apprehension I previously felt was the end goal of all art. It seems to me a way of revitalizing an often-clinical approach.
It is true that these paintings are named after the streets on which the panels were found. The locations in which I find the panels are important to me because I enjoy the fact that with that information they take on another layer of meaning. They can act as a sort of mapping of my daily movements around Paris. They hint at life in a place. It may surprise you to know that I don’t actually go out looking for these things. I just find them as I go about my life. I don’t drive in Paris. I travel by foot, by metro and sometimes by bicycle. I see interesting objects discarded on the street – I take them home. So these objects do become something of a recording of my life. My walks to the supermarket – commuting to and from ParisCONCRET and so on… I am enjoying having the work coming out of my life in such an integrated way.
…to call up the beauty and let the viewer do the rest. You put that beautifully and actually, yes I do think that in the end that is enough. On one level this work is not about anything more than recognizing beauty in another person’s cast offs. I suppose I am resurrecting these things in a sense – giving them another life, but the role they served in a previous life isn’t relevant to their standing as art objects now. Without knowing any of that the viewer can appreciate the work as painting.