Written Colours – José Heerkens

Brent: In a recent body of work where you employ, as you are known to do, grids, colors, and lines, the horizontal predominates. The vertical is there, like an armature, or is seen through the stacking of horizontals, but it is the long flat bars or lines of color that activate and play the paintings’ internal field.

José: For me line is an important means to visualize space: both the vertical and the horizontal are needed, yet it is the horizontal line that predominates through the painting process.
Line pulls the image out, to the sides, lengthwise, opening up to a place that can breathe. This sense of space is full of movement and rhythmic construction, and is very different from that of perspective drawing.
The vertical lines are there, as you say, and create the structure or framework on which the horizontals walk their own rhythm. The vertical line also returns in the shape of aligned horizontal lines. And thus the dialogue ensures: between vertical and horizontal, structure and freedom, form and space.

Brent: Could you talk about this ‘different space’ a little more?

José: Here I mean the difference of experiencing space, how it feels, not space itself. In the horizontal space I feel nature, breath, open air, rest and equivalence. The horizontal follows the basic line of the horizon–you can almost imagine lying down in it.
In the painting the underlying vertical structure sets the scale, suggesting places where the horizontal line/space can start and end, and restart. The perspective space is another emotion; it pulls your sight into depth and demands focus.
Horizontal space and perspective space each ask for their own way of looking. When looking at a row of trees I follow them horizontally. To figure which tree has the thickest branch I need to look at the form of each tree in that row.

Brent: Interesting what you say about this demand for focus with perspectival space. With perspective the logic of the picture is set, you find a central focus, and that pushes you along. Working as you do there is no fixed point, instead the color structure takes its place. After scanning one of your large-scale canvases, there is no singular way to get to know the work. It seems you need to follow the drift instead of honing down on the painting as some fixed thing. Of course, working the grid non-objectively releases the viewer from thinking in terms of space generated by the rule of perspective, though, as imaginations do run, one is still wanting to understand the experience in some logical and spatial sense. Yet you are denied the information needed to wrap things up into a tidy experience. And I wonder, within these planes of your working, where does it lead us, and if no place real, where do we acquiesce?

José: When you work the grid ‘non objectively’ the focus is not on a certain point in the distance but on the line and color, how the eye follows and reads the arrangement. I work two or more layers that sit close to the front of the canvas. It’s not necessarily a flat space, but more of a shallow space where everything operates close to the surface. And this carries through over the whole canvas.

I have focused on talking about space, which is very important, but it needs to be said that space is actually just one aspect of the work. As a painter the focus is on the whole process of painting, including the concentration of line, its length, the width, the right dose of rhythm and repetition, and the color. Every color has its light, its space, its distance and energy; each color is not alone but rather responds to the next. It’s a search for color, space, light–and, as mentioned, it’s not a completely formulated thing, but a discovery.

Brent: You sent a couple of images of landscapes; one of the Australian Outback, the other of a field near your home. In the Outback photo there is an obvious physical sense of scale and open space, whereas the photo taken near your home, while the land is flat the implied sense of space is set up structurally. But let’s not stop there… what other sense is working here, and how does this get translated into your work?

José: Both images tell about scale. I traveled in Australia for six months. The endless landscape of the Australian Outback touched me to the bone. It is empty and at the same time feels complete and perfect. It is silent yet full of life.
While the beauty of this authentic land touched me I knew it wasn’t a place to stay. There is no reference and your senses cannot find a grip. It’s beyond any human scale with the line of the horizon defining the border between all and nothing.

In The Netherlands the landscape is flat and every meter has its destination. Even when it looks like natural wilderness it is designed. The lines of the plowed potato fields surprise me with their unintentional beauty. Men create the rhythm, the structure and the form. The cultivated land has a human scale. Flying in an airplane over The Netherlands you see the lines of streets and canals that divide the land into rectangles and squares… it is the land of Piet Mondrian.

Both landscapes show extremes, the structured and the wild. Both are important for me. In my work I need to deal with the tension of extremes, challenging me to find ways to keep both in sight while going for clarity and simplicity.

Brent: As you say, a question of scale, and you are in the land of Piet Mondrian. What are your historical influences, if any?

José: A work of art communicates on a different level than words. When I engage a painting I like to think about the choices the artist made, try to understand the intention, and that often leads the way of the process.
Once while visiting the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, looking at ‘The Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist and an Unidentified Saint‘ by Titian I felt this sudden shock. It is a small painting, however the richness and combination of color drew me in.

When I think about my work color is the theme. And this continues. There are many theories about color, and I do apply my knowledge and experience, but in the end it’s largely a thing of navigating through intuition, what feels right in a given circumstance, what feels and needs to be said in another situation. Here I should mention Josef Albers–standing before his paintings I feel the heart of the color matter. In his work he gives everything–his ideas about color, his attitude to art, and life.

It is hard to say exactly where the influences are, looking to art is learning about art and I think this never ends. But to mention some artists, I believe that Paul Cézanne was my first teacher: studying the shapes and the space, and how they can complement one another. The work of Agnes Martin is inspiring, as well as her comments about humility. The clarity of Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg tell that the painting is what it is, an objective accomplishment.

Brent: For a painting, what is can be a point of conjecture. When looking at a painting in a gallery or museum I understand I’m in a mediated space with what is, and it goes along. But for something to reach that state in the studio, how do you arrive at a place where you feel the painting is done? And when the work heads out into the public arena, what do you expect the viewer to do with this?

José: Actually, in the studio you are the only one who can judge your own work.
It is not easy to look at the work with “fresh” eyes. More and more I see how important it is to come to clearness. The clearness to define and determine your visual ‘language’, in order to get closer.
For me it increasingly concentrates in the small things. The exact color, how to form and paint the color. A little difference in the color can make a big difference in the perception of the painting.

A painting grows to its own identity, when nothing more can be done to strengthen its being. Sometimes I have to be patient and let the painting rest for a while, to sharpen my view until I know what to do next. Each time I am happily surprised that looking is an ongoing process.
You ask me what to expect the viewer to do with this… I don’t know. When standing in front of a painting I hope they feel air and the space to follow life.

Brent: Standing in front of one of your smaller-scaled paintings the thickness of the line becomes apparent, there is this greater sense of touch, this especially noticeable since you can get close to the canvas while still being able to experience the whole thing. What is different between your recent large-scale canvases and the smaller ones?

José: Yes, it’s as if you can get closer to the canvas. These smaller paintings zoom in on color, on the touch and the physicality of paint, along with the length and width of a line. There is so much to discover in noticing small differences.
I keep areas of the linen unpainted to let the color and structure of the textile become part of the painting. In 2010 – L10. mars black and cobalt blue and in 2010 – L9. vine black and emerald I looked for the moment where the light of a color becomes visible in the black.

Brent: And what’s on the horizon?

José: I been preparing more than 25 canvases with linen and sizing.
I’m looking forward to working on them.

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3 thoughts on “Written Colours – José Heerkens

  1. Landscape seems to be an inspiration here , but I also see music and text – something about reading horizontally and vertically, movement past defined rhythm bars. So there’s space and time, light and color-filled. Lovely work, and interview!

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