|Letters about paintings
Ijsbrand van Veelen, from Jan Worst: Good Looking
1 June 1998
Jan Worst made his name in the early nineties with his paintings of opulent interiors inhabited by languorous women, often accompanied by bored-looking children. These are paintings in which it is forever summer: one of those sweltering August summers of the very slowest variety, in which every minute seems like an hour, every hour a lifetime
I have always found the most captivating feature of Worsts work the combination of credibility with artificiality. At first glance, they seem to be faithful realistic representations of actual events; upon closer inspection they appear to be made up of strongly heterogeneous elements, rather like a collage. In his later paintings, these elements are more closely integrated by a finer, more precise technique. Yet the feeling of alienation and mystery remains, even if only through the fabulous positioning of the protagonists and their contrived poses. Their bizarre, almost autistic behavior belies the respectability of the interiors. Yet these actors move unencumbered and imperious within their own territory, demonstrating that they have the absolute right to do whatsoever they please. As witness to these proceedings, the viewer is thrust into the role of voyeur, confronted by a world he didnt know existed - and unknown world which he ought not, must not, view but one he is compelled by nature survey. What are those people doing there? What sort of strange furniture is that? What is the content of those books on the shelves or are they just dummies? And what allegories unfold within the tapestries on the wall? Is this a vanished world or a world yet to come? Or are these scenes being played out just around the corner, without our knowing it? Over the course of the years, much nonsense has been written about the paintings of Jan Worst. Or, at least, there are many clichés which the various writers seems to have unwittingly copied from each other. One of the most obstinate observations is that the paintings are some sort of comment on the dolce far niente of the idle rich: the bored yuppydom which emerged in the mid-eighties and which comprised beautiful, rich young people with far too much money and far too much time on their hands. This view conveniently ignores the fact that, by showing such glossy magazine figures in their exuberant and historic surroundings, the paintings actually demonstrate a vast longing for beauty, balance, harmony, knowledge and decorum. That longing, and particularly any expression thereof, seem to be taboo in contemporary art; before long the harsh accusation of academicism will be made art for arts sake and sheer hedonism. The almost shameless homage to the beautiful is actually one of the most characteristic and powerful aspects of Worsts work: the faint air of melancholy seems to bring home to the viewer that he witness to a form of gracious respectability that is threatened with extinction. Viewed in such a light, the paintings become a plea for awareness, spirituality and civilization rather than a mere superficial commentary on a purely temporal phenomenon.
In his first letter, Jan Worst wrote:
My dea Ijsbrand,
With regard to my paintings, I consider the following points important:
- My paintings are a personal statement. I am not a painter who feels allied to any particular movement.
- My work is influenced more than anything else by the cinema of the sixties and seventies. I tend not to look at others paintings so much, although there are of course painters whom I admire (Balthus, Klossowski, Max Beckmann).
- As you know, in recent years I have been painting not only women and children, but also men older men. This has resulted in the encounters seen in my paintings becoming more complex.
With best regards, Jan
P.S. I have enclosed some of my own writings, which you may find enlightening.
Several passages from the notes enclosed struck me as particularly relevant:
I would describe my position as a hybrid one. It falls between rigid academic painting on the one hand, and on the other a form of art which cynically appropriates everything it can use.
This remark raises again the paintings collage-like qualities. True enough, Jan Worst makes use of anything and everything as material for his paintings holiday snaps, photographs from fashion magazines, interiors shown in architectural journals but at the same time he selects and manipulates these fragments, now removed from their original context, to such an extent that they take on a new unity. Within the paintings, the material is used to bring about a poetic metamorphosis, one that is personal in the extreme.
He writes further that his paintings are fundamentally representations of reproductions:
Unlike painting, photography merely presents an arrangement of lifeless symbols, not a scene of living reality. In photography, the essence is a single moment what is missing is the time factor. In a painting, this time factor is and must be present.
This is of course a criticism of photography made in the name of painting. This passage reminded me of the human touch to be seen in painting. When taking a photograph, it is the machine that records the decisive moment, while in painting there is no such thing as a decisive moment a painting is, after all, a concatenation of human decisions, within which the time component absent in photography is to be found. A photograph records a situation in a fraction of a second: an incident. A painting, however, is created: a process. Another important distinction is in the use of light certainly when we consider Jan Worsts cinematographic lighting. A photographer uses light, whether natural or artificial, while a painter must create light. This leads us to state that Worsts cinematographic lighting is merely derived from certain films he cannot copy it exactly. Here too we see the human touch in evidence.
My paintings disclose the influence of Italian neo-realist cinema and the films of the Nouvelle Vague. Its tempting to draw a comparison between the children in my paintings and those in the films of De Sica and Truffaut between my rooms and those of Visconti between my characters and those wrestling with the past in the films of Antonioni, or the aimless drifters of Alain Resnais LAnnee derniere a Marienbad. [
] In my paintings it is impossible to make a clear distinction between reality and fantasy, between the objective and the subjective, between the physical and the mental, between the actual and the virtual.
Jan Worsts paintings are like stills from a non-existent film, frozen scenes from an unknown and unknowable story which pose unanswerable questions. What is happening here? What in heavens name has occurred prior to this scene? What will happen nect? The paintings do not hand one reality on a plate it must be unraveled, sought out. Like a film director, Worst places his protagonists against spectacular sets, arranges his lighting and assembles the props which are so important to the atmosphere. It is in this direction that we must seek the reality in his paintings, each component being a metaphor for the way in which we in the western world choose to design out surroundings and our lives. In out modern-day society everyone is forced (so it appears) to become the director of their own lives and of their own fantasies. The abundance of options and the speed with which we can zap around the world both literally and figuratively forces us to build constructions using totally heterogeneous elements, upon which we must then bestow some sort of unity.
Yet there remains almost no situation which has not at some time been remoulded by the media into a model to be irremovably implanted into our subconscious. Involuntarily we must direct our lives according to the picture subjected upon us by the media. As Susan Sontag once pointed out, when we see a sunset we do not say, look, how beautiful!, we nudge each other and say look its just like a picture postcard! The illustration is the imitation which has supplanted reality. In a last-ditch attempt to maintain or regain our hold on reality, we have gradually come to imitate only the illustrations, not the reality. This is the aspect of contemporary life which Jan Worst so subtly contrives to use in his paintings. He directs reality and its representation and combines them into a totality which has completely new meaning.
I replied to Jan:
I was planning to continue as follows:
Pyke Kock once said of his paintings: they show situations which could happen, but which in all probability never have happened nor ever will. By so closely approaching reality, through his choice of subject and the way in which he presents it, Koch succeeds in imparting an inescapable tension to his work. It is the tension between walking and sleeping, dream and reality, fact and fiction, reproduction and fantasy. That last dichotomy is particularly important: Kochs paintings are not reproductions of actual situations, they represent situations or feels which we at first feel able to easily recognize. However, the shock hits us at the moment we suddenly realize that what we think is recognizable is in fact something totally new. We have been lured into a trap. What we thought was close at hand is in fact far away. Koch can only play this game so successfully because he has chosen a representational manner of painting. The more real and realistic something appears, how greater the guile.
Up to a certain point, this method of working can also be ascribed to Jan Worst. As we examine his paintings more closely, their reality content becomes more complex and less penetrable than we had first believed. His painting appear to have been perfectly executed in the traditional manner works by the hand of a master of another age. But when it comes down to it or to be precise, when you come up close to the paintings there is no question of any striving for technical perfection. It seems as though Worst has deliberately dropped a stitch here and there, just as Islamic weavers purposely incorporate mistakes into their work because only Allah is perfect and so only He may produce perfection. However, precisely because of these imperfections the carpets have a vitality and a human quality absent in machine-made examples. Much the same applies to Worsts paintings, albeit without the religious overtones. While Worst needs the appearance of realistic accuracy to tell his story, we cannot speak of a purist look-how-good-I-can-paint approach, no matter how much Worst may love his calling. Rather, Worsts approach, which we may term conceptual, results in his immediately distancing himself from the tiresome purist cliques who arrogantly try to defend their craft against the perceived incursions from other disciplines.
Please let me know if you agree with the comparison with Koch.
My Dear Ijsbrand,
Is there a figurative painter who has not in some way drawn on the Surrealist tradition? As far as that goes, the comparison with Kock holds true. But there is an enormous difference in the use of the technique. Kock painted in the traditional academic manner and that particular avenue is closed to me. My style of painting is sober, distant, perhaps even dry. It does not aim for any illusionist trickery. I place blocks of colors next to each other: it is actually an acrylic technique but then executed in oils
A painting by me, just as in your comparison with the Islamic carpet, does indeed have certain faults. My compositions the rooms created by the montage of various elements are often impossible and therefore not realistic. I hope in this way to imbue the visual drama of my paintings with added intensity.
Yours, Jan Worst
One way or another, I feel that the most important aspects of your work have now surfaced, almost of their own accord: alienation, the artists representation versus the photographers, the cinematographic aspects, the content of your paintings, the interiors, the people, the time. The timeless and the contemporary, the direction, reality and fiction, the use of fragments and the montage technique. And of course the humanist ideal as well
There are doubtless another thousand things worth mentioning, but why should we? I have always believed (and I continue to believe) that any writing on art should help the eye of the viewer to find its way. It should provide a possible point of access to the work, but it can never provide an explanation for a painting (if such a thing actually exists). Such writing must not pretend to be able to explain that is simply impossible, if only because we are using different media.
The best course remains to look at your paintings.
With kindest regards, Ijsbrand
-Ijsbrand van Veelen
Amsterdam, June 1998