Studio visit by Valerie Verhack

Valerie Verhack How did your initial interest in art grow?

Leen Voet It was always there. I grew up making and discovering things, and experienced a joy and freedom doing so. Partly this was possible thanks to my parents’ rule: anything is allowed, as long as you tidy up afterwards. Later on, I discovered this making and what could result of it, could contain a meaning. There must have been some influence of my father too. He always had a very exceptional way of seeing things and a particular humour.

VV Do you have any specific memories related to art as a child?

LV Maybe my very first real art experience happened in 1977. It was the celebration year of Peter Paul Rubens’ birth, and my family and I went to visit the artist’s house in Antwerp. I remember we went down the stairs to enter his studio. In the middle of the room there was a big painting on an easel, hit by rays of light. It was a remarkable spatial experience to see the painting in the middle of the room, being presented as an object, and with the rays of sunshine entering through the windows, blending with the strokes on the painting. It was also the first time I realised that the very personal act of making things and its result, could travel in space and time.  Ever since that moment painting makes my heart beat faster.

Later on I enrolled in art education, at first in secondary school and later on in high school. I studied Painting for two years at the Royal Academy in Ghent, also known as KASK, and I then went to Sint-Lucas in Brussels to continue another two years with a discipline called Experimental studio.

VV After your studies in Brussels, you did not stay here at first…

LV No, I was living in Ghent when studying. Afterwards I went living in the former house of my grandmother in Herentals. It was a peaceful house with a beautiful garden. That house became my very first studio. I used the kitchen and the bedroom to live in and the rest of the house to work in. I stayed there for about five and a half years, then I moved to Brussels.

VV The starting point of your work and practice seems to be a predetermined concept.

LV Yes, you could say most works start with a concept. More precisely, most things start with an experience. From the moment the concept is determined, the decision to actually make the work is already made.

There are often two years between the first impulse and the final execution. I work very slowly: I think things over, rework the process, make scribbles, write notes, look around, take photographs... Also, I like to do everything myself, including documenting for example. I live with the plan. Hoping the hidden, or private, energy will somehow be snapped up in the visual world, in the final work. I also have a tendency to laborious projects. It's a choice.

VV You often work in series.

LV Yes, I do.  The motives for these series vary. Also the internal bonding within a series can vary. Some series are compound with a pre-determined amount of images. Sometimes series are compound with an amount of images fitting the physical space where the work is first shown. Mostly series are created with images that originate from the same cultural environment, era, source or location. Working in series also corresponds with the habit of working on something for a longer period.

Recently I have started working on a series of drawings for a commissioned work. I am preparing drawings of private gardens. For days I have been looking on websites that sell real estate. The interesting aspect of the photographs of these empty backyards is that indirectly they reveal so much: from personality, to time management, vogues and social class. The series will be reproduced on the windows of a Center for Mental Health Care (CGG).

The series Felix from 2009-2010 for example originated from a visit to the Felix De Boeck museum in Drogenbos, after which grew the idea to draw 774 drawings based on an image database of the museum that contained exactly that same amount of images. During that time I also made a series of photographs of both the museum and the museum depot, but so far I have never showed these. What interested me in the figure and oeuvre of Felix De Boeck was that massive mix of elements: his spirituality, his love for nature, his restricting choice to base his compositions on circles, his deeply religious thoughts, early on his attachment to Modernism, later on his need to express his deepest feelings, his lack of talent, the Flemish Community in need of a hero and the Catholics in need of a Catholic artist museum. Happily or unhappily, a conviction or consensus about what things should look like or be like, does not guarantee timelessness, it is never forever. Models get outdated, ideas are linked to time. We all know that. I think that very much applies to the work of Felix De Boeck. It was an interesting experience, disappearing in his world, living his life through his oeuvre. Prohibiting myself to invent what I drew and being limited to his crazy circle based compositions. The whole process finally took me a bit more than 2 years, plus a few months to make the book.

Some series also grew out of previous series. The painting series with the church organs I am also working on now, is a result of the Saint-Rita series I presented in Netwerk Aalst in 2013. Saint-Rita in Netwerk contained 5 oil paintings on unstretched canvases mounted on handmade wooden structures, looking somewhat as painter easels. Each painting represented an interior of another church, painted in a tight hard edge style, combined with traces and lines on top. From the church interiors I have zoomed in on the organs, when I was invited to participate in a group exhibition by Jean-Paul Jacquet in an apartment in Brussels at the end of last year. My contribution was a colourful mural of a church organ painted on a rough brick chimney in oil paint. The bricks added a specific texture to the painting. Later on I painted a copy of this wall painting on a smooth surface canvas. I'll see where this plan brings me later on.

VV Recently you also made several series in which notions as unicity and copy are key, such as Drawings By My Father or the recent color book drawing series entitled Machteld and Adolf, 1302.

LV I like to work with images originating from other contexts. I like storytelling by images travelling through different social environments, cultures and social levels. I like the tension it provokes. I am fascinated by residues of creative acts and art made by amateur artists or unknown figures.

As the title suggests the series Drawings By My Father is entirely drawn by my father. He did so because I asked him to. He came up with 28 drawings in pencil on paper, mostly from ordinary decorative objects and working tools. He decided 28 drawings was enough. He allowed me to show his drawings as my work.

Machteld and Adolf, 1302 is the first episode of a series of work based on Hendrik Conscience's The Lion of Flanders written in 1838. The story describes the Medieval Franco-Flemish war in 1302, the Battle of the Spurs. Even though 1302 was also a long time ago in 1838, the story originally conceived as a symbol for the new Belgian Nation, was soon to be recuperated by the Flemish Movement. In between organising and fighting war, Machteld van Béthune and Adolf van Nieuwland, the two main characters of the book, fall in love. The series of the 38 drawings are all prints of colouring pictures for kids, which I coloured by hand in yellow and black, the Flemish colours. On the internet I looked for ready-made drawings for children inspired by the Middle Ages. I found a lot princes, princesses, castles, knights, armours and weapons. To give a soft touch to the series, I also included some timeless trees, chickens and other animals, which I also coloured in yellow and black.

VV Looking back to 1999 until 2008, you often worked with slides although you never stopped calling yourself a painter.

LV I wish I could call myself a painter. Painting makes me happy: creating motives and modelling with liquid strokes that dry out into a fix matter. When I worked with slides, I loved the idea of the miniature versus the spatial impact of the installation. I loved the fact that you could wrap the work up in box when the show was over.

Many series were ‘painting involved’, some in a more direct way than others. Jardin Gregoire for example was 100% painting based. For this slide show, I painted 21 large scaled oil paintings based on views on the garden of Maison Grégoire by Henry van de Velde. All the paintings were photographed and projected on a smaller scale than the original painting. The size reduction resulted in a dense and compressed image.

Other slide series where painting related by subject or fluidity. Travelling through the various media, feels like travelling through time to me. I like shifting from object to painting, from painting to photography, from painting to projection, from drawing to photography, from drawing to print. I hope one day to make a book with all the images of all the slide shows, in which the different slide series will function as chapters of the book.

VV By recreating for example Felix De Boeck’s work or in the paintings of the Sint-Rita series, you bring art forms of the past into the present and even into the future. This kind of ‘futurism’, your different visual approach reveals the intrinsic qualities of these older models…

LV The mobility of things, objects and ideas fascinate me. I like to place aspects of another time in the present. I think it is interesting to put them outside of time. In that way past and present converge in the work. I do not know how to locate the future in all this: maybe it is not even there.

Works of the past for example can be interesting because they are very now. What also fascinates me about them is the absence, the things you cannot verify. There is this doubt, a gap you cannot verify, which I think is very exciting. Controlling the past is often linked to politics, which in an indirect way is present in my work. I do not want to address it in a direct way because it fixes everything on that level.

Another question that fascinates me is: In which reality does my work take place? What time does it evoke? I do not know the answer but I guess it evokes a time which is not the present and certainly not the past. I do not deal with nostalgia.  I cannot write or rewrite history, but I can colour it...


Photographs: Simon Delobel