An interview with Wouter van de Koot by Mathieu V. Staelens
A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Wouter van de Koot, curator of our exhibition ‘Setting the Scene’ at Factor 44. Now that the exhibition is up and running and well received by the public, it’s a good time to turn the tables around. In front of me sits a clearly satisfied artist (or was it curator?) sipping a glass of water. And where better to begin than where we left off…
“I want to create my own scene“
Do you remember, the last question you posed me? ‘what does the title Setting the Scene mean to you? ‘, now I’d like to start by asking you that same question.
Yes, that title came to me at dawn. Maybe I had heard it somewhere, so I googled it, to find out the exact meaning. Then I looked for the connection between my own work and some of the artists I had in mind and everything fell into place very quickly, the theatrical, the narrative. I had an exhibition in mind where the works and objects would form a new story together. In addition, Setting the Scene means to me that I wanted to create the context for my work myself. For once I would not be dependent on another person: a curator or gallery owner. I wanted to create my own scene, with artists I admire and works that I chose, in a space that fits them perfectly.
And is what it has become, close to what you had visualized already?
Gee, I had not visualized it in such detail. Of course I had the exhibition space in my head when I chose the works, but in the end it’s only during the installation that things come together. There were a few works, for example the ‘Knot’ by Tim Ceustermans, which gave me an anchor point to construct the exhibition around. And then there were a few wonderful moments where something suddenly coincided, and a dialogue was formed between certain works. It has something magical when two works by different artists enter into a relationship, and form a new story together.
Was that something you hoped for?
Yes, absolutely, I was really looking for that to happen, though I also realize that some works need their own space, and have to retain their individuality.
And now that you’ve taken up the role of curator, now that you stood on the other side, what is your perception of that role?
Well, that was an interesting exercise. I thought, OK, if I take the role of curator on me, things will be easy and everyone will immediately say Yes, Mr. Curator, No, Mr. Curator, but that was not quite the case (laughs). I really had to find my form, but it was fun to do, and I’m very glad I did it.
So you would like to do it again?
Yes, I have a lot of ideas for exhibitions, so there’s certainly more to come!
“I like to appeal to common fears”
You also take part in the exhibition as an artist.
Yes, and one of the things I noticed right away in your work is the strange use of colours. The colour accords that you use sometimes have an almost toxic quality. It’s strange and yet it works. Where does that come from?
I have actually already had that from the moment I started to paint. It’s all pretty intuitive though. I’ve had very little technical training on the Art School I went to, no thorough colour theory or anything. That might have helped (laughs). Sometimes when I’m painting I am aware of that lack of knowledge, but then I’ll always say to myself ‘Just do it’ and you’ll know when it is right. I also want to feel that tickle in my belly, to take myself to the point where I might feel ashamed of what I create. You can find that in my subject material, but also in my use of colour.
It also resonates with your subjects indeed. Your work derives from performances in which a certain archetype enters the scene, such as The Surgeon or The Hooded Man. What do you want with those characters?
I use them because they are visually interesting and give me many opportunities. For example, I make watercolours in which I omit certain parts of the figures. It is quite appealing to work with a character that covers parts of his face with a mask or a hood. In that way a face easily becomes a negative space, which you can leave out, while its shape is still there.
In addition, those characters evoke an undeniable tension. They are associated with stories, films, and relate to the personal experiences and fears of many people. The fear of the doctor in whom you should trust to make you well again; Or when you’re involuntarily overcome by the feeling you get when you walk the streets at night, and a dark figure comes at you with a hood over his head, slightly slumped shoulders, heavy pace. In ninety-nine of the 100 cases nothing dangerous or sinister is going on, but you feel a certain threat. I like to appeal to those subcutaneous fears, and, at the same time, I use those characters to do all sorts of things which you logically would not link to them. You can put The Hooded Man in a ray of sunshine, cherishing himself, and still something darker happens.
To which extent do you connect yourself psychologically with the roles that you assume? How big is the distance between your private personality and the acts you put on?
It feels purer to create a certain distance towards the characters I use. It is liberating to take on a role and do things that I normally wouldn’t do. Like letting someone put a plastic bag over my head for example (laughs). But the actions I do always connect to personal fears, dreams and fantasies. In that sense, what I do is very close to myself.
Does it have a purifying effect as well?
Yes, absolutely. The performances help me to exorcise my demons. Precisely through the projection of my personal fascinations and fetishes on a fictional character. Being me, I would not be so quick to wheel around a large kitchen knife. Maybe just to peel an onion or something (laughs).
“Each new context requires its own solution”
Your work actually forms in clusters; do you work on several paintings at the same time?
Yes, one performance can lead to ten or more works. By the way, performance is a big word for what I do, because they are not public and only meant to generate image material for my paintings. During the actual process of painting the imagery from the performative actions are all mixed with each other. An image from one action can perfectly form a series with images from other actions. I am always looking for new links between the works of art. And per exhibition they are compiled differently. Even the titles are not fixed.
Do you see each show as a new puzzle, a new statement you make about your work?
Yes, each new context requires its own solution and leads to new content.
And about the technical act of your painting itself. Your technique possesses a great directness. I feel you want to preserve a certain freshness in your brushstrokes, with the risk of failure always around the corner. Is that right?
Yes, the right concentration is key. When I started painting, I thought that I had to put layer upon layer upon layer, correcting my errors and continue grafting until something good came out of it. At some point I discovered that that approach does not work for me. I thrive on the tension of that point where my actions are either right or wrong, where everything is now. That’s why I prefer to use materials such as watercolour or ink, where you can repair virtually nothing. I try to transfer that same sense of freshness to my oil paintings. I just love the sensitivity of that first layer.
What also struck me about your works on panel is that there is a green layer of paint on the backside, which makes for a strange reflection on the wall. How did that come about?
Well, I Always prepare my panels with a mixture of gesso, acrylic binder and phthalo green. This gives me a nice bright surface which makes the colours more intense. At first I painted the backs white, but when I also painted one in the same shade of green, I saw that subtle light that seemed to shine from within, and I painted them all like that. The reflection makes the work seem to come off the wall a little bit and the panel becomes more of an object itself.
What is the first thing you’re going to do after the exhibition? Will you develop a new exhibition or focus on making new work yourself?
First I’ll focus on my sweet wife and children for a little while. I haven’t been able to give them the attention they deserve these past couple of weeks, so we’ll have an extra glass of champagne when the show is over (laughs). And what comes next, we’ll see …