Molenbeek, 25 August 2022
But words, words! How inadequate you are! How weary one gets of you! How you will always be saying too much or too little! Oh to be silent! Oh, to be a painter! *
I arrive at the studio of painter Lisa Vlaemminck with a series of questions, but entering her studio I am immediately silenced. The abundance of motifs and layers, the bizarre mix of colors on paintings and objects, play a game with my eyes and thoughts. Instead of a structured interview, the conversation between us goes in all directions. Even when we are both silent and it becomes quiet, the studio remains filled with conversations—conversations that the works engage in with each other and the environment. The following is a report of an afternoon spent in the wonderful universe of Lisa Vlaemminck’s paintings.
Lisa Vlaemminck: My painting is layered. The extreme urge to layer in my painting, a kind of horror vacui, is also reflected in my collages. My collage process has evolved from working on paper (with relatively flat objects like glitter, plastic diamonds, all kinds of stickers) to fluorescent Plexi frames in which I incorporate real objects and create a kind of bas-relief. For my last show, Plastic Roses Never Wither, at Rodolphe Janssen last year, the frames became stainless steel. Because of their fragility and impermanence, I had them covered with epoxy. Thus my image evolved from a flat image to an object with a spatial presence. They became frozen images. You can see how I simply extend the layering you find in my paintings into my spatial collages.
The question of whether I wanted to make a show at KIOSK was timely, because its space requiring a more tailored scenography coincided with the more recent spatial tendencies in my practice. At the same time, I saw it as a challenge to still show painting in that space.
Els Roelandt: But your paintings, as you say, also have three-dimensional aspects?
LV: Yes, that is perhaps also a new thing in my painting. It is not three-dimensional in a literal way, of course. But I now consciously put elements in my images that evoke a spatiality. For example, elements of the game world are now creeping in. Lately I’ve felt a greater need to become more concrete again in my paintings. My formal language can quickly become formalistic, abstracted. There is nothing wrong with that in itself, but I feel the need to bring some recognizability into it to bring back a certain tension. That’s why I sometimes put very concrete elements in my work, like a skull here, or a ham bone there. By confronting things with each other, new layers of meaning emerge.
ER: Are you guided by free association then?
LV: Yes, in a way. I certainly don’t paint n'importe quoi, but I can’t just put all the images in my head into my work. I never know beforehand where I will end up. I am also often two steps ahead of myself while painting: from a sweet landscape I end up in the cosmos, for example. Then a super aesthetic image emerges. But I don’t find that exciting—it’s too satisfying, too easily digestible. I like to have friction; I look for it permanently.
I sometimes use classical techniques from painting, like draping, skulls, or fruit baskets. I also try to find order in the chaos. I push and push the boundaries, but at the same time the whole must remain legible. To read my paintings you can’t look from left to right, you have to let your eye wander through the movements and lines that I suggest. I lead the eye in loops.
I often create problems in my paintings, then solve them—in this way an internal logic emerges. Not every image has the same structure, of course. And sometimes the images refer to or interact with each other.
ER: In your paintings I see motifs recurring, such as plants?
LV: From my training as a painter, I am well versed in the history of painting and sometimes borrow motifs from it. I recently saw Water Lilies by Claude Monet. I don’t want to literally make a nod to Monet in my paintings, but I want motifs from his series to return in them. I’m not doing an in-depth study of Monet, but by using an image as background and quickly forgetting that it was Monet who triggered it, I immediately put it into perspective. I also made a kind of spherical version of the image, which I find funny. Everything on my canvas is reduced to the same value. So when I see Water Lilies it makes a huge impression on me, but I can just as easily be touched by a silly ceramic vase I come across at a garage sale and incorporate it into an image. Some influences are super conscious, others are just waiting to pop up somewhere.
I am not a plant expert but it is relatively easy to paint a form that evokes the image of a plant somewhere. By breaking down, renaming, and rearranging well-trodden archetypes, I paradoxically return to the origin of such images. For it is usually things that are commonplace whose origins seem to have faded, that can be experienced as kitsch. What does kitsch mean? Is it the opposite of ugliness? And how do I want to relate to it? It is fascinating that an aesthetic image can become saturated and even ugly again. The Gentsesteenweg, a road near here, offers an abundance of kitsch—I can go there endlessly to find stuff that can form a starting point. Fireworks are another thing, a very kitsch thing actually, a flattened image that no longer has any artistic appeal since it became commonplace by appearing in screensavers and other things. Incidentally, Screensaver Error will be the title of the book I am making as a result of this exhibition [with Posture Editions]. Can I just refer to kitsch? After all, it is a form of appropriation. Kitsch is not innocent. Taste is not innocent. Taste is very much acquired through social structures. Imitation arises in taste. Fluorescent-lit snack bars adorned with ornaments and fake marble columns look very much like Trump’s interiors with gold faucets and numerous mirrors. That’s not a coincidence.
ER: It seems like you are embracing a new reality, proposing a constructed and dehumanized world. Are your paintings also a form of critique?
LV: Attraction and repulsion is very present in my work. I bring their complexity in through different layers. At the beginning of my training at KASK [the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent], I always painted very faithfully from observation—we were trained that way in the 2010s. From there my interest grew to things that could be interesting from a painterly perspective: drapery, crusty textures, flesh, withered fruit, and so on. It was a slow way of working, and then I started to mash out images, make layers visible. Layers of paint were always present but they formed more of a crust, layers on top of each other looking for that one form and how to capture it in paint. At a certain point I noticed that I had developed a distinct visual language. By letting go of observation and continuing to work on the image itself, working with the elements that appeared, you come closer to a form’s origin. I discovered the common thread in my work; I saw that I knew what I wanted and I could let go of reality, and an enormous freedom came to me.
That mechanical thing you just mentioned, that attraction to a kind of new futurism, a dystopian futurism, is indeed a phenomenon. I feel a kinship with some of my contemporaries, like Dominique De Groen—who has written a beautiful text about my work. Without wanting to sound dogmatic, perhaps I can say that our generation has an affinity for the dystopian. But a dystopia wrapped in glitter, if that makes sense? We are a generation that had to learn to deal with many images at once; we have experienced the rise of social media. We grew up during the transition from analogue to digital.
ER: “Painting and writing have so much to tell each other,” wrote Virginia Woolf in one of her essays on painting. Dominique De Groen’s beautiful text, Screensaver Error, very much evokes in a literary way what you do in your paintings. You obviously feel each other’s work very well.
LV: The text does indeed evoke very many associations. She wrote a text for me before*, so I knew it would be good. I wanted a text that could stand on its own. Dominique succeeded in sensing the latent emergence of dark elements in my work. She has captured a kind of literary analogy of it.
ER: I want to talk a little bit more about the duality between abstraction and figuration in your work. That’s something you play with, right?
LV: Abstraction/figuration, hum... I find it more fascinating to talk about recognizability and unrecognizability, about access to works yet also alienation or unrecognizability. I myself know perfectly well what everything represents, but I cannot always assess how people read the work. An entanglement of recognition and total alienation develops. Often familiar phenomena from the history of painting—such as a landscape, still life, or bust—must ensure that the viewer is invited into the image. Once the eye has found access, it is confronted with an abstraction and a displacement of reality: the carpet is pulled away from under your feet.
ER: There are no people in your work.
LV: I find the remnants that people leave behind more interesting, their traces. People are often transformed in my works, have something wrong, and a suggestion of that is sometimes enough. It’s something I still have to think about. I prefer not to use people because they make the image less universal. In a world of selfies, there is already enough specificity. For a long time the painterly translation and the physical properties of paint sufficed as a human presence, but at certain points in my most recent work I have become more concrete in the image. These are not “people people,” but rather forms reminiscent of a human figure.
ER: At KIOSK, will it only be paintings on view?
LV: In addition to the paintings, I am showing a more than sixty-meter-long textile work, Meat A Morph Hose (read: metamorphosis). That work came about as a result of a commission I received a few years ago from a nursery in Leuven. I hesitated for a long time about what to do for the children—babies can’t do much with paintings, haha. Together with Juliane Schreiber, I developed seven textile sculptures, each with its own amorphous form. I also designed the patterns that cover the forms. I continued to work on that for the show at KIOSK. I ended up making many collages that flow into each other, looking for how they can flow into each other by color and shape. The sculpture has a continuous nature. Through collages and photoshop, I developed an image that I then had printed on textile. In the print I looked for combinations and a way to make them coincide with a worm shape. The collages are pixelated, and because each pixel is one millimeter it coincides perfectly with the rough texture of the cotton fabric.
I wanted to prevent Meat A Morph Hose from being too cuddly. That’s why some parts have swellings, bulges, and light up red, like a pus buildup.
During the process, I also spent a very long time struggling with what to call the thing: worm, sausage, snake... It’s all of those, but also not, you know? At the end of the exhibition, we will divide the sculpture and sell it in pieces. The proceeds will go towards funding the book.
ER: The exhibition also has a specific scenography, right?
LV: My thinking about the scenography came about somewhat pragmatically, the space of KIOSK having few straight walls. Meat A Morph Hose runs through the entire space, six paintings are displayed in the middle of the central space, and just one is on display against a wall. I struggled with this for a long time: I am a “conservative” painter, I use oil paint, the sacredness of painting I rate highly, I feel the weight of painting on my shoulders. I was a bit afraid to let go of painting. More and more I allow the playfulness, yet I still feel like a “painter painter,” although my use of oil paint—which for a long time was not up for discussion—is no longer exclusive. I would like to work with acrylic paint sometime in the future. Painting is an ancient medium. My sculptures and objects used to be secondary, paintings always came first. Curtains and sculptures were purely scenographic and there was a clear hierarchy, but now they are on the same level as the paintings. This is all fairly new to me. I find it mega exciting and wonder where it will go.
ER: We’ve talked about so many aspects of your work now, but what is it really about?
LV: About image, beauty, ugliness, contemporary phenomena, about what fascinates, attracts, or repels me. The contrast between what happens when you paint and when you think about it afterwards is great. It’s a whole other world that kicks in. I would like to quote Philip Guston here, a man who said so many witty things about painting: “Creating is a double process. You have to be sophisticated as hell and innocent as hell at the same time. It’s a real impossibility, but I think that’s what it is.”*
* Virginia Woolf in Pictures and Portraits (1920) republished with an introduction by Claudia Tobin in Oh, to Be a Painter! Virginia Woolf, Ekphrasis, David Zwirner Books, 2021
* Cryogenic sleep in full colour, Rodolphe Janssen, Brussel, 08.06.2019 - 17.07.2019
* Philip Guston, I Paint What I Want To See, Penguin Random House, UK, 2022