By David Ryan

Marja Bosma - Conservator moderne en hedendaagse kunst, Centraal Museum, Utrecht

Part of an interview with Twan Janssen
From ‘The Nature of Painting’

By Bert Steevenz
From Metropolis M, 2001

(Parts of an) interview
with Bert Steevenz
Out of ‘Early Monograph/Martijn Schuppers’

Mieke Bal
Out of ‘Early Monograph/Martijn Schuppers’

Wolf Guenter Thiel
Out of ‘Early Monograph/Martijn Schuppers’

Bert Jansen
From the ‘Holland-Schweiz 3:2/Zeitgenössische Malerei’ catalogue

Martijn Schuppers
Out of ‘Early Monograph/Martijn Schuppers’

From: ‘The Nature of Painting’, Stedelijk Museum Schiedam/VOUS ETES ICI, Amsterdam.
Fragment out of an interview with the artist Twan Janssen.


I'm painting, I'm painting again.
I'm painting, I'm painting again.
I'm cleaning, I'm cleaning again.
I'm cleaning, I'm cleaning my brain.

Talking Heads, 'Artists only', More songs about buildings and food, 1978

TJ (Twan Janssen) - What I wondered once I had seen your work was what your attitude to photography is. You always deal very emphatically with painting, but photography emerges in every conversation and interview.

MS (Martijn Schuppers) - As a painter I am influenced not only by the pictures painters have done over the centuries. I think the everyday use of photography, video, film and television is just as important in my thinking on the image as related to painting. Nor do I believe that one can these days have an unmediated, purely painterly view of the world, or of painting. The way I have recently been using photography in my work is to distance myself from painting. In these photos the subject is painting and/or paint. Painting into which one zooms once again. I sometimes call it 'Zombie Painting'. Bringing 'dead' matter to life.

TJ - Are you saying that photography and painting are opposing media? Do you go towards the one when you depart from the other?

MS - Departing from something doesn't mean you turn your back on it. Distancing oneself from one and at the same time making overtures to the other can most certainly take place within the medium itself. Destruction works much better from the inside out. In traditional photography, let's say, and traditional painting, there is definitely an opposition in the process of creation. But in the meantime there are countless in-between forms in painting and photography that have assumed each other's external form or draw on a shared history. They have influenced each other so much that in the pictures painters now do and those photographers do with their own means (since the invention of digital photography) are increasingly moving towards each other and the line dividing them is becoming thinner and thinner.

TJ - Between photography and painting?

MS - Yes, these media have continuously embraced and opposed each other. Numerous painters have drawn inspiration from the discovery of photography. But there are also photographers who identify very much with painting. In my opinion, one can see that painting has retrospectively regained the claim to reality it had imagined lost, certainly when digital photography appeared, and every painting - good or bad, in whatever way it was created - retrospectively regains its reality-content. I think this has a causal link with the revaluation of today's painting.

TJ - But then in which way is the dividing line becoming thinner? In the sense of photorealism?

MS - No. I mean it much more generally. I am thinking more of the technical possibilities of other media, and the external forms that are at our disposal as painters. From them ensue the ultimate implications they have for our experience of the image, and how they assume a meaning in the context of painting. This is precisely the great quality of painting: its tremendous urge to survive and the consequent capacity to absorb and digest. A painting is able to let its physical body take on any imaginable form. From sculpture or installation to transparent screen. Just as every molecule of pigment is put in its place when doing a painting, one can now paint down to the individual pixel. Digital paint, with which the illusion can be taken to great heights. This has had huge consequences for painting. All this is involved in our consideration (or reconsideration) of the way we look at the realities around us and how we experience them philosophically. In my work I try to play t against one another positively, precisely by taking advantage of the power of illusion that has always been linked to painting but has found its match in photography. I let the figuration loom up like an apparition out of painting processes which are in principle averse to figuration. Nor does my figuration have any mimetic qualities in the classic sense of the word. It is rather a pseudo figuration. A figuration that pretends to took like something. And that's where it begins: 'It looks a bit like a...’ But it will never be or become that thing, except in the viewer's mind. After all, there is no original underlying the images I generate.

TJ - Did you discover the photographic quality of your work 'by accident' or were you very deliberately looking for this element?

MS - You might wonder what 'by accident' means. I was studying at the Frank Mohr Institute at the time, and was mainly unraveling paintings. I called them 'detail studies', where I had to find a personal solution for every possible problem. One day I painted over an old problem with a new coat of transparent paint. I was unhappy with the result so I threw some turpentine over it which resulted in part of it dissolving. One would then usually pick up a cloth to remove the paint. This time, I did it with a brush out of laziness, from left to right and top to bottom, and so the process was born. I immediately recognized what I had been looking for so tong: a solution in both the literal and figurative senses. Ail the pieces of the puzzle I had previously questioned were here given a possible and acceptable place. After that I increasingly cultivated the photographic element in this process. In my opinion the difference between the first paintings and the last is huge, even though no fundamental changes have taken place in the process used in this series of paintings.

TJ - Do you sometimes reject works, for example because they are not photographic enough?

MS - When I had only just started this way of painting, apart from matters of content it was personally mainly a question of attitude. There was a very willful attitude behind it. Operation successful, patient died. As long as the procedure was implemented property, every painting resulting from it was a good one. It was only later, in the abundance of images, that any selection took place. There is an evolution in the images, but the last is fundamentally the same as the first. It can be compared to the genetic material of a fruit-fly and a human. I'm practicing Intelligent Design! And of course there are sometimes things one would call errors. Sometimes they lead to new things. Sometimes I probably make mistakes by ignoring them. So yes, I can say that more and more works are eliminated. A quite natural process.

TJ - Actually I see this highly realistic element as an unseen world. It reminds me very much of pictures you see on the National Geographic channel, of micro or macro pictures of things, from very close up or very far away. Things you cannot see without aid. I see it almost as a sort of imagined realism, a reality which as a viewer one cannot normally see. So it is also the depiction of a realistic world that does not in reality exist, because in order to see it you need another eye in the form of a microscope or telescope.

MS - I am of course aware of such images. But that is not the reality I paint from. I use the qualities of the scientific eye, which makes use of optical aids and extensions to reveal a world hidden to our eyes. After ail, the images I produce exist as a reality only in my work. It has to do with my 'shortcomings' as a figurative painter when I was a student, and the 'inability' to capture the world in paint the way it presented itself to me. This inability ultimately resulted in an opposite form. In a nonfiguration that appears more realistic than any figurative painting. A form of camouflage.

TJ - But when I see the paintings they have a sort of photographic... they are not photographic but you believe in them as a picture of something you do not know, so it is almost a sort of reasonable proposal for a reality that does not exist. Do you see it like that too? As a viewer one accepts it as a reality whereas this reality does not exist.

MS - I agree with you to the extent that it is almost a reasonable proposal for a reality that does not exist. But as soon as you interpret it as the image of a reality, it only exists in the imaginary world. And there is also the material nature of the painting. That is enough reality for me. My paintings are rather like facades whose reverse sides we are now acquainted with. It is the realness of the materiality of painting itself that makes my works turn into their own counter-images. In my view, illusion, in the broadest sense of the word, is the same as that sort of realism. Like a tennis ball that bounces back, or a mirror-image. Every work of art is probably by definition a reasonable proposal for a reality that does not exist.

TJ - This effect the materials have on each other gives rise to a sort of light and shade, let's call it a lunar landscape. At the same time the paintings present themselves to me as realistic in another way, as a highly realistic depiction of an abstract painting. In other words, they behave exactly like abstract art should behave, or like a particular sort of art ought to behave. Abstraction is no longer what it was either. Everyone knows what it is, regardless of what one's art preferences are. According to me, abstraction has in the meantime lost all the barbs it once had and is no longer revolutionary. Or, as Marx put it: 'History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce'.

MS - Exactly! At the moment when, in my own view, High Art tumbled to the ground, I was able to see monochromy as a starting point rather than as an aim in itself. I let it explode, melt, shake it up, bang it against the wall, shoot holes in it, use it as underpainting and so on. In some paintings this happens more literally than in others. But what you say is true, they are very convincing depictions of abstract paintings, and that's also how they behave. But with a twist. My painting is also fuelled by recalcitrance. I have also been taught by people who were taught by people from the fifties, and there are genes from those generations in my work too. At a certain moment I could no longer do anything with that, so in this sense it is also a sort of destructive act. In that respect you are right when you observe that it is a figurative rendering of an abstract painting.

TJ - It behaves like an abstract painting.

MS - It behaves like an abstract painting which appears figurative in its details but basically comes into being in a non-figurative way. By allowing illusionism into something like a monochrome, by applying the procedures traditionally linked to process painting, my work ultimately turned against its basic principles. The images produced are in fact again depictions of those abstract paintings, white at the same time they are themselves also abstract paintings in the tradition of this same process painting. But with a very high figurative quality, which is in fact more often attributed to photorealist painting.

TJ - According to me one could compare it to a German who has lived in the Netherlands for twenty years, but still has an accent. They are abstract paintings, but retain a different accent. Whereas if you know how they were done this no longer works, because they are then super-abstract, because there is no attempt to imitate any reality at all; in fact you almost replace it with another reality.

MS - Yes, with a heavy accent...

TJ - Is there a contrariness in the work, and is it to be found in its shameless beauty? Last time we talked about the distrust many people have of beauty.

MS - For many people beauty is stilt synonymous with pure allure: there can be no content hidden behind beauty. It's something like dumb blondes. I too grew up in the arts with the awareness that what was Ugly could be good, and that beauty did not by definition signify goodness. So far so good... but growing up in an anti-aesthetic era, or at least its offshoots, does have some effect. The polarized Modernist philosophy of progress also led to the idea that beauty is by definition suspect. The foundations of the choices made in my work are to be found in the content, and linked to this is a high degree of acceptance on my part for the consequences of the image. When at work I am a relative outsider. I am an observer of my own actions. I recognize the 'beauty' in my own work, but it emerges from destruction, and in my opinion that is definitely something different. The form in which they come is camouflaged, like the Trojan horse. The familiar forms of destruction such as aggression and dismantling are made invisible by their make-up.

TJ - Are they?

MS - Yes! I always notice - even now - how complex these things are when you want to answer this sort of thing. I may sometimes be a little too vague, whereas in fact I am perfectly able to give simple answers, but that amounts to a number of different answers.

TJ - You just have to give one answer one time and another the next time, that's the trick.

MS - Then at least you don't have to remember what you have already said.

TJ - No, if you agree in advance that you are telling a whole pack of lies, you don't have to remember anything. In any case, I find the truth no more than an obvious option.

MS - It is also one big construction in which you will contradict yourself. And as your years of work go by, things change. And this changing context makes meanings change. One small facet of the work, or one idea, as a result of which a great deal can change. That sometimes brings a great deal of conflict. I still find it difficult. I tend to explain things to myself quite a lot, because I want to know how things are. The complications and implications...

TJ - You want to know you are doing all right.

MS - I just don't want to talk nonsense.

TJ - And why not?

MS - I just can't. I want to know how things fit together. And not only my own ideas. So I always have to test it against something outside.

TJ - And if things change outside, this truth itself changes again.

MS - Well... But that so-called truth is not a constant factor, that should be clear. And works of art will also always be changing meaning in that respect, or even lose it altogether.

TJ - To get back to that realism for a moment... I think the eye, or at least my eye, is always on the lookout for realism to 'catch hold of'. To give an example: in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel there is an area of cloud that is very expressively painted, and out of these clouds protrudes one very realistically painted foot. Because of that one foot you immediately accept the rest as realistically painted clouds. So in this case I think the clouds derive their realism content from the foot.

MS - I understand what you mean. I was looking at Hans Holbein's painting The Ambassadors. It's about 2 meters square. Painted in equal detail all over, even in the deepest shadows. When you stand in front of it and took into the figures portrayed, your eyes do the same as when you are looking in the real world. They focus on what you are really looking at. The rest of the painting becomes naturally blurred. A phenomenal experience of reality.

TJ - But in that painting there is also the renowned anamorphosis of the skull, which you can only see from a particular angle, and which looks like an abstract mark when you stand straight in front of it. So that work is in several ways about looking at reality and realism.

MS - Realism, abstraction, figuration, non-figuration... That sort of terminology is actually mostly confusing. Whereas in fact they were chosen to distinguish things clearly, and to bring clarity. One can never say exactly where the borderline is where figuration ends and abstraction begins. It is perhaps better - if we insist on distinguishing them - to call them the concrete and the image. In contemporary painting it is becoming increasingly bothersome to use this sort of language. Robert Ryman calls his work realism, whereas the logic behind that is much closer to my work.

TJ - Ryman makes highly realistic pictures of an abstract painting.

MS - Not a picture of: that is what it is. He makes the painting concrete. That's the difference. Ryman 'believes' in his realism and the real. The way it is fixed to the wall, how the tight falls on it, how it casts its shadow. The reality of an object in space. You make the most realistic possible representations of paintings. Plays, without indicating when it is acting and when it isn't. Props. In their appearance and materiality my paintings are reminiscent of prints. So it soon becomes a matter of 'a picture of...’ I play with the illusionary qualities paint is able to take on. In my work they are of equal value and merge seamlessly into one another as in a Mobius ring. But only within the painting. You, by contrast, make the most illusionist works. The boundary between 'real' and 'unreal' is of no consequence to you, you yourself play that part in every aspect of your work as an artist.

TJ - I see every work as an illustration. But not as a picture in its own right, as a depiction of something else. Of a thought process, or a view. Of course it's never just about paint on canvas. You always say, 'This is very important', whereas of course it isn't at all, it is just paint on canvas.

MS - Yes and no. In fact this is very important! My work assumes its meaning precisely because it is painted. Precisely because I paint, and because one can no longer see how it has been done, it embraces in its image a much wider area than just that ordinary paint on a plain canvas. And yes, in that sense every work of art is based on observation. It is always based on an example. As soon as you squeeze the paint out of the tube you are already obliged to relate to 'all' the paintings that have ever been done. In this relationship a painting enters into with other paintings, it is immediately 'a depiction of...’ It is thus impossible to uphold the concept of originality. In this sense everyone paints on the basis of an example.

TJ - And that example is a painting.

MS - Yes, in my case it is. And in that sense it is, let's say, 'figurative', but at the same time it is also very real. When you interpret my work as a familiar reality, it is only because of the images that are already stored in our collective memory.

TJ - Because they latch on to something you already know, and the eye finishes the job.

MS - Yes, that's right. So, because I am increasing the photographic qualities of my work, the viewer immediately thinks of an association. You can immediately attach a meaning to what you see because it looks like something - has all its characteristics. But at the precise moment when you know or think how the work was done, you are going back to what it actually is. A painting whose image does not correspond to the way it was created. And that continues, because this does not correspond with what you see.

TJ - I see the whole of art history as one prolonged conversation. That's why I think painting is so interesting, because it's just about the longest-running discussion. People leave it, new people join, subjects come and go, but it is still one single conversation.

MS - When I am in my studio, I am constantly in conversation. With myself, because as I said I always want to verify everything anew each time, but I am also in continuous dialogue with other artists, and in some cases literally bump into them in the works I do. When I start with an empty canvas, anything is still possible. At the moment I start to do things I see my paintings take shape that I know from art history. This art history, and my own short version of it, is always there when I am doing a painting.