“I paint as I draw.” 200% meets the Dutch artist whose creativity emerges solely from his imagination.
200%: When I visited your show ‘Alphabet Soup’ at The Nunnery Gallery in East London I was fascinated by your series of paintings of people reading books. You paint them in brightly coloured comic book style. The readers were completely immersed by what they were reading and oblivious to their cluttered and littered environment where piles of books, empty soda cans, cigarette butts and boxes with slices of pizza were lying around. Besides books, the paintings included other communication devices such as TVs, telephones and laptops.
In your practice, you are interested in how people see, store and make sense of the information that enters our lives every day. In ‘Flashback Cont’d’, your new show at Grimm gallery, the number of communication devices has even expanded. Is this body of work a continuation of the themes you developed in ‘Alphabet Soup’ and ‘Basement Odyssey’ at Zabludowicz Collection in 2016?
Willem Weismann: Yes. I was reading the book ‘The Art of Memory’ by Francis Yates from the 1960s which is a study on how people learned to retain knowledge before the invention of the book press. Yates explains in her book that the Greeks and Romans used the ‘method of loci’ – a method of memory enhancement through visualizations. One of the techniques is that you have to imagine a house with different rooms and in each room you put different objects and that’s how you memorise things. My paintings are made from my imagination and are not based on photos. The idea for the show is to paint various rooms of an imaginary house and the viewer enters this house. The house and its contents are like a physical manifestation of human history. But it also plays with the idea that they [the viewers] are entering my head.
200%: Why do you paint in a comic book style?
WW: I don’t use photography as a source. My images emerge solely from my imagination. This may be the reason why my work looks inspired by comics, but it’s not something I consciously aim for. I paint just as I draw.
200%: Is there a specific reason why you don’t base your paintings on photography?
WW: Most images we see on our smart phones, news, films, YouTube, Instagram are based on photography. I thought it was more interesting to create paintings that are not based on photography. Also, when I use a photo as a source somehow I always try to copy it. You have to think more or work harder when you make a painting that is not based on a photo or at least I do. [laughs] It creates a different feeling, language if you like.
200%: The comic style also makes your work look quite playful. It stays close to the imagination of a child.
WW: I think this happens naturally. When I look at my own paintings I sometimes find them a bit embarrassing to look at. [laughs]
200%: What do you find embarrassing?
WW: I see my own hand in it and a certain clumsiness, but it’s what I want at the same time. It is not always enjoyable for me though. If I want to I can make my paintings a lot better. I can tape everything off and create perfect, straight lines, but I’m not sure if that’s adding anything to what the paintings are about.
200%: Not taping things off, painting from you imagination, it contributes to your own style. Do you think you have found your own voice as an artist?
WW: It doesn’t really feel to me that I found my own voice. I just do what I naturally feel like doing and what I think I should be doing. It’s not that I think I have solved all the problems. I think you can’t rest on your laurels, you always need a problem as an artist. It’s something that keeps you going. If everything would go effortlessly perhaps you are not challenging yourself enough.
200%: Do you find the beginning or the finishing part of the painting the most difficult?
WW: The beginning is always the most fun and easiest part. Halfway through I usually start to become worried. I try to avoid that by finishing the painting as fast as possible. The longer it takes the more I start to doubt what I am doing.
200%: What kind of doubts?
WW: I start thinking that the idea behind the painting was actually a dumb idea or maybe I should have done this? I start to paint over things, I become bored and lose interest. My mind wanders off to other paintings. Ideally I would like to work on just one painting at the time but that is practically not possible. I have to work on a few at the same time otherwise I sit down doing nothing waiting for the paint to dry.
Sometimes I start with a painting and it goes really well and you think it’s going too well it can’t be good. The whole day you are alone in the studio and you have too much time to think. At times it can be difficult as you don’t know if you can trust yourself.
200%: What makes you interested in how people see, store and make sense of the information that enters our lives every day.
WW: Painting itself is of course a way to store information. I think the way we digest information has been changing quite radically with the use of the internet and smart phones. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I find it much harder to sit down and read a book these days. I think this idea of processing information is very closely related to the painting process; how the paintings are made and created. And I’m trying to compare them and see how something like a painting can still have value in the way it transmits and stores information.
200%: Is this series of new paintings a reflection of the world we currently live in?
WW: A little bit. I think there is a lot of oversimplification in the world and maybe in art as well. Life is messy so I don’t want to make super polished paintings. I like to make complex, layered paintings with lots of elements. I put in many ideas, references, symbols or how the works relate to each other, but it’s not necessary for me that everyone needs to understand everything in my work. It’s more for me that I like to put it all in there.
One of the reasons I like large scale paintings is that they can be quite overwhelming. They are not very easy to read so the viewer has to make a bit of an effort. I hope with my paintings I encourage people to think a little bit when they look at them. I wouldn’t be happy if they only think that my paintings are just very pretty.
Thierry Somers spoke with Willem Weismann at his studio at East London in the period when he was working on ‘Flashback Cont’d’.
The view of the view, oil on canvas, 2017; How does your garden grow, oil on canvas, 2017; Means of organisation, oil on canvas, 2017. New dawn, oil on canvas, 2017 (opening image). All works courtesy of the artist and GRIMM, Amsterdam/New York