Bert and Bas
At Oolong Gallery
Opening Reception May 6 from 2 - 8pm | address at 6pm
The title cites French artist Edouard Manet’s painting The Ragpicker (1865-1870). The traditional chiffonnier makes a living by picking up and selling rags and junk. Bert and Bas produce art by reusing objects and images for practical or aesthetic purposes and so prolonging their usefulness.
Bas Louter and Bert Frings met in Utrecht, Netherlands in 1997, and their ongoing dialogue now continues on view at Oolong Gallery. The exhibition will be about their favorite Dutch artist René Daniëls, the influence of moving to the colossal hybrid city LA and of classical vanitas — still life paintings of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The following interview between the two artists delves deeper into their practice.
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The Ragpicker (1869)
Oil on canvas
194cm x 130cm
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA
A conversation between two Dutch artists: Bert Frings (BF) and Bas Louter (BL)
We met each other in Utrecht, and we saw each other in Amsterdam. You moved to Berlin and currently you are living in Los Angeles, could you explain your desire for traveling?”
I guess I like adventure in art, music, in my life — trusting intuition when it comes to exploring the unfamiliar.”
BF: What does the work of René Daniëls mean to you and especially his work Hollandse Nieuwe?
René Daniëls (Dutch, born 1950)
Hollandse Nieuwe - Hollandse Nieuwe ontdekt hoe Hollandse Nieuwe smaakt , 1982
Oil on canvas
120 x 135.5 cm. (47.2 x 53.3 in.)
BL: I got to know the work of René Daniëls when I was 18 before commencement at the Art Academy. He has always been my favorite Dutch artist. I love his work for its directness and economy in paint. There is a free flow of ideas that doesn't feel like a strategy.
The Hollandse Nieuwe title refers to the first new Dutch herring of the season. Restaurants tend to pay top dollar to get the first barrel. There is a comment or critique about the art world in that painting: the predictability of galleries always looking for new, young and hot marketable work and artists.
Last year I made a contemporary version of that work and then after that this subject of fish swimming evolved into something more personal; the works represent my upbringing and history in The Netherlands, growing up close to the beach, the dunes and the stark landscape of Northern Holland.
BF: Your work touches different techniques; printing, painting, drawing and collage. It is all of it together but at the same time also not. It is very you. Can you tell us something about how a work comes together?”
This is the part where a little adventure or experiment comes in. In the studio I tend to have multiple projects going. I draw, spray paint, make collages and use all kinds of different tape.
I have never wanted to commit to painting. There is that heaviness to it, the art historical weight but also all the codes that come with European painting. It is just not for me. At this moment I just want to make lighthearted works with a certain clarity.
BF: When a work is finished it creates its own world, not a view through the window looking at daily reality. It has something historic, nostalgic and maybe cartoony? Your own reality is very free, where the distinction between figuration and abstraction seems to have disappeared. Does this have to do with the city you live in?
BL: When I moved to L.A. I made dense and black charcoal drawings. The urge to start from scratch was there but at that time I didn't have the tools to make the work yet. Over the years I tried different ways of printing, and I bought an airbrush gun and compressor. All these little experiments have led to composing my work in a different way. This process might occur less fluid than drawing but there is much more liberty and room for coincidences in the current approach.
I am quite positive that L.A. has been informative to all these changes as the city is one colossal hybrid. In the works on canvas I boil things down, it takes time. There is a contemplative nature to that part of the process; every little thing has to find its location and the white of the canvas is the real player.
BL: Hey Bert It is difficult for me to see how your work is made, what kind of paint do you actually use?
BF: During the lockdown I started painting with egg tempera for the first time — first from the tube and later I made the paint myself. It turned out I was able to paint much more detailed with tempera than acrylic. It is more controllable and has an organic matte look. This made me paint more refined. For example, I could not have painted the flies that are sometimes on the canvas in my still lifes with acrylic. The background, the canvas, always helped in my earlier paintings. I’m trying to avoid that in these still lifes, and also tempera doesn't go well with canvas. I paint my still lifes on panels which gives you a smooth, matte surface. The use of tempera on panel is also closer to the technique of classical still lifes.
BL: How does your work relate to classical still lifes from the Middle Ages?
Dead Frog (1630)
Fondation Custodio, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris
BF: The closed triptychs of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance are the oldest (vanitas) still lifes even before the term existed. What I paint is a contemporary interpretation of various types of still lifes from art history, such as the vanitas still life or breakfast pieces. The still life, in which every element has a meaning, can still make us think about the place of man in the world and the finiteness of time that is given to us.
BL: The objects in your still lifes seem to have a personal (and sometimes symbolic) meaning. Would you like to tell us something about that?
BF: I am fascinated by the meaning behind everyday objects. The ideas for my paintings come from my immediate environment. They can be thoughts about what has been carelessly left on the street. Ordinary objects such as a Fanta can or a pack of Kellogg's cereal turn out to carry intriguing (and sometimes disturbing) associations and histories. For example, Fanta was developed in Nazi Germany as an alternative to Coca-Cola, which was no longer available.
In my still lifes I combine these modern products with classic still life motifs such as dice or a glass. When you start investigating what lies behind that everyday visual language, the object really takes on a meaning – and a very different one than the producer had in mind. For example, Pepsi also evokes associations with Michael Jackson, who earned an astronomical amount of money advertising this cola brand. What many people don’t realize is that this was the beginning of the end for Michael Jackson. During the recording of the commercial, fireworks ended up in his hair, which also damaged his skin. Thus began Jackson's long-standing obsession with his appearance and a downward spiral of plastic surgery, painkillers and addiction. For example, the Pepsi cup combined with a dead fly (a classic vanitas element) refers to transience. The Pepsi cup is a modern interpretation of the glass, which symbolizes the fragility of life in the classic still life.
In my still lifes you can see the humanized animals that adorn Kellogg's packaging. Those cheerful animal faces are in fact the mask of a multinational. There is less and less room in our society for real animals. In the city you see at most a single bird, such as the jackdaw, which keeps popping up in my garden and has also played an important role in my paintings. Animals play a major role in our imagination, but in everyday life they are quickly seen as a nuisance. The living jackdaw in my still lifes, surrounded by brightly colored consumer goods, reminds us that our relationship with nature is not sustainable.
BL: Has your visit to California in 2022 influenced your work?
Yes, California made a big impression. The vastness of the city, the landscape, the light, the colours. Both the buildings and nature made a huge impression, the friendliness of the people, the food, the abundance in the shops, where I found products that have come to play a role in my work. Also the museums can amaze you with both contemporary art and old masters. The large amount of old masters and still lifes from Europe surprised me, to the say the least.
This conversation was recorded and transcribed in March, 2023 between Rotterdam and Los Angeles.