Koos de Vries – “There isn’t always a message.”
On a wintery cold day in March, me and my companion David travel to Den Bosch, where, somewhere near the train station, lies a premise that reminds me of my old elementary school. It is the temporary atelier of Koos de Vries. He welcomes us in his immaculate army-green overall at the front entrance of that which indeed used to be an elementary school. Big, concrete masonry stones form the walls that are supposed to protect the handful of artists that occupy the premise. The heating stoves, one in each classroom, give away that the concrete cannot fight the cold alone. “They’ve cut off the heating system and this is the alternative for keeping us warm. An expensive solution if you ask me. Luckily, this condo is but temporary. Soon it will be taken down,” Koos explains.
To minimize the rent, Koos shares the atelier with Peer Vink. Both of them are students at the AKV St. Joost in Den Bosch and both are graduating at the end of the semester. As a result, the atelier is boxed with paintings, sculptures and other unfinished projects. My eye meets this painting, which draws the attention with its piercing colors. It is one of the works of Koos. One half is colored with a deep vibrant red. The other half is a field of moss-green, with a soft-blue stroke of the brush here and a dot of orange there. In the middle, I see the shape of a man, slightly bent over, rummaging a sack.
The depicted colors are not natural for what is depicted. The huge field of red for example, is used for the human body as well as the air and the clouds. Koos determines his colors by what the objects feel feel like instead of what he knows they look like. Let us glance back to the beginning of the 20th century, where a group of artists did something similar. I’m talking about the expressionists. This group of artists sought, just like a lot of their contemporaries, for new ways to represent the world around them. They painted the world not how it was, but how it felt too them. And they used colors to express their feelings. As a result, their paintings were no perfect reproductions of reality (as was the tradition), but spirited explosions of color. The depicted objects kept their initial form, but the way the lines were filled in was determined emotionally. A nice example of an expressionist painter is Henri Matisse. He noticed that colors possessed more powers than simply giving-color-to-objects. “Color provokes reaction”, Matisse stated. Red can provoke feelings of anger, just as the red matador cloth enrages the bull (or so myth goes). Blue can make feel lonely and cold. With this idea, Matisse touches upon an important characteristic of colors: the use of colors in art influences the emotional reaction of the beholder.
“But who am I to tell you what to feel when you look at my paintings?”
A hundred years, and countless pieces of art later, Matisse’s belief has been accepted and adopted, but left behind by some. In the paintings of Koos, color is determined freely, just as Matisse did, but in contrast to expressionist master, Koos leaves the idea behind that every color is linked to a fixed feeling. Moreover: “Color doesn’t have to symbolize at all. Art, at least mine, comes to exist because the painting ‘asks’ for a red field or a blue background. That doesn’t mean that my red paintings are intentionally triggering anger or that my blue paintings indicate social isolation. On the contrary, I chose colors that seem fitting to fit the whole of the painting.”
Nowadays, the question ‘how to determine your color?’ is answered way easier than it was in the past. In the days when paint was produced by the extraction of colors from different sorts of raw materials, some colors were way more expensive than others. Blue, for example, was not made easily. Ultramarine, a deep, full blue which, according to legend, shined on the canvas, was one of the rarest colors in existence. In order to create ultramarine, lapis lazuli, a rare gemstone mainly found in Afghanistan, had to be pulverized and mixed with some other, less valuable ingredients. Insanely expensive color, as you might have guessed. Hence, mainly holy figures are depicted with the color – think about the Holy Virgin, for example. Color supported an idea of status rather than solely expressing a feeling like the expressionists believed. Nowadays, every color imaginable is available at every art store in every town. Blue is not worth more than yellow. Color is color.
“But who am I to tell you what to feel when you look at my paintings?”, Koos says. “My intention is not determinative for the meaning of my paintings. You always interpret a painting in your own way.” But that ultimate interpretative freedom, isn’t that dangerous? What you said earlier about color and that it not meant to be symbolic goes unprotected when everyone is free to decide what to think about your art. “As long as somebody sees something in my work, doesn’t matter what, my art is successful. But that doesn’t take away that there is a dark side to this much interpretative freedom. I’ve noticed something I like to call ’the artists on a pedestal’. What that means is that there is this image of the artists as an ‘all-knowing character’, some kind of God that is always aware of every possible interpretation of his or her work. And that is unfair.” The finger on the sore spot. Remember people, an interpretation is always guided by personal experience; it is a story that you constructed yourself by plunging into your past en picking out experiences that suit the image in front of you. To believe that an artists is aware of what’s in your life’s suitcase is a bit naïve. In short, the big message here is: the truth is made by you.
The idea of ’the artists on a pedestal’ has triggered Koos to create a series of self-portraits, where his face is the subject for different color-, form- and thought-experiments. “Self-portraits contain a bit of self-glorification,” Koos says. “Paintings where the focus is aimed totally on one face, mine in this case.” It is fascinating how the focus on one object, a face, but also an apple or a candle for example, can idolize. But it’s not strange, is it? After all, there is only one object inside the frame, independent of any other object. “And so I bring myself in the picture, literally”. Koos plays with the idea of ’the artist on a pedestal’, not only by looking what happens within the frame, but also by looking how he can strengthen his message outside the frame. His self-portraits, for example, are hanged a bit higher than the rest of the paintings, just to emphasize the idea of self-glorification.
Playing with these forms of presentation is not something Koos only applies to his self-portraits. Sometimes, he uses the exposition-space fully by using standing frames, where his paintings are not meant to be put on a wall, but rather, placed on the floor. Immediately, the possibility to walk around the artwork emerges, which adds an extra dimension. Exciting stuff can happen when you add dimensions. And exciting stuff happens in Koos’ graduation-project Watching The World Burn At Bikini Beach. It consists of three panels (in art, this is called a triptych). On these panels, we see three different characters (all of them resemble a bit of Koos). From left to right, we can distinguish: the Visionary, the Slacker and the Martyr. But what connects these three characters?
Besides the formal and stylistic coherence there is little connection between the three. But, take a few steps further, walk around the artwork en look at the back of the triptych and it all comes together. What do we see? We see a giant mushroom-shaped cloud that only becomes visible after a nuclear explosion. But sideways. And in black, white and grey. “We are looking at the product of the atomic tests that have been held at Bikini Beach, shortly after the end of World War II,” Koos explains. We look at it, but not only from our own perspective. We also take on the position of the Visionary, the Slacker and the Martyr. In other words, the two sides of the artwork are the two views you would have if you were standing in the middle of Bikini Beach.
The middle, the position that every beholder of art occupies, always. Not only with Koos, but with all art. Always at a safe distance, a small step away from reality, ready to reflect on what is happening in front of him or her. That is where the power of art lies: the step back that enables you to reflect on the world around you, objectively. What you make of it, of Koos’ face in his self-portraits, of the color red in the first painting or of the Visionary, the Slacker and the Martyr, is entirely up to you. There isn’t always a message, but there is always the freedom to interpret.