LAINA TERPSTRA

GL:  I want to start off by asking a question that might seem frivolous but I want to see where it leads. You have Dutch ancestry. Your current work uses Dutch painting as a point of departure. Even the Brooklyn neighborhood where you live in Bed Stuy was originally a Dutch settlement. Could you, perhaps with a stretch of imagination, consider yourself a Dutch painter?

LT: It’s true that both my parents’ ancestry can be tracked back to Friesland in the Netherlands, and I’m sure that this connection played a part in my initial draw to this subject matter. Practically speaking, I don’t really have a substantial connection to Dutch culture so couldn’t claim to be a part of the contemporary Dutch tradition of painting, though I like the romantic idea.

If there is something in my genes calling me towards these paintings, it would be their formal rigor in terms of space and perspective. Dutch paintings from this period are very highly composed, (particularly De Hooch) There is a heightened attention to architectural, structural space, elements which I think are characteristically Dutch - and those qualities lend particularly well to the way that I see and paint.

It is important to me to stay true to the structural space of images I work from, to maintain that rooted framework or scaffolding to hold the more fluid movements. The structure of the image is what allows me to keep my bearings, and maintain a sense of clarity in my decisions while I’m working in an otherwise intuitive, un-controlled state of mind.

GL: So you've set up a bifurcation I end up talking with painters about a lot, basically between the rigor of a formal structure and the fluidity of intuition. Put another way, between what's decided beforehand and what's discovered en route. We have the reference of the original paintings to give us some sense of what you describe as a logic to keep your bearings, a map really. Can you say more about your discoveries, your un-controlled decisions or impulses that make your paintings end up looking the way they do? Also, I'm curious if when you look at your source paintings, at De Hooch for example, you distinguish between those elements these artists might have determined beforehand and the ones they discovered for themselves along the way. In considering your own improvisation, how improvisatory do you think the old Dutch Masters were?

LT: In terms of that bifurcation - its feels like when I’m painting, there are two modes of thinking, almost like the two sides of my brain having a conversation. One wants to describe form in terms of structure - breaking apart the image in terms of a grid, and the other wants to describe the more internal energy of the form through movement and gesture. I used to feel that these elements distinguished themselves as organic / figurative vs. inanimate space / architecture. However, even within the human body both modes exist - there is a mechanical aspect present too. This conversation or balance between structure vs. fluid movement, control vs. release/ chaos is a theme I notice in so many contexts/ disciplines in life. You can try to create systems of order, but as soon as you think you understand something, an entirely new element will interrupt/ throw off the equation forcing you to reevaluate. Too much of either one will throw off the composition, so it’s this push and pull between the two modes that propels my paintings forward.

The difference when working with these less controlled fluid gestures is that there is a different level of kinesthetic engagement that takes place. To tap into the gesture of a form requires a kind of physical empathy - there is a visual, but also emotional engagement, where I have to engage physically with with that gesture in my body. In that moment I can tap into the sensation, and energy contained in the image and it comes out for me as a kind of vibration. Its a feeling of being incredibly present and in tune with what is happening physically on the bristles of the brush.

As to your question of improvisation in these Dutch paintings — formally they were much more planned and calculated, and also narratively, to the extent where every object and element is situated intentionally to reflect a specific moral theme. I would guess the moments of improvisation for these painters came more during the preliminary stages of drawing where they’re piecing together the initial composition, and making decisions as to where to place figures and choreograph their gestures. 

In the original paintings themselves where I notice discoveries in the paint, is mostly through their rendering of light. In moments where the light is touching a delicate object that is otherwise engulfed in shadow, like the lace fringe of a coat, or a thread of hay — these are crucial moments for me, because you can see the hand of the artist. In those details, they are forced to work very small and don't have as much control, so they rely more on gesture to control the bristles of their brush. They can’t describe the whole form of an object at this scale, so they're forced to abstract. These moments bring a different language and dimension into the painting. Another example of discovery, would be in a Gerhard Ter Borch  — how when looking at his works in person, the hyper- realism and clarity that his fabrics take on is almost hallucinatory, and stand out from the rest of the painting. Here you feel that a discovery was made, because a different language is introduced, and it becomes the main focal point.

GL:  For the moment you are taking inspiration from these painters. What’s the correlation with your own discovery? Is it the same moment—when you are capturing light? You do so with this characteristic, wet-on-wet, scumbley, pulled stroke that seems to drag the light along with it, like stardust sticking to a comet’s tail. It’s quite the opposite of your description of the Dutch Masters slipping into minutia at this point, as these strokes of yours are some of the boldest in your work. Is this inversion of the light-carrying element intentional, from very small in the source to very bold in your own work? What else might you say about the vernacular language you’ve developed with these broad, meandering strokes?

LT: Yes, light is largely the correlation, along with the geometry and structure which I mentioned. I use them for those formal qualities, but my process, and interests are entirely separate from the 17th century Dutch painters.

There is usually one light source in these paintings, which sort of trickles down and cascades through the room. I can follow the trajectory of that path as a guiding logic, capturing its movement, as if light were a physical substance, slithering through the room — dragging its trail. I have a strong sense of urgency when I’m painting, a feeling that everything has to happen at once. A lot of my favorite works were made in one sitting, or very quickly. There is something about capturing a moment, when all the paint is wet, the colors can mix in with each other and live in the same time and space, physically interacting with each other.

Painting is a kind of slowing down of time, where I am rushing to capture what is contained in a moment — to show the trajectory of movement, and energy in space. Energy can have an overall path through the space of the room, but it can also be contained in a single brush stroke, on an almost microscopic level. One stroke, if imbued with the right sensitivity and empathy, can suffice a whole painting. In the duration of that stroke, so much can be represented — time, duration, light, energy, volume, tension, substance, release and emptiness, void. It has this alchemic quality where you are imbuing this essentially inert, or dead material with feeling and energy.

When vibrations come through the brush, it feels like it is connecting with tremors of anxiety, in a way, or maybe ‘anxiety’ is not right, but just energy, life — and it almost reads as the work of a cartogram, or a seizmograph.

GL:  When you finish a painting, I imagine you're never quite satisfied. One work leads to the next. In the period of inquiry and evaluation between paintings, how much are you looking to your own work for the cues as to what to carry over into the next piece, or to carry further, and how much are you going back to the source material to see what you may have missed? How much does the original serve simply as catalytic to get you going and how much does it continue to serve as a benchmark for your success?

LT: What I achieve in one painting necessarily carries into and informs the next intuitively. It is all intuitive investigation, so I rarely look back at an old painting to try to reproduce something, it has to develop naturally.

I started out with more loyalty to the image, as a way of keeping my bearings. It is important to me too retain that connection to a realistic space that you can enter into. There are endless variables and possibilities as to what can happen with the paint on the brush, and discoveries will occur in the process of painting regardless of how closely I’m following the image.

Some people feel that any painting that is still figurative in some way is tediously clinging to what is known - because if the viewer can identify what they are seeing, that is the end, that will define it for them - and limit its potential meaning. I don’t necessarily feel that way – that illusionistic space is what interests me about painting - the interaction of the illusion with the brutal immediacy and materiality of the paint - the blurring of those boundaries, and the transformation of one into another.

GL:  To this end, that is, to explore the boundaries between illusion and physicality, have you considered taking one of your own paintings as a point of departure in the manner you are now with the Old Masters? I imagine you could end up with a kind of chain, like working up a new image from the ghost left on the plate after pulling a mono-print.

LT: That is an interesting idea. So far I feel that I'm still making discoveries, and have had plenty to investigate working directly from the images, so I haven’t taken that step. I depart more and more from my reference image with every painting, and for that reason I don’t feel that it is holding me back, it just keeps me strongly tied into the perspective, and structure, and gives me more content to work with. It also requires that I see abstractly, and follow that logic through from scratch with each painting. There is something satisfying about having my painting side by side the image, to see exactly how far I can depart from it, without defying it’s logic. Working from the image it is impossible to lose the connection to real space, to nature.

The new direction of my work is becoming more about this notion of creating volume with the gestures of the strokes. I still like it if there can remain a sense of real spacial grounding, but I’m less wedded to the image... I’m interested in what the language of these marks can express in their own right. Right now I’m investigating more prolonged strokes, where I stay engaged for as long as possible without lifting the brush from the canvas. I’m trying to get a feel for the potential of the brush to create volume calligraphically, and to feel it move through space in all these new directions. The prolonged strokes allow for a more tangible experience of time and space. I see these prolonged strokes as kind of dance, navigating through an implied architecture in space.

   

Contact: lainaterpstra@gmail.com
Instagram: @l_terpstra