G.R.L.. Some of the titles of works you have done in this country are quite place specific, for example, one is called Mesa Verde. Should the viewer be looking for some representation of that particular place in your work?
J.B. If there was a balance in my work in Flanders between perception and concept, I may say that in my confrontation with Mesa Verde and the American Indian country, perception became less important than concept. My visit to Mesa Verde deeply impressed me because of the way that minimalism is apparent in the everyday life of the ancient people who lived there in the rocky cliffs of the canyon. It’s pre-Western, non-art in the purest sense. There was no separation between art, life and nature in that culture.
G.R.L. You have said that working on commissions for specific places in Illinois has been an interesting experience for you because it is in a certain way a return to a classic idea of art vis à vis its environment. Can you expand on that a little?
J.B. I don’t want to go into a debate about public versus private art, because that problem has not yet been resolved, but, yes, I will explain what I meant. Historically speaking, the canvas on its stretcher took the place of the wall, which led us to the equivocal idea of “the picture” as an object that can be moved and taken out of its original environment, unlike, say, the fresco or cave painting. The notion of privately owned art started then, when the object became movable and therefore commercial. By going into a specific place and creating a work for it, I feel that I am exploring the dilemma of public/private art. I don’t think we should have too many illusions that public art is the solution to the relationship gap between the artist and the public today, but, who knows, it may lead us closer to that solution.
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G.R.L. The emphasis in your show for the Zaks Gallery is on oil painting, while most of your work in the past four years had been in acrylic and mixed media. There must be a special reason why you have returned to oils.
J.B. You mean, why do I suddenly start to use a traditional medium to express myself? Well, conceptual art has rejected every manual tradition, but this tradition, particularly oil painting, has always fascinated me. At the same time I’m concerned with the rejection of tradition and the reason for it, and it’s this duality that I am trying to explore. The problem of the writing versus the message is the point of departure for my show at the Zaks Gallery. The message is concerned with our interference with nature, our destruction of our habitat; it’s about a broken equilibrium and the overwhelming threat of isolation.
G.R.L. And to go back to what you said before about the geometric aspects of your earlier work creating a window opening on to the space, it seems that in these oils, and in the acrylic on paper “Impact” series, there is no longer a window, but that the viewer is there, in the space. The confrontation is more immediate.
J.B. Yes, the viewer is more involved, and that’s what I want.
G.R.L. Your acrylic works are more three dimensional than the recent oil paintings, aren’t they? The canvas is sometimes not stretched at all, and sometimes the work is even free-standing, almost like a sculpture.
J.B. Yes, this goes back to what I was saying before about the history of painting. Acrylic has liberated us from the concept that a picture is first of all a flat surface. The traditional support of the canvas by stretchers has become superfluous with acrylic, which opens up unlimited possibilities. Certain of my acrylic works have a solidly constructed center around which the canvas can extend into infinity. With my free-standing works my preoccupation today is still that of a painter rather than a sculptor, whose work is usually created to be totally independent. My free-standing works are still to be viewed in relation to the wall.
G.R.L. Finally, given that you are preparing for two shows simultaneously in the U.S. and Europe, one must ask what you feel about the different approach to art in these two continents.
J.B. That is too big, too vast a question to be resolved in this interview. I must simplify my reply. Perhaps I can say that there are fundamental differences in the approach to art in America. I believe that European art is more complex, more ambiguous, more ideological and that the complexity and ambiguity are often consciously maintained. American painting seems to me more explicit, more radical in its conception. What you see is what it is
[Jan Beekman was interviewed in Chicago for the Zaks Gallery by G. Rickword Lane, in connection with his upcoming one man show at the gallery in late November. He will open a one man show at the International Art Gallery in Lasne, Belgium at the beginning of November.]