Jelle van den Berg

There is a lightness to Jelle van den Berg’s work. His performances, paintings, watercolours and ceramics appear to be controlled by space. Cyclical and reflexive, he seems to return to ideas over time, as if in a constant conversation with the near and the far. In Issue 40, Lucy Stranger chatted to van den Berg about his colourful, collaborative practice.

You were born in the Netherlands. When did  you move to Australia?
I was here in 1982 visiting family and that is when I met Debra Dawes. We spent six months in the Netherlands and came back here because she was studying at Sydney College of the Arts. In that period we started a small gallery called Union Street Gallery, and that started a whole change of events of working collaboratively with people in artist-run spaces. That went on into the 1990s.

Did the shift in landscapes and light between the different countries appeal to you?
I am a grey painter, so it is good in the Netherlands – it is all about tone. That is what I look for everywhere. The landscape in Australia creates enormous contrasts, which is really good to have.

You create text-based works, figurative still-lifes and non-objective painting. What were your foundations in art?
My study was a very traditional one, I was very strongly influenced by the way painting is technically, and at the same time was exposed to people who were working with Fluxus and Surrealism. All my peers were not very influenced by the old-fashioned school but I was. It was interesting to move between those two approaches, I have always loved to question every work.

How do you begin a work?
A work needs to present itself, rather than you thinking it up, it can’t be a design. To make a painting I need to do quite a lot of work to prepare for it, so the drawings are essential in that process. I will do two or three drawings of a similar idea and come back to it three years later.

How important is time to your work?
The time element is good. I need to find a historical link to the work, so I like to find a precedent in old art. There also has to be a performative aspect to the work. Most of the work I have done through the years has been to include other people in my actions. It is not really performance art because when I was doing performance work it was always to make fun of it. I am trying to be light and make light of connections and then look at them. A lot of the paintings show humour when you first look at them, a lot of that comes out in the objects that I choose to paint.

Do you create performative links in your composition of objects?
Yeah, well usually if I do a bit of an installation work I move them around a bit to find the perfect spatial arrangement. A spatial arrangement is not something that happens cerebrally, it happens through my work with other people. Someone comes to my studio and rearranges the objects a little, because they like to pick them up and put them back down. That seems perfect to me because I didn’t do it. It is often a small gesture it can be as simple as a little bowl suddenly taking on a whole different meaning. I think about that as a connection to animism where an object has a soul.

What is your process of collaboration?
When I collaborate with people we often begin making clay objects, making a pinch pot, which is the simplest way. And as soon as it is a pinch pot it turns into a bowl and we have tea in it and it is raku. It is ancient. It is a small ritual towards simply sitting. The best ceramic work I have ever done, which is a tiny little bowl, we pinched and folded it over and it turned into a clog. My friend Didier Balez fired it for me and it was the most beautiful little object.

Your partner Debra Dawes is a non-objective artist. Is there a discussion or collaboration of ideas between you two?
Yes, we have seen a lot of work together in all sorts of places, so whatever we see we discuss, and the merits we find in art are of a spatial dynamic. It doesn’t necessarily mean figurative or abstract, it means all sorts. There is always this interaction between us – what is in the equation of the space? It applies to every work.

What is more important, the object or the space?
The object is only defined by the space, it is not the object that matters, it’s the space that matters. In all the teaching that I have done, the one thing I try to get across to students is to look at the space.

Your work is quite cyclical; there is a long history between the bodies of works.
I constantly go back over things for some reason. I may have discovered something in one work that didn’t cover all the bits in my mind. I don’t come back straight away because it is too boring. So you move on.

Your painting surfaces vary greatly. What directs you?
You have to consider how long does it take to paint a work. Most paintings are conceived within a short frame. They will be painted lightly and with a thin brush. The time I used to paint those thick paintings, they were done in a very short period of time, with a strong limitation that they had to be done in two hours. I’ve always thought the beauty with painting is that if you can see the process from beginning to end in the layers, how it is made, whether a work is open or closed is extremely important.

You work with watercolour first and then oils. What is your relationship with these mediums?
Watercolour is what I really love, and that is what I do when I think of something. And it is quicker and more complicated; it has a very fine balance. I am working on a show that is all watercolour and the next couple of years I will do an oil painting related to the watercolours. They map things out.

Jelle van den Berg is represented by Gallery 9, Sydney

EXHIBITION
Jelle van den Berg | Good Signs/Thick and Thin
17 May – 17 June 2018
Weswal Gallery, Tamworth, NSW