Graham Birtwistle in discussion with Gerard P. Pas
Reprinted from the exhibition catalogue; "Gerard Pas: The Modular Ambulant"
Authored by Dr. Graham Birtwistle PhD
Pub: Center Art Gallery, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., U.S.A. 1991. (you can visit the gallery by clicking here)
© Center Art Gallery, Calvin College and Gerard P. Pas 1991.
At the turn of the eighties, when I first got to know Gerard Pas, he was undergoing some profound changes. He had just put a stop to a career as a performance artist in which he had been steering by a punk sense of the distasteful and the provocative. One of his main performance themes consisted of an uncompromising focus on his own physical disability: his polio-damaged leg which he showed in a brace (fig. 8) or in a seemingly impossible contortion, hooked around the back of his neck. By 1982 he had turned to painting serene landscapes in an exacting realistic technique. The new work was deliberately antithetical to the old, though by the mid-eighties Pas with some trepidation, as I remember once again picked up the theme of his handicap, this time using the crutch as motif (fig. 11) in objects and paintings and making his striking Red-Blue Wheelchair construction (fig. 5) as a wry commentary on the Rietveld chair, an icon from the early modernist De Stijl movement. In these and subsequent works, which often deal with the human body, the autobiographical elements are still present but they are approached uniquely in complex strategies of theme and artistic language. If there is anything that really underlines the difference between the present-day Pas and the 'punk body artist' of the seventies, it is this current involvement with the interplay of ideas and artistic language and craft. Pas is very much a thinking artist who surrounds his work with a good deal of writing and talking. It was this reasoning approach that I questioned him about when we had a lengthy discussion on a hot afternoon in Amsterdam last July.
Pas has just been emphasizing that he is no modernist, no follower of Enlightenment rationalism. He uses a well-known image: the modernist dissects, like the scientist who kills the frog in order to study it. "But then the scientist has taken away the very thing that makes the frog what it is: its life," he says. Pas sees his own work as directly concerned with life and with "dimensions which can't be measured." His stance is so explicitly anti- rationalistic anti-Cartesian, as he puts it that I am prompted to interject.
"Listening to you now I could think I am sitting opposite a purely intuitive, perhaps expressionistic artist, but in reality your work is very thought-out, very ordered and measured. I find it hard to think of a more rational or analytical artist than you. So how do you keep the frog alive in your work?"
"Well, [laughs] you've got me between a rock and a hard place. Yes, I am extremely analytical in my approach to the language of art. The reason for this is that there are certain fundamental tenets which I want to communicate, so the nature of my work is indeed analytical, but in a didactic manner. I make art in series, bodies of work which are like a thesis with chapters, and they have a polemical purpose. When looking at one specific piece it may be difficult to see how I am 'keeping the frog alive,' but in an exhibition covering several bodies of work the portrait series' and the red-blue works, for example then I think it is possible to see that I am endeavouring to say that there is more than can be observed by the tools of empirical science. Part of that is derived from the pathos and the sardonic humour I use, such as in the Red-Blue Wheelchair.
"There are three tangents which have a bearing on that piece. The first is a pure critique of De Stijl, of modernism. Quite literally I take up the criticism of De Stijl made by Le Corbusier during that period, which, to paraphrase, runs something like: the failure of De Stijl is its absence of curves. So by adding wheels to the Rietveld chair I gave it curves. Now, reasoning in terms of the idealistic notions of the early modernists you would think I had come up with a more complete 'pure' form; to the 'A + B' of De Stijl's rectilinear principles I had added the 'C' of the circle. But the irony is that in adding circles (wheels) to the Rietveld chair I came up with an image that points to human imperfection and frailty. That becomes the second tangent: the pathos, the possibility that the search for purity, the perfect form, actually reveals frailty and points to the human condition (fig. 4). Then thirdly, and on a level which needs no knowledge of art historical references, the chair I made is in fact rather beautiful and since most wheelchairs are rather ugly it can make the point that wheelchairs could use some better designing."
"I'd like to take up that implication of 'beautiful.' In an article printed in Canada you are quoted as saying: 'In punk everything is inverted. Ugly is beautiful and beautiful is ugly. Are you in fact now inverting that inversion and consciously making beautiful things, making beauty mean beauty"
"Quite candidly, the word 'beauty' presents me with a problem since most people in the art world today use it pejoratively. People come to my house and see the new work and say, 'It's very beautiful,' and to be honest I do not know if they are trying to put the work down. So I am reluctant, because of the society I live and work in, to use that word. What I am trying to show is that beauty in and of itself is viable. Let me share an anecdote. In the seventies I used to go to the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) with dark sun- glasses on because I did not want to see the beauty. Vermeer in particular gave me a lot of problems. In my work at the time I tried to be as vile as possible, so in an exhibition' I used things like slaughtered meat until people began to find something aesthetic about it, at which point I destroyed the show. You know, there has always been a therapeutic aspect to my work. When I was coming out of the punk phase I realized that beauty was in reality something that gave me an enormous angst, so I set out to face it and made landscape paintings that were very beautiful. Through this process, I came to realize that you could be selective in creating a scene and leave out the things that were not beautiful. Nature itself is beautiful, but it can also be brutal! As many Canadians know, a few minutes outdoors without a hat in a severe Canadian winter and your ears will suffer from devastating frostbite. My work is not just about beauty but about tensions between ideals of beauty versus frailties, imperfections, brutalities."
"Your work which 're-invents' another famous image from De Stijl, this time the Rietveld house (fig. 9), looks as if it is intended to arouse tensions around ideals of beauty. "
"Yes, because in that work I have combined a living tree with the aesthetic purity of De Stijl, which as most people know involves a denial of individual living forms. But as with the Red-Blue Wheelchair, it can also go through a sequence of implications which turn out to complicate the matter. At first sight, nature seems to prevail over the neo-plastic aesthetic because of the living tree. But then you have to realize what such a bonsai really is. It is the product of absolute human control over nature, the product of a thoroughgoing human intervention in life. And De Stijl also stood for control."
"Many of your pieces completed between 1986 and 1990 make their point by means of a dialogue with works from the heroic phase of modernism (fig. 10) in the 1920's, particularly those of artists like Mondrian or Rietveld from the Dutch De Stijl movement. Now, it seems to me that there are at least two things going on here. One is the post-modern phenomenon of a recycling of earlier styles; your work has already been linked by critics with what has come to be called 'appropriation art.' The other is your specific interest in Dutch modernism. Let's take the last one first. You are Dutch by birth, you worked in Amsterdam in the seventies, and you have been back here almost on a yearly basis through the past decade. This, along with your orientation to De Stijl, points to a question of 'roots.'"
"No doubt about it. I have linked myself to Dutch art and also tried hard to gain recognition in the Netherlands, perhaps as a kind of cultural equivalent of a son trying to win approval from a father figure. But while I've had success in Germany and North America, it hasn't really come in Holland. The Dutch art historian Joop Joosten, an expert on De Stijl, said to me, 'Why do you worry about it?' In fact, I am Dutch and Canadian, but not entirely comfortable in either identity. Much of my recent work has to do with transcending my Dutchness."
"And the post-modernism, the 'appropriation art,' or what someone once described as the 'supermarket effect' of filling your artistic trolley with goodies from the shelves of art history?"
"For me there is no 'supermarket effect.' In looking to the past to movements like De Stijl and Russian Suprematism, I have deliberately set out to understand the historical situation. I have read a lot of art history and come to know many art historians. But I admit that the art historians' reactions to my work are not without problems, chiefly, I think, because of the pathos I introduce into my dialogue with past art, and, of course, the iconoclasm. I don't feel happy being labeled a post-modernist or an appropriation artist. I am more of a pent-up romantic who reacts to his own romanticism in complex ways, such as turning to iconoclasm. I still think in romantic, Hegelian, dialectical terms, and I believe in good and evil. What concerns me is life lived between those two poles. Who knows, [laughs] the post-modern word 'deconstruction' might only apply to me in practical, logistical terms, such as splitting up the painting The Body Politic (fig. 18) as a triptych!"
"But you regularly use the term 'fragmentation' to account for what you are doing with themes like the crutch or the figure. It doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to see fragmentation as a kind of deconstruction, and therefore as related to what many of us call post-modern. Confronted directly about post-modernism you reject it and prefer to be called a romantic, while at other moments you seem to affirm post-modern concepts in an indirect way. Aren't you tending to contradict yourself?"
"Perhaps so. All I can tell you is that I react against being categorized as a post-modern artist. Anyway, since I was never a modernist, I can't see how I could become a post-modernist."
"That is not the point, surely. Some post-modernists are not even old enough to have been modernist! But you do stand in a post relationship to modernism. I can certainly understand your protestations against being categorized, but I can also understand why an art historian like Uli Bohnen' turns to post-modern categories in order to link your work with what is going on in the international art world. In spite of your protests, I too would want to pick out post-modern characteristics in your art and ideas. For instance, it could be interesting to review your anti-Cartesian polemics in the light of what the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff regards as a healthy postmodern critique of modernist limitations.
"I can think of no better term than 'post-modern' for what these all add up to. But then I see post-modernism as representing a broad spectrum, from the search for values in neo-conservatism and neo-classicism right through to full-blown nihilism."
"As you describe it I would certainly concur that I do indeed fall within that definition, although it has never been my conscious intention to adopt a post-modern attitude."
"However, for a couple of years now you do not seem to have been using those deliberate 'quotations' from Mondrian, Rietveld or Malevich, etc., or have I missed some new subtler kind of reference to the past?"
"No, I have come to the point where I've taken some of the things I have learned from my criticism of historical art and am taking further strides towards the continuing development of my own language of art. But in scrutinizing these new works it is more difficult for me to give a synopsis of my actual intentions devoid of those historical references. In a sense those citations have shrouded aspects of my real self. Now I am coming more into the open and as a result feel more vulnerable. There is a continuing polemic with Cartesian thinking and a continuing theme of human frailty, so in the Living Meridian series (figs. 1 and 2) dealing with the man of sorrows, I am challenging the Enlightenment concept of trying to heal the body without healing the soul. Though Chinese medicine is certainly not the be all and end all, at least it does try to heal the soul as well as offer physical remedies. The Living Meridian relates to acupuncture and in piercing the copper I also thought of Joseph Beuys' work, which influenced me earlier on in my career. Copper had a special meaning for Beuys because of its conductivity there's a kind of alchemy going on."
"Your mentioning Beuys prompts me to ask if other, perhaps more implicit than explicit references have now crept into your work. Looking at Figure with Spirals (fig. 14), for example, I am reminded of the way Arnulf Rainer gives a disturbing mask-like effect to faces."
"That's fascinating, I hadn't thought of that. You know, in the seventies I had some correspondence with Rainer about my contortions and his. Perhaps something is leaking through after ten years. Certainly, my recent work is still groping and things are happening in it for which I cannot fully account. I have been very explicit about my intentions in the past, but now my approach is less programmatic and more relaxed. Perhaps I am coming to a synthesis of all that's gone before the language, the primary and secondary colours of the red-blue works, Beuys' influence regarding base materials and so on and this new body of work has to reveal who I am. In a piece like Labyrinth Architecture (fig. 13) I find myself mixing modernist, constructivist forms with very expressionist swirls. You are not supposed to mix two techniques together and right now I draw a blank as to why I have done that."
"Perhaps it's the attraction of the union of opposites."
"Perhaps it is. And it's curious that this could link on to my recent painting, The Body Politic, which shows a couple in sexual union. In the seventies I used to be referred to as a 'body artist' and now I seem to be returning to the body as a theme. But what interests me now is a kind of architecture of the figure, and going from the real to the abstract and back again (fig. 15). Compared with those early performances in which I put clamps on my leg or made myself vomit, my attitude to the body is now very different; it is celebratory. At least, that's how I see the work, but it is up to people like you to respond to it. This new body of work has not been exhibited before so it hasn't yet faced the critics."
Written by Dr. Graham Birtwistle PhD, Amsterdam (1991)
About the Author (1991)
English-born Graham Birtwistle (b.1942- ) studied art history and English literature at Manchester University before lecturing in art history at Leicester Polytechnic. After meeting the Dutch art historian Dr. H. R. Rookmaaker in the mid-sixties he moved to Amsterdam, where he pursued doctoral studies under Rookmaaker. In 1971 he became associate professor- in modern art history at the Free University of Amsterdam, a post which he still holds. In 1974, 1982 and 1989 he guest lectured and taught courses at various colleges and universities in Canada and the United States.
His doctoral dissertation (Living Art, Asger Jom's Comprehensive Theory of Art Between Helhesten and Cobra [1946-1949], Utrecht, Veen/Reflex, 1986) has had an impact on European, British, and American studies of movements like Cobra and the Situationist International. His further publications have frequently dealt with Cobra artists and with thematic, theoretical and historiographical aspects of Cobra. In 1987 he helped to organize an exhibition in the Dordrecht Museum (The Netherlands) on the primitivism of Cobra, and in 1988 he wrote for the catalogue of the major exhibition in the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, which celebrated Cobra 40 Years After.
Birtwistle's most recent publications include studies of the object-art of Marcel Broodthaers and of links between Picasso's Guernica and Constant's war art (Jong Holland, 1991, no. 1 & 2). He also writes for the Dutch philosophical journal Beweging on themes such as post-modernism and the interplay of art philosophy and religion.
contact Dr. Birtwistle at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam firstname.lastname@example.org