Michiel Ceulers

Michiel Ceulers Interview - By Steven Cox

The core of Michiel Ceulers practice is an exploration into the process of painting, and despite being aware that the medium is inseparable from the history connected to it, Ceulers has chosen to toy with association in order to free it from the ruling reigns of historical contextualisation.  How do you kill your wife’s lover when you were raised like me with tradition? (2012) underlines Ceulers awareness that one cannot fully escape legacy, though it is possible to reinvigorate it.  Whilst simultaneously,  The Difference Between Knowing The Path and Walking The Path (2010), not only references Morpheus from The Matrix, though highlights Ceulers decision to create a new pathway, and for himself to travel along it.

Despite being mentored by Michael Borremans at the Koninklijke Academie door Schone Kunsten | KASK | Ghent, Ceulers never fully completed his undergrad or Masters in painting.  Ceulers' questions the act of painting through abandoning the traditional do's and don'ts.  His work is framed using cardboard as opposed to wooden or metal frames, his work is also stored at times with the wet surfaces facing in on each other.  His surfaces are also subject to severe mishandling.  Despite this, it works and is exciting.  So much so, by the age of 26, Ceulers work had been exhibited within curatorial projects alongside the works of many historical greats: Gerhard Richter, Roy Lichtenstein and Sol LeWitt, to name a few.  His work has continued to gain mass attention, and rightfully so.  

What follows is an interesting dialogue that took place on the 3rd of January 2013,  Enjoy.

To begin, I am interested in your past solo exhibition at Mihai Nicodim Gallery in May-July 2012 that was given a title from an old Jacques Brel song “Comment Tuer l’Amant De Sa Femme Quand On A Été Élevé Comme Moi Dans La Tradition”, which from French translates to “How to Kill Your Wife’s Lover When You Were Raised Like Me With Tradition?” This title for your exhibition and titled painting fittingly summarizes your personal abandonment of traditional painting, whilst similarly hinting at your awareness that the artist cannot escape the history of painting.  Do you feel that it is possible to ever escape the legacy of painting, or alternatively, in the words of Ezra Pound, “make it new”?

MC: I think it’s tricky actually, of course I know what the title implies, though I think it’s always a struggle you have, for people always expect you to reinvent yourself, like you have to belong to a tradition though you also have to generate your own voice and even in the Academy you are obliged to be unique or something.  Yet, they always imply that you are part of a tradition or school or something.  I think it’s hard.

So yeah, the title comes from that, but also because of another show I did was also named after Jacques Brel because I like his music.  It was called “Des malentendus Et Le temps perdu” which is from Ne Me Quitte Pas, which in a sense you could also read in to that sense of thing.

An abandonment of traditional painting is hard; I don’t think you can do it.  That’s just the struggle of it I think.

How do you think your approach to painting hints at the history of painting, whilst simultaneously making it new?

MC: Yeah of Course, you are part of that history so you hint at it through titles.  Though making it new?  It’s something you try to do automatically.  You don’t think you really want to do something that somebody else did before.  It is already there, though you cant deny it.  But it is also the idea that you look a lot at what painting is, and its legacy, and try to figure out where you are going. Though, at the same time you are looking at other people and trying to analyze yourself through observing affinities with other work and painters. Or just like the idea of zeitgeist.

I think say around 10 years ago it was all figurative painting then abstraction came back, but you saw a lot of younger kids playing with optical effects.  So, it’s that kind of thing where you are trying to constantly renew yourself, because you don’t want to feel like you are in a factory constantly repeating yourself whilst you also want to create a signature and want to relate to other things and comment on things through your work.

How would you compare your older process of making work to how you do so now?

MC: Well, in the Academy I was just painting like shit loads and I was making both abstract work and figurative work but I used a lot of stupid imagery, Like Where’s Waldo? Or Lucky Luke or something, because you have in Belgium with the whole kind of idea of Luc Tuymans, which there was a lot around in the Academy though you had an image to work from but actually the meaning of the painting was derived from the meaning of the picture, so that was already the subject and that’s how the meaning of the painting was to be read. So, I didn’t want to do that, and for me, it was just the most acceptable thing to do…just paint Lucky Luke.  I could do it in a lot of different crappy kind of ways but people would just accept it for what it was, it was a common figure and everyone would recognize it but yet there is no politics in it.

So how did you develop from initially producing representative paintings to the type of works you make today, of which explore techniques not so commonly associated with traditional painting?

MC:  Well, one of my paintings called Der Maler, was made using the Wachet auf effect, it was the first work I thought I really hit something.  Imagery can come from anywhere and I found that T-Shirts also had that kind of motif, and for me I thought it was kind of interesting though also too direct a quotation from what it was.  I actually then found a book on Op Art that used this motif on the cover though it was really interesting that on one hand it was one of the last ism’s that was really theoretically underbuilt, but at the same time, it was recycled through something poppy and cool and youth culture orientated, it was something quite flashy.  And I kind of liked the idea of the word in it, as it just says painting, and I like the idea of your eyes really having trouble adjusting to it.  Even the little imperfections in it really changed the composition of it, like drastically!  Just the little touches, the accidents but actually the painting was really honest about what it was, it was just an illusion! If you could read it at heart, it was just a painting! It is like what you see is what you get, which all painting is in a sense are, though others attach some sort of magical idea like say romanticism or whatever, and I thought for me it was really important in that idea of painting Lucky Luke that it was really still honest and universal in a sort of sense, it wasn’t trying to be smart.

So in what year were these paintings made?

MC: I think 2008.

Was this during your last year in the Academy?

MC: Yeah, then after that one painting was another titled, Red White and Fucking Blue, which had the colours red, white and blue.  And Then I did another one that I showed in London, it was more of a literal development of this approach without the need for the joke.

Has there been much of a development in how you use source material?

MC: It’s more thought through, before it was more spontaneous, and now I think it’s truer.  I don’t make a lot of studies or anything, but I do it in my head a lot of the time so I am thinking about it, because if you see the grid paintings, they are actually a doubling of the older paintings, like if you have the diagonals, its the same but I actually thought over and through the way I wanted to do that, and just the idea of how some are really damaged and scraped off, but the idea of the imprint of paint instead of the paint itself wasn’t the thing really important about it, or the idea of layering paint but with a compressor, like really physically easy painting wet on wet because you don’t put force or pressure on it, because you are not using a brush. Those kind of things, really thinking it through, about how materials work in relation to each other, so it’s becoming more about the process than the idea rather than the representational side, yet sometimes I contradict myself on that, deliberately.

Lets talk a little bit about two things we brought up there. What is the importance of the grid now within your work and how do you see this developing into a different sphere?  Also, can you talk about the processes of how you achieve this within painting?

MC: What I was really fascinated about was just the idea of the image in it, that just because you go from the diagonals and then doubling it, you suddenly arrive at the whole idea of modernism through the grid.  For me, it is more about the process rather than the final image, but yet everyone reads it and perceives it as an image despite it being abstract.  I always think it is interesting, for me being a young painter, I am not scared about the politics in it, but I am interested in the possibilities of abstract painting because it is politically dead.  It failed, it’s like the idea of Malevich going from the peasants to the black square then going back again.  So there is not really much to say, but because of that there is a possibility to explore that and then you really move towards that idea of modernism being what it is and there is nothing more, and you are already at that point of 0 degrees, which I think is really interesting to work with.

So you do feel that you can focus more so on the development and exploration of technique without being too concerned with the associated politics?

MC: Yeah, because it gives you freedom I think and it gives more attention to the painting.  Like I said, my attraction to painting is more about the process, but yet you are aware of how people read it.  Like, I was also in this group show at the Kunst Museum in Stuttgart, titled Rasterfahndung, Tracing the Grid.  Gerhard Richter was also in the exhibition.  It is really amazing what history is connected to grid, I am also aware of that, though that wasn’t my first interest in the grid, though I think it is really fascinating in how one gets to the other and even how something as abstract as the grid is in the end an image.  I actually also like the grid is a negative of everything that I do, because I redraw the material once I remove the tape, so the grid in itself is a leftover that’s being perceived as an image but its more about the process that I constructed, and for me, my paintings are getting bigger and prettier, especially in the grid paintings.  It is also getting really exciting because it is also getting to that point of 0 degrees where its really utopian, like in the idea of my white on white paintings, I’m really getting calmer and more decisive with it.

There is a sense of purity in your new white paintings, how purposeful is this purity?

MC: Yes, it is also about the idea that you have to kill your darlings.  The thing was, the optical paintings that were a bit of a hit, if I sold something that was one of those paintings and I thought I didn’t want to continue doing that I would have to think about how I would finish the series.  I then just doubled the process and I got a different image, but in the beginning it wasn’t that successful and people were still asking for the line paintings, which in a sense is fair but people saw those and began to know me too well for that body of work.  It was getting too pretty and colourful and I wanted to tone it down as a way to get out of it.

It appears that the way you create the grid effect is through using some sort of plastic grid that is placed on top of the canvas, where the paint is then applied on top, sort of acting like a stencil.  Though the scale of the squares are not perfect or identical throughout your works.  Can you discuss how you create the grid effect within your paintings?

MC: The process is very arbitrary, its not like I use a mold or stencil, I just use tape.  You also see that I frame them a lot, recently I started framing them with plexi to really show that, its just 6mm masking tape that I use.  I like to delay it to begin, it really reminds me of some kind of abstract dance that I am doing because the paintings are made laying flat on sawhorse table legs, and then I begin doing the under painting where I am mostly working with gesso or gloss paint, something that kind of dries quick then I am on it with spray paint atop of this acrylic base, and with those grids I also use a roller, the type you use to paint walls.  When you work close with the spray paint you can see it become liquid again.  So, I create those drips, and because it is wet on wet, when you go over with the roller you create an immediate stencil.  So you can create an expressionistic mark that is really being copied, its like the whole idea of the drip mark being fake as it can be copied and it can then be placed in a different location or upside down because you are rolling it wherever.  I do this until I am satisfied that it has created some sort of foggy atmosphere and then I begin taping the grid.  When I tape the grid I begin in one direction then the other and sometimes people help me with that.

It must take a long time?

MC: It takes around 3 hours or something; you can also tell when someone has helped me.  To compare when somebody has helped me, in the middle of the canvas there is a zip or a V kind of thing because the tape is never going to be perfectly aligned. So the friend of mine who helps me with this helps motivate me more with this work, as it is easy to delay.  He starts from one side with me on the other and we meet in the middle but then we have that kind of V / Zip shape or something.  I then cover everything with white oil paint, but for me its more of a physical layer, so I apply this at random then I spray here and there on it with what is mostly a darker colour like blue or gray or black, but not everywhere and then I start to untape the work.  But, also because I am not that big but the works are getting bigger, I can’t really remove the tape all at once but during that moment of removing the tape the paintings are standing up.  So they go from the down position to the up position and I have to go behind them and actually turn them around so because of that the side from where I remove the tape changes so when you are actually looking at the paintings details you can really see how some of the white paint is bending over from the direction which I pulled the tape.  There are a lot of little nuances and little things that are actually at random but I like the idea that actually it is generated because of the whole movement, or say if I bumped into something, or the if the white oil paint is applied thicker at one point than another so the whole thing is generated by itself, and with the later painting, I discovered that if I really let the spray paint become more liquefied again through the compressor and spray on one point it crawls under the masking tape.  So you get these echoes, and also with the darker paintings, because I add medium to the oil paint at random, and you can tell where it has been added because the paint is more liquefied.  All these small nuances are what interest me within the work. 

Actually, the more it fails in that sense makes it better for me.

So you are really interested between this dichotomy between control and chance, and how some aspects are unplanned?

MC: I can manipulate it, but for me of course I work in series, therefore it is a lot about repetition, but I couldn’t do that at that moment, I like it that I am the first beholder, like I don’t pull off only one bit of tape from the side, I make the tape loose and if there are 20 bits loose I will remove them at once.  I like that I see it becoming, you see the result of the entire process at that final moment of removing the tape, and for me it is really interesting to me, almost magic.

Through using this process, have you accidently ruined a painting by perhaps making an error in the final stages?

MC: Oh yes, but that is also why I have made the collage series.  In a sense I can always cut them up and paste them on something so there is never an idea of failure as you can always recuperate it or manipulate it. 

I was talking about that with a curator, and actually it has a lot to do with the whole Bruce Nauman kind of thing, an artist is what an artist does in the studio, like the studio is a domain of possibilities so its where things can be generated.

I want to talk about your painting titled Corpse After Negating Visual Art Strategies (C-A-N-V-A-S), can you tell me about this work?

MC: That is actually from a Michel Krebber show that he did semi recently, called C-A-N-V-A-S, Uhutrust, Jerry Magoo and guardian.co.uk Painting.  The title C-A-N-V-A-S actually comes from the title of a blog made by one of his students, and then after he did the show they went offline, they changed the name, it was still C-A-N-V-A-S but then they changed it to Can Anyone Not Visualize Art Situations?  That was the new synonym of it, I kind of liked the idea of the dynamics between them, and also when I was at the Rijksakademie once we talked about how people who have dyslexia often use language within their work, I am always fascinated by language.  That’s why for me it is always necessary to name something and the idea of making something and just calling it Untitled for me seems not done and I always like that it is not trying to be smart assed or whatever but it is something on its own, sometimes it describes it or jokes at it in a way, but it should be bigger than the piece itself, because if art is the clichéd thing that they say about communication, I don’t want it to be just one line.

Where are you positioning your views on painting by titling your work Corpse After Negating Visual Art Strategies?

MC: The whole idea of painting I find quite absurd, I like painting a lot, but I am also quite skeptical towards it at the same time.  I don’t think paint, as a medium on its own is like the most prestigious medium there is, I think painting these days is really hard because you have the history of it.  But I don’t think you should feel guilty because of that because a lot of different mediums actually refer always to painting.  I know I don’t want to feel guilty with it, so maybe there is a subconscious thing to perhaps laugh it away and to not take it too seriously.  I don’t want to sound to cynical on that level, but I don’t really believe in it.

I find the notion of laughing away something seriousness is similar to what happens in Le moribund by Jacques Brel.  This song is partly humorous though at its core it is both serious and sad.  Do you feel that despite the seriousness of painting and it’s history, for you it is important to approach painting in a light hearted manner in order to keep the medium from going stale?

MC: Of course, the whole history of painting is fiction.  How many times have artists who we forgot suddenly become hip again?  For instance, you didn’t really hear about Paul Thek, not as a painter, but it’s like the whole thing is so flux like.  It doesn’t mean anything and I think if you would over-dramatize it you can’t stand in your studio if you really over intellectualize the whole idea of the depth of it, I think that’s really the 80’s / 90’s period, where it was said that painting was dead, and if you were to approach it like that, then there is no way you can end up in a studio just holding a brush.

Lets move on a bit, I am interested in how you value your own work as it is noticeable that you frame your own paintings using a cardboard edging.  This being interesting as cardboard is a very disposable material and in being that, it is very honest.  You clearly do not feel the need to tart up your work by attaching expensive wooden or metal frames to your work, though what is it about this contrast that you like?

MC: Yeah it is, but it is also another aesthetic as I present it as a bit more cheap and dirty or whatever, though as a material I think it’s just nice as it’s everywhere.  Like, people see it a hundred times in the street and if you ever need it, it’s everywhere.  It’s like paper bags in the States, when I was there I was drawing a lot on them, its disposable and everywhere so it’s very accessible.  Though in a sense by doing that it also approaches a bit of a punky attitude, but also everything is an aesthetic. I kind of like to play with it, and I also like the idea, especially in relation to the grid paintings, I can kind of hide the masking paper edges with them, but in a sense the whole pattern is repeated because of the corrugated edging.  I also like how it comments on the painting, as the card is a negative of what is on the paintings it self.

So lets look at the damaging aspect, for cardboard wouldn’t manage to sustain from damage, as it is a semi-delicate material in contrast to that of a wooden frame.  To what degree is the framing as important as the painting itself and how comfortable are you with the replacement of the cardboard edging if damage would unfortunately happen?

MC: It is replaceable and I wouldn’t mind it.  For me the idea is more about the object with that.  Think about the frame, or pasting panels together, or screwing panels together from the front side, Its more about the painting as the physical thing so I wouldn’t mind people spinning the painting around to re-do the cardboard, I would like it if they would just tell me as I wouldn’t like to see the painting like 5 years later and they have put something red around it or whatever.  That kind of thing I would like to control, though as an Idea I don’t mind it. 

So what have you got planned for 2013? 

MC: Shit loads; it’s going to be really busy actually!  I made some new QR paintings that are going to be presented at the art fair, LA Art Contemporary.  Actually with these paintings, all the QR codes link to the same video, but I created links between them, each code is different, but the video is about how to make White Russian cocktails.  There are 2 possible titles, either I call them Spirit Paintings because of the idea of alcohol spirit, but also because of the idea that there is a real meaning in them that maybe you really can’t tell unless you really participate within a piece.  The other one is Commodity Paintings For White Russians.  I also like the idea of new money and how it invests in everything, and also just a practical description of what it does so they are like really simplistic, and actually quite shitty paintings, but I kind of like them.  A friend of mine said, “I don’t really like them, but it’s good you did them”, and I thought that was quite a compliment from him, he was honest.  So I am going to make those, which is a series of seven.  Four are going to LA and three of them are going to be in a group show in Madrid.  I also want to make monochromes….

Do you know the song it’s not easy being green? ; It is by Kermit the Frog, so I want to make green paintings, but really like shitty green paintings and I want to use the type of green used in backdrops in like Sci-Fi movies, and say the labels in theatres, I like the idea of a painting as a backdrop, where people can think that they would look good above my couch, or just the idea because its green you can animate it.  It might have a physical presence though you can animate it.  I am fascinated with the idea of digitalization, and sometimes I even call the grids, pixel paintings.

I have also found 2 versions of the song it’s not easy being green sung by Kermit the Frog, a version of Big Bird singing it because of the death of Jim Henson and then there is Kermit the Frog singing the song with Ray Charles, and there is also a version of Ray Charles singing the song for the 20th anniversary of the Muppets.  So I think I would like to, if I do sell these big, chunky and messy green paintings, I want them to come with a USB stick containing this song.  I do like the idea and possibility of the animation of them.

Where does this idea of making a body of work around Sesame Street or The Muppets come from?

MC: Again, it kind of like comes from the same idea of the stupidity of the imagery or honesty about it.  Come on, the whole idea of the romance between Miss.Piggy or Kermit is just like wow, I recently re-watched a scene I once saw when I was a kid of them on their bicycles, it was really amazing, though you know how fake it is!  The idea of animation in them I think is really fascinating, and how easily we want to be fooled. 

Do you feel that you want the viewers of your paintings to approach your work in the same manner, as a child would appreciate the Muppets?

MC: In a sense, but I also want to have that kind of wandering and everything, but also the realization of what it is, how the object works and how you are being manipulated by it.  It’s about your own relationship with it.  I like the idea that you want to believe in it, that’s something that I find so fascinating in art, this, as I perceive is a good piece and that I believe in it.  But sometimes it is so hard to explain if you see a piece and you don’t really like it.  Yet, you know, It can be one little detail that you can’t put your finger on but because of that you don’t believe in it, it’s not authentic.

I am interested in this idea of believing in a work, do you feel that it is too easy to see if a work is honest or a bit of a lie?

MC: Sometimes there is the idea of zeitgeist but there is also the idea of tendencies or fashions.  Sometimes you see a lot of that, it’s difficult to say that for real, but just your physical response on that and say the knowledge of the prior body of work, you really are a bit like this has really just been produced to look like something that maybe is considered just by everybody as being a good piece.  For instance, raw canvas these days is just the Joe Bradley kind of fashion. Just think about that, however, I am not saying that its true but as a perceiver, you have that indication of saying that this is a general expression.

It’s very evident today that many new artists are replicating fashions and styles that come and go very quickly in order to appear hip.  Though referring to the last question, what are your views on the idea of an artist conforming to fashions, and what would be your feeling if you discovered an artist copying elements of your painting?

MC: Well, I don’t know, I wouldn’t like to see that on like say a professional level. Or, It depends; say if somebody does that as an idea or a comment like to take the piss out of me, if it’s really well done, I wouldn’t find it easy to be honest because you also have the thing of the ego.  But, I wouldn’t mind that as a thing if it’s just like a copy for the idea of being fashionable, but on a professional level, I would be insulted by it.  But say, I go to an academy and there’s like two kids still studying and they are trying something out, I don’t know, it’s like the whole idea also about how you communicate it.  If you were to make a whole solo show about it, and it’s like just something that I could do then I am a bit like OK easy, but if its just someone who is sincerely searching and trying stuff out, then well I suppose everyone has made copies.  Everyone has tried something out, and when you have some artist’s books in your studio and your really checking it, you do try to simulate what they did.  I think it’s all about how it is done and in which way.

Once upon a time, it was common for artist’s to replicate their masters in order to gain technical and craft based skills, though today it’s almost as if many artists are replicating the hip and fashionable styles just in order to appeal to the mass-internet and general market audience.  Therefore on an international level, it is quite easy to discover early career artists all creating very similar work…

MC: Yes, that’s the whole thing, I really believe in the idea of zeitgeist.  It’s almost not possible anymore to be original, yet you can be authentic.  That’s a whole different thing.  There are so many people working now these days so of course there will be similarities.  So, and sometimes it’s really interesting how it goes, though sometimes you really see artists like Albert Oehlen and Christopher Wool who are really building a dialogue with each other in life and through their work, but also some artists have affinities and it is really interesting to see that, but of course you just have to look everyday at contemporary art to see what to do in the studio.  So, it’s really accessible to see what’s hip, what has been produced and what should be produced.  Also, think about how many times you hear about the same name being dropped by people saying that you should really look at that guy or you should look at that girl?  Also, its about the whole idea of the education in it, I think is also really problematic.

I am interested to know who are your references or inspirations, and how these may have had an influence on your work?

MC: I really like Martin Kippenberger of course, Walter Swennen, Sigmar Polke, Dieter Roth, it’s quite broad once I begin naming, there’s quite a lot.  I like the idea of the poetry of it; it’s quite important and the games that are being played.  Like how Kippenberger just bought a Richter and made a piece out of that, or Deiter Roth who poured some coke and sugar onto some drawing and that’s a piece, or lets his salami go rotten.  I like the idea of the artist as a magician.  Also with Polke, the idea of alchemy and also the humor in it, I kind of like Richter but I don’t think he is a nice person.  If I saw the work of Polke, I can really imagine him as a joyful creature, really fascinated with that kind of people who I find inspiring.

How would you like your viewer to perceive your work?  Would you like the viewer to approach your work in a particular manner or to be free to have a fully unique interpretation?

MC: Oh Yes, I think I mentioned something like this before; I don’t like my work to be one-dimensional.  I kind of like the idea of the physical presence being really important, actually my work is hard to document but also because I don’t do it that well, and then only use black and white photographs of my work.  I really think for me, and the people who experience it, the physical relationship is really important and that you have to engage and live with it and that it is really hard to show through documentation because of that.

Are there any elements within your work that you think people miss or don’t notice?

MC: I don’t know about that.  Sometimes, I think it is possible to misread the humor in it.  I Google myself from time to time, and sometimes I read what people write about my work and I am like, yes, yes, yes but NO.  I kind of feel like they are going down the right track, but then it feels like they went left at some corner when they should have gone right, or that kind of thing.

Michael Ceulers

All images courtesy of Michiel Ceulers, Nicodim Gallery, Schau Ort and Rod Barton