Remember when you could be surprised? That sort of feeling before the oversaturation of information in the supermodern highway of social media that you could actually and genuinely see something fresh, new, and, when you saw it, you didn’t immediately have the ability to Google search the shit out of it (read: clicked on the top search result) and become an instant expert in the subject? Yeah, that kind of surprised.
When Dutch painter Arjen “arrived” (something we like to say when we see a body of work that feels immediately assured and organically unique prior to even having a solo show), there was instantaneous mystery. It was just Arjen. He lived in the countryside of the historically art rich nation of The Netherlands. He copied the Old Masters as a kid but quickly became inspired by Salvador Dali and later, George Condo. He was also, we soon found out, a classical violinist. But of course, there were these paintings, twisted figurative forms that had absence and space but something alluring. They appeared to be spawned from a different universe, and yet fully fixated on the human body. It was another mystery to tackle; where were these unearthly works coming from?
On the precipice of his solo show at Richard Heller Gallery this fall, we spoke with Arjen about the ideas of space, movement, Léger and a move from music to muses.
Evan Pricco: Let's get right to it: your art name is just Arjen? When I first saw your name, I thought you must have come from graffiti, where artists love a singular moniker. How did you settle on using Arjen as opposed to a surname?
Arjen: When I was a child, I often visited the local museum where I could see a lot of the Old Masters’ paintings. They often used initials for their signature. The first copy of a Rembrandt painting I made when I was a little teenager I signed with just “Arjen.” After that, I made lots of copies and style imitations which I almost never signed. Nowadays, I sign with just the monogram “A.” I just thought it was nice to choose the first letter of my first name instead of my family name.
The use of my first name on Instagram was initially chosen for privacy reasons. My works are often quite explicit and I was afraid that not everybody would be open-minded or tolerant. I think besides that, my first name feels more personal than my family name. As for graffiti, I never did anything on the street. But I appreciate a lot of graffiti artists. What Banksy does, for example, is really great. His political statements add a lot to the dialogue.
Maybe I will just call you “A” from now on in this interview! I wanted to extend congratulations on the show in Paris at Stems this summer. For me, it felt a little like a departure, something about your use of space and the advantages of space seemed to come through. Did it feel like the beginning of a new era for you?
Thank you! As I only had my first works on display less than two years ago, it’s been great to start off by having my work presented at art fairs and group shows. Now I’ve grown into making solo presentations, where the combination of works and space can create an atmosphere that adds to the experience of every single painting. It is an important aspect, and for me, a new element to explore.
How important, then, is space in your work?
I love the feeling of space. When you look at the vast blue sky, for example, you see this wonderful gradual change of value in color. I often use this effect in the background of my paintings. No matter the color, it always gives me a feeling of vastness. This gradual change also happens within the figures, where it has the function to suggest plasticity, which is another facet of space. But the most important thing is that the painting is alive and has a soul. The feeling of space is just a vehicle.
Every time I see a new painting of yours I can’t help but think about movement. The artists you cite as influences, like Condo, Léger, and Dalí, are artists that really worked on the idea of movement in their works. I wonder if you have ever taken influences from animation or film? It seems like it could work.
Yes, I think I have. My little son and daughter often watch all these Disney series on TV, these extremely clean, joyful, and colorful worlds with lots of decorative elements. It has a very powerful attraction, and it made me think about how I could use this in my work. I like the effect of simplicity, aliveness, and innocence that these animations evoke. It brings back the child in you. I see the influence of Disney productions in a lot of contemporary art, Nicolas Party or Emily Mae Smith, in particular.
The suggestion of movement is an interesting phenomenon in a painting. It is very special to suggest activity and aliveness on a surface. A figure itself can suggest movement by its own outlines, and on top of that, it can suggest motion by virtue of posture or gesture. I actually use my intuition to express movement and activity. Line and movement are, in my mind, always connected.
Your career and notoriety emerged in the pandemic, or I guess we can just say “the lockdown” now. Did the stoppage really get you focused on something you wanted to do?
The lockdown certainly got me out of the routines that I had. Being a professional musician, I had my lessons and concerts, and suddenly everything was online and there were no performances. Because we live in the countryside with lots of space, I can say that I was lucky. The lockdown really felt like a time-out for me.
I have been painting all my life but my job as a musician was quite demanding so painting was never my main activity. The lockdown gave me the opportunity to reset my life. When this new style I developed started to emerge, I wanted to focus more on visual art.
With classical music, you bring alive a work that a composer wrote. I’ve always felt so grateful to be able to play some of the most beautiful pieces of music and see people emotionally touched by it. But when I paint or sketch, I completely create my own world, and it's so great to create something completely new. The excitement it gives is such bliss! And after all the successes that came with this change to fine art, I decided to leave my job as a musician and devote all my time to making paintings. Playing the violin has now become a hobby.
And you jumped quite quickly into the contemporary art world. I assume it was a shock to the system. How did the sudden attention from collectors hit you? And how is that for you at the moment, especially with shows in Paris and now LA coming up?
It still feels unreal. It really happened all so fast. There has hardly been any time to reflect. The agenda is always fully booked. But I enjoy meeting with collectors, gallerists, other artists, and curators very much. I met so many really great and lovely people that I would never have met if it wasn’t for the art! I try to enjoy the moment as much as I can. In between making paintings, I draw a lot to explore new ideas. In the back of my mind, there are things going on for new ways of expression.
Obviously, there is surrealism in your work just as a style, as well as an undeniable element sex and almost playful, absurd erotica. Have you explored that side a bit more in your recent work?
I like to let my imagination go on several emotions and characters and how they could be expressed in constructions of elements of the body. As a musician, I’m used to transforming emotions and characters into sound. As an artist, a similar process leads to an image. That’s how my mind works. It’s translating and transforming all the time. Not in words, but between emotion, character, sound, and image. Otherwise, I probably would have become a writer.
As a mental instrument, I try to see how different aspects of life can interfere with one another and how this leads to a result that I can use in my portraits and figures to give them more layers for me to experience. Every character, expression, or manifestation of life can be interesting and useful. This sometimes leads to these playful absurd erotic images, and I have a couple of them in my upcoming solo show. The erotic elements also depict a sense of freedom of expression and being, without being troubled by the judgment of other people.
What's your favorite body part to manipulate?
Too many, haha! Breasts, tongues, lips, teeth, arms, legs, hair, eyes. Actually, body parts that have simple and elegant features which give me the freedom to improvise on, or to put them in an unusual setting, are my favorite. I’m also intrigued by body parts that in certain contexts could be experienced in different ways that can bring the painting alive in unusual ways.
What you do actually reminds me of something Fernand Léger once wrote: "Enormous enlargements of an object or a fragment give it a personality it never had before, and in this way, it can become a vehicle of entirely new lyric and plastic power." I assume this resonates with you?
It surely does. It is beautifully formulated in a poetic way. This deformation in size and form is very important for me and has now become such an important element in my way of thinking. I can hardly imagine going without it. I’m always looking for simple and universal principles to work with. People normally pay attention to things that derive from the normal and usual. They get curious. The stronger the aberration, the stronger the attention.
On the other hand, people also look for elements of harmony, balance, order, naturalness, and simplicity. The thrill and the comfort. For me, this is something important to notice in the creative process. To be able to bring both sides together is a great challenge. If there is a paradox hidden in an image, one can be intrigued. I always feel like a child with a new toy when I have drawn something new that surprises and confuses me at the same time. Something incomprehensive and enigmatic. It’s fascinating. Just like in music, you can create a sensation that cannot be described in words. The things I want to express in my paintings are the feelings that you experience which have no access to words. They are states of mind, characters, and personalities that can enrich communication between people. I think science starts with mystery, and art ends with it.
When you look back on art history, you feel quite overwhelmed by all the great things that have been done. At the same time, you have a lot to be inspired by. There must still be so many new ways to create. Even though I don’t see them, just the sheer idea of infinity opens up my mind and creative energy.
"I like clear, articulated ideas that are easy to distinguish from one another. The more fundamental and simpler, the more enthusiastic I get about it."
Who was the last painter or painting that you saw that moved you in a way that influenced your work in the studio?
Oh, there is a lot, especially works with a strong and simple organization. In general, I like clear, articulated ideas that are easy to distinguish from one another. The more fundamental and simpler, the more enthusiastic I get about it. For instance, I love the way Mondrian gradually developed his style from landscapes and trees towards his minimal abstract compositions. In my works, I try to get a maximum expression with a minimum of elements. I also like to have a different sensation with every different work of art.
I look a lot at art. Inside every great image, some elements resonate in my mind, and some don’t. To distinguish that is a challenge for me. Normally you like something, or you don’t. But for me as an artist, I think it’s necessary to analyze it and understand more precisely which element speaks to you and which doesn’t. I believe that everybody has a complex inner chord that resonates with the impressions of the world around us and awakens us to become creative. This is an ongoing process. I think that this chord is our personal creative source.
When René Magritte saw the works of Giorgio de Chirico, he had to cry and knew what he had to do. There were elements in this work that set him on the road for his own style. I think one needs to start somewhere. No one can create out of a vacuum. In the beginning, to a certain extent, you may need to imitate what you like and see in order to get familiar with technique, materials, etc. Afterwards, you can shake off all the things that don’t belong to you in order to release your own voice and grow in authenticity. But to answer your question more specifically, the colorful works by David Hockney have been very stimulating lately.
Your next show is in Los Angeles this fall with Richard Heller Gallery, and I imagine that this is exciting, just based on the subject matter of manipulating the body, something LA does quite well. What are you thinking about for this next show?
It’s great that people can have their bodies altered in a way that reflects their inner feeling about themselves. For the show, I’m trying to create an atmosphere of joy, happiness, and freedom with a touch of craziness and absurdism. It would be great if people look at my paintings and just let their own imagination run freely about what it depicts to them.
When I was a kid, I played in an orchestra, and we had an exchange with another youth orchestra in Iowa. We went for three weeks to Iowa City and Chicago. After that, I’ve never been to the US again. I’m very curious to see the relationship between the world of Los Angeles and my paintings. I imagine LA to be vibrant and colorful, just as I like my paintings to be, so I think they will feel at home there!
Arjen’s solo show with Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica, California opens in November 2023.