While digital technology definitely opened new possibilities in the development of Op art, we can't help but feel that its accessibility somewhat reduces the impact of such work. In this regard, learning that a certain work with an accented digital, artificial feel has been produced without the use of computers, certainly adds to its appeal. Additionally, things seem to become increasingly more interesting when such work mixes the obligatory graphic elements and patterns that will give the viewer the impression of swelling or warping, along with figurative elements or symbols and/or an uncommon subdued color palette. And all these are the qualities of paintings by Charline Tyberghein, whose solo exhibition Many Drops Make a Puddle closes on February 13th at Castor Gallery in London.

We've been following the work of the Antwerp-based artist for some time now and are continuously fascinated by these intriguing visuals. Appealing highly graphic, as simple renderings of a stylized image, they are at the same time masterfully created trompe-l’oeil pieces that create an illusion of a vacuum wrap machine. With the patterned fabric sucked tight to reveal the object beneath,  upon closer inspection they are revealing an elaborate technique that constructs the aesthetics of plastic shine, fabric surfaces, wood grains, or misprinted patterns. Done using both painting and everpresent airbrush technique, these works are marking a connecting point of the traditional painting and Op art philosophy.  

The compact and coherent presentation on view in London felt like a great opportunity to get in touch with the Tyberghein and learn more about these unique visuals, the technique she's using, the distinctive visual language that she developed, and the sources of inspiration for her symbol-based compositions. 

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Sasha Bogojev: What informed your interest and affinity for your unique trompe l’œil technique?
Charline Tyberghein: I studied painting at the Academy of Antwerp, which has a quite classical approach to painting in the first two years. The first year is all still life and the second is all nude models with very little attention to your own practice. I think that’s a good thing because it really puts a damper on your ego. Not that I was that sure of my painting abilities when I started, I had never really painted before, but it showed me that I was even worse at painting than I initially thought. After struggling so hard those first two years I had to make up a balance and two options came out of that: I would quit and find something I was better at or I would go full-on and find a way that I could paint, outside of the painterly, that I clearly couldn’t master.  

So when and how did your visual language develop?
So I started looking at other ways of painting and got stuck on some early Vasarely paintings that I really liked. Then I saw some relatively easy techniques that made a big impact on a painting. That combined with the repetitive drawings that I was already making in an attempt not to lose my mind resulted in the first trompe l’oeil paintings I made. That’s when I finally felt like I had found something I could use.

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What techniques do you use and how did you find that combination or balance?
When I started painting I had a sort of two-pronged practice, on the one hand, I had these painted trompe-l’oeils, and on the other, there were these layered spraypaint paintings I was making. Again, coming from a lack of painterly insight, I had no idea how to paint a shadow, and looking back now I see that’s what I was trying to learn with these spray paintings. After a while, I moved on to working with an airbrush. I was painting in my small apartment at the time and the spray paint was a bit intense, so this was easier to use, and much more subtle. After this the two styles kind of melted into one.

How much of your practice involves the use of computers and is there a conceptual side to your work in regards to that aspect?
I actually don’t use computers in my work, I have no experience with photoshop, I would even struggle to make a PowerPoint presentation.
That is by no means a statement against art that ís made with a computer, it just never appealed to me to move to a digital medium. I also very much enjoy the analog and sometimes tedious side of figuring out how the pattern will behave once the figures are in place. It can be very satisfying to see a picture appear the way you want it to be while you’re removing all the tape.

Because that’s also a part I would lose if I moved over to a computer, in this analog way I don’t know what a painting will look like until the very end. Mostly that’s an awful feeling, but when it works out, it’s great.

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Where did you get the inspiration to make a show comprising of jug imagery only?
The inspiration for this show came from snake jugs. A traditional way of making a certain kind of ceramic jug in Northern America, started by the Catawba tribe and also known as Catawba Valley pottery that was later also made by white people.

These jugs came from a combination of circumstances, the name comes from the snakes that are often added swirling around the jug, these jugs were quite popular during prohibition and the snakes warn the people about the dangers of drinking. When canned goods and glassware became more popular and available the need for snake jugs dwindled, so the craftsmen of these snake jugs needed a new purpose for their jugs. Luckily for them, the jugs fit right in the arts and crafts movement and became collectibles.

What makes this so interesting to me is that this makes the fairly simple process of sculpting a jug far more difficult and time-consuming, the more you mess with the jug the more you compromise its sturdiness. There is no apparent reason to decorate these jugs, and it's not as if they’re decorated for beauty. The grotesque faces that are depicted seem to imply something, a cautionary tale? A lack of craftsmanship? A ritualistic element?

Is this sort of thing something you usually work with?
This pareidolia is a common theme in my work. I think it might be the oldest pastime there is, just looking around and spotting faces in clouds, stones, leaves, stars. It’s interesting how few elements you need to see a face in something, I like to play around with this. How much can you add or take away before something starts or stops to be a face?

I try to add to the simplicity of such an image by way of trompe l’oeil, where I take the same approach as with the faces, I try to see how much detail or print I can add without getting an illegible image.

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What about the subdued color palette which evokes retro, 70s aesthetics? What informed that aspect of the work?
Hah, I never really thought about the 70s in relation to my work, but I definitely get where you’re coming from. I think it’s probably more a coincidence, I just look for a pattern that could be interesting to paint but doesn’t overwhelm the image. And seeing how the seventies just slapped a print on everything, there’s bound to be some overlap. My affinity for a subdued color palette is a result of the love of banality and a boring Flemish youth. I love weird dentist offices with a fake little garden in the brick-walled waiting room under fluorescent lights or just a classic dusty office. I tend to romanticize office life. Now that I think of it, a lot of the things I like are inventions of the ’70s and ’80s but seen through the lens of someone born in the ’90s.

And what about the painted frames? Where do those come from?
All of these works also have painted on ‘frames’, also inspired by the thick wooden frames used in the arts and crafts movement. I’ve noticed these frames are necessary to close the painting and give it more volume as an object, with the added bonus that it’s an almost second painting within the painting. It can be seen as extra ‘clues’ to read the painting or just symbols that stand on their own and tell their own story  

What sort of contextual significance do they have?
The symbols I use started off with a very set meaning, after a while I had this alphabet of symbols, and once you feel like every feeling has a symbol it becomes a bit boring to work with. And since the rest of my process is pretty rigorous I allowed myself some frivolity with the symbols. So I ditched the literal meanings, they of course still have meaning, but it’s more intuitive. It was also always quite personal, I never shared what the symbols meant to me because that’s nobody's business, haha. No, I want to leave it open for interpretation, I want people to project their own messy lives on my paintings.

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Do you have a particular process for selecting those?
The selection process is a practical and intuitive one. I have loads of books about symbols, flags, gravestones, crests, and so on. I look for symbols that appeal to me, and that I can kind of anthropomorphize. It needs to be something that you can change and give movement but doesn’t lose its recognizability. It also can’t be too detailed if it’s going to be combined with a pattern, or it becomes illegible.

What are the sort of shows and things you're working on at the moment, after this show?
The M HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp bought three of my paintings that will be on view starting February 13th. On the 14th of March, a show called Affiniteiten (Affinities), with my boyfriend Dennis Tyfus, Koen Theys, and Ellie Strik opens at LLS Paleis in Antwerp and I will also participate in another show at The Hole later on.