13 Jun In conversation with Joram Roukes
StolenSpace Gallery is thrilled to showcase ‘The Great Beyond’ a solo exhibition by Dutch artist Joram Roukes. Having relocated from the small city of Groningen, The Netherlands to Los Angeles in 2013, his new exhibition deals with subjects of exploration and escapism. Roukes is inspired by his unique and ever-evolving view of the world. Therefore, the artist draws from his personal nomadic experiences and touches on the wider sense of the subject as well. What lies beyond the here and now is a question many adventurous spirits are burdened with. The grass isn’t always greener, but the inspiration and opportunities of finding the next place can be its own reward. ‘The Great Beyond’ reflects on this concept of dissatisfaction in society as a whole.
SS: We are curious about how you started painting. When and why did you decide to become an artist?
JR: When I was a kid I mostly drew birds and later cartoons. It wasn’t until I was maybe 12 that I started doing watercolours. Then I saw Bob Ross paint his happy hippie landscapes in 30 minutes. I got super captivated by that so I started trying it and it worked magically. That’s when I learned to appreciate oil paint. It was super kitsch, but I really enjoyed it.
SS: Tell us more about your experience with graffiti. How did/does it affect and influence your work?
JR: I started doing graffiti when I was about 17 or 18. I was living in a relatively boring city and I found some peers in my hometown and in school who were doing it. It was a logical next step to make my drawing habits just a little ‘cooler’ and I noticed I was pretty good at it. It teaches you a lot about yourself in terms of how your default stylistic settings are programmed. It’s almost like a creative psychological test. The lines and shapes you use define your stylistic DNA in one way or another and these same preferences I see in my current work.
SS: Do you still paint in the street?
JR: Rarely, I like the serenity of my studio. It’s soothing and I get to paint in my underwear and make myself coffee when I want to.
SS: What type of feelings do you have when you relate/paint in the street? What type of spots do you prefer?
JR: When I still used to paint outdoors more, I found that working with a collective started to become restrictive. I didn’t like making compromises and often we’d drive out to a wall for hours and the place was a mess. Crumbled down drywall and weeds growing everywhere. This can be interesting when you anticipate it, but it was often just a struggle. So I did some projects by myself. Picked my own walls. That worked better. If I would do street work now I’d much prefer to play around with the context and make something site-specific. But again, my main focus still is my studio work, which relates to the streets in a way though.
SS: What is your opinion about the street art scene and the way it is moving/evolving?
JR: I have very mixed feeling about it. On one end I think it’s great that cities are turning into street-art museums and that so many projects and events are happening to put street-art on the forefront of 21st century art. But, at the same time I find myself getting annoyed with the lack of substance of a lot of street work. Lots and lots of it is very aesthetically pleasing, but without conveying any type of message. I think this is a missed opportunity because there’s no better place to convey a strong message than public art. But I feel like artists are compromising. I’ve been told that I can’t make my work too dark or controversial would I be to paint a mural. This takes away from what it essentially means to be an artist. Not to compromise. This is why illegal street-art is by default more interesting to me. Banksy’s work and Shepard Fairey’s original OBEY campaign are absolute gems. And I never get bored seeing Swoon’s work.
SS: Graffiti-art gave you “a sharp eye for the ‘dirty edges’ of society and to see beauty in decay. Can you explain more? And what is your idea of beauty in decay?
JR: Beauty is a term that doesn’t necessarily refers to aesthetically pleasing to me. I like the other side of things. I’ve always had a fascination for the processes of chaos. The beauty in this sense is about my fascination for it. I think it comes down to the irony of control. The way we build everything meticulously with absurd precision and calculated systems and formulas. But nature doesn’t care about this when she turns her head. And nature is a broad concept in that way too. It’s physics and biology. Decay and destruction has their own rules and it is far more interesting than the planned process of creation and production. For example, when a car crashes, there is no mathematic system for it. It’s chaos that decides what the car will end up looking like. A decaying bird is quite the same way. There’s a system to its decay as to where the result will always be a bare carcass, but the way it happens is decided by nature and chaos. It’s a huge contrast to how nature builds things with Platonic ideals and moulds. This applies to everything where control is given away. The anarchy of everyday life, where rules of society no longer apply, makes a very interesting world.
SS: You recently moved to Los Angeles, a big city compared to Groningen. Concerning the way of living, what are the main differences between the two places? How did/do they affect your work?
JR: Los Angeles is a very interesting place. So many worlds live so closely side by side and the differences and contrasts are huge. This is inspiring. Groningen is a great place. It’s calm and quiet and affordable. In LA I’m constantly stressed, everything is more expensive, life isn’t easy here. But it challenges and makes me assertive. In a practical way, I have no choice, but to push as hard as possible being here. The work I’ve made here has references to my direct environment as to when I was in Groningen. I had more of an outsiders perspective.
SS: Do you think that living in L.A. has changed your art? In what way?
JR: I think it gradually evolves. The subjects are more closely related to my environment. Even the colors might be brighter due to the everlasting sun. Skid Row is a big inspiration too.
SS: Your large scale oil paintings are characterised by experimental juxtapositions which create surreal worlds. How did you come to your actual style? Can you tell us more about the process behind the creation of your work?
JR: It’s either a direct or an intuitive process. The juxtapositions create a field of tension. I like to play with juxtapositions that almost make sense. I try to have the overall composition to feel cohesive, but the individual elements fight or love each other. It creates stories within stories. A bipolar message that I think is a metaphor for the way we live.
SS: Your work aims at reflecting on the everyday life as well as on the issues of Western society. Can you explain more about this interest, how you grew it and what message you would like yo convey?
JR: I think it’s the most current, relevant and literal subject in contemporary art. In one way or another, I feel art needs to reflect on society, either from a very personal process or a more observing, objective perspective. I don’t want to make my work preachy or the message to be too clear. That’s why I juxtapose and throw the viewer off. Irony works for me. I’ve heard people say cynicism is the nail in the coffin of modern art, but I don’t agree with this. I can have a very cynical outlook on certain aspects of modern society. It doesn’t mean I go through life bitter or that I believe in reptilian conspiracies. But I observe and report, turn my cynicism into irony and have a laugh about things that bother me. And I try to make paintings about it that challenge people to project their points of view on them.
SS: Your show ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ has the same title of an album by The Smashing Pumpkins’. Why did you decide to you this peculiar album? What type of music inspires you more when you paint?
JR: The idea for this show came from when Benoni and I decided to give the album a chance to see if I could work with it. I was afraid it was going to be too restrictive at first. But when I listened closely to the lyrics I realised I had more ideas than I could ever paint for the show. Billy Corgan’s lyrics are so poetic, so strong and so visual. I could’ve done 30 paintings.
This was a very interesting challenge and the album is one of my all time favourites now.
When I paint I do like to listen to music like that. I get inspired by music that tells stories. Either lyrically or musically. I love Tom Waits, David Lynch, Sufjan Stevens, The Smashing Pumpkins and The Streets. Alt-J is also fantastically moody.
SS: The title of your previous show at StolenSpace Gallery is ‘Les Bons Sauvages’. Was there any reference to or critique of the myth of the noble savage?
JR: In a way there was. I wanted to point out how, in reality, the noble part is actually not so noble. By referring to some traditions that are meant to make us ‘civilised’, but in fact are very violent cultural patterns. From football hooliganism and the tradition of Sinterklaas in The Netherlands and a picnic in a desolated half urbanised landscape. It’s these cultivated rites and traditions that convey a huge irony to me.
SS: How does it feel to be an established artist? Does your actual life as an artist fit with what you imagined/expected at the beginning of your career?
JR: Expectations are inherent to disappointment. I never dared to make expectations about how my artistic career would develop. After all, how many people get to pay rent from making art? I also don’t consider myself established yet because now that I am where I am and I carefully dare to make expectations and set goals, I’m not yet where I want to be.
However, making paintings for a living is great because it’s a job that challenges me and makes me feel accomplished. But it’s also just a job, like any other job. It’s hard, it’s a lot of work with lots of responsibilities. Your name is always at stake, you always have deadlines and constant stress. On top of that it’s always easier to please people than it is to please yourself.
Having people say ‘so you just paint a little here and there and make a living? That’s pretty sweet!’ can drive me up the wall.
SS: ‘The Great Beyond’ deals with exploration, escapism and dissatisfaction in society. Can you tell us more about your idea of beyond? Why did you pick this theme? Do you think that ‘beyond’ is a way to escape reality or people can find the ‘ beyond’ in their everyday life?
JR: The original idea came from personal experience. Moving to Los Angeles has been a big transition and it still is. I don’t know if I found what I was looking for when I came out here and I’m not sure what I was looking for to begin with. Maybe it was an escape. But, in a lot of cases when people try to escape something, it’s really themselves they’re trying to run away from.
But then the beyond applies to lots of things. Pushing the boundaries of your existence, for better or worse. It’s a very modern disease to always want to know and find what better things lie in the future. Beyond the here and the now.
SS: What are your plans for the future?
JR: Have a great career. Work hard, make bigger paintings and have a family and settle down. In the Here and Now.