Hopping, stepping and jumping through a forest of nondescript colours

A conversation with Mil Ceulemans

I visit Mil Ceulemans’ two studios. The first is in the working-class district of Borgerhout in Antwerp, the second is part of the Vrije Academie in The Hague. In the studio in Antwerp necessary renovation work has come to a halt half-way through. Clearly the painter is not overly concerned about the interior of his workplace. The space is crammed full of paintings. They are everywhere, leaning against the wall and against each other, stacked up and hanging. Across the middle of the space is a wardrobe with no doors and sitting on top of it are some thirty pristine, square canvasses. Ceulemans obviously works tirelessly. He is slim and tall in stature and has an alert expression which suggests inquisitiveness and elation, but also caution. He reads literature and philosophy and he loves films. He knows my old hero Fassbinder, which is unusual for someone who was five years old when the film director died. “François Ozon's film Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes (Water Drops on Burning Rocks) made a deep impression on me”, Ceulemans wrote to me, “and it was through that film that I discovered Fassbinder, who it seems wrote the original play when he was just seventeen. Incredible! I once saw four Fassbinder films in one week and was pretty fazed by the experience for weeks afterwards.”

Ceulemans is well-read, but he doesn’t make paintings that translate ideas. They are real paintings, which reflect on painting in the serious and amusing way that is typical of all art. (There is no discrepancy between play and seriousness, only between play and reality, as Freud wrote. Only play that is taken seriously can lead to new forms which for a while give us a grip on reality.)

How might one characterize Ceulemans’ work? What is special about it? On the one hand, the paintings are delightfully simple because you immediately recognize unusual, isolated, deliberately clumsy or very skilful touches, interventions or additions, which conjure up their own pictorial space because of their mutual relationship and their relationship with the background or with a figurative element. At the same time, the paintings are complex, because in just about every work you can count to five, to seven or to seventeen. The painter Walter Swennen once told me that in a good painting you can always count to three. This is certainly true of many paintings. Seen from that angle, Ceulemans’ works first strike you as having been made by a painter ‘who doesn’t know when to stop’. It is as if he has added more elements than are necessary to arrive at a successful pictorial space. Look carefully, however, and you'll see that while the resulting pictorial space is complex, it is also transparent and light. The paintings are not clogged. They create the illusion of depth. They evoke a sort of ‘stacked up’ space, which might be described as a visual climbing frame.

A second striking characteristic of these paintings is the use of colour. Looking and floundering, I suddenly remembered a remark by the painter Johan De Wilde, who wrote to me that he would like to invent a nondescript colour. What he meant by this was, I think, a colour that implies no meanings or connotations; an anonymous colour that puts us in mind of nothing else but that colour. Johan De Wilde would find Ceulemans’ paintings extraordinary, I thought, because the colours the artist uses often make you think of nothing: they keep your mind from turning to things you already know, which would blot out the actual colour or the actual painting. I shared this thought with Ceulemans. “That makes sense,” he answered. “Johan De Wilde has just bought one of my paintings!”

Ceulemans: Yes, I know those highlights. They’re amazing.

Ceulemans: The advantage of fluorescent colours is that the onlooker understands that the painting is not trying to be realistic. I also like to make fluorescent colours vibrate with non-fluorescent colours, so that they change character. Here the result is a sort of Rothko on acid… The work of the painter Pierre Soulages, where light and dark carry equal weight, helped me make and assess the almost white highlight in that fluorescent area, which nevertheless suddenly turns out to be darker than the fluorescent area. Black dominates in Soulages’ work, but the white of the ground is just as important and occasionally even essential. A traditional or academic painter adds the highlights at the end. They are not vestiges of an earlier layer breaking through here and there, but strokes placed so as to illuminate certain areas. I enjoy reversing these things. The idea of ‘negative highlights’, as you call them, amuses and inspires me.

Ceulemans: Sometimes I spend ten minutes working on a small stain. I keep on rubbing, trying to work it into the canvas so that the edges lose their definition and stand out.

Ceulemans: I wanted to paint a stretch of grass, but it didnft work. I ended up with a field of reeds.

Ceulemans: Those touches also serve as a contrast to the almost mechanical, overworked areas which in the top half of the painting create the image of a building. Itfs a good example of a contrast you canft think up in advance. If I try to plan something, the painting goes wrong. I don't plan. I look at the result of a gesture and then I try to counter it.

Ceulemans: I love color field painting, but that’s not what I’m aiming at. I try to evoke a space which I paint very flat, allowing the spectator to approach it from different standpoints.

Ceulemans: I like to apply a first element as something to react to. Sometimes I use acrylics mixed with ink and sometimes coloured gesso, which usually produces a sort of pastel colour. The more dissimilar the ground in terms of colour and texture, the better. Different formats and stretchers of various thicknesses can also help get me started. Acrylics mixed with Indian ink or airbrush ink produce very runny, but highly pigmented paint which I really like working with. The pigment in that ink dissolves much more finely than you could possibly grind or mix it yourself. Unfortunately I can only get small bottles from my supplier now. I sometimes mix those inks with acrylics to give them density. That way I can also apply different strokes and I can work wet in wet.

Ceulemans: Yes, but it took me months. The white gives it a sort of freshness.

Ceulemans: To make a smudge like that, I go backwards and forwards 500 times with a fairly hard, hog’s bristle brush. There’s often a gradation in it, which I paint with a softer, synthetic brush. These are attempts to paint like someone who can’t paint.

Ceulemans: You’re right. I often paint on flat canvases. Flat canvases provide a different perspective; you relate differently to the painting. Sometimes you are in for a surprise when you hang the canvas up, but that tension is all part of the process.

Ceulemans: I don’t think I would use flesh colour to paint people, but it works for a background.

Ceulemans: I don’t want to make pure work. I don’t like pure ideas and pure execution. My work sets out to comment on the work itself. So it may come across as too double or too full, but to me that ambiguity is necessary. That’s the way the world appears to me and that’s how I look at the world. The ‘over-fullness’ is intentional.

Ceulemans: It’s ochre with a dash of blue ink mixed in so that the ochre turns greenish, bluish. But actually it’s very difficult to define a colour. This area, for example, is painted very opaquely; it is more thickly covered than the other areas. It makes the colour look different. The other thing is that a colour is always influenced by the colours around it and by the way they are applied.

Ceulemans: Do you go right to the edge, do you stop just before or do you go over it? I want to make these options tangible, not for compositional reasons but to reveal the thinking behind and about a painting.

Ceulemans: People look first at silhouettes and contours and then at what’s inside a form. They enter the painting from the edge. That’s why it’s nice to have something tremble, explode or burst on the edge.

Ceulemans: The genesis of a painting is part of its total makeup. Itfs a feature like colour or form. Thatfs how I came up with the idea of influencing the overall shape of a painting by giving it a bogus history. I might do this by applying a thick layer of paint to the side of a painting to give the impression of numerous preparatory layers under the surface.

Ceulemans: The painting was finished and then the cat walked over it! It was covered in paw marks. She didnft walk over it in a felicitous way and so suddenly the painting was dead. After a while I decided to overcome that setback and I corrected the pink part but in such as way that you could see what I had done. The cover-up was executed in a deliberately rough-and-ready way.

The most important question I ask myself is: what is the most unlikely thing I can do on this canvas without resorting to gimmicks? Because I could of course cut the canvas up, but that doesnft interest me. How can you make a painting a meta-painting? Thatfs what itfs all about. In a purely figurative painting nothing is left to the spectatorfs imagination. But what would be sufficient motivation to create an abstract painting? You can see that it still needs something, but what? Sometimes you are overcome by despair because you canft see any solution. I completed the painting you see here with a calligraphic element. That sort of thing doesnft usually work, because the painting starts to revolve around the last gesture. But here itfs in proportion. Itfs often a question of striking a balance: how can I put a line very clearly on the canvas and yet still have it suggest something?

Ceulemans: For example.

Ceulemans: I studied product development for a year. Itfs a product drawing. The prototype as abstract matter. Here the abstraction is created by the juxtaposition of lines. The lines suggest an unrealistic space. This first dawned on me in 2008.

Ceulemans: How complete do you want to be in a single painting? Thatfs a really important question. Only since February of this year have I understood how this can work. I now understand that I donft have to pack everything into each work, that collectively my paintings tell a story.

Ceulemans: As it happens, you have already mentioned his name. I love Joris Ghekierefs work if there are no frontal figures in it. Abstraction and figuration are given equal weight in his work, and I can identify with that. His quest for strange painterly solutions is inspirational. Sometimes that sort of quest is endearing, but it is also necessaryc A painter who has been important to me is Philip Guston. He started off as a cartoonist. He then went on to make abstract paintings and after that figurative elements began to appear in his work. Gradually lines crept in and the forms became harder and harderc I can never really admire painters who spend the whole of their life doing the same thingc

I trained as an illustrator and as such worked for two well-known weeklies. But I stopped… I spent most of the next few years reading: Nietzsche, Montaigne, Bataille, Derrida, Deleuze, Heidegger, Adorno, Horkheimer, Peter Sloterdijk and Guy Debord, who offered an attitude to life rather than a philosophy. I was living near the library in Ghent. Ifm really glad I read so much then, because now I just canft do it. I canft read and paint at the same time.

Ceulemans: I found Christian Dotremont’s only novel La pierre et l’oreiller, really beautiful… Cesare Pavese’s The Burning Brand, Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, Thomas Bernhard… And The Thirtieth Year by Ingeborg Bachmann, with whom Paul Celan had an affair, has always stayed with me. I also thought the Japanese book The Woman in the Dunes was marvellous: a couple of characters and otherwise just the ever-shifting sand. In that novel the desert sand is much more than a setting, it almost becomes a character in its own right. Brilliant…

Ceulemans: Indeed. A reversal that is unexpected but leaves a lasting impression. An ambiguous world to walk through.

Montagne de Miel, December 31st 2009

Translated by Alison Mouthaan-Gwillim