The Moment

2012. Rob Verf.

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People often ask me where my inspiration comes from and what topics interest me. In order not to loose track of myself in a vague chaos of repeated explanations, I have tried to put all the elements into structured order here. This text is organized in two sections: biography and concepts. As a whole, it reflects my formation as an artist and highlights the subjects that I find most fascinating.

Sleepless

I grew up as a skinny kid. I had no lust for eating and was nervous all the time. I was mean in my reactions to people who tried to impose their world up on me. During my parents’ marriage and separation I developed a Control Neurosis that was eliminated at an early stage with tranquilizers. Sometimes I would talk so fast that the muscles of my mouth couldn’t keep up with the velocity of my expression and people couldn’t understand what I was saying. Not being able to fully express myself at the same speed as my thoughts left me frustrated and I felt handicapped, unable to visualize the feelings that I would have liked.

I was addicted to television and watched it every second of the day. My mother had to drag me away from the screen all the time. I used to watch it very close to the TV set, so that its borders would coincide with the borders of my vision. That way I would become part of its virtual space completely, as if I were inside the television. One of my favorite things to do was to stare at the static and pretend I could feel how it would move around me in all directions. I would turn the volume of the rushing sound up very high and it would give me the feeling that I was in another universe. I would also listen to the monotone sound emitted when programs had finished for the day and the channel would go off the air. This continuous sound would feel like another universe. There, I felt secure and removed from earthbound reality. Sometimes, in the middle of the night while everybody was sleeping, I would sneak into the living room to listen to the sound or watch the static.

Aside from watching a lot of television, I read a lot of DC and Marvel comics, especially Batman and Silver Surfer, but The Fantastic Four were always my favorite then. Sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night to watch television static was like being Reed Richards entering the Negative Zone8 by traveling through the Distortion Area.9

I had sleepless nights with horrific nightmares and would sometimes hallucinate with psychedelic abstractions. Still a small child, I did not understand what was happening to me and felt helpless explaining it to others. I had the feeling that nobody in my family understood what I was going through. I realized that during those sleepless moments, my consciousness would move in a state of limbo between wakefulness and sleep. I would look at the inside of my eyes to see how the blood and the liquid would make circles and exploding colors. Upon waking, I would not just open my eyes and look, but gaze into the empty space between me and an object. With this gaze I would focus on the inside of my eyes and at the same time on the empty space I was looking at, producing a visual movement forward and backward. I didn’t want to have these hallucinations. I wanted to sleep, but was unable to until late into the night. It almost drove me crazy. Thirty years later, I found the visual answer to these optical hallucinations when I was connected to a Brain Stimulator at a 3D-Virtual Reality demonstration.10

As a teenager I used to hang out on the street with friends as a miscreant. I liked to make drawings, but art was never on my mind as a teenager. Still, there were emotional visual encounters that turned out to be very important experiences. There is one moment that had a profound impact on me and is permanently etched in my memory.

When I was about sixteen I always used to hang out at a youth center with ‘the street gang‘. At the bar there were rockers and bikers, some friends of friends and also two female social workers. One of the so called friends of friends –a crazy, dangerous person– stood up from his barstool and walked over to one of the social workers. Completely drunk, he took a gun out of his jacket and pressed it hard against her head. “Now I’ll shoot your head off”, he shouted to her. I was sitting at the other side of the bar looking at the scene. The woman went into a paralyzing shock. Her eyes were wide open and she was staring at me. She was gazing deeply into my eyes. It was the piercing look of someone who had already accepted that she would die with the click soon to come. All the colors turned grey around her. “It was a joke”, the drunken idiot said, and he put the gun away. The woman froze, fainted and fell flat on her face on the bar.

For a moment I had looked deeply into the open window of death. It was emptiness. Nothing. Time ceased to exist. Space ceased to exist. That feeling, that vacuum, stayed with me from then on. It is the vacuum between things. It is the space between objects. I knew this from my sleepless nights as a young child, but at that moment it was like a door that had been opened to step through. The confrontation with the depth of the woman’s gaze was a confrontation with the depth of things. It was total freedom, created by the vacuum of existence.

Secret drawings

Another visual encounter that turned out to be a very important experience was my first exposure to pornography. It was disturbing, because I was rather young. When I was around twelve years old I used to sneak behind a sex cinema with some boys from the street to watch terrible porno movies in secret. We would stand on the back of our bicycles so we could look through a window and see movies with the most bizarre subjects: animal sex, sadomasochism or other hard porno. After seeing the movie, instead of being sexually interested, we all would be in a complete state of shock. We would talk about it for days in a completely exciting sickness. To rid myself of that mixed-up energy between fascination and repulsion I would lock myself up in my bedroom and I secretly began to make erotic-horror drawings./p>

I had my first art education at the Technical School for Painting in Utrecht (NIMETO). I was around seventeen years old when I entered. The school was divided into two departments: a technical part for painters and a part for window-decorating. The window decorating department consisted of mostly girl students. A change of friends and interests took place as I began to have more friends of the opposite sex and my adolescent boy behavior quickly diminished. Female friends from the window-decorating department took me to make-up and photography courses.

Until that time my world of sexual fascination consisted of erotic-horror comics like Lucifera11 or Biancaneve.12 At night I would secretly draw my own variations of these erotic cartoons. Because they were so explicitly personal, I would destroy them as soon as they were finished, afraid that somebody else might see them. I found myself in a blasphemous conflict between the sugary sweet and romantic erotica presented to me by some girlfriends (for instance photos by David Hamilton (1933) and the stylish feminine world from fashion magazines) and that of sexploitation in horror movies and porno comics. I lived the sexual life of a Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Sometimes I tried to hide my unfinished drawings, but would forget where I had put them. They would appear in a schoolbook in the middle of the class, or even worse: one day I hid them outside my bedroom window and a breeze came along and blew them all over the neighborhood. I had to sneak through all the neighbors’ yards in secret in the middle of the night to collect them again, hoping that no one would find out. They became an addictive obsession and I barely slept anymore, drawing the whole night through, until I had to go to school again the next morning. I would drink liters of coffee every day in order to stay awake and would take aspirin to try to fall asleep for a few hours at night, until one day I collapsed from exhaustion and I knew I had to stop the addiction before it stopped me. In all the years that followed my art has continued to be enveloped in the issue of making it in secret. An artwork has always been a deeply personal expression for me, created in isolation.

I loved the adult comics by Leone Frollo (1931) such as Lucifera or Biancaneve. The interesting thing about these comics was that figures and gestures would reappear in other issues as different caracters. The Lucifera-figure would become a blond or have shorter hair in order to express a different character. It might even be the same pose, only with an arm or a leg in a different position. The figures were constructed like the letters of a word, creating a visual personality. I constructed my erotic drawings in the same way. Unaware of the mythical painting of Helen by the painter Zeuxis (5th – 4th century BC),13 I would take poses and details from magazines, other comics, film stills and turn them into figures for my own erotic drawings.

Utrecht

I went to the Technical School for Painting in Utrecht in 1981 (NIMETO). It was a very strict academic school. I learned everything that had to do with paint: house painting, industrial spray-painting for cars, billboard painting and lettering, indoor decorating, painting techniques, laboratory paint tests, and so on. At the Technical School we had to draw a lot of still-lives. We were taught different color theories: Albert Munsell, W. von Goethe, and Wilhelm Ostwald. I mixed colors in circles and triangles and did subtractive color mixing all the time.

I had to hand paint letters in one single stroke for four to six hours nonstop. That was the academic education I received. After finishing the Technical School for Painting, I went to Art school (HKU) in the same city. Teaching at the Art school was very much based on an Abstract Expressionist vision at that time. It was a vision based on self-expression, rather than being academic. Many teachers worked in a style created by the Neue Wilde14 and the Neo-Expressionists. I constantly found myself confronted by artworks by Anselm Kiefer, Albert Oehlen, Joseph Beuys, Georg Baselitz, Jorg Immendorf and a whole lot of other Germans: if you weren’t already familiar with them, the teachers would make sure that you were. If you wandered off in a different direction from the art they were interested in, they would be sure to put you “back in place” again.

Coming from a technical background, the art school felt totally free, without structure of any kind. When I first enrolled I knew everything there was to know about paint as a material, but nothing at all about other materials.

At the Art school I had to catch up on art history, and do it fast. I did know a little, mainly classics like Goya, Rembrandt, Delacroix or Seanredam. I had been taught the basics in Art history at the Technical School and knew about the laws of perspective, projection and composition and the making of paint, but I had never been taught anything about Modern or Contemporary Art.

I found myself in the middle of an orgy of art and thousands of visual solutions. Questions I had always walked around with suddenly had answers. I jumped from Cubism (and Dazzle camouflage15 as a reaction to that), to Abstract Expressionism, to Fluxus, to Pop Art, to Dada, to Surrealism, to Conceptual Art: up, down and all over the place. So many different and interesting ways of expressing yourself! I would study the artists, copying them and copying other students that copied other artists. I found myself gazing in complete fascination at works by Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, Kandinsky, Picasso, Willem de Kooning, Cobra, Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg …and oceans of others. Willem de Kooning: a house painter like me. Look at his women! Karel Appel: another house painter like me. What freedom, what expression, this was painting! What I still had to find out in the midst of all this was who I was…

It was great to see how artists turned their fascinations and energy into artworks. But what about me? That mirror had yet to be constructed and polished. The Art school was very much built around self-expression. It made you conscious of why and how you created what you did. There were no rules that said you couldn’t make three dimensional works if you were in painting class. The teachers would explain the use of materials only when some problem with them arose. “Start doing and later we’ll talk. In art there are no laws, only problems waiting for an answer.”

8 The Negative Zone is a fictional setting, an anti-matter universe depicted in Marvel Comics publications. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, it first appeared in Fantastic Four #51 (June 1966). Essentially, it is a universe parallel to Earth’s. The two have many similarities, but a few noteworthy differences include: all matter in the Negative Zone is negatively charged; the Negative Zone is filled with a pressurized, breathable atmosphere; and near the center is a deadly vortex of unspeakable power.
9 Beings normally enter the Negative Zone through the Distortion Area. This is an invisible sphere of energy that resides in the Negative Zone but is accessible from many parts of Earth. By hitting the field with a precise wavelength of energy, a rift opens between both dimensions connected by the Distortion Area. This area acts as a buffer between the two polar opposite universes and alters a traveler’s own polarity so that they can exist in the other dimension without harm. When activated, the Distortion Area appears from the outside as a crackling energy source roughly six feet in circumference. This effect only lasts as long as the field is activated and, once closed, becomes invisible again. Nearby matter is sucked into the near-vacuum of the Distortion Area and “falls” for about 50 seconds before emerging on the other side. The Distortion Area itself is nothing short of indescribable. Humans cannot begin to accurately fathom or record what transpires within the Distortion Area. Travelers’ minds try to compensate the bizarre display of light and color. This, combined with the natural turbulence in the area, provokes that many find the trip rather unpleaseant.
10 Brain stimulation reward (BSR) is a phenomenon in which direct stimulation of regions of the brain through either electrical or chemical means is rewarding and can serve as an operant reinforcer. The stimulation activates the reward system and establishes response habits similar to those established by natural rewards such as food and water.
11 Lucifera is the eponymous anti-heroine of an Italian comic book popular in the seventies. The Lucifera character is a demoness/succubus dedicated to fighting the forces of Goodness. A frequent visitor to Hell, she also enjoys sending others there to be tormented. Her adventures are full of quite explicit, if humorous, eroticism. Other storylines involve Sado-Masochism, executions, and even molestation by a giant spider. On the surface world she seems to inhabit a mythical and very violent Europe from the Middle Ages populated by wenches, knights and three-headed dragon dogs. The Lucifera comic book was published by Ediperiodici and ran for 170 issues from 1971 to 1980. A French edition was also published by Elvifrance and ran for 99 issues from 1972 to 1980.
12 Biancaneve is an Italian erotic comic book, created in 1972 by Renzo Barbieri and Rubino Ventura and illustrated by Leone Frollo. Fairlie Wayne is Biancaneve’s real name. The series, published by Edifumetto, was based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; however, it soon lost most of its connections with the original story. The series chronicles the sexual adventures of the title character in a world of kings and queens and a variety of monsters. Biancaneve is a virgin under attack during the first 4 issues of the series; however, after losing her virginity in volume 5, she becomes increasingly addicted to sex.
13 Zeuxis seemed to have been a panel painter rather than a wall painter. The subject of his painting Helen of Troy is part of a myth that arose in the 4th century BC. The painter Zeuxis could not find any single model beautiful enough to pose for a painting of the most beautiful woman in the world. He selected the best features from five young models to create an image of ideal beauty.
14 The Neue Wilde (freely translated as the New Wild Ones) is a name that is used for a movement originated in Germany around 1980. A more common name for this revival was Neo-expressionism. It implies a form of ‘brutal’ expressionism. On big canvases artists expressed their social discomfort, their abhorrence to all forms of hypocrisy and fascism and their anger against established structures.
15 During World War I, the British and Americans faced a serious threat from German U-boats, which were sinking allied ships at a dangerous rate. All attempts to camouflage ships at sea had failed, as the appearance of the sea and sky are always changing. Any color scheme that was concealing in one situation was conspicuous in others. A British artist and naval officer, Norman Wilkinson, proposed a new camouflage scheme. Instead of trying to conceal the ship, it simply broke up its lines and made it more difficult for the U-boat captain to determine the ship’s course. The British called this camouflage scheme “Dazzle Painting.” The Americans called it “Razzle Dazzle.” In a 1919 lecture, Norman Wilkinson seems to have explained: the primary object of this scheme was not so much to cause the enemy to miss his shot when actually in firing position, but to mislead him when the ship was first sighted regarding the correct position to take up. Dazzle was a method to produce an effect using paint in such a way that all accepted forms of a ship are broken up by masses of strongly contrasted color, consequently making it a matter of difficulty for a submarine to decide on the exact course of the vessel to be attacked. The colors mostly in use were black, white, blue and green. When making a design for a vessel, vertical lines were largely avoided. Sloping lines, curves and stripes were the best and give greater distortion.

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