Ronny Delrue

A conversation in the studio of Ronny Delrue

February 2000

Jan Hoet (JH)
Ronny Delrue (RD)
Dirk Schutyser (DS)
Ann Demeester (AD) 

A conversation in the heart of the studio, among a few paintings in progress. It turns into a confrontation, an experience, an exchange of ideas about the how and especially the why of painting, about contamination and destruction, black and white, plus A and minus B.

RD . At certain times I have to clean up, I clean the studio, whiten the walls and empty the workspace so that I can conquer it again. A first work is created, a second, a third … I isolate paintings, I group them together. New images come into existence.

Sometimes I have a lot of problems when I paint, something I have not with the notes in my diary. The consist of drawings that are usually very casual. These three paintings (he points to the wall) are works in progress. Big steps have yet to be taken.

JH . Have you never reflected why it is necessary for you to pass these different phases? Is it a battle you’re involved in? I have the impression that certain signs still refer to your academic upbringing.

RD . I destroy those signs. They make me nervous, they irritate me.

JH . The set up and the structure, working with a plan in mind, is what you were taught at the academy. You master it completely, but now you have to do something with it, otherwise your work remains sterile.

RD . That is the reason why I just said that these works are growing, that big steps still have to be taken. These works are maturing, they eat at me, I can’t liberate myself from them, they get on my nerves. Something has to happen with them. A work can look totally different tomorrow, but it can also remain the same. One intervention, the taking of one risk can change an image completely.

JH . If you would start immediately with destroying in order to produce something new afterwards, would that not be more productive?

RD . That also happens, there is no system in my way of painting. I would find it an impoverishment if a painting were to develop always in the same manner. I don’t like being a craftsman who works with a fixed frame-work. I love limits, but I love even more to open up new horizons. One moment I opt for a classic way of working, another moment I do not, I juxtapose them. I attack them. The first stroke on the white canvas is a kind of destruction and at the same time the start of an adventure. In some cases the work is indeed made in a classic way, the ‘act’ then still has to happen. I sometimes need a kind of destruction in order to reach my purpose. Probably you won’t see this shape (he points to one of the works) in the final result but you will be able to guess its presence. This kind of ‘in between’ is what interests me.

AD . Does that mean that you always work in a destructive way, against your own work?

RD . Not always. Some images are made at one stretch. At such a moment I know I have to continue working. I have to finish it without stopping, otherwise I feel I am stuck. Those are singular moments: when you feel that a painting is really being created. The date of finishing is usually the title or part of the title of a work.

DS . Do you have a finality in mind at the start?

RD . I know very well how the image will look in the end. But while I am painting, I invent new possibilities. I can suddenly make a change that is decisive. Then I think this is also interesting: this transparency, this line, that surface, that mistake, that error and I want to keep it. But during the work process I have to give up other pieces. It’s all about believing you know very well where you want to end up and finally arriving somewhere completely else. In most cases different solutions are possible. Making a painting is for me an invitation to make yet another one.

AD . You do start then from a well defined idea.

RD . Yes, I start from an image that is in my head: it has grown from scrabbles, sketches and drawings. Drawing is a very direct process…

JH . Let’s first talk about your paintings.

RD . Both have to be mentioned in one breath. Perhaps my paintings can’t be divorced from the diary notes. No matter how different they look, they are closely connected to one another. The notes are the soil, the humus on which the paintings grow. They are rooted in the same content but the execution or the solution is different.

JH . If I quickly overlook the work you have made these last ten years, I notice that at a certain moment there has been a real revolution. You have worked for some time in an expressionistic style and with those paintings you had some success. When did you leave that style behind?

RD . As soon as rationality started to get more important and defined too strongly the emotional side of my work. The relation with ‘expressionism’ is still present, but in the sense that I ignore it. The ‘expressionistic’ gesture is restrained. Excesses are suppressed. When I paint now a rational-emotional impulse governs me. On certain moments I take very clean cut artistic decisions in a rational way. Emotion comes first and then distance.

DS . Why do you play in your diary notes on emotions while apparently in your paintings emotion is consciously suppressed?

RD . I like emotions bursting to the surface, but I also like canalising, controlling them.

JH . If I look at the works from that period and compare them to your present work I have the impression that they are from two different artists.

RD . I am obviously still the same person but clearly also someone who now think about painting in a very different way than before.

JH . Did these new questions bring you to this work? Surely it is not because you are averse to success?

RD . Posing these new questions brought me to this kind of rational emotional painting. I realised that I had to use the paint, the canvas, the style, the components of painting in function of the content, of what I felt and thought. I am not averse to success, but it should not stand in the way of one’s evolution as an artist. As soon as things start to go well, it is time to look if you haven’t lost the essence of your being. I find people who pretend to know everything and who are convinced they have solutions for everything very dangerous, especially for themselves. I don’t want to be pushed around by habits and certainties.

JH . Does this evolution mean that five years from now you will do something completely different?

RD . I don’t think so, I have taken a direction I want to investigate further.

JH . I just want to investigate how, from what impulse, this change was the result.

RD . From the feeling that it is not evident to change. Change brings uncertainty, the feeling you are not on solid ground. When the ‘revolution’ in my work happened, there was a lot of demand for my earlier work. That was something I no longer wanted or could satisfy. Precisely that feeling became an important aspect of the content my work: the fear to be contaminated, to petrify, to pulverise, to disappear. A contamination that is the result from what one does and experiences, from all kinds of manipulations…

JH . Success was for you an aid to reflect about what you were doing.

RD . It forced me to take a position and to reflect about what I was doing, who I was and what was my place in society. A lot of portraits and landscapes have been the result of this.

AD . You ask these questions by and in painting and not by thinking about them in an abstract theoretical way.

RD . My diary notes are direct registrations, quests for myself.

DS . Are these diary notes a form of therapy?

RD . No, they are a plastic expression of my world at a given moment. The date, the hour, the moment itself is very important in these notes. These images are put on simple pieces of paper and are exposed naked so that installation or the way of showing accentuates their vulnerability. In this way the spectator practically and figuratively speaking stands in the images of my diary. They form a kind of internal portraits. They are not concerned with facial characteristics, it is the emotional expression that is most important. My paintings are portraits but at the same time a kind of spiritual, as well as normal, landscapes.

DS . Why do you avoid the use of colour in your paintings while you use it in your drawings?

RD . The colour in my paintings is usually hidden under the top layers: images of saturation, petrifaction, contamination… There is a lot of colour in the non-colour. I made the choice of working with a kind of paint that I make myself with pigments, Indian ink and acryl. Acryl paint out of the can I find too artificial. I prefer a lean, mat painting skin. I use it from transparency to over saturated paint so that the skin of the paint crackles and sometimes breaks. The mass of paint is stretched out on the surface of the canvas so that the drops on the edge stress its vulnerability. Scars form an integral part of the skin of the paint. Painting till destruction, denaturalised colour, live and death… that’s what fascinates me and in this respect I try to go to extremes.

DS . Do you consciously choose for not framing your canvases?

RD . The edges of the paintings are just as important as the front. They bring light into the painting and show the underlying, sometimes brightly coloured layers of paint that tell something of the history of the canvas. That’s why the manner in which the small paintings are hung is very important. You look at the top or bottom and at the tension between the edges of different works.

AD . The interaction between your personal life and your work is apparently very strong.

RD . Yes, it develops out of me. The thrill caused by an emotion, a reflection on an emotion, a reflection itself… Those are my starting points. There are a number of things that are constant in my work…

JH . What is constant can give a sense of security that is dangerous. Security in art is a contradiction. For art is never safe but must radiate an energy that causes a sense of both security and a positioning with the viewer. What do you exactly mean with things that are constant?

RD . I mean the ideas and thoughts which are part of my thinking. I try to undermine the sense of security that is caused by the presence of these constant factors. I do that by always representing their content in a different manner. The idea that everything is temporary for example can be considered as such a constant factor. This insight stimulates me to live optimally and fully. But because of that I am afraid to burn up, to be lived by existing systems. The idea to be no more than a follower, I find repugnant. Often I wander in my head, there I know no boundaries. Frameworks and structures limit us, they spoil the freshness. Realising the danger of habits is linked to that.

DS . Is that why you consciously turn you back on your academic skills?

RD . Virtuosity is wasted on me. It makes you lose contact with reality. That’s why I sometimes paint with my left hand, although I’m right-handed. Sometimes I also paint with the brush in my mouth. It is often interesting to be clumsy. You don’t have to be handy to make a good picture. Clumsiness can be poetic.

DS . Your work has something discomforting and that’s what makes it interesting.

RD . Maybe it’s this connotation of what I call contamination. No matter how depressing my work may look, it is actually more the result of the fear to become depressed. I find it more interesting to be conscious of the danger to petrify, than to be non-conscious and to fossilise. I prefer to make an image of petrifaction rather than growing grey and fading away. That’s why I paint.

AD . What if people analyse your work thematically, or start to look for the underlying emotions. Do you experience that as disturbing or rather as something essential?

RD . The end result is an image which has grown with me out of feeling and thinking. What precisely happened, is no longer important after the realisation. I like the mystique around a work. Actually, I want people to make their own story. I don’t like pictures telling everything all at once. I prefer that the viewer gets lost in what could be the work.

AD . You once said that your sometimes find your own work too aesthetic. That seems very strange. Is there something wrong with a work that is not only interesting but also beautiful?

JH . Aestheticism is a code, a norm constantly changed by the artist. When Joseph Beuys first showed his work, there were no rules available to look at his work in aesthetic terms. He has in a certain sense widened and stretched the concept of aestheticism.

AD . The strange thing is that aesthetic codes from the past no longer speak to us today. The norms are so changed that the old standards are difficult to accept. The so called ‘aesthetic of ugliness’ dominates too often our thinking.

RD . I don’t like things being too finished. Sometimes I find my paintings too aesthetic and then I strive for a greater ‘dirtiness’ in the work. At the same time I realise that it is an illusion for I think dust is also very aesthetic. This duality fascinates me. In the same way I am captivated by the tension between abstraction and figuration, beautiful and ugly, knowledge and forgetting, the busyness of the city and the quietness of the country. I am opposed to systems in which we are consciously involved. These oppositions are essential for me. I often work out of being fed up with systems.

AD . In ‘Voyage au bout de la nuit’ Ferdinand Céline talks about the fact that our lives consist of an interminable battle against boredom, that we are constantly searching for what is new and different. Do you fight against monotony?

RD . If you don’t draw strength from monotony, it kills you. You have to destroy monotony, else it will destroy you. The tension between the fear to destroy and the will to destroy plays an equally important part in my work. It is like a kind of self-torture and at the same time a gratification.

JH . For someone like Cézanne duality was at the same time an obstacle and a starting point. He wanted to render space on a flat surface, to elaborate the tension between the three-dimensional space and the flat surface. That was a terrible combat for him.

RD . In a certain way Cézanne has become for me an example. In the sense that he feels the objects in a painterly way. He feels them like a blind man.

JH . I would like to conclude with a fundamental question that I have considered a long time. It may look simple but is really fundamental: why do you continue to paint?

RD . Because I can not do otherwise. I sometimes make an excursion to another medium, but finally I always come back to painting. I find painting so fascinating because it is so limited. And also probably because I need it. Just like paintings are solidified images, I want to have enough time to quiet down in life. With painting images I can for the moment best express myself… (hesitates). Actually I can’t paint well.