mano a mano
Of course, they speak Spanish with each other. Toon Verhoef spent his high school years in Argentina and Ana Navas, born in Ecuador, grew up in Venezuela. We’re talking about their upcoming exhibition in Amsterdam. Not that their art is similar. Verhoef is known for large-scale paintings which, though not strictly abstract, are referred to as ‘post minimal abstraction’. Navas made her debut some ten years ago with capricious sculptures, installations, and films. The Latin American artist studied at the same two institutions where Verhoef used to teach, the Staatliche Akademie der Bildende Künsten Karlsruhe and De Ateliers in Amsterdam, but Verhoef was never one of her tutors. At her degree-show in 2010, Navas presented a series of one hundred photographs of windshields of cars covered in snow, with all kinds of phrases inscribed. The texts were slightly crippled translations of Latin American sayings, with a wink to German stereotypes. ‘An amazing work,’ says Verhoef, ‘I completely fell in love with it.’ The writing causes subtle disruptions in daily routines. Navas: ‘I thought, what would happen to people when they find this sentence on their car early in the morning? Is it a joke? A threat? Would they ponder the wisdom or the message of it? Would the phrase stick with the person who reads it and then reoccur in a conversation some years later?’ The circulation and distribution of words and thoughts, the powers of it and its instabilities, is fascinating subject matter to both artists. As we speak, not a single artwork has been completed yet. The exhibition is construcción en curso.
When tegenboschvanvreden and Galerie Onrust approached the artists with the idea of making a show together, in both galleries, it was clear from the beginning that an exhibition of existing pieces was not an option. Navas: ‘That would not have been much of a challenge, nor an exciting thing to do. We were invited because we value and appreciate each other’s work. The invitation was a chance to leave the beaten track and to try out something new by making things together.’ During the initial meeting in her Rotterdam studio, Navas shared with Verhoef dozens of ideas for new pieces, ideas both artists could possibly work on together. One of her ideas concerned photographs of birthday cakes on which the usual creamy wishes have been replaced by, for example, phrases like Do you still have family there? Navas: ‘These are the type of questions usually asked to strangers, questions that seem apparently innocent but are rather personal and strongly location bound.’ The birthday cake photographs will be turned into posters and presented alongside posters produced by Verhoef. The painter will base his prints on digitally reworked photographs of random writing on walls, road signs, and advertising boards in Argentina. In the poster wall imagined by both artists, the potential for disturbance of Navas’s earlier windshield writings resonates.
Both artists share an interest in film. Over the years, Navas has made several short films, dedicated to the secret lives of trendy appliances and public statues. Excerpts of these videos will be presented in the duo exhibition. Verhoef, ironically calling himself ‘a frustrated film maker’, plans to show scenes from two of his favorite movies, Vertigo (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock and Sans Soleil (1983) by Chris Marker, in particular a remake in Marker’s film of a scene from Vertigo, shot at the very same location in San Francisco where the master of suspense filmed it. The close-up shows Kim Novak’s gloved hand pointing towards two different year rings in a tree. This is when I was born, she says, and this is when I will die. It is an image that has stuck with Verhoef for years and to which he has referred to in several of his paintings. Also included in this cinematic reverie will be a series of eleven still shots Verhoef is currently working on. These are fragments of a film he had been wanting to make for decades, based on a short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, The Waiting (1950), about a man who spends his days in a hotel room in Buenos Aires. He reads Dante, drinks his coffee, goes out to see a movie, and stares at the wallpaper decorated with peacocks that come to life in his dreams. Time drifts by. Until one morning two hitmen show up and kill him. Nothing connects the disparate shots but the magical logic of Borges.
Asked how the various film fragments will be edited, Navas points out that all footage is considered equally important, and that one image will just fluently lead to another, following unmapped paths of visual rhyme. Both artists imagine an uninterrupted flow of projected images, a kind of mood board that will subliminally affect the perception of the other works in the show.
Next to posters and film fragments, paintings and sculptures are in the making. Navas is working on sculptural assemblages to which Verhoef will add paintwork. At the tender age of 76, Verhoef will also produce his first sculpture, based on a drawing dated back in 1968. Plans that were dormant for many years unexpectedly come to life in this one-off collaboration. Rather than a parade of forgotten dreams, the show will be a celebration of the obstinately unforgettable.
Much of the source imagery that the artists are working with, reflects the modern, pseudo-minimalist aesthetics of humidifiers, steam irons, headphones, fitness apparatus and other Tel Sell commodities, characterized by shiny surfaces and aerodynamic curves. Navas: ‘I am totally intrigued by these objects, what they signal, how we incorporate them in our lives, how they affect us. It may sound somewhat arrogant and I’m hesitative to say this, but I wonder if this vocabulary could be a thermometer of the zeitgeist. What kind of thoughts and views are embodied in these shapes?’ Verhoef: ‘There is something that escapes their functionality, something you may also find in modern architecture, photography, everywhere. Take Henry Moore. His sculptures full of round holes and curves are widely accepted as quintessential modernist. But how did such a standard come into existence? People stick their head through these holes and have their photograph taken by their loved ones. I find that… curious.’ What is accepted in art and design and what is not, and how this judgement changes over the years, is a strong fascination of Navas. ‘I love these television documentaries on the evolution of the vacuum cleaner for example. The history of the object summarizes how life in the past was lived. Marketeers are very aware of that. Which curves would match with today’s ideologies?’
The wall pieces referred to by the artists as ‘Frames’ reflect this type of design bordering on kitsch. The large resin constructs have their origin in tattoos and hipster coffee mugs that are supposed to communicate optimism and spirituality. The curvy frames, produced by Navas, were shipped to Verhoef’s studio to be processed in a painterly manner. Verhoef: ‘The obvious thing to do would be to use them as stretchers. Instead, I choose to work with chalk on floating sheets of lexan film, painted slats and cheesecloth that are moving in and out of the framework. I try to create some friction, a sense of awkwardness which at the same time is somehow resolving. I have always tried to push the limits of what a resolved image could be, without the painting becoming completely farcical or arbitrary.’ Verhoef’s additions lend to the frames a youthful dynamic, they make the outer limits of the artworks flexible, transgressive, spatial. At Onrust, the artists want to attach the frames to two very obtrusive columns in the gallery. On the wall behind the columns, the artists envision a large mural. Several utensils from Navas’s unrivalled repertoire will be represented in a celestial assembly under an arch-like structure.
mano a mano has its origins in words, images, films, objects, in ‘things that have always stayed with us and that are important to us’, as the artists explain. It is the outcome of successive exchanges of ideas and experiences, the sum of a series of unfathomable translations, deformations, and amalgamations. Disparate worlds mingle in images of unclear origin that are nevertheless remarkable, suggestive, and meaningful. Like an anonymous thought left behind in the snow.
Dominic van den Boogerd