Every morning at half past eight, Willem van Goor disappears into his studio where he works most effectively to the accompaniment of either classical or meditative, serial music. ‘A single instrument or a lingering bass tone filling my working space creates the right atmosphere for mixing paint, cleaning brushes and adding dots and stripes. Each day I begin with a clean slate and perform a series of routine actions: light-grey values must be made lighter and dark greys slightly darker. I also cover whole areas with regular shading, which is built up layer by layer.’ When his attention flags, he usually works in the garden: ‘Inspiration strikes at unexpected moments and is always connected with what I’m doing.’
Span of tension
Willem van Goor (Zwolle, 1948) believes in the philosophy of craftsmanship: ‘The painting has to be well made and this entails a lengthy process. It takes a great many layers before the work begins to resemble what I had in mind. Generally I put a panel away for a while so that I can complete it at a later point in time.
Each day and each painting involves a span of tension. And when I create a series of canvases for an exhibition, that tension ensures that I can maintain my concentration until I’m done.’
For the past eleven years, Van Goor has been living and working on Achill, an island that is joined to the west coast of Ireland by a narrow bridge. ‘After my wife, my daughter and I had spent two years scratching together a nest for ourselves, I experienced an intense need to record the beauty of our surroundings. In fact, the landscape’s overwhelming splendour was the reason why we emigrated here. But the march of progress has also reached Achill Island and everything is changing at a breakneck speed.’
The constantly shifting light in Ireland means that Van Goor has to make numerous photos and sketches. ‘I have a good visual memory but I often go back to check whether my interpretation of a place is correct.’
The people of Achill still fish with curraghs, those typically Irish boats comprising a thin skin of canvas and tar, which can be picked up with just one hand. The painting ‘Curraghs’ shows fluffy clouds heralding the threat of a storm: ‘The weather on the coast is a melting pot of misery, clear skies and many shades of grey.’ As has been the custom for many thousands of years, the curraghs lie upside down in specially constructed hollows and are weighted down with stones attached to ropes. It’s as if they’re hunching their shoulders and hiding their heads in the bog in anticipation of the approaching storm.
Apart from prefab, plastic traps, the local fishermen continue to use their hand-made equivalents, a number of which can be seen on the rugged concrete quay in ‘Lobster Pots’. ‘You virtually need microscopic vision to see between all those bits of string. I could have created the suggestion of the baskets at the back by making them greyish and rather vague. But I felt that this wouldn’t do justice to the men who make and repair them with so much skill. It would have been wrong to have just dashed them off: everything had to be depicted in an extremely precise and detailed way.’ Hence, with his love of craftsmanship, Willem van Goor is effectively giving something back to the craftsman.
Van Goor’s ‘Seaweed, Stones and Mud I’ was a commissioned work. ‘My client lived with us by the water for a while and wanted the view from her cottage to be immortalised. At the time I was working on a series of black-and-white night paintings, so I decided to paint the view in a nocturnal light. This was because when the moon shines, it can be unbelievably bright. Moonlight can be so intense that you can see countless colours and even the occasional rainbow, which is astonishingly beautiful.’
Photos and sketches often serve as nothing more than a pretext for the work that frequently consists exclusively of innumerable pencil strokes on cardboard. Willem van Goor draws and incises structures so that they can retain the traces of wet paint more effectively. During this process, he uses all kinds of pencils: soft, pitch-black pencils for the foreground and extremely hard, grey ones for the background. ‘I go through the entire range from 8B to 10H, and build the work up until, at a certain point, the painting begins to paint itself. A mould has been made that creates its own reality.’
In addition, Van Goor regularly applies a steel brush and, occasionally, a sanding machine to his work: ‘Because sometimes it all gets too fussy.’ The fact that such rough treatment could easily damage or destroy linen is also the reason why he has opted to work on cardboard and not canvas.
‘I attended art school in Groningen from 1972 to 1978 where I made large, lyrical abstract paintings. I was already working on cardboard and wooden panels. All the treatments I used, resulted in what had effectively become etching plates. These neatly trapped the layers of wet paint, which were applied at a later stage. At that time, it was the music of Steve Reich and Olivier Messiaen that helped me to work in an extremely concentrated way.
At the time I was being taught by artists, who would spend weeks working with sharp pencils on ‘stamps’ that measured a mere ten by fifteen centimetres. By contrast, I began making large paintings with an attitude of “just slap on the paint”, and was trying hard to shake off all that finicky precision.’
Yet Willem van Goor has now spent many years creating extremely detailed images. He uses Japanese brushes for the linear paintings: ‘You can trim them right down to a single hair so that you can paint in an incredibly delicate way. These brushes enable you to follow the underlying pencil drawing with great precision.’
Van Goor regularly places his paintings flat on the floor for further processing: ‘I put them at a slant or an angle; I let them drip and use a wide brush, a sponge or a rag.’ Sometimes he even washes a painting with suds containing paint. ‘You can manipulate the direction in which the paint flows by placing a coin or a piece of cardboard under one side of the canvas. Of course, a hairdryer is also a fantastic contraption.’
Willem van Goor is becoming increasingly involved with the skin and fringes of land, with the area uncovered by the ebbing tide and the tension between wind and water.
Where emptiness appears to be the subject of ‘Slope I’, ‘Slope III’, which is completely constructed in pencil, focuses exclusively on the ground’s surface. Here, Van Goor’s subject is the overgrowth that extends from where he is standing on the peat bog right up to the top of the hill. ‘I mainly wanted to capture the structure through the shading, without restricting myself to what you can actually see out there. A melted glacier dumped its sediment here some 12,000 years ago, which was then covered with a layer of peat. You can still find the occasional stone sticking out of this blanket bog.’
To prepare for the painting stage of ‘Slope III’, Van Goor treated a large piece of green-tinted cardboard with a number of layers of highly diluted, coloured binding agent: ‘This allows you to kill two birds with one stone: You not only create a beautiful glaze but also close the pores of the base coat so that the paint is not absorbed.’ But once he set to work on the treated base coat and had applied thin layers of acrylic to the strip of sky, the work ultimately turned into a pencil drawing where no further paint was used. ‘You can’t really predict that in advance.’ The fact that all the treatments had transformed the base coat into a beautiful, grey-green colour meant that Van Goor could work towards both light and dark.
‘You follow your own mainstream. In my work, I’m constantly exploring my fascination for the land’s skin in greater depth. If I’m in the mood, I let myself be seduced by all the beauty that’s around me. This is something that I can permit myself: I’m old enough. In this difficult climate and under these harsh conditions, it’s as if the opulence and vitality of the ground, the water and the light coincide with the landscape’s absolute bleakness.
The village school in ‘The Old School’ hasn’t been used for years. The background of ‘Storm Grass’ comprises a decaying cottage with a collection of rusting outbuildings, which are known in Ireland as ‘Dutch barns’. ‘These were erected all over the country with the support of the EU. But now they’re just as dilapidated as those deserted houses that you see everywhere on Achill.’ With a sketch-like gesture, Van Goor describes this memory of human activity: ‘Farming is dead and gone, the inhabitants have retreated and everything will soon be overgrown.’ The land’s magnificent skin will finally gain the upper hand.
Translated by Annie Wright Photographer Willem Vermaase.