Clea van der Grijn


Cléa van der Grijn

A golden thread

In this era, we sometimes fear that it is not ‘cool’ to concern ourselves with biography and authorship in relation to an artist’s work. Art should somehow be independent and distant from the lived life, commanding an autonomous and museum-like authority. Maybe these are just efforts to protect ourselves from reality. In theory we have moved on from the romance of the artist’s garret and of suffering as the crucible of creativity. When I come across this form of ‘authority’ in galleries and museums, I sometimes find it useful to remind myself that, while theory is valid, art does come from some point in the unfolding of a human life, from birth, through the ages, to death. Who we are as individuals and communities unfolds, just like in the ancient stories of our cultures, with Old Testament earthiness and doses of brutality. The rich complexity of how and why all humans go through life, and reflect it in their creativity, remains renewed and astounding, in all fields of our activity.

More often than not, contemporary art has a context that, for art theoretical and other reasons, can be said to have externalised the ‘studio’ into the ‘street’. The great freedom of digital media may have helped pave that road. In my mind, there is no positive or negative association with this, just a changing world in which artist and audience find footing. But for those who, for whatever reason, continue to use their hands and materials to make objects or paintings there is a stronger bond to the physical studio and the necessary daily encounter with self as maker, and with the ‘mud’ that they attempt to give form. It is a process that brings to mind Icarus’ beautiful wings that his father, Dedalus made of wax and feathers for their airborne escape from Crete. Icarus, against his father’s sound advice, got high from the experience, flew too close to the sun, and as the binding wax melted, fell helplessly into the sea that now takes his name. In the studio, this drama of creation, liberation, disaster and naming is still repeated endlessly.

Icarus brings to mind another metaphorical story of creativity and wings: Jacob wrestling the Angel, a struggle again, which seems to be endless, until it does conclude with the Angel’s blessing, the release, and the mark of wounding left on Jacob’s leg. The first time I met Clea Van Der Grijn was in Dublin in 1990. She was playing that trans-gender angel – a student in earning a few pounds modeling for me, she wore a pair of plastic gold theatrical wings as she wrestled her fellow artist Maurice O’Connell, (playing ‘Jacob’) in the strange tableaux I asked of them. I also struggled, but my struggle was with drawing and my awkward return to working from the human form.

I re-connected with Van Der Grijn sixteen or seventeen years later as she was in the process of moving to Sligo, rearing three children, bravely, by herself. She was finding her way back to a more intimate studio practice following many glamorous years straddling the worlds of fine art, fashion and design. She had been working on more public-type, commissions such as that for the Morrison hotel in Dublin; or her painted dress collaborations with John Rocha that ended up first on the catwalk, and ultimately in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Whatever way she has chosen to work, in her twenty or so solo exhibitions, it has always been strongly rooted in the autobiographical. Art and its making has been a refuge and reflection of her life. This has manifested over numerous bodies of work, both figurative and abstract, as an internal argument between beauty and decoration. For a long time she has used real gold powder as a pigment in her paintings. The resonance of gold runs deep in the history of painting, but also as the primary colour of adornment, preciousness and illusionary value. It brings her to the heart of her struggle in art, and that is the golden thread that spans and entangles her practice.

The last body of work Van Der Grijn showed in Ireland during 2008, Moment(ous), had taken her out of the studio for a year or two. It brought the artist and viewer directly into the cold glare of large-scale photography and the uncomfortable reality of ‘studio as street’. She let us into the raw intimacy of the world surrounding her family’s mourning that followed the tragic death of her brother. Even here, in these darkest moments, a certain struggle with beauty and adornment continued with a difficult stance of openness, and of self-defence that raised questions to which there is no answer.

Following the completion of that photographic work, the artist seemed at loss, needing to return to the physical materiality of making to re-join the living; but at that time, she had nowhere to work. As this story unfolds, I offered her a space for two years: the part-insulated, unglamorous end of the ‘boom-time’ scale warehouse I had leased as a studio in 2007, at the foot of Ben Bulben. In the falling economy, I appreciated the prospect of a contribution to rent, but also saw her need for refuge. Having lived rurally, I had not worked around another artist in nearly twenty years, and never near another painter. I was fearful of how it would pan out. The separate entrances meant we could at least be private and independent. As it happened, a coffee and chat before work or at lunch and an indecent sausage sandwich fest on Fridays was no terrible thing for me.

Catching up on those years we had not seen each other, I heard each day about the significant ups and downs of her life, past and present; she spoke with humour and that open matter-of-factness that the Dutch inheritance of her surname might imply. Over time, I unintentionally began to witness her relationship to art, and to the progress of the paintings in this body of work that she has titled: “In the head”. I recognised the common experience that many painters have – ‘when all else fails: there is painting’. Above all I saw her absolute commitment and need to paint, to be in the studio as the place where there was quite simply: possibility.

I had never intended to share the warehouse, so while I had converted two-thirds, to be warm, dry and relatively comfortable, the space she occupied was a room within a room, without direct outside ventilation and never easily heat-able or consistently dry. Woking with fairly toxic resins, pigments, varnishes, and electric sanders, it was truly unsuitable, and I would sometimes see her outside in a face mask, eyes rolling looking so pale like she was about to pass out or vomit. Maybe she had found herself a dreaded ‘garret’. Somehow through the fumes and dust she found a way to work there, and working between inside and out she managed to make the bulk of this show’s new paintings before she recently took up a new studio in Sligo town at The Model.

It is no wonder that the first painting that came after months of false starts was called Migraine(2008), The grid of blue dots on gold ground paralleled the overwhelming interior of a migraine, the brightness, the floaters and the pain. This painting and its companion piece were made for an exhibition at the Science Gallery in Trinity College, Dublin. They released her stuckness and let her embrace her struggle with both material and beauty again. New works followed, all “Untitled” and no longer directly connected to that experience, but retaining both focus on the inside of the head as subject, and the grid of dots, to which she could return repeatedly at each stolen hour in the studio— some structure to hang on to. She re-worked the dots and the surface of the paintings as a way of grounding herself and bringing her to attention to this private act, and away from responsibilities and the complexities of her life. They are the order that allowed her entry into the world of possibilities.

Clea Van Der Grijn’s fortitude and ability to bounce back are almost legendary amongst those who know her. She has both the remarkable discipline to turn up to face the work as completely as she does, and then to switch roles to the competent and selfless mother, something that those with experience know, is an extremely difficult tightrope to walk. Is that relevant to the resulting work? Maybe not in a wider context, but knowing it is a privilege that allows me to understand the paintings as real distillations and markings of a life. Some have the strange feeling of being both visionary landscape and interior world, and she acknowledges that while there is no idea of landscape in them, being in a field at the base of Ben Bulben, had its affect. Yet, the only points of actual reference are the grids of dots, the rest is a kind of felt abstraction arising from the repeated stripping and applications of layers of resin and varnishes with pigments and gold.

This is just a human story, the golden thread again: facing life, forging beauty, and sanding away prettiness, searching for order and painted meaning; looking towards the self, but always attempting to go beyond its limits. We know there is no resolution, just temporary patches to our wings so we can fly again and keep us from falling too far, too deep….… “In the head”.

Nick Miller
Rathcormac, Co Sligo
August 2010