Sisca Verwoert: Journey into Floribundas

Feistiner (20210), oil on canvas, 60″ x 60″

Interview by Jack Raffin

So, I don’t know how much you know about the Tarot. And I mean the Marseilles Tarot, none of that hippie Rider deck crap. The Major Arcana of the Tarot is a set of twenty-two cards depicting characters that relate to elements that are higher up than ourselves, on a different plane than our regular daily lives, like archetypes. Side note: this is why you would use the four suits of the Minor Arcana for readings relating to everyday stuff, like “How am I going to fund the printing run of the next issue Golem?” — for example.

The eighteenth card of the Major Arcana is the Moon. This card relates to great receptive power—for women, of course, as this is the great cosmic female archetype, but also for artists in general. It speaks of being able, and open, to receive the cosmic rays of ideas that can inspire a work, a painting, a poem, and so on. While others sleep, your artist mind is probably still running, sorting ideas, images, beaming. Just as the Moon works at night, beaming the Sun’s light far off. In the Marseille version of the Moon card, there are two towers in the distance. One has an open roof, a receptive structure, taking in inspiration. The other tower is closed, an active structure, and inside the work is being carried out. The two animals in the middle ground (dogs, wolves?)—one flesh-coloured, one blue-coloured, could perhaps relate to the elements of the body and the soul—stare up at the Moon, feeding off her rays; body and soul feeding the mind. In the foreground, another animal (and another element of instinct), a crab or crustacean, emerges from the waters of the unconscious, holding something in its pincers. It is an offering to the Moon, something higher than the self. Hold that thought.

Sisca Verwoert is a painter. She was born in the Netherlands and arrived in Australia back in the 1950s. An encounter with coloured pencils at a young age perhaps sparked her almost innate love and fascination with colour, and by her teenage years she was already painting and studying the Masters. Several decades later, and here we are—in Apollo Bay. Sisca has travelled and lived all over the world: New Guinea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Chile, Tajikistan, Belize, Switzerland, and so on. She has painted for decades, finding herself in different styles, subjects, colours, and forms. I first saw her work at Qdos Gallery in Lorne, Victoria. Her exhibition, Avocado & Grape—The Birth of Venus, ran in January this year, and showcased a series of large canvases, bursting with colour, shapes, dense populations of flowers and plants and birds and more. One of her paintings came partly to view, as I sat in the distance, in the gallery’s café. I kept leaning out of my seat to get a better look through the doorway that led to the gallery, at this highly inspired union of colour, which the canvas seemed to barely contain. I really felt the canvas would burst. I wasn’t sure if it was even paint, or… what was it?

This might come up more than once in this issue, but: there is something about seeing paintings in person. You need to see the colour in person, in the flesh, the texture of the paint, the work of the brush, you can feel the canvas in the room. That’s something you won’t get on a screen or on a printed page. But here we are. And glad you’re here too.

Sisca’s opening nights are typically accompanied by music written for the event, songs inspired by the paintings themselves, performed by Meryl Leppard. The exhibition also had a short documentary feature, filmed and edited by filmmaker Jackson Hyatt, which functioned as a high-quality companion piece to the exhibition, and a portrait of Sisca’s life and work in general. The documentary also served as an insider look into Sisca’s method and processes, the way she reacts to her canvases, and loses herself in the colours, the brush strokes, the ideas. This is where the Moon card came to mind. After having worked at the canvas for several decades, it seems Sisca has, very consciously, reached a point where things simply flow at times. Poking at a canvas here and there, the images and ideas will begin to present themselves to her, as if they were always there, at bottom of the ocean floor. There’s something about the Moon, its magnetic draw, and its relationship with, what I think Patti Smith called, the ‘telepathic oceans’. All these receptive elements radiate around her work. You can stare at her paintings and ‘feel’ them, understanding them somehow, deep down. But maybe that’s just me projecting.

Jack Raffin: Something that hit me when I saw Jackson’s documentary was when you were talking about the process behind your recent paintings, where there are these sort of chance moments with the brush. But you’ll go back and replicate those ‘accidents’, studying your own hand. At the same time, you talk about how there’s no intellectual domination over the canvas—things just flow. Is this a method primarily in your new works, or something that’s been present in your overall work?

Sisca Verwoert: That is something that has been an issue for me for a long time. I started doing images from life, and that in its way was good training. But where I am now, and that’s taken many years to do, is I’m very intuitive. And although I realise it’s taken knowledge and experience to allow me to choose the colours and to choose the canvases, this is all determined intellectually of course, from memory, but I don’t impose my will on the imagery at all, until they’re almost self-evident. So, I randomly throw a lot of paint on the canvas, and I wind it back, and I go through actions that I know will bring a certain result. But the imagery that emerges is something that is dictated by the canvas itself. That is something that I’ve only in the last years begun to appreciate. And I think that’s why Graham [owner of the Qdos Gallery in Lorne] says it takes years to learn how to paint. I now know what he means. I didn’t go to school. I didn’t have any education in the way of painting and for that I’m grateful, because it allowed me to find my own way. And there’s this recent emergence of allowing the canvas to dictate to me—even the colours. I will accidentally see a purple, a lime, with an ultramarine blue—something I have never conceived of to put together, and they look fabulous. And I think, good, I’m going in that way for a while. And so, it’s all about watching, thinking, receiving, and following where it goes. But of course, in the end, because they’re high-end finishes, my canvases, I am then determined to clean them up, and harden some edges, and that becomes the only intellectual effort really—the choice of where I toughen up, and where I soften off. And those choices come from experience.

Floribundas (2020), oil on canvas, 60″ x 60″

It would have to be, no? For it to be an effective result, it would typically have to come from experience, I would imagine. Otherwise, it’s just random splattering of paint. We’re talking what, four, five decades of painting? Because another thing I was thinking about your work in general, was your journey through different styles. You know, there was abstract, and portraits, and still life, and lots of experimentation. The Birth of Venus exhibition is almost a culmination of those previous decades of other work.

Yes, but you see, there’s also something else going on in me that I hadn’t realised. And that’s my watching, and looking for books, and going to exhibitions, especially the Italian Renaissance paintings, which are so deeply embedded in my memory. Things emerge that are from that time. I mean, the Birth of Venus painting, although it’s a modern-looking face, it genuinely all goes back to that stuff I’ve been looking at for years. And although it’s not intellectual, I do allow memories to resurface, if that’s what the moment requires of me. It’s about letting these images emerge. And that’s the only face, really, that I’ve put in a painting for a long time. So, that was a strange thing to have happened, but I loved doing it, and it worked immediately. I don’t know what that says about our psychology, but it does tell me something about what store of memories I have, and those memories can impose themselves on me, while I’m being extremely relaxed and allowing everything to happen.

Letting things flow, huh?

Yeah, they just emerge. They might not show up at a future exhibition (laughs) but they still emerge.

I did love that one sole human figure that appears in that one painting, almost like a gatekeeper to that abundant world of colour and form, and dense, abundant plant life.

People suggest even that it’s—although it didn’t look anything like me—that it could be some kind of self-image. I know that with every portrait I do, there’s a bit of me there. I think you can see that in Rembrandt’s paintings too, where every portrait he did looks like him. So, I think there’s some kind of self-image that imposes itself on painters occasionally. I think Frida Kahlo painted herself all the time, but I think there are other painters that, although they think they’re doing a portrait of someone else, are actually doing a bit of themselves. Our eyes and nostrils and skin types are so embedded in our minds that it’s very difficult to paint them out, if you know what I mean.

Yeah, for sure. It would happen with my drawings. My sister especially, who’s an artist herself, would get into what I would call a rut. Because she would draw faces that were clearly her own face. And she would get frustrated, because she knew she was doing it. And I think it’s just the hand doing stuff by memory. I would tell her to grab old magazines and just draw the faces in there, just to coordinate your brain, eye, and hand with other shapes, faces, and lines. It could be just routine and finding a way of getting out of it. I mean, how many times did Rembrandt draw himself? And you look at his work, it’s like dude, your hand is robotically going through the motions of a familiar movement.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve started drawing a lot of African and Asian faces. I would like to go into larger lips, wider cheekbones, all that sort of thing. And the eyes of Asians, they’re so beautiful. And yet all my Asian portraits look like western portraits. So, it is important to practice on other things, other subjects, and I’m certainly doing that. Even my landscapes, which I don’t think you’ve seen—there’s an image of Bald Mountain that I’ve painted about 20 times, and I love doing it, and it’s always very successful and very popular, but it is a rut that I’m getting into. That’s why I stopped doing them for a while.

Feistiner (2020), oil on canvas, 60″ x 60″

I think if you’re an artist, you’ve got to keep feeding your brain, seeking new stuff for the work to not be so cookie cutter-type.

The real danger is, you draw a beautiful flower or a beautiful bird, and think “Oh that’s gorgeous, I’ll do that again and again”, and you do get better at it, but in the end, you can get into a rut. So, it’s about getting to a place where it’s fine, and moving onto something else. Right now, I’m looking into different motifs, and this enormous canvas that I bought is actually going to help me find it, I think.

You reminded me of this other artist who I was speaking with just last week—about galleries. Where the gallery owners are like, “That was good, do more of the same.”

(Laughs) The thing that keeps you moving along is your own desires. But what sells is also at the back of my mind. I do understand that the last exhibition was a successful one, and that will impose itself upon my work, but then again, I’m having such fun doing that work anyway… you know? I probably won’t wander that far away from it. But to say it doesn’t influence me would be wrong. It does. But then again, one of the paintings that was at that last exhibition was one that I did thinking: “Everyone’s going to love this. This is the best thing I’ve ever done. Amazing. Look at the shapes and the colours.” Loved it myself, and it didn’t sell (laughs). So, you could try, but you may not succeed in pleasing your public, because you don’t really know what they like. There is no judging what will sell and what won’t. So, really—that’s not a very good way to go. Just make stuff that you like yourself. I’m quite happy to have that painting back when it comes (laughs).