In with the new: Dutch artist Victor de Bie about deconstructing yourself and finding light and life in Paris

“Must not forget”, says artist Victor de Bie as a note-to-self, a finger pointed up in the air. He has just shown a bunch of paintings, black and white silhouettes on paper, that he now decided should be part of his upcoming Paris exhibition Potasser et Cartonner. Each consists of a few quick brushstrokes only but they are strikingly on point.

“I felt like taking a stack of paper and just draw these lines: boom, next one, boom”, the Amsterdam based 42 year old explains. His hand gestures and face expression mimic the scene.

There is a more detailed silhouet in the drawings, too. I tell him that I like it but Victor dismisses me and puts the work aside decidedly: it will not be included in the exhibition. “It’s too much me falling back into my habit of trying to elaborate on a work that is already done and losing the essence of it in the process”, he explains.

It’s out with the old, in with the new for Victor these days. Both in his personal life and in his work. We’re in his Amsterdam studio situated right at one of the main canals of the city’s famous historic centre. The front of the place — a former eighteenth century pharmacy — serves as his gallery. In the back part, overlooking a beautiful courtyard, he has set up a brightly lit work place.

There are paintings, there are drawings, there are some ceramics, there are cardboard works. The first thing you notice when Victor welcomes you in is the pleasant harmony they bring to the studio.

Not that the works individually are necessarily always representations of happy joyful scenes — in spite of bright colors and references to clowns, fairs, balloons and circuses. Often there’s a quiet suspension in there. You will find yourself looking at one of his paintings only to realize it is actually looking at you.

Not that Victor starts out with an intention to provoke any of those sentiments, he explains. “Other people see things in it that I didn’t think of but often they are right. My process is: I just sit down and — splash — I start painting. I work very intuitively, only afterwards I see elements in it and I can recognize where they came from. My Paris bicycle, the circular windows of the Notre-Dame, a bow that happened to end up on a dress for queen Máxima.”

Paris is an influence because Paris is where Victor moved to one year ago for a couple of months when he found himself stuck. “I wanted to leave Amsterdam behind for a while. My relationship had just bombed, I wanted a fresh start. In Paris I found this wonderful work space thanks to Atelier Néerlandais: big and light with a super high ceiling. I set up my little island in the room and I just started. It was spring, the sun was shining. All that brightness: I absorbed it, it was exactly what I needed.”

Inevitably his work got lighter, too, both in choice of colors and breezy feel. He points to the work station set up by a window in the corner of his Amsterdam studio. “I was used to sit here with one lamp only, the rest of the space in darkness, working on one painting sometimes for weeks on end. I knew I couldn’t do it anymore, I needed to change that. I wanted a work to be finished in two to three days and if it wasn’t, it wasn’t, I’d move on to the next idea. Start having fun again, that’s what Paris was all about.”

It’s ‘the Paris works’ that are up today in his studio while he’s plotting how to put the exhibition together. The show will consist of pieces he created there. He went back a second time last year for a month and he’ll be in Paris two weeks before the opening date to create some more pieces. Though some of the work on display was made in Amsterdam in the after glow of Paris, specifically some decorative art: chairs, a vase, a carpet.

The older stuff meanwhile is stacked up in a corner, wrapped in plastic. “To be honest I can’t even properly look at it anymore”, Victor says. But he takes one out of its bubble wrap sleeve anyways to make a point. It’s a scene of the drawn-out figures that still are characteristic of his work and that find their origin in his fashion background.

The painting is dense and elaborately detailed. “I worked for two months on this one. By the time I had finished it, placing the last little dot, I was completely over it. It’s very special and people would be impressed and praise my skill. But no one would buy it.”

He points to one of his recent Paris paintings, explaining: “I could give that the same treatment. Enhance the colors, add shadows and layers. But the thought of having to go through that process for weeks while the idea has already manifested itself sends me into stress straight away.”

Deciding when a work is done is one of the hardest things for an artist, Victor admits. “It takes trust, especially when like myself you are used to working on one painting for up to two months. In Paris I forced myself to have that trust. I needed to, because I had too many ideas. I wanted to keep going.”

Subsequently one of the paintings he made in Paris got sold pretty much straight after he put it up in the store in front of his Amsterdam studio. “It is one of two darker colored paintings.” While in Paris his ex partner contacted him, Victor explains about the heavier tones of the works. “He was dealing with some issues and I got sucked into that energy. The sentiment is reflected in those paintings. Still I think they are some of the best works that I made while in Paris and they definitely belong in the exposition.”

Included, too, are some of his cardboard works which probably most represent his fun and organic work flow. “They really started to have a life of their own”, Victor says.

“They are figures constructed of loose parts. I wasn’t aware that they were turning into seven meter tall objects.” Laughs: “But, hey, give me space and I’ll fill it. The beauty of cardboard is: the material is worth nothing. I literally found it on the street and started playing with it. If it wouldn’t work out, nothing was lost. It really helped me to liberate myself.”

And freedom, he adds, is the most valuable thing: “More than anything else. Art for me is the space in which I can achieve that freedom. I don’t think my work is political. I love to razzle dazzle people, make something that is beautiful, but it isn’t about a social statement. Though as soon as I feel that my freedom gets compromised I get really, really frustrated.”

No longer bound by his own compromising definitions Victor says that he feels the Paris exhibition is only a hint of what is to be expected of him in the nearby future. Which brings us back to the silhouet paintings that seem to express the ultimate deconstruction of his former way of working: sometimes a painting can be done in just a few strokes. For now he only has to remember to actually bring them to the show.

‘Potasser et Cartonner’, Victor de Bie @ Atlerier Néerlandais, 121 rue de Lille, Paris, from May 31 — June 8, 9 am to 5 pm.



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Caspar Pisters

Caspar Pisters

Reporting on queer culture & sexuality