Amsterdam, Oct. 2014: Some people are called to the arts by way of a detour, but Chaim van Luit’s route is exceptional by any standard. Being a bit too restless for the regular educational system he dropped out of high school at 17 and joined the marines. He traveled the world working ten-hour shifts for months on end. At the end of his four-year tour he decided it was time for a change. After taking a special entry exam he was accepted at the Academy of Fine Arts in Maastricht. He laid down his gun and picked up the brushes. He still sports a bristly moustache, though, and his hair is always immaculately cut short.
It’s only three years ago that he graduated but van Luit seems to be everywhere. The group shows already number in the double digits, last year he had his first museum solo, and he is being nominated for almost every award for emerging artists in The Netherlands. But to those who know his work, this comes as no surprise. Were one to characterize it, words like "mature," "balanced," and "precise" would immediately come to mind. Van Luit refers to the history and visual language of modernism but does so in an organic, non-academic way. His aesthetic sensibility borders on the poetic but it’s never plainly pleasing. And the way he switches from one medium to the next without getting lost in translation, is admirable.
A good example of his earlier work was on show at the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam last year, when van Luit was nominated for the Volkskrant Beeldende Kunst Prijs. In the video Removing and Restoring Pigments, Hürtgenwald (2012) we see the artist trek through the forest and ending up in a World War II bunker. There he scrapes the camouflage paint off the walls—producing a horrible screeching sound. Next to the video screen a green square wall drawing has been made using the harvested pigment. Within these two simple but extremely strong images van Luit tells a story of unveiling and hiding, nature and culture, history, appropriation, and Malevich’s heritage. The granddaddy of abstract art also came to mind when, just weeks ago, van Luit showed Passage Obscure (2014) at his tegenboschvanvreden solo show. The artist had spray-painted a light box black, hanging it high on the wall. Through little holes in the top light shone through in a braille-like pattern, spelling out the work's title.
Chaim van Luit, Third Rail, 2013, nstallation view at Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht
Edo Dijksterhuis: You work with a lot of different materials, in a lot of different mediums. Still, on your website it says you are always looking for "a painterly solution." Does this mean you consider yourself a painter primarily?
Chaim van Luit: Yes, I guess painting comes first for me, always has. At art school I started out painting figuratively but turned towards abstraction over time. At some point I picked up screen printing and that meant I had to start planning my work differently. It’s not like in painting, that you can simply paint something out of the picture. It’s more unforgiving and needs precision. Screen printing is about rhythm and repetition, knowing the right order of things. And in a way that’s what painting is to me as well: a way of ordering your thoughts and actions, a strategy to deal with space and time. I don’t make pure paintings—works that are primarily and mostly about paint—but I do comment on the history of the medium and its characteristics.
ED: How does a work come into being?
CvL: A couple of months before my gallery show at tegenboschvanvreden I moved to Brussels. That was quite a step, getting to know those new surroundings. For weeks I was roaming the city, collecting images, taking hundreds of photographs. Those became the basis for the works, which I produced in less than a month.
The things that grab my attention are often rather normal, only slightly strange. They look natural, unassuming, but could be art just as well. The light box at a metro entrance, for example, the spray-painted lines construction crews have left on a concrete ceiling, or a railing in a staircase painted in a striped pattern. In my work I reconstructed them. But when put in a new context they start to live a life of their own and you can’t always recognize them.
ED: You moved from provincial Maastricht to the metropolis Brussels. How has this affected your work?
CvL: In Maastricht I could just get on my bike and within ten minutes I would be surrounded by nature. In Brussels the landscape is the urban landscape. The city has become the new great outdoors for me.
A big difference is that in Maastricht I was always making work that referred to a specific location, the Albert Canal for example. But when you’re in a city things become more universal. The work I make there is not necessarily about Brussels but about the city in general and its dynamics. I very much prefer quiet locations, though, places that are empty and inviting me to use them as a kind of vantage point. Often it’s infrastructural sites such as bridges, construction sites, foundations.
Chaim van Luit, Recoating, 2014, Steel, wood, oil paint, Installation view of Einzelgängen; Courtesy tegenboschvanvreden, Amsterdam
ED: How important is the outside world for you? And how is the inspiration you get outside translated in your studio?
CvL: My work never originates in the studio, always outside. It’s almost compulsive, my need to go outside, to walk, to cycle. Being at home at night I get nervous and I have to leave. I just need to be alone then, outside. Of almost all my works I remember when and where they were born: while cycling, in the car, while hiking, never in the studio.
The studio is important but it’s secondary. It’s where I end up after wandering around. Sometimes it takes me two or three hours to get from my house to the studio. I always take a detour and arrive with a head full of impressions. The pictures I’ve taken I tack to the wall, like building blocks for some kind of mental space. These ideas I combine with the materials I collect when moving about and checking out DIY-stores. The studio is like an assembly line.
ED: In your teens you were active in the graffiti scene. To what extent is your art influenced by that background?
CvL: I was fourteen, fifteen years old and it was more about a certain attitude than about art. My transition to art has been gradual. Even when I was in the marines I was still doing graffiti. We would dock somewhere in Africa or Norway and my colleagues would go to bars and strip clubs. Me, I would just take my backpack with spray cans and was off to do a piece somewhere on a train.
The navy brought me discipline and the ability to plan my activities efficiently. It came in handy when enrolling in art school. I felt right at home but didn’t feel the need to sow my oats; I could start working right away.
ED: Your first name is Jewish but your last is not. How come?
CvL: My parents, and especially my father, are very much interested in Jewish religion and culture. As a kid I was taken to the synagogue in Amsterdam every week. This influence has not found its way into my work in a literal sense but I do have a deeply felt belief in the spirit of things. Objects are not merely objects—they have some kind of mystical presence.
In some works the references are quite strong. Two Triangles and Everything in Between, for example, consists of a book roll comparable to the Torah. It’s almost 10 meters long but it’s rolled up so you can only see one triangle. The other triangle from the title is present but only if the viewer believes it is.
Chaim van Luit, Ex: 3, No 1, 2013, Painted neon tubes, cables, transformers, ca. 300 x 200 cm
ED: Your presentations always have unusual titles. Why is that?
CvL: I find titles for exhibitions to be more important than for individual works. A show usually combines various works and it’s helpful to give them a communal label, indicating the source they originated from.
The title for my first museum show was Third Rail and it refers to my graffiti background. When going onto a train track in the underground, you have to be alert constantly and make sure you don’t touch the electrified third rail; those 900 Volts would kill you immediately. The works in that show were made with a same kind of concentration and sharp focus.
My last exhibition was called Einzelgängen. It’s a non-existing word, a bastard transformation of "Einzelgänger," which is German for someone who operates solo—exactly as I did during my first few weeks in Brussels. By turning it into a verb, the word seemed to become more active. It also sounds a bit like the German word for "gears" and Dutch speakers might hear "gangen" (hallways) in it. So by creating a new word, I gave myself and my work a little bit of extra room for interpretation.
ED: Could you tell us a little bit about the work you’re finishing now?
CvL: It’s about the Brussels metro system. At some point I noticed that there is always music playing over the intercom and I wondered where it originated. It turns out there is one central location from where the sound in all stations is regulated. It’s hidden behind a forbidding steel door, with cameras trained on it and no window or anything. Here an MP3 player is turned on every day submerging one million commuters in an urban area with a 25-kilometer diameter in the a carefully selected playlist. It’s like being the city’s DJ.
I want to do something with this phenomenon but don’t know what yet. Maybe I’ll film the MP3 player, once I’ve been granted permission to visit the center. Or I could document the cables and antennas connecting the city in this choreographed emotional backdrop.
ArtSlant would like to thank Chaim van Luit for his assistance in making this interview possible.