A conversation with artist Sophie Kuijken

Following her portfolio presentation yesterday, we sit down with Sophie Kuijken, based in the tiny Belgian town of Willebringen, to talk about random internet searches, escaping artistic trends and painting people.

Talk to us about your latest work…

In recent years I’ve been mainly painting on panels and occasionally also on massive wood-blocks in various formats. They usually show people, alone or in groups, sometimes only their heads and at other times the full body. The figures do not really represent real, existing people, rather configurations, visual impressions of persons who have lived or are still alive.

How has your work developed over the years?

When I graduated from the Academy of Arts in Ghent, I did not feel really satisfied with what I was doing at the time. After having experimented in various directions, I finally, to my regret, arrived at the surprising conclusion that painting portraits is the genre I like best. That was at a time when painting portraits was quite out of fashion. I consequently decided to keep the door of my studio closed to the public and tried not to give too much thought to the contemporary artistic trends. I wanted to be able to create freely, in  absolute independence. I tried out different things, mostly working on wooden boards or on little plaster plates, repainting them again and again, and at times burning them or bringing them to the waste-container. And when after 20 years I felt like I was starting to feel too comfortable, I decided to reopen the door of my studio.

What are you working on right now?

I’m currently preparing my solo exhibition at the Geukens & Devil gallery in Knokke which will open at the end of December.

How do you get from idea to final product?

On less inspired days I search for images of people on the internet by running a search based on a random word, place or number. I then save the photos of people who somehow visually stimulate me on my computer. In a later stage I blend different images in order to create a new personage without any relation between the different parts as context, gender or age. The end result is a painted portrait of visually recycled individuals.

What is the message behind your work?

I have no intention of spreading messages. What counts for me is the pure visual experience in its most intense form.

What do you hope people will take away from your art?

My paintings initially consist of multiple layers of acrylic paint, completed later on by a number of oil paint layers; consequently progress can be slow sometimes. It can take me up to several months to finish one piece. This means that I spend an enormous number of hours on my subject-matter, a method that can be compared to the experience of repeating a word aloud hundreds of times, until it becomes totally meaningless, abstract like a pure sound, but nevertheless deeply touching and substantial.  I hope that this experience is visible to the viewer.

What subjects do you deal with in your art? 

What I paint is actually not that important. But I really like painting people. I love to read them by merely looking at them and completely penetrate their existence. That’s something very private and personal though, so I don’t really do that with strangers and not even with friends or acquaintances. Instead I try to fabricate these experiences.

How would you describe the art scene in Belgium today?

I have always tried to stay away from it.

What would you have been if you hadn’t been an artist? 

I always liked science, especially mathematics and physics. But I have been painting since my early youth. I started when I was only twelve or thirteen years old. I have never regretted my choice, it is an intense life and I enjoy it.

How important is your environment in shaping your work?

All I desire are peaceful surroundings and a lot of space to work.

Which legacy you want to leave behind as an artist?

This is not my first concern. Our planet is a volatile matter…