In And Out Of The Labyrinth:
A Conversation With Artist Regine Verougstraete
I have admired Regine Verougstraete’s art1 for a couple of decades, both in exhibits and through occasional studio visits. One feature I associate with her work is unity of inspiration, unmistakable across a variety of media, dimensions, styles.
Born and raised in Belgium, Verougstraete studied in Italy and Vienna. In the late 80s she began creating performances and installations. When she moved to the United States in 1994, she discontinued those art forms. Today she refers to them as old modes of expression, very distant from her following pursuits. Although I only know the early phase of her work in reproduction, I see an evident link between her conceptual outputs—centered on body, nature, fruit, vegetables—and subsequent drawings, paintings and mixed media ranging from paper to fabric, burlap, clay, wood, photography. Common threads are earthiness and proliferation, rolling, curving, spiraling shapes, something embryonic or fetal in the figure (when present) or in how the figure and surroundings interact.
Verougstraete never ceased making art, but as she homeschooled her sons, fought and overcame cancer then trained as a holistic healer, her focus temporarily shifted. Afterwards, she felt the need to redefine her practice. “I knew I wanted to change. I was no more the person doing giant installations. Who was I? I was in the labyrinth, and I had lost the string of Ariadne.”
How could she orient herself? She decided to make a drawing a day for a year then see what would happen. As the year came to an end, she did not stop. Drawings interspersed with words kept filling thick pads, growing in piles taller and taller. Thus, her project evolved into a “thousand of drawings in a thousand of days.”
I have seen her impressive collection of notebooks at SPARC Gallery, in South Pasadena, in 2016.2 Visitors were allowed to open and peruse them. A selection of images—giclée prints enhanced by hand on aquarelle paper—was on the walls.
It was a powerful exhibit. The profusion of images and their cohesiveness created a whirlpool of energy. The display of notepads was its own piece of art—a whole coffer of visual delight, potentially infinite. The interactive approach (pick a book, sit down, turn the pages) made the viewer more attentive than usual. Elements of performance and installation doubtlessly permeated the show, demonstrating a subtle continuity with the artist’s past work.
During an artist talk, Verougstraete provided background information and described her process. While I enjoyed her presentation, I was puzzled by the discussion ensuing. I felt crucial points were misunderstood, mainly those regarding the interplay of spontaneity and boundaries.
When she started her visual journaling in 2012, Verougstraete wished to leave previous forms of expression behind her, venturing into territories unknown. She hadn’t chosen a destination. She hadn’t mapped her journey in advance. She did not seek to imitate this or that example, follow this or that current. The whole point of her experimentation was discovery.
She nonetheless established rules by which she would abide. This is one of the points on which the discussion staggered, since establishing rules seemed implicitly to deny freedom. Isn’t setting criteria a cold, calculated intervention, hindering spontaneous expression?
No. Not really. Setting rules in making art is almost unavoidable. The mere act of choosing a medium, a method, a size—even on a single basis or in an erratic manner—is a way of definition. And in Verougstraete case, her guiding criteria were pointedly what allowed spontaneity to flow.
One of them was “Try not to do art”, an easily misinterpreted statement especially since—when the artist repeated it during the panel—‘art’ entirely filled the gallery walls, blatantly contradicting her words. Therefore the accent in her sentence must have fallen on the verb, “do.”
“Not do,” the artist rectified. “It’s a very personal rule I have adopted. I was raised in Belgium, and my parents loved to take us to museums and churches. We would recognize the Flemish, Rembrandt, Bosch, Brueghel, van Dyck… I was raised with ‘old’ art and that was all I knew for a long time.”
At an early age she knew she would paint, and she wished to do it like the classic masters. Deeply rooted in her mind, such yearning survived even the electrifying discovery of performance and installation, causing her decision to train with artist Maria Lassnig, whose method required painting only in black and white—still life, portrait, live model—eight hours a day, seven days a week, for a year. Although the effort and discipline that such studies implied were strenuous, Verougstraete loved them. She acquired impeccable technique, proving she could equal the masters if she wanted. But the language she had laboriously learned wasn’t her own and soon she lost interest, choosing a completely different path—conceptual, contemporary.
Still, she couldn’t simply discard the high standards of achievement set by her early esthetic exposures and by Lassnig’s training. Her first models and severe schooling subliminally kept orienting her process, at least measuring her results against preexisting ideals. They became an internalized censor, extremely hard to please.
When in 2012 she started her visual journaling, however, Verougstraete wished to plunge into uncharted regions, to find things she hadn’t yet seen. Therefore, the new rule informing her creative quest, “try not to do art” (otherwise an irreducible contradiction) meant “try not to do what you have learned to define, respect and recognize as ‘art’ up to this moment”. It meant trying to forget past abilities and expectations, at least in their conscious forms, trying to put the teacher, the examiner, the supervisor at rest.
The latter wasn’t an easy task, and that’s why criteria were helpful. What would happen if she let herself entirely off the leash, admitted such thing were possible? The critical part of her mind, which needed to prove her skills and confirm her talent, would exert a stronger grip on her work, cast doubt on her instincts and curb her momentum. “It was easier for me to go past it if I took clear decisions: I will work with this format or shape, use this kind of material. I could ask my critical self, then, to suspend its judgment at least during the experiment. See you in a month!”
With a few rules, then, and with a steady work schedule, Verougstraete was able to keep at bay the stymying effects of self-censure. Within the chosen frame and for a period of time, she could follow her instincts even if the results defied her previous notions. She could negotiate breaks with the sterner, more exacting part of her being, not wholly dismissing its contribution, but reclaiming a wider horizon and the right to play.
It is interesting how, as she embarked on her “revolutionary road,” her plans mirrored her early academic training, pointedly the “black and white” period of Maria Lassnig’s teaching, with its daily sessions, its rigorous discipline, even the time limit of one year. Unlike her schooling, however, her personal path of discovery did not have a finish line.
As she started what would be her “thousand drawings” journey, Verougstraete also established a rule of privacy. She would not show the work. Indeed, art meant to remain unseen is conceivable. It can have a merely subjective purpose, such as fostering personal evolution and self-understanding. But to declare an intent of secrecy made little sense in a gallery where the work was not only exhibited, but also explained and discussed. How and when did things change? Was the apparent incongruity a matter of process, of stages?
“The decision of not showing the work allowed me to entirely free my expression. As I started, I didn’t know that my view would change. Trusting that I would protect myself was absolutely crucial.” Was this yet another device meant to suppress her built-in censor, which potential viewers would automatically enforce?
“When a year later I saw what I had drawn, some of it was embarrassing. Way too colorful and almost naïve. Because I used to be ‘artsy’ in a classic way, I didn’t recognize myself.” She had no wish to share her surprise, her puzzlement. But as drawings kept pouring out, the work claimed its right to visibility. “This is quite incredible. It is not just for me. It demands to be seen.” Her expression had grown strong enough to step over boundaries, leaving hesitations behind.
She started blogging her drawings from the beginning, four or five at a time—gradualness allowing adaptation.3 At times, this exposure made her feel vulnerable, temporarily affecting her creative process. “Some drawings were disastrous because suddenly the viewer was in my book. For a few days I watched myself wobbling. Then I went back to work with renewed strength.”
Her intention of secrecy and her choice of publicity, therefore, didn’t contradict each other. They illustrated a natural evolution, as of bread rising through the effect of yeast, a film negative processed in the dark room, a potion incubating in an alchemist’s athanor. As of an embryo inside a womb or a seed underground. “Yes, a seed. It needs to be wrapped in darkness, all protected and surrounded.”
The athanor, the camera obscura, the seedbed and the womb are shielded environments guarding a precious something from sight until transformation occurs. And metamorphosis is certainly a leading theme of Verougstraete’s work—in the new drawings and also in earlier expressions, for example the animations she did while coping with chemo.4 Everything she creates is undergoing change, growing into something else. Figures and surroundings, positive and negative space constantly switch roles. Solids liquefy, fluids harden.
Transmutation necessarily implies dismantling, loss of parts, dismembering of previous integrity. Arms are cut, wings sprout. Heads roll down then come back with new features– hair, halos. Breasts are ripped and become tears, milk, blood, water, then come back in multitudes, like her drawings. Tears and blood are so pervasive that perhaps they should be seen as vehicles of transformation, perhaps vectors or catalysts.
Tears and blood obviously suggest pain and suffering. They call forth a notion of sacrifice, as of Christian martyrs enduring mutilation (losing a breast, an eye), and then offering to god the severed part in exchange for grace. Raised a Catholic, Verougstraete is familiar with such a mindset. “I always thought suffering meant growth and sacrifice was necessary.” This is her background and traces of it keep surfacing.
But pain isn’t the strongest feeling that her shifting imagery conveys. On the contrary, pain is an echo, subdued. The dismembering soon re-members itself in wondrous, exhilarating fashion, and the idea of metamorphosis prevails. How is this last different from sacrifice? Subtly yet crucially. What we sacrifice we fully relinquish, trading it for a reward of different nature. It’s an “either/or” transaction—worldliness for godliness, body for soul, Venus for the Holy Virgin, earthy for eternal life—exacting a final quality of loss, while the loss implied by metamorphosis is temporary. It’s a shedding of dry leaves in order to blossom again in harmony with the rhythm of the seasons. The sheer concept of cycles denies loss. On the contrary, it involves gain through loss that is only apparent. The result is an unmistakable feeling of joy.
Tears, blood. Water, amnion. The human figures often found in Verougstraete’s work have a marked embryonic quality, though they are ageless and oscillate between genders. Or are they pre-gender? “Androgynous, they just come that way. Dialectic between feminine and masculine has always been present in my work. And since I lost a breast I am like the amazon, masculine on one side, feminine on the other.” But her figures also remind us of the homunculus—the small body replica niched inside the human brain, rolled or folded within circumvolutions of cerebral matter, disproportioned, because different body parts are differently innervated.
“When I taught art I said to my students: “Don’t go through automatic patterns… two eyes, a nose, a mouth, two ears. Keep asking. Where is the face? The body might or might not be attached to it. It might be enormous or tiny. Maybe flat, a leg here, a leg there. Maybe with ten legs and two feet, or ten feet and only two legs. Keep asking. The body you draw portrays your emotions, how you feel about your body.” This is how she works. Her figures map out, detail, incarnate her perceptions, how she accepts or resists them.
Yet the figure—a pervasive leitmotif, a narrator of sorts—isn’t the predominant feature of Verougstraete’s drawings or her art in general. Let’s refer to her early performance and installation work. Look at her face peering out of a cascade of tubers, blending in as everything is shifting. Landscapes burst into the figure as the latter melts into the surroundings—sometimes hidden, almost undecipherable, deeply embedded into an eye-catching and perfectly self-standing plot of shapes, colors, lines. The overall composition might look abstract to the viewer. The artist makes no attempt to verisimilarly portray any scenery, either made of natural elements or constructed artifacts. Everything flows. Nothing is singled out and clearly identified besides the small token of intimate-yet-universal-humanity, the soul-body witnessing all.
Still, nature is present and palpable in her works. Though we don’t see it, we sense it. How so? “What you call abstraction for me isn’t abstract at all! I had moments of sheer bliss during the “thousand drawings”. I could feel myself as a physical body and I could simultaneously feel the entire energy field, the influence of the moon, tides, of a volcano erupting, all those radiances.”
What we see as colors, shapes and lines made out of ink and gouache, then, is our natural world as Verougstraete perceives it—the emanations of earth, water, trees, people, animals.
As I recently visited her studio to ask the questions I had been pondering since the discussion panel, I realized how vitality is another prominent trait of Verougstraete’s art, one I had not yet pinpointed, though it certainly was always there. Perhaps the “thousand drawings” adventure brought it to the fore.
We talked, seated in front of her drafting table while her recent work surrounded us, hung with clothespins from lines strung across the room. Dangling drawings enclosed us in a sort of tent or tepee, redolent of transience, journey, pilgrimage, outdoors, starry nights. They swung in the gentle breeze that came through the window and the light traversed them, adding depths, layers, shadows or brilliance—somehow yet more life.
The drawings answered some of my questions better than words could. They inspired new questions as well. They were not hung there to dry. Ink and gouache are quick mediums that need not cure. These pieces were suspended for the artist herself to receive them, to be exposed to what they had to say since she hadn’t planned their meaning. They came as a total surprise through the path she had carefully prepared for them—a sort of birth channel.
On the occasion of her recent show at the Alliance Française,5 Verougstraete published one of her notebooks, Number 46: On Forgiveness. Fifty copies out of a hundred were immediately sold, mostly during the opening night. As she put the edition together, the artist didn’t alter the drawings, but she felt compelled to revise the spare commentaries that accompanied them. “Once I completed the drawings,” she said, “I had learned things about my theme I entirely ignored before,” her awareness deeply modified by the forms she had created.
These things swinging above us, then, were guideposts along the labyrinthine path. They were mentors and messengers, engaging in a constant dialogue with their creator as well as with each lucky viewer.
2 “A Thousand Drawings for Growth”, SPARC, South Pasadena, CA, 2016
4 “Chemo”, by Regine Verougstraete, http://psychichealingart.com/enjoy-the-process-of-becoming/
5 “The Point of Silence”, art exhibition & book release, Alliance Française de Pasadena, CA, 2017
About the writer:
Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish last name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in DIN Magazine, Panoplyzine, Courtship of Wind, and Colorado Boulevard. She is an O:JA&L Contributing Editor specializing in the art and artists of Los Angeles, California.
Images: Images and representations by Regine Verougstraete, as follows: 1. Le poids terrestre – Installation – 1993; 2.Book #46, On Forgiveness – Open, 7″x12″ (Xaipe Publishing, Los Angeles, 2017); 3. The Way is Open – Gouache and Ink on Paper – 12″x12″; 4. Have Mercy – Gouache and Ink on Paper – 12″x12.”
Photograph “Drawings in Verougrstraete’s studio, May 2018,” courtesy of Toti O”Brien.