Miko Veldkamp, Navigators, 2021, (detail) foto: Tom Carter. Courtesy de kunstenaar en Workplace, VK. © Miko Veldkamp 

The Paintings of Miko Veldkamp: Windows to a Cosmopolitan’s Memory and Imagination

Issue no3
juni -july 2022
Make Friends Not Art

Miko Veldkamp’s paintings are layered windows into a cosmopolitan environment in which figures, memories, colors and cultures blend. In light of Miko Veldkamp’s exhibition Ghost Stories at Workplace Gallery in London, Kerstin Winking pays Veldkamp a visit in his New York studio.

'…cosmopolitanism shouldn’t be seen as some exalted attainment: it begins with the simple idea that in the human community, as in national communities, we need to develop habits of coexistence: conversation in its older meaning, of living together, association.' [1]

During the walk to Miko Veldkamp’s studio in New York, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s theory of cosmopolitanism comes to my mind. The book seems relevant with regard to the artist’s practice. I recall Veldkamp’s paintings as poetic combinations with fauvist forms and intense colors with black lines and white spots. They descend visually from spaces and figures depicted in the artist’s family photo collection. Paintings like Resort (2012) and Terrace (2012) are set in tropical regions and crafted in warm green, brown, yellow and orange hues. Others, such as Schellingwouder Bridge (2012) and School is Out (2012), mirror the cooler tones and geometries of private and public spaces in Amsterdam and London. The reproduction of memory through painting and in relation to his diverse cultural backgrounds are among the themes the artist explores. I realize that being in dialogue with the environment and the people that inhabit it, is just as relevant to Veldkamp as it is to Appiah.

Miko Veldkamp, Resort, 2012, foto: Gert Jan van Rooij. Courtesy de kunstenaar en Workplace, VK. © Miko Veldkamp.

Upon arrival, Veldkamp welcomes me into a small apartment that he transformed into a studio and filled with paintings, empty canvasses, acrylic, ink, oil paint and its unmistakable smell. About twenty fresh paintings of different sizes are propped up against boxes, tables and walls or lay on the floor waiting to be shipped to London. Looking at the paintings in the crowded studio, it occurs to me that in the white cube situation of his Open Studios exhibition at the Rijksakademie in 2012, the paintings had appeared like windows onto different worlds. It is harder to see each of them individually in the New York studio.

Clearly, Veldkamp’s painting practice had changed. Veldkamp explains that he recently began working with a glazing technique that that had slowed down his painting process, as the different layers need some time to dry before he can paint over them. Instead of one layer depicting just one scene, the new paintings feature multilayered sceneries full of shadows, reflections and references to the art of painting and its canon. This is not to say that he did not make such references in the past.

For instance, windows and the idea of a painting as a window to the world both featured in earlier works such as Fireplace (2012) and Kandinsky Carpet (2012), all of which seem to depart from an understanding of a painting ‘as an open window through which the historia is observed’.[2] In Veldkamp’s new paintings, like Ghost Image (2021), Tub Lights (2021) and Unlearners (2021), the layers overlap and the views through the window have multiplied. References to European painting, but also to American East Coast architecture and public spaces are visible, sometimes overlapping with the shapes of tropical plants like coca, tobacco or palm trees.

Miko Veldkamp, Unlearners, 2021, foto: Tom Carter. Courtesy de kunstenaar en Workplace, VK. © Miko Veldkamp.

One figure reoccurs in several paintings. It resembles the artist, with the same sleek figure, skin tone, curly black hair and expressive eyebrows. The figure is shown in different stages of life from youth to adulthood. Veldkamp explains that the basic idea for the new paintings is to create a series of ‘pseudo-self-portraits’. It strikes me that this figure of the artist has doubled or even been multiplied by three or more in the paintings Mirror Stage (2021), Piano Player (2021) and Rain Screen (2021).

Curious to learn more about how he views the development of his painting practice over the past few years, I ask Veldkamp how his experience of moving to the United States for the Hodder Fellowship at the Lewis Centre for the Arts at Princeton University affected his practice. Veldkamp reminds me of the turn he had made in his practice during his residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam (2012-2013). The paintings I had recalled en route to the studio were from his first-year exhibition at the Rijksakademie in 2012, when he still relied on photographic references from his family collections. In his second year, he started painting from what he calls ‘observational memory’, which, for him, meant that he ‘stopped painting history’ and started to ‘paint from memory’. He describes how he applied this process at Princeton: ‘I would look at my environment and come up with ideas for painting. It was like my own personal take on the surroundings of where I was living at the time. I did a show at the gallery in Princeton that was called Passing through the Garden State (2015), Garden State refers to New Jersey. Suburban America and even Princeton were landscape areas that seemed almost ‘exotic’ to me as someone coming from Suriname and the Netherlands. I painted a show that had a lot of parking lots, a lot of suburban American, supposedly boring, unnoteworthy places.’

Veldkamp was born in Suriname in 1982 and although he moved to Rotterdam at the age of six, he went back often, because his mother spent half of the year there. His mother’s background is Javanese. Her grandparents immigrated to Suriname from Java in the framework of indentured labor orchestrated by the Dutch-East Indies colonial administration. She appears in several of the new paintings, including Piano Player (2021) and Unlearners (2021). In Suriname, the family kept its Javanese identity and heritage alive through language and through cultural signifiers such as the songkok indicated on the heads of the cyclists in Veldkamp’s painting Ancestors Club (2021). In another layer of this painting, three human shadows hover over the layer with the cyclists. The human figures that seem to project the shadows would technically have to be standing outside of the painting. For Veldkamp, the painted shadows symbolize viewers standing in front of his painting. He also links the shadows to the Javanese shadow puppets that his family owned. They are superimposed over the painting like shadows of the past. Speaking about the past in the present, Veldkamp explains that he still feels connected to Suriname, the land and its people, even though he grew up in the Netherlands. ‘I feel Dutch, but specifically in the Netherlands, I don’t feel Dutch. I feel Dutch in the United States. I feel Dutch in Suriname. But in the Netherlands, I feel less Dutch than I feel in New York.’

In Surinam, the family kept its Javanese identity and heritage alive through language and through cultural signifiers such as the songkok indicated on the heads of the cyclists in Veldkamp’s painting Ancestors Club

Miko Veldkamp, Ancestors Club, 2021, foto: Tom Carter. Courtesy de kunstenaar en Workplace, VK. © Miko Veldkamp.

The artists shifting relationship to Dutch-ness made me think of the year 2017, when the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte made apparent to the world in a public letter stating his ambition, as translated by the New York Times, ‘to make crystal clear what is normal and what is not normal in our country’. With this in mind, I asked the artist about his experience with the force of the Dutch normaal. ‘When I read that statement’, he replied, ‘it made me sad. I just thought, I'm glad I don't have to have conversations where you gently explain why that is a racist dog whistle. Perhaps people are more familiar with that type of codified language in the United States.’

Despite his experiences of racism in the Netherlands, paintings such as Ancestors Club (2021), Peaceable Flood (2021) and Navigators (2021) suggest through their symbolism and art historical references that the Netherlands as well as his country of birth Suriname are on his mind. About that he says:

‘I like that idea that my Dutch-ness appears in my work now, with the bikes and other things. The way my Dutch-ness shifts is complicated. When my wife tells people that her husband is Dutch and they don’t know me, they sometimes say: “Ah, so you are going to have nice blond babies." Dutch people are still perceived as very white, even though the Netherlands is not a white country.
My Surinamese-ness is more tied to my youth. The first time I went back I was eleven. I remember the physical sensation of the climate, the humidity and the temperature. My body immediately recognized it and it’s the same every time I go back.’

SLIDESHOW Miko Veldkamp, Natural Element, 2021, foto: Tom Carter. Courtesy de kunstenaar en Workplace, VK. © Miko Veldkamp.

Miko Veldkamp, Mirror Stage, 2021, foto: Tom Carter. Courtesy de kunstenaar en Workplace, VK. © Miko Veldkamp.

Miko Veldkamp, Piano Player, 2021, foto: Tom Carter. Courtesy de kunstnaar en Workplace, VK. © Miko Veldkamp.

Miko Veldkamp, Ghost Image, 2021, foto: Tom Carter. Courtesy de kunstenaar en Workplace, VK. © Miko Veldkamp.

Miko Veldkamp, Navigators, 2021, foto: Tom Carter. Courtesy de kunstenaar en Workplace, VK. © Miko Veldkamp.

The way Veldkamp describes his connection to ‘the physical sensation of the climate’ in Suriname recalls the francophone, cosmopolitan intellectual Aimé Césaire. He stresses how important it is for the poet to embrace ‘experience as a whole’, and describes the form of the poem as that of ‘the precious whirlwind: ego, self and the world’.[3] In the painting Natural Element (2021), the figure of Veldkamp seems absorbed by such a whirlwind. When I ask if he relates feelings of connection with Suriname to specific elements in his painting of landscapes, plant shapes or colors, he replies:

‘Yes, the Surinamese landscape is present in my work. Especially Surinamese people would recognize it. I like the idea that there is a lot in my work that only people from that part of the world would recognize. I like that illegibility. It is meaningful to have things illegible. I am not required to make everything I do for everyone. The orange soil is typical in Suriname, so that appears in my work regularly. The orange floor and large trees that stick out above the canopy. All little details that I think of as typically Surinamese landscapes, like these long canoes on the river.’

What Veldkamp says about not being required to make everything he does for everyone resonates with the theory of opacity and the right to difference advanced by Édouard Glissant, another cosmopolitan intellectual who came up in our conversation. Opacity takes shape in Veldkamp’s paintings through the multiplicity of layers and a spatiotemporal trope that does not presuppose a universal subject as viewer. In that sense, the paintings can be read as political statements against essentializing views, such as the demand for ‘normalcy’ in the context of the Netherlands. Veldkamp’s paintings depict memories of his own experiences of what Glissant would define as a chaos-world, rather than one that is ordered by rational principles of universality and linear perspective. The glazing technique that the artist began to use this year serves his practice of highlighting the effect of opacity of things and identities from the painter’s perspective well. When asked about how his memories make it onto the canvas, he explains:

‘Actually, I start painting without really knowing what I’m going to paint. I go to the studio and think, “Oh, this is a canvas that I like”, the color of the surface, its size, its aspect ratio, and then maybe I have some idea of what I want to make. And then I pick a color and I go from there. A lot of times I make a figure or a couple of figures and I don’t even know who it is going to be yet. Then I make a space, like a line, some lines, some edges, and then I have to figure out what it can be. It is a feeling of atmosphere and story. I think it is a back and forth between me and the painting. Things happen in the painting that I didn’t foresee or expect; they trigger another kind of memory or imagined thing.’

Miko Veldkamp, Peaceable Flood, 2021, foto: Tom Carter. Courtesy de kunstenaar en Workplace, VK. © Miko Veldkamp.

In Peaceable Flood (2021), the line of reflection between the figures in a tropical climate and a cold, humid one, blends worlds. Whether his paintings are memories of observations of real or imagined environments does not seem that important to the artist. Like the line of reflection in the painting from one environment to another, the transition from memory to imagination appears fluid.


Miko Veldkamp’s exhibition Ghost Stories will be on view at Workplace Gallery in London from 22.1.2022 until 6.3.2022.

[1] Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, 2006.

[2] Rocco Sinisgalli, Leon Battista Alberti on painting: A new translation and critical edition, 2011.

[3] Michael Richardson [ed.], Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean, 1996.

 

 

Kerstin Winking
is een onafhankelijke curator, promovendus aan de Universiteit van Leiden en gastonderzoeker bij het Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (KITLV)

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