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Véronique Baar

Adding Exactly Enough

on the oeuvre of Juul Kraijer

Juul Kraijer embarked on her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rotterdam in 1989. She initially specialised in illustration, switching to painting later on; drawing was not yet a separate branch of study at the time. Kraijer found working in oil on canvas a real struggle. She did not encounter the same kind of resistance when making sketches for the paintings, with charcoal on paper. But it was not until the fourth year of her course, when she first had a studio she could call her own, that she realised that these preliminary studies were in fact the finished work. From then on, everything fell into place, and it was if a ‘plug had been pulled from a reservoir’, as she puts it. In 1994 she graduated, in consultation with the Academy, on the strength of her drawings.
The female figures with their disconcerting animal or human mutations, rendered in charcoal or crayon, emerge from a protracted, intense process of searching and polishing. For the past few years, they have also been brought to life in figures made of clay and bronze, in photographs and even in short films. In all these materials and techniques, the characters appear both familiar and anomalous at the same time.

Weighing things up
The drawings are seldom inspired by an event in real life. Kraijer starts by exploring her impossible situations in charcoal on small sheets of paper – with a putty rubber close at hand – to see whether a credible visualisation can be achieved. Sometimes the motif is developed in just a few hours, while on other occasions it may not materialise for days, after 20 to 25 sketches. Once she is satisfied with a sketch, she uses it as the point of departure for a drawing, either immediately or later, maybe years later, when the time is ripe to explore the motif afresh.
The next step is to determine the size of the paper, with dimensions ranging from twenty centimetres to three metres. Large sheets are used to accommodate life-sized human figures, while portraits are executed on smaller ones. Kraijer cuts the large sheets of paper herself. The width of a roll determines the maximum height or width of a drawing. The paper she uses most frequently, a heavy, high-quality, whitish-yellow Hahnemühle, has a width of 125 cm. In recent years, Kraijer has also been working on rust-coloured, greyish-green and watery-blue Ingres paper from a 150-cm wide roll.
Once the first contours of the image have been delineated in charcoal on paper, it is time for the process of weighing things up, removing some elements and adding others. This may range from simply intensifying a tone of grey or adjusting the thickness of a line to drastically altering or rubbing out part of a body (fig. 67). A key decision is determining the position and measure of the disconcerting element(s) on the body. Sometimes Kraijer takes photographs of the drawing in between stages and digitally manipulates them to try out possible next stages.
The exploratory lines in charcoal always remain faintly visible after the process of wiping or rubbing out. The artist has to manipulate the drawing such that the rubbed-out lines contribute to the final effect. She may spend days, weeks, months or even years, on and off, working on a single drawing.Kraijer occasionally uses colour, adding blue or red ink to a work in charcoal or executing the drawing entirely in pastel (fig. 124), although she rarely avails herself of this latter option. While charcoal tends to abstract, the subject acquires a far more plastic presence in coloured pastels, a physicality that is ill-suited to Kraijer’s subjects. Furthermore, ‘dissolving’ a body or limb in nothingness, an important factor in her work, can be achieved more naturally in charcoal or with a light-coloured crayon on a coloured background.

What appears on the paper? Almost always the same female figure with long, tied-up hair. Neither her face nor her body is elaborated in detail. Seldom is she depicted against a background or ‘setting’, nor do we find chairs, sofas or any other man-made attributes. The woman squats with curved spine, is held up by invisible hands, stands, lies or crawls. The poses resonate with animal connotations. Sometimes the character itself is part animal, the body ending in prickles, feathers or wings, or dissolving in a swarm of bees or a flock of birds.Occasionally these animal elements have a cuddly quality about them (fig. 190). More frequently, however, they sting or bristle, have a gravelly roughness about them or a smooth slipperiness like fish or snakes that brush against your skin (fig. 227). The figures submit to this apparently unmoved, eyes closed or half closed. The same applies to mutations involving duplicated body parts, in which ears, tongues, eyes or heads with wide-open mouths take over the body.
This ambivalence is also present in the contours of the figures. A line both bounds a body and marks a transition in a landscape, sky or light (fig. 141). Some years ago Kraijer made a series of volcanic landscapes with smoking craters, while in more recent drawings the figure is entangled in the roots of trees or fused with a trunk and branches. None of the drawings provides any indication of time, place or context.

Third dimension
On paper there is nothing absolute about the body’s boundaries, and charcoal is a material that suggests evanescence. This prompted Kraijer to speculate as to whether her characters could exist in three dimensions. After all, a statue has an undeniable physical presence. She applied to spend some time working at the European Ceramic Work Centre (.ekwc) in ’s-Hertogenbosch, writing in her application: ‘To find out I will have to try it and I think, rather than a hindrance, doubt is fertile.’
The fertile results of doubt: a life-sized image of a crawling feline figure, covered with thorns to obscure the contours and hence to rupture the perception of mass. The technical problems involved in placing a 200-kilo horizontal mass made of wet clay on thin supports were virtually insurmountable, but drawing on the expert advice of the .ekwc, Kraijer managed to breathe life into what was originally a two-dimensional figure (figs. 179 and 223 + photo .ekwc). And she did so using unglazed, dark grey, grainy clay – ‘three-dimensional charcoal’, as the artist describes it.
Although it was at the .ekwc that Kraijer produced her first large sculpture in ceramics, she had worked with this material before, during her secondary school years, attending courses in modelling and pottery as well as drawing and painting. On her first journeys to India in 1997 and 1998 she had wooden sculptures carved after models she had fashioned in clay (fig. 77), and in 2001-2002 she took a three-month apprenticeship with an elderly traditional wood-carver, at the end of which she had to demonstrate her skill by carving a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha out of a piece of white cedarwood.
Although Kraijer warmed to the qualities of wood, it proved ill-suited to her working method, in which adding material is just as important as removing it, if not more so. Unlike clay, wood does not lend itself to this approach. The artist has offset the vulnerability of clay by having several bronze casts made of the ceramic originals. She then tempers their smooth coldness by applying a matt patina in clay tones.
The mass of the sculpture no longer poses a problem now. Kraijer has discovered that some of her motifs appear to good advantage in three dimensions. Making sculptures has heightened her understanding of depth, which is reflected in the drawings, most notably in the recent ones on coloured paper. When Kraijer uses light-coloured crayons on a coloured background, she elaborates only the sections that catch the light, without first depicting the contours as an aid (fig. 213), a feat that requires considerable spatial insight.

Drawing remains the basis for Kraijer’s oeuvre, but whenever she sees other materials or techniques she cannot resist trying them out. Approaching any new discipline, she starts by developing the technical skills involved. For the sculptures, that meant working for a period of time in Trivandrum (India) and ’s-Hertogenbosch, and for photography it meant taking courses in portrait photography and the digital manipulation of images. Periods of photography or editing videos now alternate with periods in which she devotes herself entirely to drawing.
When artists work in different disciplines, it sometimes leads to adjustments in style or motif. Kraijer seeks the challenge in the extra dimensions that are created by a new technique. A photograph, for instance, claims to depict reality and in any case will always record individual features. Although digital manipulation provides almost endless scope for altering those features and adding disconcerting elements, Kraijer chooses to apply such additions to the model instead, and not to tamper too much with the photograph. The challenge lies precisely in such constraints.
The medium of video raises other questions. In the drawings, congealed moments in time, Kraijer’s figures submit, unmoved, to what happens to them. The images in the video Inner Eye clearly provoke a response from the character, however (fig. 275). When the filmed eye closes and sees with its ‘inner eye’ images of nature ranging from the beautiful to the horrendous, the reactions are subtle: the pupil narrows or darts back and forth, the eye shuts just a little more slowly than before. These minute movements are filmed using a locked-off camera. There is no sound, since this would distract attention from the image.

While Kraijer cannot – and has no wish to – ignore the different characteristics of media such as film and photography, they have only a limited influence on her work. Nor does her oeuvre of drawings exhibit any other major influences or changes. Kraijer: ‘My work has developed, not with dramatic ruptures, but with gradual shifts of focus, like the changing seasons, leaving the core unchanged.’
These gradual shifts can be identified in terms of style, atmosphere and motifs. The angular lines and sharp contrasts of the early years gradually made way for softer shapes and subtler tones. Whereas the figures initially manifested themselves by seeking eye contact or by literally multiplying (figs. 56 and 40), now they are inward-looking, their eyes closed or near-closed. The Japanese features of the girl have become more neutral, and she has grown up to become a rather androgynous-looking woman.
Most of the motifs constantly recur, but occasionally Kraijer produces an entire series of drawings in which she explores a theme in greater depth. Examples include a fusion between body and landscape (1999-2001), the sensation of a school of fish around a body (2005-2006), or body parts and branches coalescing (2006-2008).
The renderings appear to be less and less explicit, while the expressiveness of the drawings has increased. This reflects Kraijer’s quest for the exactly right amount of clearly recognisable and suggestive elements, of elaborate detail and sketchiness, anatomical precision and inaccuracy. Kraijer sometimes sets out deliberately to achieve anatomical inaccuracy. At one point, she even tried drawing with her left hand to avoid the more practised quality of her drawing hand and to achieve a certain effect of clumsiness, but this turned out to be too contrived.
Adding exactly enough of each constituent is crucial to the ambivalence of Kraijer’s work. In three-dimensional work, this balance poses a still greater challenge – even if the motif has already been explored on paper (figs. 138 and 259). In the most recent sculpture (fig. 276), for instance, Kraijer set out to find a way of suggesting wavy hair without modelling it in detail on reality, which would deny the nature of clay, the raw material. Plumbing art history for examples, she has drawn inspiration from mediaeval sculptures made of stone and ceramics, and from the statues of Rodin.
It is not immediately apparent to Kraijer whether she has succeeded in striking the right balance. If a work seems to her to be finished, or if it has become hopelessly stuck, she covers it up or puts it aside, and a few months late she takes it up again to decide whether it requires any further work. In that process of judgement, she derives support from a few artists in her immediate surroundings, who examine each other’s work and discuss it honestly.

In the roughly fifteen years since she graduated from art school, Kraijer’s meticulous, exploratory methods have yielded an authentic, consistent oeuvre of over three hundred drawings (10 to 25 a year), sculptures, photographs and videos. For this monograph, the artist has selected one hundred of them.
The works belong to private collections in the Netherlands and other European countries, India and the United States, and to the collections of institutions including the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, Museum Kunst Palast in Düsseldorf, the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin, the MUMOK in Vienna, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki. But Kraijer’s Rotterdam studio remains the place where her disconcertingly-alien-yet-familiar figures germinate.


Translated from the Dutch by Beverley Jackson, 2008

Véronique Baar