Claire de Jong
"You can eat or you can drink. You can't do both."—Claire de Jong
South African-born, Dutch artist Claire de Jong grew up in Cape Town, the Netherlands and Ghent, Belgium. Together with her sister Eve, she was brought up in a liberal Dutch tradition during South Africa's darkest Apartheid years. Her influences included the (later exiled) poet Breyten Breytenbach, among others in the "artistic circle" of family friends of the day, committed to change.
She originally studied art in South Africa where her influences included some of the continents's most important artists—for example, William Kentridge was a tutor who encouraged her to explore large-scale drawings. Upon completion of her tertiary art eduction focussing on painting, she was offered an opportunity to work as a model in Paris. There, she balanced whizzing off to modelling gigs—such as starring in an international campaign for a fragrance shot in the Caribbean—with simply getting on with painting in the studio, more personal research than a strategic plan for a career as an artist.
Investing her earnings as a model in studying further in France, in the 1990s she gravitated to the vibrant art scene of London and its YBAs of the period, where she participated in shows at influential spaces for British art of the period, such as City Racing. In a somewhat circular route, she later returned to Paris after marrying. During this period she also began to collaborate with her husband on design projects. The couple later settled in Antwerp where she lived and worked for 15 years.
It's easy to say that Claire's practice is eclectic. But, closer inspection reveals that it is actually fairly specific. She is above all a painter, a practice that she's continued uninterrupted for decades. The main body of her work for nearly 30 years has been mid-to-large-scale paintings on canvas. Whether more representational—such as her Kant (lace) series—that depict closely cropped, detailed views of handmade lace—or the modernist abstraction of more recent years, all of these paintings share something in common. They are all constructed using classical painting techniques such as building up layers of thin, semi-transparent "washes" of oil paint and turpentine, that she has studied and mastered from Golden Age Netherlandish painting. What may appear to be a pared back composition within a narrow palette soon proves to be something built up of beautifully achieved layers of very complex colours.
This is readily seen in some of the paintings in True North. On one level they operate as modernist abstraction, on another, a painterly homage to Dutch 17th-century still lives where the vibrant colour of flowers or fruit takes on a near glow against the dark, black background, constructed using the techniques that De Jong has spent years studying and perfecting.
It's therefore ironic that the other ongoing series of paintings that she's produced for a similar lengthy period, and which operate in an entirely different mode, created in a rapid, less painstaking way, were the first to gain her attention. In these, she paints directly onto glossy fashion magazine covers—and more recently the covers of trashy romance novels. In what she describes as having started out as "an exorcism from being a model", the printed covers are entirely immersed beneath layers of oil or occasionally acrylic paint. They remain representational—for example, she may insert a self-portrait into the place occupied by the cover model—but just as often they are not "realistic", acquiring a naughty, satirical edge. For example, a renowned supermodel may be transformed into a cartoon dog-like character or even a food product.
In the most recent evolution on this work, she has been painting onto the covers of a particular publisher producing cheap romance novels that she sources in local charity stores. In this series she retains the same overblown poses and settings depicted on the covers, but deftly turns them into older people captured in passionate embraces and kisses. A response to growing older and societal expectations of love or sex, the power of the one-line "joke" becomes amplified through the sheer repetition: just how many covers she has "repainted"?
Sculpture is Claire de Jong's second major area of practice and grew directly out of her access to increased studio space on moving to Antwerp roughly a decade ago. Almost always white and featuring mirrored elements—occasionally she will work with found objects or in soft materials—the primary visual language here is abstraction. But, her understated art historical references as never far, especially in the smaller "table-top sculptures". The scale, forms and especially the groupings use a modernist language—often drawing on modernist architecture and design—but they simultaneously refer to Dutch Baroque culture, to literally the invention of domesticity at a time when a new class of Dutch merchants acquired wealth and wielded political power in newly rich city states of a type that was practically unknown in the rest of Europe still operating on feudal lines.
In De Jong's "table top sculptures", both scale and grouping refer directly to the domestic display of art and expensive objects during the Golden Age that many proud owners also chose to have captured by painters of the day. Drawing on her parallel experience in the realms of furniture design, her work reconsiders this and traces its influences back through the ages, including through the modern period, and how staging domesticity as a display of taste and wealth can still be found on the pages in the likes of Architectural Digest and has a direct lineage back to the Dutch Golden Age's recalibration of who could shape taste, art and culture.