“I prefer working at night, piling up stuff. And then slowly, deliberately removing layers. Off, off, off… until nothing but the essential is left.” Meet Louise Mertens, the minimalist artist with the mind of a hoarder.
Scratched paper, bits of leather, cracked paint, the hint of a human face: the abstract compilations of the Antwerp-based artist keep the brain busy, that’s for sure. “There’s no message, it’s just abstract. I don’t really want people to understand what’s on the canvas,” she says. “Sometimes even I can’t really remember how a particular detail came to be. I mix analogue and digital techniques: I splash and rip and display stuff, photograph it, and then do the whole compiling/layering thing on my computer. I wouldn’t call what I do collages, as that implies collecting stuff and I create everything myself. Making art to me is really an intuitive process and I can honestly never tell how an artwork will turn out -which occasionally drives clients crazy when I’m working on some commercial project.”
Louise runs a successful graphic design studio and creates her own artworks as well, a career that was written in the stars. Unlike other creative kids though, she didn’t spend countless childhood afternoons scratching paper with her crayons. The computer on the other hand, was the artist’s first muse. At a time when said machine was still a rarity in most households, Louise had access to her architect parent’s computer and discovered the joys of Paint, MySpace and, later on, Photoshop. “I spent hours creating, drawing lines, adding layers, turning images upside down, taking away the color or instead adding a boom of it. It was the greatest game!” Collecting impressions and mentally layering them was a childhood tick as well. “I still remember how my grandparents had an old stove that I would fill with logs to record how the wood burned and what that smelled like. When driving down to the woods on cold winter days, the first thing I would do upon arrival is to open the car’s door very swiftly and inhale as much of the fresh nature smell as I could. Although I am every bit the city girl, I am obsessed with the pure, strong senses of nature. I like the smell of leather, wood, fire, animals.”
Talking about scent, I am greeted by the strong aroma of glue as I step into Louise’s studio. A row of monochrome cowboy hats leads my gaze to the enormous windows that let soft morning light spill in. Everything about the place radiates a chill serenity -if you like the smell of glue, that is- and yet this is the scene of many a struggle between the artist’s creative and commercial sides. One wall is dominated by a heavy desk, piles of books and an almighty computer, while the other features both finished and unfinished artworks, pots of paint and seemingly forgotten brushes. Right in the middle stands Louise, ever stuck between the digital and the analogue. “It’s the main reason I moved my studio here,” she confesses. “I used to share a really nice place with two other girls, but recently fell like I was drifting away from the creative process. We had our work space organized like a very efficient little enterprise, which is great in a way, but it made me spend more and more time at my desk. I started missing the freedom of making a mess, and I needed space to just drop said mess after a day’s work. Having to clean everything up all the time isn’t good for the artistic flow. That’s why I moved here. I share this space with a milliner who likes to get his hands dirty too, Chopper Sherwood. I’m trying to experiment even more with different manual techniques and see where it leads me. Maybe I’ll even create purely analogue artworks, who knows? An exciting, yet scary thing, because I’m a perfectionist and it means I won’t be able to adjust, rework and change the result indefinitely like I do on my computer.”
So go with the flow it is, literally: “It’s funny, I’m really obsessed with textures, especially liquids, as well as with the simplicity of stuff. I can stare for hours at a blotch of black ink: see how it flows, how it mingles with water, how its colors will turn out if I add milk. Layering that with a piece of black fabric, or different kinds of black fabric for that matter, could turn out great. The other day, I was having chia seeds for breakfast and I was suddenly struck by how awesome they are! The way they stuck together and changed when I added milk… I should use them in my work. You see, everything becomes an inspiration this way. I don’t really mind being a bit obsessive, it helps me escape everyday chaos and focus on the essential. It’s actually something I try to do in general, which isn’t easy in the light of all the fuss of this world, but is does provide inner peace once you succeed. I’m happier to own a handful of curated, sustainable clothes than racks and racks of the same jeans to choose from. Same goes for the kitchen: not too many cups please, the essential will do. I don’t mind some artistic mess, but I can’t stand junk. Thàt, for instance, is not mine…” She laughs and points to a set of yet to be unpacked moving boxes, a furry headpiece peeking out of one -courtesy of Louise’s newly appointed coworking buddy. “Actually, I have a feeling I will be gifted with a hat at some point of our stay here together, might as well try one on…”
Just like that, she puts on a high camel hat and turns to the mirror, her mind clearly wandering off to something beyond my reach.
I wonder what idea she just came up with.
(Pictures by Eva Vlonk)
(More on Louise Mertens and @louisemertens)