Drawing on his love of the natural order
It used to be a painter's sideline. Now drawing is gaining recognition for its own merits - not before time, Arno Kramer tells Aidan Dunne.
Arno Kramer's drawings don't give up all their secrets at first glance. They are built up in layers, and in a sense they must also be broken down layer by layer, patiently. Sometimes an image - typically a fragment of or a whole human body, or perhaps a hare - will magically coalesce out of an arrangement of colour and pattern, and then quietly merge into the background again. The effect is of a series of ghostly presences drifting through a dreamlike, meditative space.
Lest that make it all sound too sweetly lyrical, it should be said that there is also a toughness to Kramer's vision. His explorations of human and animal form are tender but unsentimental, alert in an almost predatory way, and informed by an acute awareness of mortality and decay.
Often they are beautiful in a low-key, melancholy vein, though several of the works in Over the Shadows, his exhibition at the Mermaid Arts Centre, are surprising for their displays of bright, exuberant bursts of colour in brilliant rainbow streams of watercolour pigment.
He is very much at home with natural imagery, including trees, rugged coastline landscapes, and swans and deer as well as hares and humans. But this organic emphasis is balanced by an interest in abstract, geometric pattern, in the form of concentric contour lines, or two- and three-dimensional grids. Emblems of mathematical order complement rather than contrast with the natural. In fact, he observes, the culmination of each drawing comes when there is an appropriate tension, a "state of desire", between the organic and the inorganic elements. According to his scheme of things, the one needs the other.
Kramer, who is Dutch, lives in Broekland, a small village in Eastern Holland. A fit-looking man with pellucid blue eyes and a crop of grey hair, he has a quietly amused look about him, and a relaxed temperament. He and his wife, who is also an artist, first came to Ireland in 1995. Their compatriot, Tjibbe Hooghiemstra, introduced them to Noelle Campbell-Sharp, and she invited them to take up a residency at the Cill Riallig Artists' Retreat in Co Kerry.
That stay introduced them to the hare, which features prominently in his current work (it was usually sitting outside their cottage window each morning), and left them keen to see much more of the country. He found he had an unexpected affinity for the Irish landscape.
Since then they have returned regularly and travelled extensively along the west coast, staying, for example, near Glencolumbkille in Donegal and at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in North Mayo. Kramer has also exhibited quite a lot in Ireland.
During one visit, a photograph of a first communion dress in a shop window, printed on the front page of The Irish Times, caught his eye, and the dress became a staple motif in his drawings, a symbol of both body and spirit. "So much so", he recalls, "that they started to describe me as 'the dress guy' when I was exhibiting in Holland. Once that happened I knew it was time to stop using it."
Ireland, he reckons, had a liberating effect on his work. "You can be a bit curtailed in your home context. When I came to Kerry I felt quite free. I felt, well, if I do a bad drawing here it doesn't matter, no one will see it, I'll just do what I like. But I was very happy with what I did. I made about 100 drawings over the course of a month."
While he is not dogmatic about it, drawing is at the centre of his work as a visual artist - he also writes poetry, with seven published volumes to his credit. "It used to be that drawings were things made occasionally by painters. Now I think the climate is more receptive to artists whose focus is primarily drawing."
He works by instinct. When he began to draw swans, one art critic surmised that he was referring to the considerable mythology surrounding the bird. "I said, great, absolutely, though to be frank the thought had not occurred to me."
When he is working he has to trust, he feels, "the depths of the unconscious". But equally it's important to say that he always draws what is in front of him. "When someone asked me what I could draw out of my head I had to say about the only thing I could draw is a tree."
Otherwise it has to be there in some form, either a person physically present, or a pre-existing image. "I collect photographs from magazines and I take a huge number of photographs myself."
He works fast. "I try to finish a drawing, even a big drawing, in one day. I'd say 80 per cent of the time I do that. For the others, they just need something extra and I can do that when I come back to them. But I don't succeed in every drawing. I go through them and destroy a lot."
He likes the fact that all the evidence of its making is visible in a finished drawing. "A drawing displays its own history, much more than a painting does. Even when you erase something in a drawing the mark is there, but you can simply paint over something you don't like in a painting." He likes the fallibility of drawings, their human immediacy, citing the moment "when you see Rembrandt's mistakes" - an experience, incidentally, that enhances rather than diminishes one's respect for the artist.
Last year Kramer turned curator to organise a major group exhibition of Dutch drawing, which toured internationally and was seen in Ireland at the Limerick City Art Gallery. Organising such a substantial show from scratch was an impressive achievement, and the experience has encouraged him to persevere.
Currently he is talking to several people, including Limerick's Mike Fitzpatrick, about the possibility of mounting an international biennial of drawing. "I think the time is opportune. Currently there is enormous interest in working on paper. If we can do it, we should."
- Over the Shadows is at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Main St, Bray until June 10