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Luc Leestemaker: The Voyage BY PETER FRANK T W E N T Y Y E A R S I N TO a career, a painter has compiled an

impressive, and revealing, oeuvre. It arches from his (or her) fits and starts, imitations and experiments, to his first breakthroughs, his myriad refinements, his new, more mature strategies, and into the rhythm of conception and production that should motivate him for the rest of his career. Such a pattern reveals itself in the work of Luc Leestemaker; who has been painting nearly two decades at this writing. But over the course of Leestemaker’s career the work that embodies this pattern seems at first wilder, less considered, less trained and tamed than it should, then, almost precipitously, it finds its voice, its form and its meaning, and expands slowly and deliberately out from there. It is quite evidently an art born of personal crisis, but it is just as evidently an art born of ref lection and information. It is an art that struggles from the first for mastery over material and image, and that achieves that mastery not just rapidly, but suddenly. Why is Leestemaker’s body of painting, begun in 1990, so tumultuous and then so lucid? Why does it hurl itself out of the starting gate and then, after practically running in circles, move quickly into a graceful canter? And why, throughout this process of transformation, does the work always feel as if it were made by a sure hand, a hand that gives oddly eloquent form to even the most febrile pitches of an impassioned mind? Because there was always a painter inside Luc Leestemaker; because there was always the permission to paint and to find himself through painting; because he waited to take full advantage of that permission until he’d worked through the need to do – and succeed at – other creative endeavors; because he took the greatest risks and made the greatest sacrifices of his life to come to painting; and because he was a mature human being, not a student, when he committed himself to artmaking, and he understood artmaking as a calling – a dicey profession, perhaps, but in no way a mere hobby.

Leestemaker was born in 1957 in Hilversum, a small town in the central part of the Netherlands that serves as a relatively distant and comfortable suburb of Amsterdam (hence the name of the region, “Het Gooi” – “The Pillow” – implying its role as an extended bedroom community). Although he was not born into one of those dynastic families that produce at least one artist in each generation, there were professional painters on Leestemaker’s mother’s side – her father, J. W. Corbijn, and Corbijn’s great uncle in turn.

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j.w. corbijn

The latter had been a painter in the court of Willem I, Holland’s first post-Napoleonic king. His nephew Corbijn was a more provincial figure, someone, according to Leestemaker, who would simply “ride his bicycle into the wide open Dutch fields and paint his pictures, while supporting his family by teaching art at a local college.” The Leestemaker family’s house was hung with Corbijn’s landscapes and still lifes. Corbijn died when his grandson was only three, and Leestemaker has no personal recollection of his Opa. But, according to his parents, Leestemaker spent time with his Opa in his studio, and when Leestemaker was still in his crib, his Opa quietly observed him for hours. In his subsequent absence Corbijn became an éminence grise in young Leestemaker’s life, to the point where Leestemaker remembered, “I went through a period of wearing his small gold-rimmed glasses and trying on some of his clothes.” Then, as an adolescent, Leestemaker found his grandfather’s painting kit. “I remember taking it down to my room, trembling as if I’d just found the ultimate sorcerer’s stone… I also remember destroying the entire contents of the carefully arranged paints, gouache and brushes in less than half an hour, smearing all ingredients into one big mud pile onto a sheet of paper from my school’s drawing class,” Leestemaker said. This would seem an ignominious beginning for an artist, and a betrayal of a family heritage. But Leestemaker, abashed at the time, has since come to see the necessity of the action: “I now

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believe that at the root of my destructive act [lay] a classic ritual and transformative process. By wearing his clothes, by pressing his glasses on my nose and by opening up his paint box, I was… performing an ancient shamanist ritual of inhabiting the spirit of the elder.” That initial consumption of Corbijn’s paint box, and further youthful encounters with paint – all of them similarly frustrating and embarrassing – could not hide an additional commitment Leestemaker was making, or trying to make, in a ritualistic manner: a commitment to painting itself. If Leestemaker had to wait until his mid-30s, and his move to the other side of the globe, to rekindle his relationship with painting, he could not suppress his creative bent, or the commitment he felt to the artistic discourse in general and to the dissemination of art to various audiences. In the late 1970s and early 8` 0s Leestemaker founded, participated in and directed various performing and publishing groups, appearing on the stage and writing and reading his own poetry. Subsequently, using his experience as an arts provider and having a native gift for marketing, he created one of Holland’s most successful consulting firms to arts organizations. He worked all over Holland, and internationally, while based in Eindhoven, the cultural center of Holland’s southern Brabant province, and then in Amsterdam. And then he walked away from it all. Perhaps Leestemaker’s midlife crisis happened to come early. Or perhaps it was the recrudescence, and culmination, of the adolescent crisis he never resolved. It was certainly precipitated by a love affair, one that brought him to America, and by its devastating end, which landed him back in Los Angeles, in more dire straits than he’d been even as an 18-year-old squatting in abandoned buildings in Amsterdam. But in his riches-to-rags devolution, Leestemaker found liberation. With his slate wiped clean, he found the call of his grandfather’s métier impossible to ignore. His business sense told him he was only going to make matters worse, but something deeper told him to invest the last of his bank account in studio materials – and, when possible, in a studio. Leestemaker gives a thorough account of this cleansing – another ritual transformation, that of purification – in his autobiographical sketch, “Alchemy.” And it should be noted that he


began wielding a brush in earnest after he blew off his business career, but well before his luck and spirit hit the wall. While riding high on the jetsetting life he enjoyed with his then-wife in the early 9` 0s, Leestemaker could indulge his self-exploration and comfortably make his reacquaintance with paint. But he did not come fully to think of himself as an artist – he did not trust himself to generate and maintain an artistic vision, nor to develop the skills to manifest it – until there was nothing else. The return to artmaking happened with the move to America; the commitment to artmaking happened when all other commitments went up in smoke. It took one more aff liction to bring Leestemaker to mature assurance and to complete the becalming of his once-turbulent approach to painting. In early 1997 he underwent an operation to reverse a rapidly advancing problem in one eye. During his convalescence, Leestemaker was forced to paint small panels at which he

could look straight on, minimizing peripheral details. This forced him to see into the painting, rather than to move around or schematize its surface. The results were uncannily like the open landscapes of his Opa Corbijn – and many other art-historical precedents besides. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Europeans generally are raised with a certain reverence for art, no matter how close they may be to its making. Poets, novelists, playwrights, choreographers, musicians, filmmakers and visual artists are cherished for their creativity as if they were intervening with a higher power; some argue that, in an increasingly secular continent, artists have replaced churchmen as the keepers of the faith. Growing up with a painter – or at least his spirit – in the house, Leestemaker always felt a certain pull to the “priesthood.” But, as he has recounted, his attempts at putting on the vestments were discouragingly disastrous. Still, if they def lected him from painting, they could not keep him away from Holland’s artistic community, and he made himself an integral, even indispensable, part of it. This kept Leestemaker in vital touch with painting even as he avoided the brush. The negative epiphanies of his youth began to fall away as Leestemaker frequented museums more and more. And there the positive revelations started. One in particular he credits with sending him back to painting – the sight of an Anselm Kiefer painting in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, in the early 1980s. Innenraum (“Interior”) is an immense depiction of a huge formal hall with an equally vast skylight. Kiefer has rendered the image in a manner both painterly and precise, squaring the perspective so that the depth of the hall seems that of an airplane hangar but giving the dreamlike apparition a palpability – a sense of decay, really – with a gritty, almost dirty palette and a precipitation of paint spatters. Kiefer’s rendition is ironical, using Renaissance perspective to enhance the sense of overwhelming – and by implication imperial – scale and industrial-age techniques to “ruin” the image, neoclassic style, and thus further amplify its (sinister) power by giving it the authority of age. Upon setting eyes on Innenraum, particularly as it hung at the top of the Stedelijk’s grand staircase, Leestemaker, his breath taken away, realized the extent of the effect a painting could

anselm kiefer // INNENRAUM

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have on a viewer – or, rather, realized that that effect could be limitless. Although it would be almost a decade before Leestemaker would take brush to canvas once more, the impact of Kiefer’s monumental work resonated in him from that moment; he had discovered transcendence in painting. When Leestemaker did take up the brush again, it was thousands of miles away, in Los Angeles. But at first, European models continued to provide him inspiration. Paintings such as Dutch Clown [page 36] evince the model of a distinctly continental – specifically northern European – kind of expressionism, one both dour and hilarious, breaking through the stolidity of the northern temperament (although not escaping it) into a burst of color and gesture. Leestemaker attributes these first works to his exposure to the painters of the CoBrA movement, painters working in Copenhagen (e.g. Asger Jorn), Brussels (e.g. Pierre Alechinsky) and Amsterdam (e.g. Karel Appel) whose fusion of expressionism and

hans hofmann // SUMMER

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surrealism in the late 1940s had yielded a genial-seeming kind of anti-establishmentarianism – a bird f lipped both at the recently occupying totalitarians whose empire now lay in ruins and at the pretenses of the democratic pan-Europeanists who would save their continent from further such ravages. For the CoBrA artists (and writers), true anarchists all, salvation lay in personal expression and the communality of shared interests and needs. This romantic construction of society has universal appeal, but to a man finding his artistic wings, it is an ideal set of ideals. As Leestemaker remembered, Appel’s painting in particular, “gave me an early sense of permission.” Still, Leestemaker was seeking a kind of painting that had more force to it, more breadth and resonance than he could find in most CoBrA painting. In his next series, the “Birdsongs,” he begins to extend his search – starting small, with an intimate, even endearing, subject, but extending it metaphysically with broader gestures and more profoundly expressive colors. Some of these colors were as high-keyed as before, while others burrowed into the mud of his adolescence, but this time Leestemaker was in control of his “messes,” shaping them into oblique suggestions of birds and almost synesthetic evocations of their cries and warbles. The “Birdsongs” [Birdsongs Series begins page 38] display Leestemaker’s growing awareness of the American painting that paralleled, in time and in spirit, that of CoBrA : abstract expressionism. Already aware of American action painting from its presence in Dutch museums, Leestemaker found on these shores a much richer selection of paintings from the 1940s and ‘50s. He responded in particular to the work of two émigrés like himself from northern Europe, Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning. Hofmann had been the great pedagogue among the abstract expressionists, and had devised a theory of perception, based on the apparent relative depth of conjoined colors, that struck Leestemaker as insightful, logical, and applicable to his own work. In fact, Hofmann’s “push-pull” theory gave Leestemaker [Blue Interior, page 37] a compositional as well as coloristic armature on which to “hang” his vigorous paintwork and save his canvases from degenerating into chaos. By contrast, the example of fellow Dutchman de Kooning justified the expansiveness of


willem de kooning // DOOR

TO THE RIVER

mark rothko // CHAPEL

Leestemaker’s own brushstroke, while demonstrating that such a forceful approach could have a readily apparent visual rhythm and architecture. Exposure to the work of native-born (if Germandescended) Franz Kline [Blue Sky & Yellow Land, page 35] redoubled Leestemaker’s conviction that a gestural style achieved grandeur through emphasis on line and structure, and we see the still-new painter, two years into his project, very consciously emulating de

Kooning’s and Kline’s almost geometric treatment of their own painterly forms. [Hybrid no. 2, page 47]. But for the psychological reverberation Leestemaker sought, he turned to an abstract expressionist – also an émigré – whose technical approach was quite different from Kline, de Kooning, and even Hofmann. Mark Rothko’s atmospheric paintings, veritable fields of subtly modulated color f loating one above another, gave visual form to the existential despair and determination that Leestemaker had felt – in reverse – in Kiefer’s painting. If in Innenraum that despair and determination was set against the tragedy and oppression of human history, in Rothko it was manifested in the seeming emptiness of the picture itself, the void that frightens and beckons each one of us, the tragedy and transcendence available in contemplation of death and equally in the infinitude of the universe. Rothko’s example – like Kiefer’s – would hover behind that of the other abstract expressionists as Leestemaker worked through their lessons in his early series. When Leestemaker’s life hit a wall, however, Rothko and Kiefer reemerged as the most persuasive models. Many other artists, of course, provided Leestemaker positive models of practice, ranging from the gestural notations of Italy-based American painter Cy Twombly to the allegorical installations of the mystical German conceptualist Joseph Beuys, from

franz kline // UNTITLED

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the American abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell to the Mexican symbolist Rufino Tamayo. But Rothko, Kiefer, Hofmann, de Kooning, and Kline were the principle guides for Leestemaker as he embarked on – or, you might say, as he emerged from his cocoon into – a painter’s career. Leestemaker’s work from the early ’90s – the Hybrids, the Milano and Camelot series, the Symphonies, and an oddly muted series of abstracted figures – displays the mixed signals he received from these related but in some ways very disparate sources. Vigor

mark rothko // UNTITLED willem de kooning // UNTITLED 16

ä

and exuberance, although not necessarily pleasure, are always evident, but sometimes take form in a furious working and reworking of a painterly surface (as in the Milano paintings), other times in the broad elaboration of a spontaneously generated but carefully elaborated structure (seen in the Camelot canvases), and still other times in the layering of highly diverse painterly incident (notably in the Symphonies, in which writer William Torphy has found “areas of deep sonorous visual tonalities from which bursts of resonant energy emanate”). It is notable that Leestemaker passed very quickly through each of these series, generating several examples in each case and quickly moving on; the restlessness that clearly drives the making of each painting also drove Leestemaker’s thinking about painting, along with his actual studio production. This was a young man in a hurry. “Within the safe walls of my mind and studio I… fancied myself to be in total control,” Leestemaker remembered. “I had built a new life under the Southern California sun, and I had learned to call this my new home. I rediscovered painting and even started selling some. Enough voices in the otherwise overwhelming silence told me to keep going and not to give up. It all seemed pretty perfect. But I didn’t realize that I had built a home on sand in this new world. “Maybe I was able to change my circumstances,” he recalled with 20/20 hindsight, “but not myself, yet.” Leestemaker


vincent van gogh // MORNING

was traveling in Europe when his wife filed for divorce, seemingly out of the blue. The tailspin he went into sent him spiraling back through New York, where he spent an extended period of disorientation and anomie (“I went through a period of wandering the streets… at night and star[ing] at the little ripples in the water at the pond in Central Park, stubbornly trying to reconstruct a life that had forever disappeared…”), and “home” to Los Angeles, where he slowly rediscovered his focus and his commitment to – and salvation in – painting. Leestemaker calls the paintings he produced in the first years of his rebirth into art his “New Series.” Ironically enough, they evince little that is new stylistically for him, little that is different from the work of the previous half-decade, and at first glance would seem simply to be rehearsing and rehashing the gambits he had already explored. But the slashing gestures, the depth-rendering smears, the surface incisions and carefully aligned drips that carry over from the “Birdsongs,” the “Milano” paintings, the “Symphonies,” and the other earlier series now have a quality of real urgency to them. They are no longer just the resting places of a restless mind, they are the way stations of a soul running for its life – running not away from something threatening but toward something inchoate but promising, even ideal. As awkward and reiterative as the paintings of the “New Series” might be, in their very lack of resolution they manifest as tremendous a sense of hope as they do of desperation. In this time of personal turmoil, Kiefer and Rothko continued to lend their gravitas to Leestemaker’s own [Jerusalem, page 79 and Le Chat qui Rit, page 84], and Hofmann’s push-pull methods anchored an aesthetic – not to mention personal spirit – that was threatening to unmoor at any moment [Matador, page 82 and From The Book of Changes, page 81]. Further explorations into the rough-hewn territory of Kline and de Kooning, however, yielded compositions that were, if anything, more circumspect than anything Leestemaker had done before. [Fantomas, page 87 and Ghost, page 90]. As he orbited back into painting, and took bold, even foolhardy steps to assure that he could be nothing but an artist from there on out, Leestemaker performed a kind of exorcism of his artistic “mentors.” He did not take on new ones at this point. Although he came

to empathize with that quintessential f lying Dutchman of art, Vincent van Gogh, Leestemaker associated more with his countryman’s agitated life than with his hallucinatory art. Aff licted by external circumstance rather than internal demons, Leestemaker viewed van Gogh’s life in France as a cautionary tale, and vowed to work his way back up from his rude apartment in West Hollywood, no matter how it might resemble van Gogh’s bedroom. However sorry Leestemaker may have felt for himself, he knew he couldn’t afford to admire the problem. On recent ref lection, Leestemaker has noted that, if anything, van Gogh’s art made in Holland and Belgium – the somber, crusty renditions of peasants and their meager lot – had more inf luence on his own art than had van Gogh’s French paintings. Most of all, van Gogh’s landscape drawings from that period had, and continue to have, a profound effect on the latter-day Dutchman-inexile. Given the relationship these f lat, empty landscapes bear to the work that Leestemaker began producing in 1997, it is not hard to comprehend the importance of such images in this context. The f lat landscape is a recurring motif in Dutch painting, for obvious reasons. Occupying lowlands – much of them reclaimed from the sea – shrouded so much of the time in a fine mist, the Dutch people regard their world as stark, moist, and distinctly gradated, the distinctions between foreground, midground, and background emphatically articulated by objects and atmosphere alike. This is the environment in which Leestemaker grew up – and it is

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the environment recorded in the landscape paintings of his grandfather, the one whose spirit he invoked as a teenager and into whose shoes he finally stepped as an adult. It made sense that Leestemaker so strenuously avoided this image, this formula, when he first acknowledged his path as a painter; however he came to the calling, he did not want to be yoked to the inevitable theme. But that theme would prove not just inevitable, but comforting. The eye problem that led Leestemaker to this formula can almost be regarded in this light as a fateful device, a misfortune following other misfortunes that, literally, forced the painter’s hand. One can also argue that moving to southern California forced Leestemaker’s hand as well, given the regional tradition of “light-and-space” art focusing on the vagaries of perception and on the effects of light for their own sake. This would lead a painter, especially one interested in nuance, to comprehend space as atmosphere, and to regard paint as a medium less involved with color and more involved with tone and depth. Once he hit upon his formula – or, rather, once the format had been visited upon him – Leestemaker refined his method into the signal format to which he adhered for nearly a decade. In this format he carefully gradated pigments into one another, allowing bright and earthy tones not simply to co-exist, but to support and contextualize one another. This gradation invariably takes place within a square format and is realized in a cascade of horizontal strokes, one of which is more pronounced than the rest. This de facto horizon line occurs below the middle of the canvas or panel, defining a sky-ground division in which sky predominates. This format can be seen in Dutch painting back as far as the 1630s – in seascapes as well as landscapes – and forward to the 19th century, when French painting, notably the Barbizon landscape and impressionism, held sway in the Netherlands (inf luencing, among others, Leestemaker’s Opa Corbijn). In his ambition, however, Leestemaker embraced a wider swath of art history, taking in the schematic structures of Mondrian on the one hand and, on the other, the most radical impressionist practices – notably the serial approach of painters like Monet – and also the practices of the English painters who had prefigured and inf luenced impressionism. Thus, once he found himself riveted to the “luminous landscape,” as he called it,

Leestemaker went in search of painters as diverse as Jacob Ruysdael, the ultimate Dutch Baroque landscapist, and James Mallord William Turner, the ultimate impressionist avant la lettre. As mentioned, Leestemaker painted these “landscapes” – or, if you would, “seascapes” – for almost a decade. He stuck with the rich optical formula of sky above, land or sea below, not least because its utter simplicity demanded he bring to the task as much variation and surprise as possible. In effect, the f latline-horizon formula provided Leestemaker an empty vessel into which he had always to be pouring something new – the atmospheric touch of nebulous clouds at this point; the blaze of sunset colors at that. A small reddish patch in the lower portion of the painting could make the “beach” a more mysterious place; a concentration of black in the upper portion might suggest a tree, a breaker, perhaps a sailing ship. But, then, are these truly seascapes, or any other kind of landscape for that matter? “They really are compositions,” Leestemaker insisted at the time, “nothing less, nothing more.” He admitted his formula featured “something of a horizon line, a mass,

john constable // BARGE

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ON THE STOUR


john constable // STUDY

OF CIRRUS CLOUDS

and some sort of other mass on the back which resembles clouds.” But, as William Torphy noted, the paintings after 1998 – the “allusive abstractions” Leestemaker dubbed “Transfigurations” – did not work as conventional land- or seascapes. Describing them as “even more challenging than his previous metaphoric canvases of skyhorizonland,” Torphy identified Leestemaker’s “layered application of paint in translucent-seeming, illusory ‘veils’” as the means to conveying “a sense of immaterial impermanence and refraction. It is almost as if light is absorbed by these cloudy textures and then illuminated even more forcefully back at us.” By 1999, Leestemaker fully became a “light-and-space” painter, and the paintings_their horizon lines all but dissolved into atmosphere_were about emptiness. As austere as the Dutch Reformed Church, they are as beautiful in their austerity as a Japanese garden, and manifest the existential – the Zen – sense of being in nothingness. As Leestemaker said of them, “[they are] the closest to nothing that I can portray.” Leestemaker’s ultimate embrace of the atmospheric would seem to have developed logically out of his earlier landscapes. Ever since he oriented himself to the landscape, he sought to capture the essence of landscape; constantly narrowing the gap between his landscapes and “landscapeness.” To get to this point, however, even closer than he’d gotten in his Transfigurations, Leestemaker had to make a slight detour – a slight formal detour, that is, a temporary “vacation” from the horizon line. Zen-like, Leestemaker trued in on the landscape by turning away from it. The Zen reference is no rhetorical fancy. The non-landscapes Leestemaker painted in 2002 to help him better find landscapeness resulted from a trip to Japan. These essays in pure atmosphere – entirely non-objective, limited to a light, misty palette dominated by yellows, and otherwise inf lected only with topical scratches and similar textural incidents – Leestemaker gave the collective title of “Kyoto” series as they resulted specifically from his visit to Japan’s religious capital. These panels are investigations not of physical space but of mindspace and, conversely, of the surfaces of things. For the Japanese, the mind of the beholder meets the skin of the beheld in sabi no wabi, the aesthetic and spiritual appreciation of the old and weathered, of the dignity inherent in decrepitude. The

“Kyoto” paintings do not invoke oldness per se, but in their distressed surfaces and general painterliness they brought Leestemaker back temporarily to his abstract-expressionist beginnings. Their all-over, picture-plane-filling composition – a near-compositionlessness – suggested to the painter that his landscapes, too, might be better painted as sensed rather than as ordered. If he could feel the space as a kind of texture, the composition – indeed, all aspects of the picture – would follow naturally. A subsequent epiphany resulted from Leestemaker’s visit to the 2003 retrospective in London of John Constable, the great 18th century painter of bucolic scenes illuminated with plangent, emotionally profound light. Leestemaker’s virtuosic way with skies long betrayed a partiality to Constable; but being able to immerse himself in the British painter’s whole oeuvre renewed the lease Leestemaker held on his beachfront-property pictoriality. In particular, he learned from Constable how to use black as a color, not just as line – in other words, to consider shadow as substance, pictorially. The visit to Constable’s retrospective enriched the light in Leestemaker’s canvases, taking on new, more somber and more brilliant notes and highlights. In Leestemaker’s estimation, Constable came fully to replace Turner as the consummate master of the atmospheric landscape – enough to dedicate a whole series of paintings to the Englishman. Since his embrace of Constable, Leestemaker has been less reluctant to admit to painting landscapes. But he has also begun reconsidering the concepts and approaches he had worked with before he adopted the landscape format. As a result, the three most recent series of paintings have emerged simultaneously. Building on the luscious momentum of the “Ode to Constable” paintings, the untitled landscapes that followed broaden Leestemaker’s palette and depend on a more assertive brushstroke to create the near-infinite depth he

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Alchemy BY LUC LEESTEMAKER L O O K I NG AT T H E ride that is my life so far, I've come to rec-

ognize that the key to my so-called “self-realization” stems from my willingness to say, “I don't know, but let's find out” at the beginning of a conversation, almost as a disclaimer. It's amazing how much more enjoyable life becomes with that simple acknowledgment. The declaration immediately makes you more of a partner than a competitor. With a simple “I don't know… let's find out!”, life becomes open again, creative and adventurous, full of options and possibilities. What greater gift could a parent offer a child? This awareness has brought both tranquility and clarity into my life, but it is a fairly recent discovery for me. For a long time, I had no sense of direction. I could only count on a dogged determination to get myself to a better place, though I had no idea what that place was or how I would get there. Having grown up within the strictures of a Calvinist society, I found myself rebelling at the age of 18 by experimenting with of drugs, squatting on government-owned property, and making intense abstract paintings with a found pot of black house paint applied to the backs of wallpaper rolls. I made my living by cashing in a weekly check from the government-all the while vehemently decrying “the system”-and by buying and selling old carpets and leather coats at f lea markets. Even if it had been brought to my attention at the time, I would not have admitted that I too was following a long mercantile tradition with these activities-an almost inherent part of the Dutch trader's makeup. Nor was it the first time I practiced firsthand the laws of supply and demand. That exercise began at age eight, when I started going around the neighborhood collecting old newspapers in a box strapped to the back of my bicycle. I claimed the cellar under our house as my territory, and deposited the papers there. If

anyone bothered to ask me what I would do with these papers, I told them it was for a good cause. In the evenings, I rolled around in the growing mountain of paper and thought of the fortune I was creating. After a number of weeks, my father called a company from the yellow pages to collect the paper, and I received the generous sum of 20 gulden ($5) for the massive pile. I remember well the pride I felt in my ingenuity and industriousness in those pre-recycling days. I also recall the awe I felt watching an idea plus manual labor transform alchemically into money, which in turn allowed me to spend that “energy” any way I wanted. In the years to come I would repeat that exercise over and over, in different circumstances and with different tools. After sporadic attempts at schooling with mostly mediocre results, I started getting the distinct feeling I was little more than a small cog in a large wheel that had nothing to do with me. One day, sitting inmy high school classroom with a dated geography book about Athens, I looked out the window and saw a young mother walking on the grass with her newborn. The beauty of the moment and my sense of confinement caused a serious panic attack. I ran out of the building, never to return. Soon after, I spent some time driving old cars down to Athens, where I would sell them on Syntagma Square. I would use the money to buy myself a few weeks in the cradle of western civilization, inspecting real life firsthand as I drank retsina amidst the ruins of the Acropolis with the local dropouts and other wanderers. When I f inally ran out of money, I returned to Holland with a one-way Magic Bus ticket. Back home, I settled into a life that, despite all my earlier attempts at sabotage, was geared toward full compliance with the once-

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despised system. But I did not stay compliant for long. This pattern of escape and return repeated itself for years, camouf laged in such a way that it always seemed new, much like the goldfish that can't remember the last time it circled the bowl. A love affair would break up, a job would end, and I was off. With no particular aim in mind, I would “f loat” through my travels, joining up with a group of actors, or acting and writing myself as I continued to collect my welfare checks. Then I would duck back into the system and resume the role of responsible boyfriend in another stif ling relationship, or take ridiculous jobs that required me to walk around in polyester suits. By the mid 1980s, I ended up establishing a marketing communication company in Amsterdam that specialized in the arts. With an office located close to the red light district, we frequently had to discourage visitors who thought that my secretary, perched at her desk by the window, held the same libidinous occupation as the girls further down the street. In this latest self-reinvention, I suddenly found myself the darling of the authorities. A new political climate had

luc leestemaker // INNER

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LANDSCAPES COMMUNITY

arrived, and the Dutch government felt that institutions and artists had to learn to fend for themselves and spend more of their energy and resources on marketing. During this period, critics were so suspicious of populism that any event drawing more than a half-full theater or concert hall was automatically panned. At the time, I was dating a British actress who had made a name for herself as a local soap star, and I started commuting regularly between Amsterdam and London. But in my professional life, I again felt as if I were straddling a time bomb that could explode at any time. It got so bad that when I would try to leave my office for a meditative walk through the park, one of my three secretaries would bark, “Where are you going?!” I found myself sitting in coffeehouses, planning ways to lay off my employees, destroy my company and walk away, especially as my girlfriend started booking parts and jobs in Los Angeles. I felt that this world of so-called success in Amsterdam actually sucked the creativity out of me a little more every day.

COLLECTION MRS . LISA HICKOK


luc leestemaker // INNER LANDSCAPE • PRIVATE In the end, I did dismantle my company in 1990, selling it off in bits and pieces so that I could join my girlfriend in the States. My ticket out, ironically, was professional. During an interview with a Dutch symphonic orchestra, the only strategy I could think of was to persuade them not to hire me for the project. That would only lengthen my stay in a place that had started feeling like death row, as I suffered from increasing panic attacks and pasted on smiles that felt like sandpaper burning my cheekbones. After a cool and detached presentation of what my f irm could do for them to raise public awareness and sponsorship, the managing director of the orchestra looked at me and asked, “And why do you think we should give you this job? Do you feel you are qualif ied?” I f inally saw my opening. “You're right…maybe you should shop around. There may be other people much better at this.” My plan backf ired completely, though. His response: “I like that sort of conf idence! You're hired.” On the frigid walk through the dark canals back to my office, my assistant thumbed me admiringly on the shoulder and said, “That was a brilliant sales job!” The truly brilliant sales job, however, soon followed. I somehow managed to convince the Dutch orchestra that I needed to do research by talking to the management of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Flattered by the idea that I would even compare them with this world-class orchestra, they paid for my ticket west. Sales job or no, I did uphold my end of the bargain. The report and recommendations I wrote for them actually resulted in their securing a generous long-term sponsorship. I packed up what would become the bare bones of my new life and f lew out to the City of Angels, where I expected a hero's welcome at LAX from my girlfriend. But one look revealed that the few weeks she had already spent in La La Land by herself, fêted by the Hollywood elite, had made her none too eager to play hostess to a newly arrived refugee. And who could blame her? This was all about survival. We somehow stuck it out, in spite of many sleepless nights spent wor-

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rying about work and money. I decided to take on the role of 'wife' and help her get ready for her auditions and meetings. After a year of immense struggle f inanced by a skillful credit card juggling act, I won a green card in the U.S. immigration lottery and knew that I now faced a pivotal moment in my life; come what may, I would stay. Shortly after that, a talent agent literally plucked me off the street, telling me she and I would make a lot of money together. Before I knew it, she had me booked left and right in commercials and other small acting jobs. In the meantime, I rediscovered painting as my true love. While my girlfriend slept, I drove to my studio and painted up a storm. Between acting gigs, I patiently shopped my slides around the L.A. galleries, where 20-year-old receptionists politely turned me away. As I landed an audition for

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luc leestemaker // VOYAGER #18 • PRIVATE

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In Vienna, however, I was rudely awakened from this false utopia. A fax rolled out of the machine in my friend's apartment across from the Opernhaus. Her well-executed “Dear John” letter included conditions and not-too-subtle threats of repercussions if I failed to follow her lawyer's instructions. Realizing I was a complete wreck, my Austrian friend offered me his weekly session with his therapist. I don't remember much of her advice; mostly I just cried and burrowed my head within her ample Middle-European bosom. When I f lew back to New York, the weeks turned into months as I holed up in our apartment, unable to accept defeat. I waited for the familiar click of her heels on the corridor f loor, but she never returned. And so I would sit next to the batty old ladies in the park, feeding the ducks and enduring their speculation at who would feed those birds in the winter. I felt so raw, yet so detached, during that time that I would wander the city in the middle of the night, fearing no one and nothing. I came to realize that he who is completely open and vulnerable needs no armor.

yet another commercial, the other actors groused about the difficulty of finding work and I'd tell them, “No, no this is easy. Try selling paintings…now that is hard!” After five years in Hollywood, I was receiving regular and generous checks for appearances in commercials. More remarkably, I had started selling some artwork as well. In the meantime my girlfriend became my wife and started to receive “above the line” payments for her acting performances. In other words, we both felt that we'd made it through the worst. With buoyant spirits, we moved to New York in 1994. From there, she headed out for her next project and I took a trip through Europe, boasting to my old friends about our successful and glamorous life. luc leestemaker // LANDSCAPE 2004.02 • COLLECTION 26

MINYARD MORRIS


Finally, I packed up and made my way back to Los Angeles, where my agent started putting me in commercials again. Suddenly, I felt like a man who had spent a long time in the hospital and now had to reacquaint himself with the world. When I ref lect back on my life, this is where it all really began. My little West Hollywood apartment, with its sharply sliding f loor, contained only the most basic attributes of what comprises a life: a bed, a table, a chair, and in one corner, an improvised studio. Whenever I look at Van Gogh's painting of his bedroom in Arles, I think back to my time in that place. Sometimes I felt like an emperor, like the captain of my own boat. But more often I felt about two inches away from insanity and homelessness. Until now, I had been toyed with by fate. But I knew I had to reclaim my own skin and determine the outcome of my life. I continued to feel sadness, even a sense of mourning, for a long time, but I also experienced a raw joy singing within me in a voice at once alien and strangely familiar. Without any sign of impending artistic success, I made the firm decision to be a painter, and a successful one at that. I started visualizing lots of money coming into my life through my art. (As if to mock me, the credit card offers came relentlessly through the mail.) The commercial work diminished, and my mounting bills nearly put me in the position of having to evade my landlord. By now I could never take a “normal” job to pay the bills; my credit card debt had swelled to six figures. To make matters worse, I started experiencing some vision loss and ended up needing a complicated surgery in 1997 that almost cost me my eyesight - a terrifying prospect for someone who had just made it his dream to earn his living with his vision. During that bleak period, I felt like some latter-day Job, reliving that biblical character's injuries and insults. Yet something interesting happened as a result of the surgery. I couldn't look up for a number of weeks as my eyes healed, so I began experimenting with small 12 x 9 inch canvases that I would discard afterwards. After a few weeks, when the recovery had proven successful, I realized I had started painting something completely new. Intimate and atmospheric abstract landscapes had begun f lowing out of my brush. It was as if, in the depths of my misery, when there was no place

for my mind to go any longer, I had pushed deeper and discovered something that held more power for me than anything I'd ever done before. Then I came to the last bit of credit on my last credit card. With less than $800 left to spend, my mind started racing. A little money toward rent, a little for food…how could I stretch it out? I saw myself sitting behind my little desk in my cramped apartment and thought, 'Job, Job, is that all you've learned? Now that you've come to the end, you're going to play accountant?' It was painfully clear to me in that moment what I needed to do. Make a commitment. And so I drove to the art supply store and blew all the credit I had left. When I came home, I ripped the plas-

luc leestemaker // UNTITLED LANDSCAPE

#4 •

PRIVATE COLLECTION

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luc leestemaker // LANDSCAPE 2004.02 • PRIVATE

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then on, I walked through the world connecting the dots and finding opportunities that I had never noticed before. I became a full-time painter_one who treated his career as both a business and as art. In other words, I accepted my selfanointed role as a “successful artist.” By acting successful, I started attracting more and more business. And I wasn't faking it. As I saw it all unfolding, I began accommodating this new reality into my life. Although I'm certain many lessons still await me, lessons that will continue to teach me how to live from the heart, this definitely marked the birth of a new understanding of how everything relating to me was interconnected. I finally learned the simple truth: no one can take the first step for you. It doesn't matter how large or small that step is; you have only to choose a direction and set yourself in motion. You have to commit to the likelihood that another life out there waits for you to claim it - an alternative that may well be your true, authentic life. Life's energy and creativity can only start moving with you and for you after you make your intentions clear, first to yourself and then to others. tic off the canvases and opened the paint pots, gleefully thinking 'Now they won't be able to take it all back from me.' I knew I had about three weeks to create the best work I'd ever produced. Looking back at this time, when I had my back against the wall, I started thinking creatively about solutions and possibilities. Rather than playing the victim, I now started thinking of where the markets were-certainly not in the renovated warehouses and garages, nor in the novelty galleries run by bored, wealthy housewives. With the answer already taking shape in my mind, I drove straight to the Pacific Design Center ten blocks from my apartment and found a willing ear in the president of the building, who introduced me to a few designers. They in turn allowed me to display my work in their showrooms. Before I knew it, a few angels walked into my storage shack and treated everything that came out of that dark and dusty space like gold, offering me what seemed an enormous amount of money for a collection of ten paintings. For me, that moment of crisis, of no return, created the momentum in which the left and right hemispheres of my brain started working together. That decisive moment turned out to be a huge gift. From luc leestemaker // LAND OF THE SUN #2 COLLECTION MR . & MRS . WILLIAM AND PENNY 28

GEORGE


luc leestemaker // VOYAGER #44 • PRIVATE

If you take one step, they say the universe will conspire with you and will take ten steps for you. Whatever this magical process is, and whatever “the universe” stands for, I have now danced this dance so often that it has become a natural phenomenon for me. This gentle, syncopated one-step no longer makes me shout 'Wow!' but still gives me a deep sense of wonder, joy and awe, making me whisper 'thank you' with a huge smile plastered on my face. Now, I no longer make a distinction between art and business. I enjoy working in my studio on a canvas as much as I like sitting behind my desk and devising ways to bring my art into the world. Mine has become a wholly creative life, with each facet ref lecting and magnifying and ultimately f lowing into the others. We tend to create boundaries and separations between

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the facets of our life, and precisely because of those restrictions, art has lost a lot of its integrity. Art, after all, should not stand apart from the world, but as part of the fabric of society, filling the world with insight, inspiration, tenderness and unadulterated joy. Real art does not need to be protected or hidden. It comes from a place so sacred that it can withstand any corruption. Only when art is made entirely in the world and of the world, as a mere reaction to and commentary on the world, is it vulnerable. Then it does run the risk of being today's hot thing and next year's addition to the pile of discards in the garage. But no art created from the heart will ever sit on the shelf forever. Even if it goes by unrecognized and unappreciated in its own time, sooner or later it will catch someone's eye who will understand the gift. But this shouldn't be the artist's concern anyway. Whatever the outcome, the artist should focus only on living through his or her heart, on emptying the soul of all clutter and sabotaging thoughts, in order to make the creation of artwork as pure a process as possible. That is, to live life as a creative being, both inside and outside the studio. In the final analysis, success does not come from the art world. It comes from making life itself the work of art. I am beginning to realize that I still feel the awe and inspiration I experienced as a child, when I discovered that the combination of labor and raw materials could create a new energy that provided freedom and choice. Only now, this energy is awakening in a new dimension. In art, the classic principle of an economy as the combination of labor and resources no longer works. We're entering the field of quantum metaphysics, the realm not of certainties but of probabilities. What one might consider “wasting” time and energy-a long walk through the forest, followed by reading some poetry and being still for a while-may well yield phenomenal results on the canvas later on. We can never be certain of what is inspiration and what is a distraction. In other words, we're in a place where old dogmas don't work. Only by going back to what was once the first information source, the heart, can we transport ourselves back into a life of magic and creation and become the agents of change and inspiration this planet so badly needs.

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S E L EC T E D B I R DS O N G S E R I E S Birdsongs #1 38

1991 • 48 x 48 inches • Acrylic on Canvas Collection Mr. & Mrs. Jeff and Janet Larson


Birdsongs #9 1992 • 72 x 48 inches • Acrylic on canvas Private Collection

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Springtime in Fialda 78

1996 • 60 x 48 inches • Mixed Media on Canvas Collection Mr. & Mrs. Bodo and Petra Kirschner


Jerusalem 1996 • 48 x 36 inches Mixed Media on Canvas Private Collection

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Matador 82

1996 • 60 x 50 inches • Mixed Media on Canvas Collection Mr. & Mrs. Neil and Sharon Hornstein


Der Mann 1996 • 60 x 48 inches • Mixed Media on Canvas Private Collection

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Luc Leestemaker: A Retrospective  

Paintings by Luc Leestemaker.

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