Nature triumphant

Domeniek Ruyters (2005)

Notes during a conversation with Erik Odijk

It pops up several times during the conversation: one to one. The drawings of Erik Odijk seek out confrontation; they crowd in on you, overwhelming in their format. Accessing the image is quite a feat for the viewer. And before you know it, you’ve been spat out again. Depth and surface; rarely do you see work that possesses two such pronounced aspects.
In a sense, like forests and certainly the fringes of woods that are averse to people, Odijk’s drawings are not enamoured of spectators. Everyone is familiar with the edges of the forest – the way the undergrowth interlaces to form an impenetrable hedge. With dark groves and trees like prison bars, nature’s message is loud and clear: ramblers keep out! Or take the path hacked out by the forest warden that crudely forces entry into the woods.
And approaching the work of Erik Odijk is no different.The drawing assumes the guise of a inviolable forest. You’re here, the drawing’s there.You know you can’t enter. Physical approach even seems completely taboo because, once you draw near, the drawing disappears. Look closely and all that’s left is an interweaving of rough lines and pockmarked grey planes.
The drawing draws you in only to withdraw from you. It is a curious duality. You are a player on the pitch but banned to the sidelines. Odijk’s work demands and usurps distance. You could say that the work has been made to keep you, the viewer, out of range by at least two metres. To some extent, the work wants to make you, the viewer, feel small, practically reduced to nothing. The same feelings of insignificance that nature can also instil.

Erik Odijk doesn’t talk about his work in elevated terms. Not once does he say that art should be awe‐inspiring. He has chosen a modest vocabulary and speaks of the routine that art‐making has become for him. Drawing, drawing, drawing. This is what it all boils down to, he claims. His only concern is that it doesn’t become a gimmick.
The draughtsman, from a working class background, has respect for his roots and has chosen a labour‐intensive way of producing art. Laboriousness is a crucial aspect of the work and shouldn’t be underestimated. It renders Odijk’s art unmanageable for himself, for his public and the market.
This solid draughtsmanship will not make him rich. And Odijk knows it. Typical is the anecdote that, a couple of years ago, in a concession to the market he decided to partly shift his attention from wall drawings to individual drawings – admittedly large format, but still quite sellable, at least in theory. But when converting the sale price of an average drawing into an hourly wage, there’d be nothing left. He’d earn more as a cleaner.
Odijk the labourer, sweating in the studio. An image that doesn’t lack irony. But that also conjures up acquiescence, resistance and conviction. Odijk makes art that almost demonstratively looks like the result of enormous effort, created on location, on the wall, after hours, days, months of toiling with the material. It is carefully crafted. But submissive to the natural world, to art, to society. Odijk positions himself as a servant of the material and, by extension, of the theme, nature. His only task: to let the material speak. ‘Modelling with charcoal’, he calls it. The description typifies the relationship. Here, art is a physical thing – malleable, corporeal. No higher powers, no exalted ideas, just manual labour. On occasion, he’s even referred to himself as a drawing machine.
Which by no means implies that the work that Odijk is engaged with is without meaning or sense. Every detail is considered, every step thought through, carefully conceived both visually and in terms of substance. “The story may be the same, but every drawing is different”, he asserts. Odijk knows what he is doing, at every level of the process, even if it is sometimes trial and error. He is not an artist working effortlessly to perfect a talent that manifested itself early on. He is an artist who chooses, progressively, and has made choices.
At one point, he decided to abandon painting, with which he had been occupied until then, because it would bring him no success. Drawing became his craft, nature his theme. Perhaps the step wasn’t altogether sensible at the time, given that he was an inexperienced draughtsman, but he took the plunge nevertheless. Since then, Odijk has done nothing else.
Nature became the subject of his drawings in the late eighties after a stay in Canada preparing for an audio‐visual festival in Arnhem. The preparations over, Odijk explored the forests of British Columbia, followed by a month in Mexico. Odijk’s experiences there, eye to eye with the immense grandeur of the natural world in North and Central America, clinched things. In his own words: “I was so impressed by the landscape that everything else faded by comparison. All that mattered was knowing what I had to do: drawing nature.”
And for Odijk there was a particular intention: “I decided I had to revere nature and rapidly realised that the work had to be a sort of propaganda. It’s clear to see how we have affected the natural world. I was convinced that I had to depict something that was almost certainly on the verge of being destroyed by man. It was a bid to preserve the environment. I preserved what’s left, and displayed it.”The decision had been made and the first
step taken. After a trip to Indonesia, Odijk exhibited his first drawings on tables like sacred Balinese relics, with the drawings leaning back to back. The first wall drawings followed a little later when, almost by coincidence, he discovered that drawing on a wall is fairly uncomplicated, or at least less problematic than he had thought.

Deciding to draw was a bit wayward, contrary to the spirit of the day. The eighties and the late eighties in particular, were rather clinical years as far as art was concerned. It was a period dominated by cerebral conceptual art that was very market oriented or market conscious and, suddenly, a draughtsman emerges with a passion for romantic landscapes. Intentionally anti‐art, anti‐fashion, anti‐conceptual: “The main thing for me is that it’s accessible. No bullshit. No ‘I don’t get what I’m seeing’. You recognise it right away: it’s nature”. Plain speaking, unadorned, with both feet on the ground but also: “One aspect of the work is that, as a kid, you might be captivated by a forest but it’s not until later that you understand what it’s all about: sex and death. You might sense it unconsciously as a kid but you won’t really see it until later. My work is concerned with this too, and with violence and intensiveness.” For Odijk, it proved a pursuit in which these elements converge: “In my work, accessibility is combined with something extra – impressing on someone that it isn’t nature, like a sort of decor, but that it’s something vital. And this quality is clearest if you draw with a certain fervour. If you draw out of respect and love for the subject you are creating in almost the same way that nature itself creates.”
The labourer‐artist who turns out to be a romantic and idealist and who expressly and with utmost conviction produces his work as a supremely crafted product but one with a deeper significance. It is not so much art with an intellectual vigour but art with the capacity to deeply touch the viewer. The work probes the very fundament of human existence. The artist doesn’t need to explain it; it’s plainly to be seen. Odijk isn’t one for sugaring the pill – there’s no flattery here, no daydreams or illusions. This is serious material: weighty, deep, brooding, complex – everything is loaded with sentiments that people don’t want to be confronted with all too often.
Odijk is aware of this intent, which is part of the romantic tradition of the landscape in art. At the same time, it isn’t an aspect he wants to linger on for long. It is as if the world that he draws must remain pure, reflecting and addressing a sort of unconscious layer, as though it is a veiled effect or argument to compel the viewer to look and keep on looking. Which, borrowing from today’s show‐biz parlance, you might call the ‘x factor’ of Odijk’s landscapes. The ‘something’ you can’t put a name to simply because it is unnameable.
Odijk wants to omit from the text any passages that make the sexuality of the forest explicit. Let it be tangible, let the work suck at you, paw at you – that’s more than enough. Calling the cave a fanny, saying the tree depicts a phallus destroys everything. Think it, feel it, but don’t say it. Odijk’s landscapes are no metaphors; the forest is no commentary and definitely not a broadsheet.

In fact, everything in Odijk’s work is crystal clear. Wood, forest, primeval jungle, rock. It’s practically unquestionable. His work is photography based, and you can see it. Not a single tree is invented. Everything is first photographed, in forests throughout the world. Odijk gives the impression that this is where the real work is done. The search for locations, the composition and, ultimately, the photograph. Drawing is ‘only’ work in progress.
Which is of course not entirely true. Odijk’s drawn reproduction after all represents the conquest of the photographed image and betrays the artist’s real ambition. For Odijk, photography alone isn’t equal to the task. It is too secondary, too easy and, more than anything, too small and literal. Photography is a source that may not be designated as such. Because in the end you experience the photographs as they are presented in this book, as derivatives of the drawings, rather than the other way around. Handy perhaps as documentation, useful as a reference or footnote, but totally devoid of life as befits a source.
The actual reincarnation of that which is depicted, the natural world, transpires not in the photo but in the drawing – on the wall, in the details. It is there where the world becomes malleable, where large and small go hand in hand and the eye becomes confused about what the photo asserts as true. Odijk grins when he tells that, these days, people looking at his work can’t tell if they’re looking at the bark of a tree or the earth’s strata. It’s only when, baffled by what they see, that viewers take a closer look and the drawn world strips off its disguise. Nature becomes art, a line, an event. And this is how charcoal ultimately materialises as the only real source of life in the work of Odijk. The drawing stages the rebirth of this dead material, marking charcoal’s literal and figurative resurrection from the ashes.

The conversation draws to a close. I ask why he doesn’t draw human interventions in nature if his theme is the imperilled natural world. Odijk’s response is incisive. “When I began”, he says, “I still believed that man would annihilate nature. Now I know better. It’s a question of time before we’ll see it with our own eyes. Nature always triumphs.”