Delta (Boris Tellegem) interviewed at his studio, Amsterdam, 10th Mar 2008 for Elms Lesters Painting Rooms
This essay was first published in the ELMS LESTERS book
Delta’s studio occupies part of the top floor in a large warehouse building near Amsterdam’s western docks. From here, over the centuries, many exploratory journeys have been made by seafaring pioneers charting unknown territories. Cold northern European light floods downwards through a skylight into a studio space where a different kind of spatial mapping adventure is underway. Glancing down from the studio window diagonally across the street, bolted to a concrete fence which confines wasteland, you see a chunky sculpted tag in painted wood spelling out D-E-L-T-A. Years after its surreptitious installation, the piece has become a little rain-worn and lichen-clad, as if the surface has been sanded lightly with green emery paper. Curiously enough, it hangs just feet away from a large civic mural celebrating 16th-century Arctic explorer Willem Barents – the unlikely conjunction of two voortrekkers on the same street in a post-Star Trek world where space continues to be the final frontier for explorers and artists alike. Barents, a cartographer by trade, ended up trapped in ice on a voyage to map the Northeast Passage. In Delta’s explorations, there’s no loss of momentum, no friction in the liquid interchange of his planes and shadow as they continue to push the virtual boundaries of his distinctive visual field.
In Delta’s aesthetic investigation into the human brain’s cartographical way of reading pictorial space, the nautical rhumb line is superseded by the plumb line, the sextant swapped for a set square and the theodolite for a Stanley blade incision into an abstracted plane of card or wood which, via layering, investigates a kind of abstracted no-space, a territory beyond topography. The vertical plunge of the ambient light source is a significant element in the distinctive visual effect of Delta’s work, and significantly he prefers to replicate that downward effect from the studio when exhibiting. Looking at the new work he was preparing for his summer 2008 solo exhibition at Elms Lesters revealed a deeper engagement with spatial effects in the layered wooden pictures he calls Diversions, which operate as part Cubo-Constructivist paintings, part textured modernist wallpaper, and part abstracted Google Earth grabs.
“I started with the reliefs, because I hated the square object of canvas – that’s why I started to paint on wood and cut it out – and at one point it became two layers and then three, because the first ones were basically graffiti painted on wood and then cut out.”
The piece across the street is a good example of Delta’s early horizontal linearity: you can only really read it left to right. The new work represents a conscious development of the pieces on the street, an attempt to push the visual complexity by penetrating further towards the axonometric (diagonal view with recessive 3-D effect) and away from the orthogonal (front-on view with flat 2-D effect). In their faceted monochromatic layers, the Diversions suggest being endlessly re-routed through a floating urban environment. There’s still an overall rectangularity to the works, but they suggest within their visual density a strong sense of circular movement, a looping repeat that follows a notional route through the shallow confines of the picture plane, activating dimensionality.
“It’s a kind of a game. In each of the Diversions it’s pretty straight-up, my name inscribed as DELTA, my alias. But then I try to divert attention away from that as much as possible by repeating the shapes of the letters, using tricks with colour like high contrast or monochrome so that in the end you’re not even thinking what does it say? With these new works, hardly anybody asks me if there are letters in there or what they say.”
The recognisability of the letters that make up the tag is deliberately cancelled out by a process of disguise during which there’s a kind of camouflaging of Delta’s name into abstract visual particles that can be fitted together or overlaid in an infinity of combinations. Another way of reading the diversion tactic might be Delta’s wider concern with constantly transforming his own status and direction as an artist, moving away from the “youth thing” as he calls it. Back when he gave himself the monicker “Delta” at the age of 14 in the 1980s, this artist shared a sense of excitement with other street artists about the hi-tech futuristic associations of words like Radar, Turbo and Cosmo. For Delta, it went along with an interest in Transformer robots and games like Galaxian with large-pixel video graphics. Delta’s studio is home to quite a number of vintage arcade games from this period, guarded by shelves full of plastic robot prototypes of his own design. At the bottom of his studio stairwell skulks the 4.5 m-high robot shown at an exhibition in Pittsburgh.
All this retro styling reminds me of a motto the early British pop artists The Independent Group toyed with some 50 years ago: “Yesterday’s Tomorrow is Not Today”. Although computer graphics advancements might have been predicted to have taken over the art world by the early 21st century by eradicating touch and handling in paint, a visceral connection with the art object remains crucially important to Delta’s work in particular. It’s what he calls “un-logic”, a randomness in the creative act which counteracts the purely mechanical.
“I make a design and repeat the basic plan shape three times, layered on top of each other – that’s the mathematical or logical side to the way I work, but then once I process it and trace it – vectorising it – I’m choosing which square will be attached to which layer, and that’s a random thing.”
And although this secondary layout stage is performed on a computer, the primary root of all Delta’s creations remains the analogue sketch. Hand drawings in pencil, often at a surprisingly miniature scale, are committed to a pocket-book whenever inspiration strikes, portable set square to hand for the straight lines.
“I can’t work with 3-D programmes, I should but I never really got into it.”
Such typically self-deprecating comments only serve to underline the purist graffiti thinking at work, the natural instinct to present the 2-D as 3-D. When the notepad drawings are blown up via scanned enlargements, the dust and the smudging get scaled up too, so that the image has a textured feel, the clean edge of design held in tension against the smudgy imprint of the artist’s hand.
“That’s like the difference between a freshly cast concrete wall and one that’s been there for 30 years, like an old bunker for instance.”
There’s an openness in Delta’s practice to organic breakdown which might at first seem antithetical to the precision of his work’s apparently precise graphic underpinning. Thinking back to the street piece, with the moss proliferating and gradually covering the relief, helps point up in a rare natural example a key conceptual theme for Delta throughout: the organic system and its threat to subsume the man-made.
“Decay is something I’m fascinated by, urban decay. The idea that humans think that they control systems, but they don’t control anything.”
The visual “noise” of dust on a screenprint is just one conceptual manifestation. This takes on a background auditory dimension with the Techno music Delta often listens to as he’s making work. There’s a certain shape to a Techno track, an angularity combined with occasional sound blurring which perhaps also transmutes into visual form in Delta’s output.
“Or maybe it’s the lack of build-up, it starts and it ends, it’s flat sound texture.”
Certainly there’s a sense of visual flooding when you watch Delta at the layout stage. It’s a distinctly different take on the spray-can in-fill of yore. A click of the mouse enacts the bucket icon on the desktop – colour poured into flat shapes in monochrome with automated control. And yet for Delta it’s crucial to maintain an element of accident and surprise so that the relationship of the finished work on the wall as a 3-D sculptural object to its origination as drawing is never 100% the same, a proportion is always left to random intervention.
The most recent manifestation of this is in paper collage works, which originally began as experiments for record covers.
“They remind me of society’s structures getting out of hand, they’re structures built on structures built on structures, it’s sort of a map of a city with a feeling of control where there’s no control – this is chaos but still all the angles follow the same direction. I found that if I cut up pencil sketches and rearranged them again I would add this “un-logic” to a piece which I would not be able to consciously draw. It gave me an extra dimension which is an unexpected level of depth where different perspectives are randomly combined or perspectives from different drawings are lined up in one image.”
And then sometimes when the planes do line up, the colours are made to clash. Fuchsia pink and mint green, for example, exploring aspects of colour theory that artists like Johannes Itten at the Bauhaus school elucidated as a way of understanding the different optical reactions we experience towards colour waves as detected by the rods (which pick up black and white) and cones (colour) in our eyes. This counter-clashing ploy plays its part in the overall diversion tactic, and becomes more complex in relation to shadow.
In the reliefs, we read shadow in part as a result of the literal layering of the materials; it feels architectonic with a nod to century-old avant-garde movements like Constructivism and Vorticism. There are eight layers of birch in the wall pieces and you have to scrutinise the piece for a while before you can work out how many different black paints Delta has used – bone black, carbon black and mars black is the answer – and how many more blacks you have the illusion of seeing because of the physical, rather than painted, shadows between them. If the lighting is right, the shadow black is blacker than any of the painted blacks, then there’s the shadow of the wall piece itself on the white wall behind it, which is the lightest tone.
The final layer is a varnished layer which instigates a “diversion” of another sort, from the touch of the brush. Before the varnish is applied, the brushwork is readily visible. Afterwards, the effect is muted – only visible up close. “But I would never want these pieces spray-painted. I like that sense of touch, that it’s hand-painted.” In Delta’s own terminology, “they are closer to tapestry than to painting”.
Weaving synapse connections onto a loom of architectonic form, this “New Dutch Master” has developed a concentrated visual language to express creative modes of thinking.
Ben Jones, May 2008