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On the work of Ray Zijlstra (Aruba, 1966)

by Arturo Desimone

One of the pieces in this exhibition is the canopy in three parts. This work shows dance-like journeys of a nude, between water and another elemental fabric. Carved upon the body of the nude male youth are Polynesian-derived island patterns: the patterns appear to the only marker, the sole anchoring-sign upon the man, pinning down this floating body.


Ray Zijlstra. ‘brain’, wall object 30 x 28 cm, mixed yarns. Photo © Angela Tellier

The youth floats in a state of levity, between the timeless islands of fishermen, and their opposite: an invasive, cybernetic, aggressively virtual and detached world.
Island-time is met and ruptured by another era: one of cyberpunk, resulting in fluctuation. Two very different worlds, in terms of space, meaning and color come together, never to separate: like in a symbiosis between unlikely adolescent lovers, who ride towards hedonistic destruction, euphoric. Teenage lovers are convinced that despite their singularity, difference and loneliness they are absolutely One. The artist conserves this dynamism and exuberance in all his work.
A series of cut-outs show delicate slightly Matissean scissoring, fanatical embroidery, photographic experimentation that warp the visual mind. The masculine form of a pearl-diver (an archetype noted by the critic, seemingly unintended by the artist) manifests in pearls that adorn the surfaces of the man’s anatomy: nakedness dressed only in the gloom of shadows, skin covered in patterns (“like from Fiji,” reveals the artist, but these could just as well as pre-Columbian or African, pre-colonial.)
A fisherman’s net protrudes from the image as if it were turning to hologram. Though the youth seems warrior-like, he is also softened, floating about freely, alive, in the painfully awakened state of psychoactivity. Gravitation is collapsed by twisted space. A man floats, falls, in what could be the Caribbean sea, at once making embryonic movements of a fetus inside the Mother, in the water of a Female (who is not the ocean, so much as the playful gravity-deprivation of a cybernetic world from the cyberpunk racy novels of the 1980s.)
In the canopy ”The Brain” hangs a male nude with fuzzy limbs embroidered in plush, returning to animal state, or to children’s books, but with crystal head: it is, indeed the brain. Maybe it is also a punk singer, Sid Vicious, hair painted white…but Zijlstra will fall still before conjecture.


Ray Zijlstra. Photo © Angela Tellier

A chimeric meeting, between vastly contrasting worlds, reflects the artist Ray Zijlstra’s own passage: a childhood interrupted between Aruba and other Antilles islands of his parentage, and Eindhoven, the technological and corporate-industrial city of the Netherlands where he came of age. References and archetypes of a creole past are there, enabling adventures. Friction with the new surroundings elope into a spirited, exuberant playfulness. There is no ending of contrasts, no ”catharsis” sought in the easily politicized: the complex identity is more powerful when an underlying current, and behind the scenes, a phantom identity is toying with the control panel, turning the pressure of gravitation to a lunar scale, making people float.
When identity is not centrepiece, it is in the control-panel room (to not say “the cock-pit”)

Before, or during viewing the work of Arubian-Antillean-Amsterdam bred artist Ray Zijlstra, it is advised to listen to the music of Sun Ra. But that is not to imply jazz or even space-jazz underlies the work of Zijlstra: his figuration is in a way a form of cyber-punk, some of the works finely embroidered upon layers of newspaper even repeat the “God Save the Queen” in harsher terms than Sex Pistols or The Clash, only this time directed at the Dutch Juliana (grand-godmother of Maxima Zorreguieta) rather than at England’s more square and sober queen.

Allen Ginsberg once said “Democracy! Bah! When I hear that I reach for my feather boa!” Ray claims to be anti-political while constantly discussing conspiracy theory and politics, themes that are inextricable from visual cyberpunk. Some of the feathers embroidered into Zijlstra’s tapestries and newspaper-canvases seem to have been plucked from precisely that source.

Zijlstra was born on Aruba to Dutch/Antillean parents, spending part of his childhood years on the neighboring island Curacao, until the family moved from the Antilles to the South of the Netherlands (Eindhoven), still a child. Upon being asked his date of birth, the artist who one would expect to be demure about such questions answers “1966—perhaps the same year that Miriam Makeba came out with the song Pata-Pata” Stunned by the reference, I ask him how come I had not heard of this Antillean song—the word Pata-Pata in Papiamento is a vernacular word for ”filled to the brim” or ”packed” as in a party or a crowded dance. He tells she Makeba was a South African diva, then touring Europe, and unable to return to the country because of political statements. “So she is the left-wing version of Celia Cruz,” I conclude. The African element is as present as the other influences upon Ray from his creole, Caribbean past, his childhood and parentage—creole, or Antillean, is a key influence, rather than specifically ”afro-futurism”. What work then, to better befit an artist of creolite and immigrant experience than the tapestry. Tapestry, layers, and the newspaper cut-up (recalling the uncanny experimentalism of William S Burroughs’ and Brion Gysin’s cut-up experiments) seem to be the specialty of this multi-dimensional artist, who contains within him a playhouse of experimentations, a playfulness that leads to adventure (the best destination of playfulness) and his objects exude a dark sense of humor, the tranquil seriousness of the Antillean island meeting the jarring, amused technocracy of the Netherlands.

It is often said that an artist is the one who succeeded at conserving the most important parts of his childhood: when at work, such an artist could appear to be a self-analytical, self-reflective creative child, with stronger hands. Zijlstra has not only kept the pearls of childhood creativity: he has also ripped and taken with him the best of adolescence and teenage years, such as the coming of age as a young Antillean in the Netherlands finding freedom, jokes, romance and above all Punk for the first time. He is exposed here, fresh and vivacious and lascivious as ever.
Zijlstra will insist that his figuration is conceptual—despite that he is ascetic when it comes to any conceptual sales-talk, preferring to fall entirely deafmute. He believes—he knows the interpretive process of the audience is their creative process, and the importance of allowing that fragile process to weave its invisible web. None of that prepared, bottled intellectualism that has long ago been revealed as what it was, sales-talk of the art-world. No conceptual weapon-wrench may be shoved into that interpretive mystery-web, the temporary autonomous zone occurring between the viewer and the art-work on show.
What Ray values most of the Dutch and Amsterdam half of his upbringing is that ethic not to be found on our islands, that of non-interference, anonymity, a permissive a-parochialism. His work flirts with nihilistic voidness, but then shies and swims away from it, too delicate for nihilism. He defends the act of tapestry, threadwork and embroidery as indeed masculine work, referring to the gobelin of medieval Europe, among other examples. Yet, undoubtedly his feminine side is irrepressible.

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