Graphic Surgery showcases aesthetic ingenuity

Born only four days apart from each other, the meeting of Gysbert Zijlstra and Erris Huigens resulted in the creation of Graphic Surgery, a unique visual arts duo based in the Netherlands.

Captivated by creations that are not meant to be aesthetically beautiful, the work of Graphic Surgery varies in genre and process of work—they work with design, video, public murals, installation, among other things. Gysbert and Erris are a perfect blend of two individuals who share a common interest in the field of art. The duo is highly sophisticated, capturing the reality that surrounds us as much as it is repetitive and yet altered to a certain point.

The project’s visual vocabulary is extracted from various influences ranging from industrial or urban landscapes, counting steel structures, scaffolding and construction cranes, to artistic movements—De Stijl and Constructivism—and experimental electronic music from the ‘90s is perhaps of equal importance. It’s hard to look at the work of Graphic Surgery and not be reminded of the audio bleeps and baselines of bands such as Autechre.

Similar to De Stijl pieces, Graphic Surgery’s projects combine simplified visual compositions to vertical and horizontal, using only black and white, and rarely working with pallets—usually the natural colour of the surface they are working with as described in their online biography.

Their works are likewise influenced by technology, both analogue and digital, which is a clear indicator of Graphic Surgery’s participation in the experimental electronic music. Some of the works they did for this scene consist designs of vinyl record sleeves for music labels including Delsin Records, Exit Records, Fachwerk Records, Shipwrec, and Fremdtunes, working with artists such as Redshape, Conforce, Mike Dehnert, Yagya, Yan Cook, Claro Intelecto, Vril, Artefakt, Exos, Shlømo, and Sven Weisemann.

We interviewed Gysbert and Erris with the aim to know more about their collaborative process of work and future endeavours.

How do you think your Graphic Surgery project evolved throughout time?

Throughout the time you learn many things, trial and error. We have grown both as a duo and individually. Our work has evolved conceptually and visually. On the business and communication side of things we also learned a lot. Projects and exhibitions are gradually lifted to a higher level. We experimented a lot the past years, and have the feeling that only the last few years we established a style that is more consistent and recognisably distinctive. You basically have to create so much work before you actually start to reach a certain degree of quality. We are moving our studio soon, so we are sifting through all the stuff we collected through the years. Many are rubbish, some are early timeless gems.

What’s your work-day like as a duo? How do you coordinate your work and develop your ideas?

Each day is different; we have our own focus. Many times we produce work in various locations, in and outside the country and do digital and analog studio work. Erris recently even moved to another city, outside of Amsterdam. In this day and age, it is surprisingly easy to communicate about art and to surprise each other with ideas. We still make sure that we create one body of work, but we do work in different media and on quite varied projects. From site-specific work to fine art for galleries, such as Mini Galerie, commissioned work and artwork for music labels, mainly Delsin Records from Amsterdam.

What is the best thing about working together?

The constant dialogue. We can bounce off each other’s ideas, and we influence each other with our personal vision on things. When we are working on location for instance with big murals, it is way better and faster to work together. And as travel companions, it is less boring at airports, railway stations and during long car trips.

Your work is quite influenced by the De Stijl artistic movement, what is about the style that makes you develop it?

We guess De Stijl is one of many influences that shaped our work into what it is today. De Stijl has had a big influence on contemporary design and the arts in the Netherlands in general. We do not literally share the exact same utopian ideas (we live in a completely different time), but the clear, abstract and bold imagery and strong connection to architecture and industrial and graphic design have been a major inspiration to us, and still is.

What is one of the projects that had a profound impact on Graphic Surgery?

Lately, we have done a project in Leeuwarden, the city where we met, using wood and paint to create a relief. A new level of working for us, working in three dimensions. Probably recent projects are always the most interesting because you create new steps and push your work in new directions. Like the screen printing project we finished last month in Rome with the excellent printer Arturo Amitrano of 56fili. Site-specific interventions of minimalistic wall paintings in Mexico City, executed by the studio assistants of artist Aldo Chaparro inside and on the outside facade of his studio and at La Construcción in Guatemala City, by Diego Sagastume and his collaborators, have created new possibilities. It is an interesting way to collaborate with these initiatives on the other side of the globe, via the internet by simply providing detailed specifications. In a way, it is similar to musicians creating tracks together. And it is our subtle contemporary reference to the way Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings can and are still being produced.

Do you work on individual projects as well? How do they differ from Graphic Surgery?

No. As mentioned, we bring our own ingredients to the table, and we divide work on various projects, but it is all part of one body of work. It is important to feel creatively free, and to be able to create what seems logical for each of us as individual artists within Graphic Surgery, but because we combine these two visions it only makes the work stronger and more interesting in a broad sense. The work consists of a strong balance between complex and minimal.

On what kind of tools do you rely on creating your pieces?

Many different tools. From digital to analog, from computer to paint. We like to use state of the modern art tools as well as very classic tools. As long as we can put it to good use to create the work we want to create. We use a lot of rulers, spirit levels, set squares, tape measure as well as pencil, chalk line and many, many meters of masking tape.

If you could collaborate with other artists, who would you pick and why?

Erris: I would not want to create work together literally but would not mind seeing our work alongside works by artists like Richard Serra, Sol Lewitt, Franz Kline, Francois Morellet and Ellsworth Kelly. Besides that, I would love to see a dialogue between our work and works by members of De Stijl and Zero movements like Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck, and Jan Schoonhoven.

Gysbert: I would totally want to spend time with the Russian Constructivists of the early nineteenth century: Wladimir Tatlin, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Liubov Popova, and El Lissitzky to name a few. Or sixties artists like Victor Vasarely, Lygia Clarke or Peter Struycken. And to collaborate on projects more with contemporary computer programmers and electronic musicians, and architects.

Are you currently working on something new?

Yes, we are always working on new things. New studio works (an ongoing process), for group and solo exhibitions and a number of varied projects, mainly site-specific concepts and ideas in and outside the Netherlands, like also Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, United Kingdom, Australia, France and Italy. We are about to release an edition of a small sculpture with Unique Board from New York later this year. The music artwork for Delsin is something that we continue doing, sleeve artwork for new releases by Conforce and Yagya are on the way. We are grateful to Marsel and Thijs for sticking with us on that.

Tell us more about your collaboration with music labels, especially with Delsin Records, considering that you have been working together on multiple projects?

In 2012, we were given the chance by Marsel van der Wielen, the founder of the label to start doing artwork for vinyl releases. We started with quite experimental artwork for a deep house series, and soon we were given the opportunity to create full sleeves for EPs and albums. He and Thijs van de Wijngaert of Delsin give us total freedom. When we do album artwork, we like to hear what the musician’s vision is about the concept of the album and we work from that. Sometimes an existing piece of art we have produced is perfect for it; sometimes we create it specifically for the release. But we want to feel free to create, in the end, it always works out. Besides work for Delsin, we have done some artwork for special releases on labels close to Delsin like Aroy Dee’s MOS Recordings, Newworldaquarium’s NWAQ plus Mike Dehnert’s Fachwerk, dBridge’s Exit Records, Shipwrec and Fremdtunes.

Lastly, what do you want to explore in the future?

Take small steps, but find new ways to execute our work. Explore the realms of moving image, three dimensional and sculptural work, moving images as well as classic ways like painting and collage. Large-scale architectural collaborations could be interesting too. Working on all of that at as we speak…