Caroline Westerhout’s Expressive Reconstructions
Caroline Westerhout is a Dutch artist living and working in the Netherlands. She paints the human figure in a highly recognizable, singular style, with an emphasis on faces, hands, and the female anatomy.
I first encountered Westerhout’s paintings several years ago, which appeared inspired by one of my favorite artists, Gustav Klimt. Borrowing and building upon Klimt’s signature graphic lines and shapes, and combining them with smooth realism, it’s obvious Westerhout did not mimic Klimt—instead she built upon his legacy in her own distinct style. This, to me, is the optimum result of cross-pollination between artists.
Today Westerhout focusses more on the pictorial deconstruction of the human form. Surprising touches of color and shifting perspectives speak of courage. Westerhout is an artist who’s not afraid to explore, discover, change—pushing paint to break down boundaries. Her paintings strike me as truly original, like nothing I have seen before. Yet one can detect traditional craftsmanship in the exquisite manner in which she captures luminous eyes, glistening hands, sumptuous breasts.
Her nudes are sensual, sometimes suggestive and erotic, always exquisitely beautiful. Gradually reaching across her country’s borders and gaining a more international following, Westerhout feels the need to emphasize her nudes are not about sex. Before gaining more worldwide visibility on social media these kinds of explanations were scarcely necessary. Nudity is hardly shocking to the Dutch public, a culture which is comfortable dealing with nudity and quite aware of differences between pornography and artistic expression.
Westerhout—who considers herself a portrait artist—usually starts out painting a realistic image, which, once done, she deconstructs, transfigures, and then rebuilds again. She scrapes off and adds paint, shifts the perspective, rubs out contours. Sometimes unexpected elements or additional features are added, such as an extra pair of eyes, suggesting movement and emotions—frontal portraits seemingly flow into profile views, as in her portrait entitled “Elastic”, a striking deconstruction of actress Natalie Portman (below).
Mostly using her imagination and sometimes a simple phone app, she plays around with the possibilities an unfinished painting offers, yet changes are mostly made on impulse and happy accidents are embraced and celebrated. Westerhout often posts progress shots of her process on Facebook. The startling transformations that many of her pieces undergo often leave me wondering when a piece is considered finished. Matter-of-factly Westerhout explains, “It’s finished when I love the portrait, and the portrait loves me back.”
Even when portraying other people Westerhout paints herself. Each piece is self-reflexive and riddled with contradictions; sometimes confrontational and aggressive, sometimes gentle and fragile, always brutally honest. Emotions play a central role in her work. The Latin phrase Pars pro toto (meaning “one part represents the whole”) is integral to her intention. Emphasizing just a few elements by pictorial dissection, Westerhout captures the personality of her subject in a specific moment in time. Not always conventionally flattering yet infused with honesty, wit, and adventurous daring. She is fascinated by the psychology and elasticity of human nature, and attempts to hold on to the emotions that captivate her and provoke her to paint. Westerhout says, “There are so many different ways to look at a person and still see what one wants to see.”
Her latest goal is to achieve impasto by working more with the painting knife. She seeks to produce gestural work that has an emotional impact, a wow effect. Keenly aware of the invasive, transformative process her portraits undergo, Westerhout expresses admiration for those who commission their portrait on a carte blanche basis. So far, even the most shocking permutations in portrait assignments have been lauded by her collectors, filling her with a gratitude slightly tinged with surprise. I, for one, am truly looking forward to watch Westerhout’s signature style evolve, and see where her exploration of the human figure takes her next.
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer, realist artist & author © Antwerp, August 2016