Job Wouters' interview
Dutch-born, Amsterdam-based typographical artist Job Wouters (b.1980) combines elements of graffiti, illustration, painting and graphic design into his exuberant, psychedelic works. Like Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, Wouters works beyond the confines of the conventional art gallery; bringing his unique handwriting to commissions for posters, ,window displays, installations and fashion collections. In 2012 Gestalten published the first monograph of Wouters’ work entitled Letman: The Artwork and Calligraphy of Job Wouters. In 2013 he was commissioned to paint a mural – HOME – for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and is increasingly moving towards larger scale public artworks often created in front of a live audience as performance pieces.
Wouters’ lifelong obsession with typography and the power of the written word first found its expression in graffiti, before he studied art and design at the Royal Academy of Art, the Hague and Amsterdam’s renowned Rietveld Academy. It was at the former institution that he picked up his virtuosic command of classical typography.
‘I suppose the thing I like most about handwriting is the universal quality of it. Obviously, everyone writes. So everyone can relate to a well-written piece. When you see some beautiful calligraphy done well – especially if it is done live – you can connect’.
Today, watching him work, he is as precise and fastidious as a Medieval monk illuminating a manuscript. There is something hypnotic about watching the concentration with which he can execute repeat patterns for hours on end; working with an arsenal of materials to produce colour drifts that please the eye and soothe the soul.
‘In calligraphy there is always a tension between expression and control. These are the two forces that look like they’re opposite but in a sense they are not. They join along as partners in a good piece of work’.
Though digital technology has a part to play in Wouters’ work, his intricate lettering is predominantly created by hand. It’s a practice that lends itself to live creation, with often spectacular results, as in his mural at the Walker Art Centre, or the giant chalk drawing he produced in late 2013 for the Design Museum, Helsinki..
‘In the last two or three years my practice has been shifting towards making larger sized murals. That always has a performative element to it because you’re making something live and people react differently to it. If I design a book, it comes out and maybe is mentioned in a publication or wins a prize but you never get that direct feedback. I’ve come to like it very much. It’s a social thing’.
The other key element to Wouter’s process is his exhaustive “Research and Development” – a term he’s come to apply to his practice of endlessly doodling new letter forms in his spare time, or exploring new materials with which to create them.
‘A specific material or tool can often become the source of inspiration. At one point I realized that traditional graphic designers use fonts… They’re quoting someone else’s work… I thought, I want to regain this sort of control. I want to own everything that I make. I wanted to draw everything. But then to have the same amount of freedom or communication possibilities as a regular designer, I needed to train my hand in all these different directions, and the more directions I could do, the more powerful I could be’.
Wouters’ focus on hand craftsmanship and meticulous research is both unusual and refreshing in a visual culture defined by the instantaneousness of the internet and the quick fixes made possible by computer-aided design software. He bristles, however, when faced with common assumptions about the relative merits of analogue and digital. For him, both have their place.
‘People always say “Oh, handwork is so good because it’s imperfect.” But the thing is that most craftsmen strive for perfection. I’m not aiming for faults, but of course they’re part of the work. It’s more a matter of control. At one point I realized I could control brushes and paint and the analogue tools way better than the digital counterparts. So although I grew up with the computer, and am very happy using it, for the actual making of something, I can do it far better by hand’.