I win my way
Oleksiy Koval, 370 x 290 cm, tape on wall, Arti et Amicitae, Amsterdam 2016
Photo © Rhythm Section


“When I was nineteen, I was fascinated by Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and Live Evil. During that time someone showed me artworks of this great musician, and I was really disappointed. I thought: „this guy has absolutely no clue about painting“. On the other hand, Piet Mondrian was trying to implement ‘De Stijl’ ideas in music; he gave up this idea after he was listening to Boogie Woogie. I myself do not want to relate my work to music, but of course I learned from music for my painting and I am still learning. In painting and in music, you find the elements of movement, time, space, and matter; and I am always curious about how musicians are dealing with this. If there is something that I can implement from music in my painting, then I do it.”

INE DAMMERS : This year 2017, it is hundred years ago that ‘De Stijl’ was founded. Holland is honoring the centennial of this movement in art with a lot of manifestations. De Stijl characterized itself by clear universal forms and primary colours. The mathematician and theosopher Dr M.H.J.Schoenmaekers, who was a friend of Mondrian, defended the concept of De Stijl with the phrase: “The general in spite of the particular”. The ‘general’ is defined by De Stijl as a matter to develop a new formal language, based on the variation of the few basic principles of artistic creation. ’Rhythm Section’ organised several exhibitions in the context of this centennial. Is there a relation between Rhythm Section and De Stijl?

OLEKSIY KOVAL : One hundred years after De Stijl, at the end of the age of total relativism, it is in my opinion unconvincing to let the ‘general’ triumph over the ‘particular’. “Not to be confined by the greatest, yet to be contained within the smallest” is a statement which is characteristic for our group Rhythm Section: The artists of Rhythm Section are linked in their commitment to a hyper reflexivity in dealing with the rhythm, not as a compulsion, but as an original constant. The clear handling of the rhythm allows an endless variety of individual variations. The striking link between De Stijl and Rhythm Section I see in the original handling of their understanding and construction of visual rhythm. If De Stijl laid the general foundation for the form of rhythm in fine arts, then Rhythm Section relates this form to ‘the smallest’.

I. D. : In October 2016 in Arti (Arti et Amicitiae, Amsterdam), at the exhibition ‘Boogie Woogie Rhythm Section’, you showed the work ‘I win my way’. The connection with Mondrian is obviously made in the title of the exhibition. Why do you refer to Mondrian?

O. K. : Actually the title ‘Boogie Woogie Rhythm Section’ is connected not only to Piet Mondrian, but also to De Stijl and boogie-woogie as well. In my work ‘I win my way’ I didn’t refer to Mondrian directly, but I learned a lot from the how Mondrian created his last painting, and I used his experience for the work in Arti. First Mondrian was very clear about the motive of the composition. A photo from 1942 shows the painter in his studio with ‘Victory Boogie-Woogie’: the canvas lies on the table, and Mondrian fills color fields and lines with paint. So this kind of procedure was far away from the ‘true-painting-procedure’, it was more like the ‘implement-the-motive-procedure’. However, already in the autumn of 1943 in an interview with Johnson Sweeney, Mondrian explains the relationship between boogie-woogie and his paintings: “True boogie-woogie I conceive as homogeneous in intention with mine in painting: destruction of melody which is the equivalent of destruction of natural appearance; and construction through the continuous opposition of pure means – dynamic rhythm.” In that time Mondrian changed completely the procedure of ‘Victory Boogie-Woogie’. He destructed the original motive of the composition and focused on the applying of colors on the surface, on the dynamic rhythm. The canvas was on the painting’s easel. Usually I do not like to have a sketch with clear motive on it, but for the show at Arti the participants were asked to make a sketch in advance. That means I had to apply the implement-the-motive-procedure. But I did not want to do it. So I decided to create a composition that allows me to keep the motive and to allow dynamism and spontaneity during applying of colors. Curves, sharp and wide corners, equilibrium of colors – all this resulting from the procedure of entries, fixed positions of meters and spontaneous decisions while painting.

I. D. : “Not to be confined by the greatest, yet to be contained within the smallest” is characteristic for Rhythm Section, as you said. What do you mean by ‘the smallest’? My favorite quote about the smallest is that of Winnie the Pooh: “The smallest things take up the most room in your heart”. In Pooh’s case this ‘smallest’ is a jar of honey, but in your case it is rhythm.

O. K. : Well, ”Not to be confined by the greatest, yet to be contained within the smallest” is written on the tomb of Ignatius of Loyola in Rome. It is about a vital law, and it is what I am trying to achieve in my life and in my painting. I like your Pooh parallel with a jar of honey alot. ‘The smallest’ in painting is everything, absolutely everything which moves us to paint: surface, paint, shape of marks, tools, mental disposition, intelligence, intuition, imagination and rhythm, of course. But all of these ‘jars of honey’ are enjoyable only if they are part of ‘the greatest’. So it is always about balance between ‘the greatest’ and ‘the smallest’, and you have to keep both of them while painting. You will always lose against the surface if you neglect the ‘jars of honey’ or the law.

I. D. : Mondrian was very strict in his formal language. How is that in your work?

O. K. : I would like to start with the essence of painting in order to describe my formal language. Painting is applying colour on a surface by use of hand or any kinds of tools. So we have colour, surface and the movement while applying colour on a surface. In my work I focus very strictly on colour, matter and rhythm to design the movement while painting, but I retain infinite freedom and latitude for spontaneous decisions about the tools, materials and surfaces.

I. D. : You have studied at the academies of Kiev and Munich. How would you describe your process to become a painter?

O. K. : I have learned and I am still learning from people from a wide range of disciplines. While painting you deal with color, surface, movement, time, space, light, matter, health and conceptual ability to name a few. And every occupation deals with these same elements and categories as well. So I learned to paint not only from painters, but also from taxi drivers, cooks, football managers and chess masters.

I. D. : Why did you choose to become a painter?

O. K. : Well, I didn’t really choose it. I started to paint when I was 3 years old and I can’t stop yet.

I. D. : What is your goal while painting?

O. K. : To win over the surface.!

I. D. : If the surface is your opponent, can the surface win from you?

O. K. : Yes, the surface can win the painting from me. After I applied the colors on it, it is not a pure, idle surface any more.

I. D. : Could you describe your painting process?

O. K. : In fact, there is no universal tactic or strategy in my painting process. Lobanovskiy, the famous coach of Dynamo Kyiv, said once: “The team has to have a quantity of different tactics and use the necessary one, once having recognized the opponents way of playing.” I keep this in mind while painting.

I. D. : Lobanovskiy’s strategy was to disturb the rhythm of the opponent, and to impose his rhythm in the game, to be able to beat the opponent. Rhythm is an important part in your strategy to beat the surface. How does rhythm manifests itself in your work?

O. K. : Rhythm doesn’t manifest itself in my work. I have worked on and I am still working hard on rhythm. For me the movement while painting is indirect. I design the movement with the logic of rhythm.

I. D. : What kind of materials do you use?

O. K. : Everything, absolutely everything which catches my eye. It can be polyester fabric, a nice printed textile, a piece of carton, materials from home improvement stores, or canvas, oil, acrylic, ink, watercolor, spray, tape, foil – everything. I was recently in the post office in Munich and spotted an electric cable which was in disorder. Workers put two different tapes on it, and it was a really tasty combination of colors. So I had to go to the store immediately and do something with this material.

I. D. : What is your relationship to the outside world full of media images?

O. K. : I am part of this ‘world full of media images’ and I like it. I like images and I use them daily as well. But I am not satisfied in everyday life with the proportion of images and pictures to paintings. I think most people do not even know the difference between image, picture and painting. It is my job to open their eyes for this, and make people understand what true painting actually is.

I. D. : What is true painting?

O. K. : The painting, that allows the possibility of spontaneity, is true.  The search for the true painting is that which I absorbed from my study of Mondrian and “De Stijl”. The core of the true painting lies not in the image or motive, but in the origin of painting: in the application of colors on surfaces.

I. D. : Are there artists (besides Mondrian), let’s say in the last fifty years, you feel close to because of affinity in work and attitude?

O. K. : Artists I feel close to are Robert Ryman, Valeriy Lobanovskiy and Steve Coleman.

I. D. : You are the initiator of two groups: in 2010 Rhythm Section and in 2011 The Beautiful Formula Collective. Why did you start them?

O. K. : I was interested on rhythm in visual arts in general and on rhythm in the painting specifically. I desperately needed the exchange with other artists on this topic.

I. D. : What is the difference between Rhythm Section and The Beautiful Formula Collective?

O. K. : Well, Rhythm Section is a platform for artists, who are interested in an exchange on the subject ‘rhythm’ in the visual arts. Rhythm Section consists not only of visual artists representing installation, drawing, video, sculpture, painting, digital images to name a few, but also of art critics and theorists, philosophers, teachers for rhythm and movement. Parallel to the group shows, Rhythm Section organizes artist talks, lectures and symposiums on the subject ‘rhythm’ in visual arts. In contrast to Rhythm Section, The Beautiful Formula Collective is only about painting and creating collective works based on The Beautiful Formula Language. We use the combination of spontaneity, improvisation and logic of rhythm, which gives us structures and rules while painting. The Beautiful Formula Collective produces and stages group works not only in the studio, but also as a live painting performance in front of the public. We are not thinking about performance, it is just painting in front of people to bring the people in contact with true painting.

Haarlem, January 13, 2017


  1. Dear Oleksiy
    This is a beautifully lucid and honest interview! It is so clear that you have a deep love for painting as a process for searching for truth, not just the truth of painting but at the deeper level, for the understanding of living a full creative life. While you articulate that there is an essence to painting, the paradox of essential truths is that they connect at a universal level, just as a true living painting is true to the innate laws of dynamic (living) balance and rhythm in painting it is also true to the same laws that govern life itself. Nature is always counterbalancing to sustain a dynamic equilibrium; our very beings are seeking the same dynamic equilibrium between living justly within the laws of life but with a creative and imaginative freedom. Your work is an embodiment of these principles and you have my admiration for having achieved that clarity. Your paintings make me smile because they combine a clarity of understanding that there is both infinite freedom of choice but the the choices are also based on a necessary humility and sensitivity of connection to the logic of what is evolving in the work.
    I more clearly understand why you are quoting St. Ignatius, Mondrian and Lobanovskiy. On first appearance a completely absurd grouping! But each sees the infinite freedom of flow and possibilities within what appears to be a limited set of structural possibilities and constraining laws. To me it is like watching a bird in flight remain in equilibrium in the flux of the wind. The bird must move within the laws of gravity and aerodynamics but has complete freedom of movement within the constraints of these laws. What is boring in art is the lack of this fundament truth, bad art always lacks the true energy of the tension between understanding the principles and the spirit of improvisation. The deep paradox of improvisation is that it requires deep knowledge of the underlying structures. One can’t improvise without deep connection which makes sense of your painting and your feeling for St. Ignatius, Mondrian and Lobanovskiy.
    Fond egards

    Liked by 1 person

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