Courtesy Alexandra Rowley

The Magical Cabinets of FreelingWaters

Amsterdam-based artists Job Wouters and Gijs Frieling transform the surfaces of 18th- and 19th-century cabinets into psychedelic statement pieces.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, young protagonist, Lucy Pevensie, is exploring the rooms of an old country house when she stumbles upon the magical cabinet that will transport her to the land of Narnia. Inspired by a handmade wardrobe from Lewis’s paternal grandfather, there was clearly something alluring about the monumental piece of furniture that inspired him to pen his most iconic book. Yet throughout, the narrator offers numerous warnings: “It is very silly to shut oneself into a wardrobe, even if it is not a magic one.”

Making a lasting impression on the collective imagination, the idea of the wardrobe has since taken on magical properties elsewhere in the realms of fantasy and fiction with popular examples ranging from Beauty and the Beast to Harry Potter. Meanwhile, humankind has yet to locate a mysterious cupboard that takes one to other physical worlds, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some out there that transport one to new corners of the mind.

Earlier this year, Dutch artists Gijs Frieling and Job Wouters—known collectively as FreelingWaters—introduced a collection of reinvented 18th- and 19th-century cupboards that embody their own form of magic and mystery via intricate processes of painting and typography. Stripping the original pinewood cabinets, the duo then covers the furniture’s entire surface using paint made from pigment and casein glue—a fast drying medium derived from milk protein. The technique produces unrivaled chromatic intensity and durability, and results in psychedelic surfaces that draw on several European decorative furniture painting traditions.

For FreelingWaters, it’s all about gesture and performance as much as it is about the end image and decoration. While there is a heaviness to each of the cabinets, there is optical movement within the handpainted surfaces that draws users in on a perceptual level. Wouters explains that this spatial aspect of their work evolved organically from collaborating on larger-scale, site-specific murals. “We like to not only paint on walls, but on whole rooms where you can get around to corners and other spatial elements,” Wouters says. “The step towards cabinet painting was small, because like rooms, cabinets are three-dimensional objects with spatial definition.”

But there is also something poetic about the cabinet, Wouters notes, “because it contains space but also these layers of visuality and visibility.” Not only do the artists and their studio assistants paint every surface of the exterior (including the back of the object), but they also paint the interiors, often with surprising, contrasting patterns, hues, and motifs. He says, “Sometimes, we paint whole animals on the backside. They’re only there for the people who move the cabinets and then they will be hidden.” The cabinets therefore take on a commanding presence in space, inviting users to move around them, open the doors with curiosity, and let the images spark discoveries and associations of their own. It’s almost enough to tempt one want to crawl inside to see what else is there.

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