For twenty five years Reflections records helped to put the Hard in Hardcore. With amazing releases from Kill Your Idols to Modern Life Is War and from Reaching Forward to Herder it felt like they’d be around forever. Or so it seemed… As music sales began to decline, despite the rising popularity of vinyl Reflections slowly faded away. Johan Prenger, owner of the label, isn’t someone who mourns the past. He takes pride in what he did and has now taken on a new challenge, and embraced life as a professional artist…
Interview by Martijn Welzen
MM: So Johan; at what point did you think Reflections, as a record label, had passed its expiration date?
Johan: That was actually a pretty gradual development. It became increasingly more difficult to sell enough of my own releases. The profit margins on mailorder and distro records are so small it became a real struggle to make enough to even pay my own wages for all the work. I think the final straw must have been the debut record of Zeal & Ardor. That band truely exploded! They really were a band, I felt, who could actually become huge. It then became painfully clear Reflections as label was just too small to hold on to this band. It opened my eyes to this new reality and from that moment I was actually done with it. I ran Reflections for almost 25 years and look back with tremendous pride, but sometimes you have to let go and start with something new.
MM: Reflections used to be ‘music and words’. Besides the magazine you have also released one book. Wasn’t there supposed to be a series of book releases planned? I’m guessing the ‘word’ part of your label is also done…
Johan: Originally we did, indeed, plan a whole collection, but it didn’t have enough power behind it. Part two just took too long and part one was actually nothing more than a work of love. We didn’t make any money with it and then you have to pull the plug at one point. At this point Reflections is just an empty paper shell and I don’t think there will be any release in the forseeable future. So no book either… Maybe a book about my paintings? If that’s going to happen, it will be under my own name, I guess.
MM: So now it’s back to your first love, painting. Did all of this happen naturally?
Johan: It actually started out as a project. Most of my life I have been creating art during the winter. I once built a wooden bike and I’m quite handy and like to just create things. Three years ago I decided to paint three old skateboard decks. The reactions to these pieces were overwhelming and I managed to sell them in no-time. I never really planned on that, but now, three years later this is what I do.
MM: There are two distinct pillars in your work; commission work and your own ideas. The subjects, however, do not differ as much. It’s mostly rock and metal icons versus the mystical nature. It that a coincidence or have you refused certain commissions, simply because you couldn’t do anything with it?
Johan: It is all a coincidence. I obviously started painting my heroes (Lemmy, Ronnie James Dio etc). Shortly thereafter I got the opportunity for an exposition in the library of Merksem-Antwerpen (Belgium), called ‘Portraits in Metal‘. So I painted a lot of portraits for that.
The (mystical) nature is something I am truely intrigued by. I love the outdoors; trees… water… beautiful skies… If there’s a mystical / occult story attached to it I am interested. I just love creating a picture in which something ‘happens’.
About refusing work: No! That’s something I won’t do lightly. When I got the idea people liked my work and were willing to pay for it so I could possibly make a living out of it, I made an agreement with myself to go for it 100% and to take on whatever came my way. I do work a lot! I think my father’s favourite quote; ‘the devil finds work for idle hands’ is deeply rooted in me.
MM: Where does your inspiration come from? When one of your idols passes away I can imagine you feel the urge to imortalise them, but with a ghost, dancing in a forrest under a star-studded midnight sky, the insipration isn’t that obvious…
Johan: You have actually answered the question. When, like early last year Neil Peart of Rush died, and he was someone I truely think is a hero, then I HAVE to paint his portrait. Concerning my other work; inspiration can be found anywhere. A song I love or something I have read about. I am very interested in old myths and sagas, and everything which intrigues people or can strike fear into them. Throughout history this often led back to religion; another subject which fascinates me endlessly. It’s always quite a challenge putting that mystical vibe onto a canvas.
MM: You work at an incredible pace. Don’t you worry that you might get ‘painters-block’?
Johan: I think I just work a lot ha, ha. I can’t tell you exactly how long it takes for me to finish a painting. I do tend to work a lot in the evening or at night. When I’m in a good flow I can get a painting done in one session. There are pieces I have done in three hours, but some work takes weeks and I only add bits every now and then. Haven’t had a proper painters-block, I have to say I have so many orders I can’t really afford that ha, ha, ha. It does happen with a personal piece, when looking at a blank canvas I have to tidy up my studio first and get everything sorted. Then I have to get rid of that white as quickly as possible, by using huge brushes to ‘block’ the cloth, after which I get into a certain mood and my enthusiasm will flow freely ha, ha, ha.
MM: Are you still learning with every painting you create?
Johan: Absolutely! Although I have decided to keep on painting. I am really more a fan of drawing with pencils or markers. I like the craftsmanship of paining a lot. Paint is such a compelling product with which SO much is possible. I use palette knives, brushes, paper and my fingers. Actually ‘anything’ which can achieve the effect I want. I do still learn from every painting I make. You will get a intuition for certain tricks which can create a specific illusion.
MM: Is there something you currently can’t, but are desperate to learn?
Johan: Ha, ha, ha, I think I can do anything! I truly adhere to: ‘I have never tried that before so I think I should be able to do that.’ I would like to pick up sculpting in the (near) future, but I think I can do that too hahaha. I do obviously want to be better first and foremost. Most important lesson for me would be patience however and being able to put a painting aside for a few days.
MM: I noticed you often have a frame before you have a painting. To what extend does the shape / size of the frame dictate the subject?
Johan: Good question! It is true I often have a frame with which I am going to work. This is also the reason I paint on wood a lot, I can saw it to any size I want. Every now and then I have a frame which is so ‘Baroque’, there’s just no other way the subject can bd anything else, it has to be mystical. So yes, sometimes the subject is dictated by the frame.
MM: The imagery is very dark. Not just the colour scheme you choose but mostly the themes depicted. What does that say about you? Would you paint rainbows and unicorns when asked for?
Johan: I think it’s ‘the dark’ which intrigues me. Witches are a prime example. For me they were the feminists of that era. Independent women who refused to conform to the rule of (religious) morality. I think it’s all which deviates from ‘cute and beautiful’ that is appealing to me. It’s not really a problem for me to paint a nice bouquet of flowers, but I just don’t care about that to be honest. On the other hand; I have painted children on a unicorn and a rainbow! For me this is also a job. I might not even call myself an artist but more of a craftsman. I just love to paint and if someone asks me to paint fluffy rabbits I will.
MM: You mention this being your job now. Do you feel some sort of pressure? Do you ‘have to’ produce?
Johan: Yes, this is what I do now, and with that some pressure is being felt. “What if people don’t want my work anymore? – “Will I have enough orders next month?” These questions are always in the back of my mind. However, most of what I paint is gone in no-time at all. So I guess I can do something, right? I ‘have to’ produce, but that’s mostly a drive from within. I need to have something done every single day. Sunday to Monday! I am actually always working.
MM: How easy is it for you to let go? Your work will be hung on someone else’s living room wall and then it’s gone. That would feel very strange to me…
Johan: Yes, but that’s because I have carved that in stone; anything I make is for sale. Period! I would like to keep on doing this until I topple-over or I am physically unable to do it. I agreed with myself I must also be willing to sell everything. I do have the occasional painting I am fond of, which I’ll put on my own wall for a few weeks. And when it’s already sold I hold on to it for a bit with the excuse: “the paint has to harden a bit longer” ha, ha, ha.
MM: You came from the hardcore / punk scene, where you already built quite a reputation as a painter. How are things going outside this little world? Are you being taken seriously?
Johan: I consider myself lucky with my fairly large network in the music industry, but slowly more and more commisions and buyers from outside come through, which is amazing of course. I have to say I am not putting a whole lot of energy into getting my work into galleries. Although I am not turning that down either. I take things as they come and I mostly just work and try to be visible on social media. I have had some exhibitions, but that was obviously before Corona.