A dreaming individual in a disenchanted world
A few words about Tim Volckaert’s work
Thursday, July 6th 2017. I find myself in one of the workshops of Tim Volckaert (1979), facing a wall hung with enlarged reproductions of portrait paintings from the renaissance. The people portrayed are depicted indoors and a window behind them affords a view of a landscape. The hands of some of the female characters, with their suspiciously spread fingers framing a piece of fur or disappearing suggestively into a fold, indicate both an allegorical and an erotic meaning. If you look at the anaemic male characters debilitated by inbreeding, with their extravagant lace collars and unsteady, spindly legs, you feel a misplaced reverence for undaunted males or for the unfounded authority automatically meted out to men. Ah the renaissance! Freed of the yoke of the Church at last, people had the right to devise telescopes and microscopes, to draw nervous systems and maps, and to decimate or civilize foreign peoples. Conquer the world! Progress at last! And what has that progress amounted to? To spreading that same ecclesiastical nonsense while neglecting its spiritual foundation, which boils down to man recognizing that there is something bigger than himself, even if it is only that intricate, wondrously interlocking world of humus and vapour from which he himself has sprung.
Looking at these portrait paintings as the first visual fruits of a disenchanted world (from which, according to Dirk De Vos, autonomous painting originated), we have the impression that the mysterious, sensual approach to the female models was a secret way of preserving the mysticism and unified world of medieval times by intertwining it with the hidden pleasure of painting. Embedded in colour, rhythm and matter, it was taken beyond the reach of reason to be saved.
Daniel Arasse pointed out that originally perspective was called ‘commensuratio’. This word indicated that from now on the world would be depicted from the viewpoint of man. Actually, this means that everything that is larger or smaller than a human being should be eradicated. And people will cling to this pitiful, primitive conviction as long as they don’t begin to see themselves as a sort of backward rat people who, eternally scoffing, guzzling, burping and farting, go on breeding until the whole granary is gnawed bare and the last fat rat, sitting on the bone mountain of the companions it has consumed one by one, begs God for salvation.
Here and there Volckaert has painted over a part of a reproduction, thereby revealing the composition. I ask him why he has covered the hands of three ladies with red paint. “They’ve got blood on their hands, if you ask me,” he replies. “In my opinion, the arrogance of these renaissance people is responsible for global warming. When you see them posing like peacocks against a landscape backdrop, which represents land they have conquered or acquired in some other way, I take special pleasure in having them swallowed up by the background or smothered by an invasive landscape. I call these works ‘couple pieces’ because I try to re-couple the figures with their surroundings, with the landscape or with the world. Only I don’t know exactly how I’ll do that yet. Having the landscape flow over doesn’t work. Firstly, because you just end up with a pastoral landscape and lose that captivating confrontation. Secondly, the compositions are so well-balanced that they disintegrate if you simply paint the figure out. It’s difficult to tamper with it and at the same time make a good painting.”
I draw the artist’s attention to the reproduction of a painting in which he successfully allowed the female figure to merge with an exquisitely painted background out of which she occasionally seems to reappear. I would really like to see this work in the flesh.
At the end of this series of painted reproductions hangs an equally large reproduction of the Venus of Willendorf. I ask Volckaert what this figure means to him. “She is almost round,” he says, “and seems to fuse with planet earth, both in terms of form and matter. And yet it only measures eleven centimetres …”
- According to Giacometti that is the true size of every sculpture, even if it is the Sphinx of Giza, which you have to look at from a great distance … Donald Judd writes somewhere that Giacometti’s sculptures were the first sculptures to impart a presence to the surrounding space. Giacometti himself said that he couldn’t stop his sculptures shrinking during the modelling process. Actually this means that he needed fewer and fewer molecules to perceive them as wide as they were… As my son Cyriel once observed at an exhibition in Paris, a Giacometti angelfish-shaped head could suddenly dilate if you looked at it off focus. When we took the underground train afterwards, we saw the heads of the other passengers as shaped like angelfish, even the head of a man who was wearing wide, black glasses… Forgive me this digression, but it has something to do with the small figures we encounter in landscapes by Patinir and Claude Lorrain. “Each in its own place”, as Aristotle said.
Volckaert: Maybe I’m looking for something like that. I don’t want to make punk-like, pamphletary works. Sometimes I think of Matisse’s tablecloth that flows into space and forms a sort of backdrop … Sometimes I’m tempted to abstract certain parts. I love abstract art, but somehow we don’t manage to make abstract art that is totally unrelated to some anecdote or story … Sometimes I work with the shape of a jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps that’s a possibility: piece things together.
Suspended over the above-mentioned, painted reproductions and resting on two planks, is a set of black and white photographs printed on glass panes. Some photographs show a three-quarter back view of the artist’s head, some a wooded landscape. Viewed from close to, the texture of these photographs is puzzling. Brushstrokes suggest that they were painted over with watercolours, but then you start thinking they might have been made with watercolour paint (not unlike the renaissance figure that merges with the background of the painting). I ask Volckaert how he made these photo watercolours. He tells me that the photographs were not made with the glass plates, but printed onto them.
Volckaert: “The little panes were covered with an emulsion before being exposed in the darkroom. You can apply the same emulsion to wood or paper, for example. What makes these photographs unusual is that they remain transparent. If, for example, you suspend them by means of a metal frame resting on little feet away from the wall, they also cast an image on the wall and that image varies continuously as the sunlight changes. By applying the emulsion to the panes with brushstrokes rather than in a bath, I get that watercolour-like facture you find so puzzling.”
If we leave behind this concrete workshop setting and cast a panoramic eye over the artist’s entire output, we see how the theme of the subjugated landscape described above returns in countless guises. Often we see comical annotations next to our hopeless attempts to frame or contain an organic, proliferous world in an awkward, squarish structure. Sometimes through the presence of a trapezium, sometimes by placing in a landscape two connected brackets forming a baroque viewing window, sometimes by having brick walls tilt, sometimes by giving a perspective-like structure to a megaphone, sometimes by having grids degenerate into powerless sliding puzzles, sometimes by shelving mountain-like landscapes, sometimes by having us view a landscape through the rungs of a ladder futilely reaching heavenwards. In what is for me the most beautiful work, the watercolour Disoriented Landscape, everything flows together in a delicate, almost ethereal way: two horizontal surfaces are suspended on the white surface of the vertically oriented, rectangular sheet of paper. They make us think of rectangles, but they have gorgeous, seemingly nonchalantly created, living contours because they have been done using watercolours. The top ‘rectangle’ is red and the bottom one is blue, like a stylized landscape that is erroneously presented upside down, until we remember that this is an accepted Eastern way of representing the balanced world: the earth resting on the sky.
This little work calls to mind Volckaert’s very first artistic intervention, carried out at the age of fourteen, which consisted of digging a two-metre-deep hole at the narrow end of his mother’s wedge-shaped garden, covering it and using it for cloud observation. Part of the plan was to breed yellow parakeets, which he had already acquired for the purpose from a nearby pet shop, and allow them to flutter around freely in this dark room, like living suns. In the same period (end 1992) he had a friend take photographs of him carrying out an action in which he seems to merge into an agricultural landscape. In one of the photographs we see him dragging along a pallet, a simple but ingeniously constructed artefact, as archaeological proof of a lost civilization which thought in grids, usable as a podium for a solitary orator with frozen feet and used as a primitive resting-place by others.
So, here we are standing in front of a consistency sustained over the years, which is impressive both in terms of content and form and which can only make us curious about the new forms this ongoing intimacy with ideas, things, techniques and materials will produce in the future.
Montagne de Miel, July 8th 2017