The Miracle of Painting

This year, it’s been 100 years since Marcel Duchamp exhibited his last painting ‘Nu 0descendant un escalier’ at the Armory Show in New York. The criticism was ruthless. Even his own brothers told him he’d gone too far. In response Duchamp came up with a first readymade "Roue de bicyclette" to provoke the art world. It immediately set the tone for an unstoppable integration of objects in art, by which the Dadaïsts would renew the face of modern art in the period between 1916 and 1923. Duchamp wanted to replace the retinal painting for which Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists, Cubists and Futurists stood model, by an art of the mind. The art of painting was banned, for the first time in art history.


After World War II, this trend continued and resulted in Pop Art and Nouveau Realism that integrated the banality of normal life in art work by including life itself, using found objects. The anti-peinture movement got going again and would in our country even result in an exhibition project of the same name, organized in 1959 by the G58 group in the Hessen House in Antwerp. Again painting had been driven into the background. Especially from the late sixties, painting was considered outdated and was completely being run over by conceptual art. Yet it remained intact. More than that, the fierce adversity would serve as an incentive to reinvent itself. Because of the many anti-movements painters were starting to look differently at the world, appropriating multimedia developments such as the Internet and related technological inventions. Where at first these innovations seemed to render the art of ​​painting redundant , quite the opposite happened; painting as never before crept into our lives through new media such as Photoshop and 3D-printing that enriched the possibilities of conceptualization. Our take on the world is now accessible to the painter both virtually and in reality, and is made viable by traditional painting techniques. It all has to do with looking. Sure, looking through digital media does affect painting, but digital art in turn is influenced by the painterly image experiences that preceded it.


It has to be called a miracle that painting is still managing to continuously taking up its important role in this tangle of possibilities A definite eye-opener was the counter-movement lead by Luc Tuymans, which is still felt internationally. By means of the works of five Belgian painters I want to give stature to this counter-movement presenting it in five individual exhibitions. The first in line is Hans Vandekerckhove who, among others, belongs to that generation of painters in Belgium that already in the period between 1980 and 1990 gave painting a new impulse.




Something in the Water does not compute

The title of this exhibition could be freely translated as ‘still waters run deep ', which immediately recalls Vandekerckhove’s strong layered work filled with hidden characteristics and pictorial references. Vandekerckhove is not only a painter 'pur sang' he’s also an art historian. Beneath the pictorial surface of his work it is a layer full of references to various cultural domains. The silent presence and reserved involvement reflect a strong presence without much gesture. Vandekerckhove adds a cinematic element to that, which is reminiscent of the artificial light of Edward Hopper, creating a magical atmosphere. In the landscapes of Gustav Klimt he finds a superior decorative paint treatment, blotchy applied across large cloud parties; in the work of Odilon Redon, he’s attracted by the indeterminacy of a diffuse, dark world, generated by an unconventional and original use of color.

Vandekerckhove is also intrigued by the pictorial aspect of water. There is a striking resemblance to the later work of Claude Monet. There too, the water motif is translated into small markings of direction and movement that go crisscross and back and forth. As is the case with David Hockney, the representation of reality is directed into a structured image surface and a varied color palette. And all this within the context of a strong pictorial unit.


I am convinced that the work of Vandekerckhove is first and foremost about space (both the confined space of the cocoon as the open space of the landscape). Time plays a lesser role and is reduced to a single present moment. The sublime pushes forward in subtly indicated, structural compositions. Vandekerckhove not only shows you the landscape with its figuration (usually himself), he lets you feel it as well. Besides a painter, he can also be described as a thinker and a poet. He translates the natural landscape into a poetic dimension through a well thought out use of coulour and painting technique. When glancing over his landscapes I involuntarily think of the poem ‘Waldteich’ (Paris, 1914) by Rainer Maria Rilke, from which I will quote the following verse:



Was dort jenseits eingebeugter Bäume

Überstürzung ist und Drang und Schwung, 

Spiegelt sich in deine Innenräume

Als verhaltene Verdüsterung;

Ungebogen steht um dich der Wald

Voll von steigendem Verschweigen.

Oben nur, im Wipfel-Ausblick, zeigen

Wolken sagenhafte Kampfgestalt



From commitment to detachment.

And from calculation to exploring new emotions.


The landscapes that Vandekerckhove paints are always linked to specific locations to which he has a physical connection, simply by walking through them. These recollected strolls float as a sort of optical processes through the image plane and evoke metaphysical stories from literature, film and photography. Everything is applied in transparent layers thereby creating atmospheric image regions in which the traces of physical presence and power lay suppressed in semi-architectural references and structures. Vandekerckhove connects his analytical look on nature and architecture with the poetry and mystery of underlying meanings.


In the exhibition ‘Something in the water does not compute’ we find again the cleansing and soothing power of water in the paintings ‘Another Realm' I-III and ‘The other Realm' I-III. By contrast, the motif of the mountain river in the works 'Riverrun' I and II can be seen as a metaphor for the spring of life.


Also the Narcissus-motif becomes evident in the exhibition as a motive for self-reflection (‘Leith Man’ I-IV). The standing male figure evokes memories of the cast-iron figures by Antony Gormley (Another Place, 1997) which I have scattered on the beach of De Panne along the water during the Beaufort Triennial in 2003. The images refer to the work ‘Der Mönch am Meer’ (1809, National Gallery Berlin) by Caspar David Friedrich. Vandekerckhove paints in a refined and ambiguous manner, much in the same way as Peter Doig does. In the painting 'Tree Nurse' the white girl is mirrored in the puddles of rain so the dream motif is represented in a fairytale way. Here also I involuntarily think of the poem 'Waldteich' by Rilke.

In short, the element of water symbolizes for Vandekerckhove the same transformative power of life to which he refers in the title ‘Something in the water does not compute’. Nature and architecture to him are iconic motifs he may or may not mix. He needs structuring as well as details, since they too play an essential role in the structure of his compositions. And all this to depict the Innenräum of Rilke.



Willy Van den Bussche, August 2013