Art Criticism

Pieter Vermeersch

Pieter Vermeersch (Perrotin, 2015).
Exhibition text published by Galerie Perrotin (Hong Kong), July 2015.

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Galerie Perrotin, Hong Kong is pleased to present the second exhibition dedicated to Flemish artist Pieter Vermeersch, following his first solo show at Galerie Perrotin, Paris in 2013.

Born in 1973, Pieter Vermeersch has developed since the turn of the 2000s a highly conceptual practice of monochromatic painting seemingly at the crossroads between Color Field and Minimalism. While his strictly analytical approach to colors allows him to paint extremely subtle shades of limited hues in a smooth gradient fade that he meticulously unfolds on either canvases or murals, the artist’s monochromatic and immersive fields programmatically tend toward what he personally refers to as the pictorial ‘degré zéro’: that is an image balanced between the two polar and antagonistic conditions of its possible existence, abstraction versus figuration, an opposition to which there is supposedly no escaping.

In order to engage in this pictorial paradox, as soon as 1999 Vermeersch started painting from positive and negative prints of photographs as models for reproduction, using gridding and color-mapping techniques to achieve both photorealistic and abstract depictions of utterly indefinite subjects such as cloudless skies or the like, i.e. photographs of unrecognizable yet real colorful and luminous, environmental and atmospheric, occurrences. His working archives in his studio abound with such photographs of pure hues, each without any discernible spatiotemporal referent, for only the colors, the reality of their original sources whatever they may be, and their subsequent representation matter to him. In the artist’s own words, the fundamental questions raised by the practice of painting are: “How can we show the essence of paint, while at the same time maintain the representation? Is it possible to show paint as mere paint and yet not renounce the image, the representational content?”[1]

Vermeersch’s exhibition at Galerie Perrotin presents two recent ensembles of oil-on-canvas gradient fades and a wall painting installation, which are symptomatic of different tactics that the artist has deployed throughout his monochromatic exploration of the pictorial ‘degré zéro’. The first ensemble, which consists of two large-scale paintings-on-canvas hanging side by side, was made after photographs of cloudless skies, which the artist reproduced upside down to further their indeterminacy or insignificance as such. The pure, ethereal, gradations of colors were painted as accurately and objectively as possible by laboriously matching tints from the original photographs. In other words, the resulting paintings that unequivocally appear abstract were actually based on real sources.

Contrary to Pierre Soulages, also known as ‘the painter of black’ and a leading figure of the French Art Informel scene (the European pendant of American Abstract Expressionism), who repeatedly asserted this thoughtful aphorism ‘I don’t represent, I present’, a fortiori contrary to Color Field painters starting with Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, it has to be stated once and for all that Vermeersch doesn’t present colors but assuredly represents them.

Another strategy that Vermeersch has come up with in order to blur the limits between abstraction and representation has been to use negative prints of his photographs as a starting point for his paintings, allowing him to work with an inverted spectrum of colors. The series of 14 small-scale paintings-on-canvas displayed in the gallery was made after such negative prints, reversing the original hues of their undefined photographic sources as if uncovering another side of reality, where space has become mass. More noticeably, the artist scratched all the paintings of this series with a squeegee, leaving a unique scar in the middle of each plane surface as a way of disfiguring and reintroducing a hint of subjectivity in his otherwise objective, almost mathematical, pictorial process.

As a matter of fact, after years of developing his monochromatic aesthetics and perfecting his seamless gradation techniques, through which he endeavored to erase as much as possible traces of spontaneity, Vermeersch felt the necessity to reintroduce them as a counterbalance without indulging in the lyrical outpouring of Color Field painters to whom he doesn’t relate, for his way of working is simply too analytical. In order to do so, using squeegees or rulers (in other words manufactured tools rather than painterly brush strokes), the artist began scraping away uneven squares of paint in a single gesture, thus creating a tangible tension not only between abstraction and representation, but also between objectivity and subjectivity, which are determinant in comprehensibly opposing Minimalist painting to that of Color Field. The resulting works achieve a perfect balance in manifesting and crystalizing the idea of a presence here and now – the concrete mark left by the passage of the artist’s squeegee – that seem to largely evade from the overall diffuse compositions, even though they reproduce the negative hues of real photographic instants.

Finally, the wall painting installation, which pervades an entire room in the gallery, is characteristic of yet another method of Vermeersch that causes space to vanish through the linear gradation of a single immersive color, here from white to 30% of black. The trace tends to completely disappear in this type of environment, in which there is also no longer external referents for the deliquescing hues. That said, according to the artist, his murals and paintings-on-canvas never cease to echo one another: “The three-dimensional, environmental and contextual work would not exist without the impulses I received from my enquiry into painting on the traditional canvas. And likewise, my current exploration of the possibilities of ‘traditional painting’ is unthinkable without the incentives I got from working in three dimensions and from literally feeling the edges of the pictorial surface.”[2] In other words, the distinction between the two is rather artificial, though unlike the paintings-on-canvas, the murals aren’t about an image. Instead, they are instruments, which operate a soft dematerialization of the surrounding architecture. The artist sometimes inserts a mirror into his installations, which in turn disrupts the viewer’s experience with self-awareness in an otherwise diaphanous environment. This is the existential equivalent to Vermeersch’s pictorial scratches.

[1] ROELSTRAETE, Dieter, VERMEERSCH, Pieter, “Spontaneous Dogmatism”, in Work in Progress, Cultuurcentrum Strombeek, 2005.

[2] Idem.

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