The specialists of the art world are facing a constant stream of movements and revivals. For several years now, after the vogue for installations, we have been witnessing the return of painting. A recent work by the American critic Thomas Mclivilley is even entitled The Return of the Exiled, All the aspects of painting are involved: from the figurative elements to the monochrome, from the handling of color to geometry. There is a Neo-Geo style, and at the same time, a New Figuration.
These comings and goings are not just fads; they reflect significant changes, but ones that have more to do with culture than with art. This is why they remain largely foreing to artistic activity per so and have little impact on the artists themselves, who carry out that activity in the name of an individual investigation that is not necessarily in tune with society’s rhythms because it extends over time. Artists can thus find themselves in or out of fashion without seeking or even recognizing it, insofar as their real intentions and agendas lie elsewhere.
A painter like Gilbert Herreyns strikes me as example of this phenomenon. From the outset, his most personal concerns brought him toward an abstract painting anchored in a solid, well-determined tradition that was without concession and thus fairly rare.
This is what I would call the tradition of a vibrating monochrome painting. It goes back to the very beginnings of twentieth century Modernism, with Malevich and, even more clearly, the Unist movement of Stzreminsky in Poland.
Notwithstanding the absence of a school, the line has never been interrupted. lt goes through the early Sam Francis, with his Deep monochrome paintings of the 1950s, throught Rothko during the same period, then through Ryman, Bishop, and Marden. In France, Hantai is the great painter of this vibrant visuality, and kinetic art, in spite of its technological bent, also conveys something of it with the search for a visual sensation of mobile immobility.
My intention here is not to reconstruct a lineage that could be heavy and artificial, but to bring out the continuity of a number of pictorial effects that have been chosen and desired by certain demanding painters.
This kind of painting rejects forms drawn on a background and seeks instead to treat the canvas as a unity. lt guards against material effects where the thingness of the painting is too present. It is far removed from expression, expressiveness, and everything that touches on the gestural. On the contrary, it focuses on the nearly imperceptible effects of modulation applied to a surface treated as a whole.
Likewise, this painting refuses pure and simple monochromy, the peremptory affirmation of geometry and color, what the monochrome painters call a pictorial statement.
A painter like Herreyns is looking for a vibrating, modulated surface obtained from delicate nuances of tones and values or the intertwining of grids that create the effects of moiré.
The essential is to produce a vibrant visual experience. to cite the example of three large canvases from 1994, the painter began with a light matte ground which immediately became something more then a background because it was to have its place in the final effect. On this ground, he traced a light, economic network of colored lines in yellow, blue, and red. The essence of his work then consisted of painting a thight second network of lines in the same tone as the background color and reinforcing it with innumerable dots in more brilliant colors. The result is a surface where barely discernable grids are juxtaposed and buried, practically invisible colors, brilliant dots, and matte lines are all mixed together. This is what gives rise to the beating or pulsating effect that I have called a vibrating monochrome.
This surface does not represent anything, even if someone might recognize a starry sky or the light blue of a Mediterranean sky in winter. The analogy is interesting, in fact, only because it refers back to a kind of visual experience, a way of looking, what Herreyns calls -the upward glance». In other words, it is not the object of the perception that counts but the way of perceiving it.
Such a process does not necessarily call for large paintings, and this is where Herreyns asserts his difference. The concentration required to produce these paintings, but also to see them, can be applied to large surface, smaller surfaces, or even tiny ones.
Each time, the mode or perception will vary. the large paintings go beyond vision in the sense that they envelop it. The small paintings and the monotypes absorb it, draw it in: the gaze enters as with a miniature. The paintings in between disorient: not large enough to envelop us and not small enough to absorb, they function instead like visual questions that leave us perplexed about the way to approach them. This element of doubt and interrogation is further reinforced by the use of formats that we are hardly used to in this kind of process.
In fact, the formal tradition of the monochrome privileges the artificial geometry of the square or the dogmatic position of the vertical format that dominates the viewer. In this sense, it remains deinonstrative.
Herreyns, by contrast, willingly uses horinzontal formats that accentuate the visual value of the painting at the expense of its formal meaning. He tries to produce experiences of vision rather than pictorial stratements.
Such an investigation usually presumes a concentrated, contemplative activity, one that is obsessive, obstinate, stringing together mark after mark. Certain of Herreyns`s paintings, with their rows of light, dense hatching, irresistibly bring to mind Opalka’s long series of numbers. But that does not mean that he is involved with a meditation on time, age, and lose.
Here too, meditation has to give way to the visual experience.
Herreyns has a solid background as an engraver, and he makes use of it to vary his approach. Painting has a slow, haunting rhythm of its own; it is the sedimentation of time. Monotypes, paintings obtained with a painted copper plaque transferred to paper and sometimes reworked and enhanced, use a different rhythm: the pictorial decision is faster, but its result is also more problematic. Herreyns tries to surprise himself -as he tries to surprise us- precisely by avoiding the pitfalls of obsessiveness. His painting never plays the game of contemplation.
In its diversity, twentieth-century art draws on all the wealth of our perceptual capacities, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated. An entire slice of abstract art makes use of very particular and paradoxical systems of perception. in such works, attention is in fact drawn toward nothing, or almost nothing, toward something imperceptible or the invisible, which is nonetheless the object and the subject of the painting.
In this kind of art, there is, strictly speaking, nothing to see in the sense of something identifiable or central. There is no place for the spectacular. Everything hinges on elements that are indiscernible, formless, or that exist on the margins of painting. The viewer is supposed, precisely, to ~pay attention to nothing.-
The Norwegian philosopher jon Elster has identified an essential distinction between external and internal negation.
This distinction throws a curious light on most areas of our activity, be it politics, art, or morality.
If I cannot look at a thing, I am in a position of external negation: I do not look at this thing. But I can also want to look at nothing, to empty my glance, to attain a kind of plenitude by means of a void. This.would be internal negation: I look at the non-thing, at nothing, There is an essential, commonplace difference between not wanting a thing (externalnegation) and wanting nothingness (internal negation). In the same way, to use another example, the external negation of sleep is wakefulness: I am not sleeping in the sense that I am awake.
The internal negation of sleep, non-sleep, would be rather the state of sleep that does not come, something like the anxiety or acuteness of insomnia.
It seems to me that a large portion of abstract painting falls into this category of wanting to look at nothing or nothingness.
I am not speaking here of the geometric or constructivist movements such as Cercle et Carre, which show defined forms, usually geometric. Rather, I am referring to Informal painting, this painting that does not provide references of form or content, that leaves us in the most total ambiguity by submerging and exacerbating our visual capacities. This leads us to a notion of painting that is eminently visual, ascetic, and intense, to the notion of an empty painting, working on the absence of the object and the richness of the perceptual experience as such, as a mode of presence in the world. This implies an internal negation, seeking, in the Eastern way, the plenitude of an absence, or of a presence that is subtle, limited, and intense.
Taking the margin as its paradoxical center, this painting draws on our most subtle mechanisms for the perception of what is out of focus or unfixed. It is concentrated on the sensation of envelopment, generating a kind of hypnosis that results from the fact of looking at <~nothing». We could ultimately speak of the icon, of a painting that looks at us as much as, and even more, than we look at it.
It seems to me that, on a very profound level, the painting of Gilbert Herreyns belongs to this lineage.
Writer and art critic