PAINTING DOWN TO THE BONE
Writing about art is like beating about the bush – but with style. As attentive observers, we describe a plastic product, but say little about the plastic process. The painting, displayed before us in its completeness and perfection, lends itself well to description. But the act of painting itself is more difficult to capture: as soon as something is expressed in words it becomes frozen in time, and a frozen gesture is no longer painting. The act of painting demands a unique combination of mental and material processes; mind and material meet on a few square centimetres of canvas. During the course of history, different areas of this complex process have stood in the limelight. Spirituality or realism, the importance of line or the use of colour, universality or anecdotalism all appear at various times to have appealed to artists and their public.
When the artist allows the material itself to speak and attempts to silence his own spirit, unpredictable and dynamic images are created, as with the abstract informalists of the 1950s. The painting as an eruption. But the intellect does not allow itself to be shut out so easily. During the 1960s, painting projected itself in fundamental and analytical art as an intellectual process. The painting was studied coolly and rationally. For a short time, expression and rationality were as water and fire. The task of the painter was to choose; figuration versus abstraction, emotion versus intellect, expression versus analysis. Today, these debates are of no more than historical significance – in the same way as the polemics of the 16th century between ‘line’ painters and those in favour of colour, the 17th-century debate between the Anciens and the Modernes, the 18th-century arguments between Poussinistes and Rubénistes and the rivalry of the 19th century between Ingres and Delacroix. The history of painting is the history of the battles to overcome its contradictions.
The art of painting today is characterised by an extreme pluralism, in which tradition, modernism and postmodernism are different aspects of a complex interaction. Declared dead on more than one occasion, the painting succeeds time and again in bringing itself up to date. In a complex world of electronic simulations and a computer-controlled image culture, the traditional painting seems an astonishing anachronism. And yet it is precisely this material presence which lends the painting, in contrast to the nebulous electronic image, an enormous power. Today, painting is less than ever a self-evident process, and is therefore more than ever a conscious choice.
The recent paintings by Ronny Delrue bear the traces of these recent developments. Duality is their hallmark. These paintings are coagulations of both intellectual and emotional experiences. They are never total outbursts, never completely reflective. Their outward appearance betrays both the ease and the difficulty with which the painter develops his imagery. They speak of wealth and of poverty, of the pleasures and of the doubts of painting. They are carriers of expression and of aesthetics. Delrue’s paintings are products which bear the scars of an internal process, which interpret the moments of an arduous quest for an adequate means of expression.
In essence, these works are landscapes. Just as we attempt to read a strange and attractive landscape during a journey, while the essence of that landscape always seems to escape our grasp, so the paintings of Delrue can be read but not captured. Both the colour and texture of the paint evoke associations with earth and nature. As in a natural landscape, however, the true meaning often lies hidden beneath the visible, in the innumerable concealed layers which lend the landscape its present appearance. The multi-layered painting technique creates a pictorial stratigraphy, which can sometimes be glimpsed through the paint skin and sometimes remains hidden beneath its surface. The layers of paint both conceal and suggest. This complex layered construction compensates for the small format of the paintings. In spite of their modest dimensions, these canvases bear witness to a great intensity. The reduction of the pictorial area has the effect of making the images highly condensed. Colour and line, figure and abstract form are essential in their meagre simplicity. Vague and distracting images of crowns, bones and buildings manifest themselves only with difficulty against the rank and crusted paint layers. The painter plays an ambiguous role in this subtle game. He is both the all-devouring Chronos (Time) and its enemy, the archaeologist bringing things back into the light. He covers everything with paint, applies layer after layer to the canvas, but also removes, bringing objects and canvas back to the surface. He applies paper to the canvas and tears it off, paints and tears, buries and digs up again. Forms appear and disappear. The painter gives and takes.
The traces which he exposes by means of this double process take on the form of fragments of royal crowns, craters and ruins of monumental pyramids. (Who built the temple of the sun at Teotihuacán in Mexico, and who ordered it to be built? These are two different questions.) Symbols of power, violence and suppression buried and crushed over time. Time, which obliterates everything, takes on the form of the non-colour white in the paintings. The thin, insubstantial pencil lines are threatened by it. Nothing remains untouched, not even the golden crown or the stone monument. What remains are fossilised bones, nothing but vanity. In this way, the semi-abstract paintings of Ronny Delrue take on the meaning which was attached in the 17th century to the vanitas symbolism of skull, candle, mirror and soap bubble. Like an archaeologist in search of lost civilisations who digs through hidden layers to discover only his own mortality. Delrue forces his way through layers of paint and meaning. Right down to the bone.