Travels to the sixth continent
Aachen, March 2009
On the works of the Flemish artist Ronny Delrue
Prologue: A visit to Ghent
He has set up home in Ghent, has just turned fifty and his partner is a psychiatrist. When we met, he was searching in vain for the key to his studio; instead we went to Dr Guislain’s Museum, renowned for its exhibitions on pathophilic aesthetics in the setting of a rambling sanatorium for the mentally ill. Ronny Delrue will remain in my memory forever surrounded by that aura so particular to those who live life on the edge. I looked on with a secret smile as one Ghent ATM after another rejected his credit card. The next day we conversed at length in his studio on Begijnhof Avenue. Delrue is friendly and trusting. He likes to talk.
An extraordinary number of books and catalogues have been published in Flanders over the last twelve years on the work of this artist. Many of them are quite elaborate works, imbued with an evident fondness. Delrue himself has invited friends and acquaintances, art critics, neuroscientists and psychiatrists to pen essays on his art. Most of them are available in Dutch, French and English. For Delrue, books are a major medium in spreading the word about his work. Their pages conceal messages accessible only to the reader. And the reward – to see things with new eyes – is palpable. The texts in the books endeavour to decipher the symbolism of the pictures, but the artist himself is hiding inside his works, guarding his secrets for himself. It pleases him that people should try to unlock his world. So it is that he will be curious to read this text, a commentary on his last decade’s work and for the first time a more remote perspective, in a different language and from another country with its own traditions in the appreciation of art.
In 2002 Ronny Delrue created one of his very first sculptures, entitled "De Wandelaar" (“The Walker”): it is a life-size, upright human figure wearing an ankle-length coat and shoes, coarsely fashioned from plaster and roofing paper and stained black. It is standing in contrapposto on small feet, inclining its heavy, over-sized head as if it were afraid to take the next step. The figure can be presented in many different ways. At his exhibition in the Museum of Ixelles Delrue placed it into the corner of a room, like a naughty school pupil, such that the tilt of the head suggested shame rather than fear: shame at the unsightliness, misery and ugliness that it itself imposed upon the surrounding museum space.
And rightly so. Delrue has made no effort to perfect this figure and make it whole, conveying an image of an intact humanity. However, neither is it in anyway incomplete, a simple model or sketch. It stubbornly asserts its status as a patchwork creation, a bricolage, and its ponderous head implies a process of meditation both submissive and blind inside a skull that is all at once too large and too heavy. This sculpture is intended to contrast fiercely with other sculptures: the figure portrayed implies loneliness.
In 1969, German sculptor Siegfried Neuenhausen produced a variation on Auguste Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais”, which he entitled “The Burghers of B” (B for Braunschweig, the city he was living in). It consisted of nine life-size papier-mâché figures all wearing the same grey coat, their hands clasped behind their backs, introspective, their faces adorned with only the most basic of features and covered in brown parcel paper (Aachen, Ludwig Forum for International Art). They face away from one another, but bear their solitude with obstinate pride. They are made in the familiar style of carnival puppets. In the sixties, artists once again began to work with dolls of every different kind (children’s dolls, shop dummies, carnival puppets), and to create an anarchistic anti-aesthetic trend in sculpture.
Delrue’s “Walker” is an embryonic yet radical depiction of this anti-art which rebelled against the conventions of the European art academies. Its isolation and autism run too deep to be considered merely as a showcase for criticism of the communication breakdown and coldness of society. “The Walker” seems malformed and diseased.
Faceless, barely “mobile”, it floats inside its coat. The gigantic head has sucked the life energy up out of the body. What, we wonder, is going on inside that head?
Drawing in agitation
“When coughing, she saw (…) quite singular, irregular images, mostly in black or yellow and with prominent, jagged or oddly contorted red lines, or at times outlines that looked like dots and flakes. She explained these visions thus: she imaged the contents of the head to be a cloud and these images to be parts torn from that cloud. And she could see them because just as she coughed she could feel her eyes rolling to the back of her head so that she could observe everything that was going on inside, but could see nothing more of the outside world.”
- Comments of Michel Beretti on a drawing by patient Hilde P. (1891 - ?) (1) -
One of Delrue’s most beautiful and extensive books is his “Diary Notes” from 2005 which includes 200 of his drawings – in a format somewhat smaller than the original A4 – from the years 1996 to 2004, selected by Laurent Busine from a diary of over 650 pages. The title “Diary” implies the private sphere of the individual. This particular diary focuses all of its attentions on the works of an artist who would note down according to date the existential dramas and processes to which he was party behind his own closed eyes, which he would then endeavour to understand and which he felt to be so important that he finally transformed them into the most memorable of images.
The thin figure of the “Walker” with its bowed head emerges out of the pages of the diary like a stele, growing out of the ground. Three large, head-shaped drops of blood in darkening red fall from its red-coloured head, linked together by a single line. In another version, the head glows red on its grey stem while a cone-shaped bubble of blood arises from it. Or, again, the head twists round in circles, head and figure doubling over one another. The tremendous energy of “expressionistic” agitation emanates forth from the pages of the book, comparable to the chalk drawings of Swiss artist Miriam Cahn from the 1980s (2). And the shape that I have referred to here as a blood bubble appears again in a drawing of a bust, this time as a red steam rising up to form a cloud over the figure’s head.
Whereas the figure with the dripping head has roots like a tree, a further, very large-scale drawing depicts the cloaked figure as a crooked branch out of which a head is growing. A silhouette of a head can also be found in the diary that has sprouted “antlers” consisting of branches against a green wash background. American artist John Isaacs completed in 2002 a sculpture which he entitled “Thinking about it” and which portrays a strikingly realistic, blood-stained man’s head out of which a tree grows (3). Walter Dahn painted the same head with antlers and excrescent tree as an African trophy (Image of St Eustace, Aachen, Ludwig Forum for International Art). And in the morbid sketch of a bust by Paul Klee from 1911, a mouse can be seen creeping out of the skull and transforming into a tangle of branches (4). A similar mousy creature is to be found in many of Delrue’s own drawings scampering across heads, and even makes an appearance in his painted works.
Delrue navigates through the world of metamorphosis in which sensations such as sudden or chronic pain, deprivation and saturation become objects and parts of the body and head dissolve into flows of energy and begin to radiate.
Delrue’s cultural background allows him to draw on images such as Ovid’s transformation of a human into a tree, the mice and rats of the nightmares of the black Romanticism of the 19th century and the two-faced god Janus, mentioned on occasional pages in his diary. But he also succeeds in distancing himself from the heaviness of these visions and devising subjects that he has encountered in the realm of the sixth continent, first discovered in 1492 by Sebastian Brant, the same year in which Columbus stumbled upon the fifth.
Narragonia, the fool's paradise
“Art belongs to the unconscious! … One must express oneself! Express oneself directly! Not one’s taste, or one’s upbringing, or one’s intelligence, knowledge or skill. Not all these acquired characteristics, but that which is inborn, instinctive.”
- Arnold Schönberg in a letter to Kandinsky, 1911 (5) -
At to the time of his correspondence with Kandinsky, the renowned composer Schönberg believed he could forge a career for himself as a painter. He had produced a series of small works under the title “Gazes” (though they might better be called “visions”) which depicted heads and faces which seemed to radiate “madness” (6). John Russell added to Schönberg’s quote, saying: “We will probably never again see paintings for which pure artistic skill is so irrelevant as it is in these. What we see in these images is subjectivity in its purest form” ( 7 ). Ronny Delrue defies Russell’s words: in his diary we find heads and faces which radiate “madness” in equal measure. But amongst the typology of the “lunatic”, starting with images such as that of the Kleptomaniac by Géricault, which is housed in the Museum of Ghent, there are those works in which the artist is showing us another (as does Géricault), those which clearly depict the artist (see Artaud (8)), and yet others which arouse in the onlooker the suspicion that what they are seeing is a self-portrait (Schönberg, and Delrue). In this work, Delrue goes to great lengths to portray the state of fear of the painted figure, a fear so great that the blood pulsing through its veins threatens to solidify, barbs pierce through the scalp and the face freezes into a pointed mask boring into the shoulders.
Such expressive drama and explosive intensity are the characteristic culmination of the process of developing a work such as this, which is based not on spontaneous experience, an overwhelming sensation which cancels out time, rather is an expression of both remembering and forgetting, commemorated by gravestone and cemetery alike. In 1993 Delrue produced a painting of nine faceless heads of well- and lesser-known individuals - all dead - at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris (Marie Virginie Bainquet, Modigliani, etc.). In 1994, after a trip to Mexico, he produced works depicting the Pyramids of Teotihuacan.
Memories set in stone like fossils are not cherished by Delrue. He finds them alarming: the head, the vessel of all memory, turns to stone, the bust of the deceased loses its face, the brain empties, all memory drained. This feeling of alarm becomes heightened into pure panic expressed as point-like particles or – as is often the case in the diaries – numbers and series of numbers that circle the head and spout forth from it. Spirals spin behind the eyes and spread like a spider’s web. The head is torn open and matter flows forth.
Do the reddish tones of the washes in which the heads bathe refer to the “purple haze” of the hippy culture in which the “Summer of Love” festival was immersed from 1966 onwards? Are Ronny Delrue’s figures to be understood as visions of the intoxicating highs of LSD? No, this contemporary melancholic is far too far removed from the ecstasies of his grandparents and their psychedelic paradise. He looks behind the pupils with eyes unclouded by drugs. He is seeking not joy, but some way to overcome suffering and pain. But LSD also creates an agonising megalomania of the ego: the one true artist. Allen Ginsberg put this into words for the Beat Generation in 1959 in his poem “Lysergic Acid”:
“It is a multiple million eyed monster
it is hidden in all its elephants and selves
it hummeth in the electric typewriter
it is electricity connected to itself, if it hath wires
it is a vast Spiderweb
and I am on the last millionth infinite tentacle of the spiderweb,
lost, separated, a worm, a thought, a self
one of the millions of skeletons of China
one of the particular mistakes
I Allen Ginsberg a separate consciousness
I who want to be God”
Delrue understands this dramatic process – the head gapes open and purges its vital energies – as one of the invisible enemies faced by modern humanity. He describes it using the cumbersome Latin word “cerebriraptor” (brain eater). The cerebriraptor is a fiendishly monstrous incarnation of Orwell’s “Big Brother” (the mass media as an instrument of control and rule), threatening the autonomy of the individual and resulting in our subjugation to external forces; just as the psycholeptic medicines developed in around 1965 arguably caused the creativity of the mentally ill to dry up. The cerebriraptor robs everyone - ill and healthy alike - of their individuality. Delrue invited psychiatrist Erik Thys to pen a scientific text on this pathogen.  Thys describes this sickness with a mischievous wink of the eye as “Delrue Syndrome”: a slow degeneration of the brain, caused by this newly discovered pathogen. He even offers diagnosable symptoms: “The condition becomes visible, spots appear on the patient’s head and breasts. Gangrene emanates from the head and runs down to the hands until it immobilises the entire body.”
We have entered the sixth continent of “Narragonia”, the mythical land of fools to which the ships of fools sail along the rivers of the north. Sebastian Brant (1492) and Josse Bade (1498) first described this phenomenon in “The Ship of Fools”. Adolf Wölfli called it “the southern meridian” in the 20 th century. Ronny Delrue, meanwhile, is not interested in depicting fools, “lunatics”, the mentally ill and the adventures that befall them; he walks along the ridge between his own continent and the next, delving deep into his own self to build a fortress against the cerebriraptor.
“Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn;
Wire, briar, limber lock,
Three geese in a flock.
One flew east,
And one flew west,
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest.”
In 1959, Ken Elton Kesey used the last line of this English nursery rhyme as the title for a novel which tells the tale of the repression of mentally ill patients in a hospital. The eponymous film released in 1975, directed by Milos Forman and starring Jack Nicholson, was a worldwide hit. The one who, at the end, did fly “over the cuckoo’s nest” was a symbol of the liberation of the mind. Kesey brought this same notion to the powerful and eloquent speeches that earned him a place as a leading figure at the “Summer of Love” demonstrations in Haight/Ashbury in 1967. He propagated the idea of the “acid test”: an LSD high as an alternative way to fly over the madhouse of American society.
“They draw their most inner self”
- Ronny Delrue quoted by Peter De Graeve –
When we visited Dr Guislain’s clinic in Ghent, I saw straight away that Delrue knows a thing or two about “cuckoos’ nests” himself. He has worked with mentally ill patients in various centres across Flanders, contrasting likenesses of them with self-portraits of himself and using these images as official records of events, affixing to them not just the date, but also the exact time, e.g. “C. R. 16.05.2002” (12.55). In workshops he has drawn alongside them. He drew portraits of Christine Remacle, using his left hand to avoid any real artistry, and encouraged her to paint onto them. In one she added a bright red symbol of two adjoining circles over her right eye and on another painted the area of her head where her brain would be located in red. Delrue later exhibited these works under the title “Sensitive Minds” and compiled them in a book called “Mind Map”.
Brooding figures are a common motif in the pages of Delrue’s diary. He calls to mind the venerated old Flemish painter Roger Raveel from neighbouring Deinze, who gave his paintings such lapidary philosophical titles as “What do we really understand?” (1970) or “I can do no more than engrave onto nothing” (1978). Delrue, facing his own existential questions, adopts the subdued, succinct manners of Raveel.
And yet he is trapped in the agitated visual world of the sixth continent: “… I have the feeling that I do not create the work myself, but that the work originates by itself” (quoted by Eva Wittocx). He cannot escape the question: What does each symbol that Christine Remacle has painted inside her own portrait actually mean? One of his heads, which faces towards us, has been obscured by three brush strokes in white around the area of the nose. A small silhouette has been added to the uppermost stroke, jutting out above the right-hand half of the head. Beneath it the cheek is dark. Another small head wears a large, round cap and a terrifying cloud of numbers spouts forth from it into the space above. Yet another head adorned with a large bonnet can be seen teetering on a body that is in fact a long, striped stalk (6.1.98), whilst a smaller, red head travels in a snakelike motion before cracking open at the bottom of the page and spreading into a puddle (7.1.98). Twenty-eight vertical pencil lines pierce at their tips a prostrate nude washed in red (04), a masculine figure shrouded in dark clothes transforms into a spiralling hollow (28.12.02), a head-like shape moves in circles creating a continually descending tube (25.8.04). One figure looks almost as if it were painted in shorthand, by one of the patients, and radiates concentrated beams added on in pencil. On another page these beams form a “Faraday cage” in which a carefully contoured human silhouette is enclosed. Then these same beams transform into a spherical spider’s web and the figure itself spreads out into a globular form. The word CEREBRIRAPTOR is printed in block capitals and in mirror writing across the crown of a head drawn wearing a cap. On top of this we see the black bullet shape of a bacillus, casting a small shadow, complete with a spiralling tube transformed here into a barb.
As I sit with Ronny Delrue, he draws. He talks while he is drawing. He looks back over countless old drawings. His behaviour is not just obsessive, it is automatic, and could even become dangerous should the artist deem everything he draws to be of equal value. In order to counter that risk, Delrue has over the last few years adopted the practice of getting together with a small group of friends to draw one and the same nude model together.
The resulting pencil drawings, washed in watercolours, appear frivolous, graceful, balletic almost (the paintbrush dances across the page). Delrue is keen that the model’s body language should not seem forced: where models spread their limbs to reveal all, they are merely executing an academic gesture that has been repeated time and again throughout the history of art. The artist, in depicting this straddle, is aiming less for the agonising erotic expression which Egon Schiele sought to convey and much more for the “perfumed” and sensual beauty we so admire in the watercolours of Auguste Rodin (9). The practice of painting with watercolours requires utmost rapidity, spontaneity, concentration on how the brush is wielded, and remoteness from the stresses and strains which tax the artist’s own mind. Delrue here attains a certain gaiety which sets these paintings apart from the rest of his oeuvre. But he would not be true to himself were we not also to find metamorphoses in these drawings: dark shadows superimposed onto the still perceptible nude and which erupt across the surface of the drawing like glowing lava, clustering into thick clumps with tails and feet and secreting red drops. Under one of these liquid medusae, which would seem to conceal an upturned nude, we read the handwritten words cerebriraptor.
Painting in tranquillity
“Sometimes, as a painter, I go through a lot of misery”
(quote from Peter De Graeve)
The following story is said to be reported in a Dutch painting booklet from the 17th century: a patrician commissions a painter to produce a portrait of his mistress, nude and in bed. After a few weeks they admire the almost completed work together. Three days later the patrician comes to collect it. It is standing in front of a green curtain. The painting is of the green curtain. Says the painter: “You saw it, I saw it. Why should anyone else see it?”
This anecdote is a variation on the theme of shame, one we are familiar with from the tales of Diana and Acteon and Susanna bathing. Jean-Michel Alberola took inspiration from this theme to paint over existing pictures, erasing certain motifs. Per Kirkeby, too, is known to conceal sketches based on Abildgaard in his paintings. In short, restorers across the globe will confirm that many works are pictures hidden inside pictures. It is not always possible to see this or even to guess at it with the naked eye. Shame has many different faces. The cover placed over one image can be an enticing picture in its own right.
Delrue’s paintings are large and he takes time over his work. He combines dark greens, browns and blues with black pigments, adding Chinese inks into the mix. The skin of his paintings is a multi-layered construction of both liquid and semi-solid acrylic pastes and texture is imparted using brush strokes as well as sprays and drops. The colours are not so much applied as poured, and straight lines are more common than curves. The eye of the beholder feels its way through the barriers in the dark and often claustrophobic visual space. What does it see? Is there a story to be told?
The enlarged black-and-white photographs that Delrue has been exhibiting over the last few months would appear to be the most accessible of his works. In these, he has painted over in black the bodies, parts of the bodies, or in some cases only the heads of the sitters in old family photographs he has managed to find, so that they appear as silhouettes. But silhouettes? Delrue drew my attention to Leon Spillaert. A painted self-portrait of him hangs in the Museum of Ghent, depicting the artist in 1910 seated at a window through which so much background light is shining that he himself appears only as a shadowy outline. The small brush strokes added by Delrue to these large “photographics” crack and form coloured crusts creating an impression of fossilisation similar to that which he sought to convey in his earlier works. Here we are at the intersection of two media: on the one hand historical amateur photography complete with the nostalgia it evokes (also used widely by Christian Boltanski), and on the other hand the superimposed daubs of paint, which add their own material composition and impose their own process of ageing and decay onto the surface of each image. While the former is a medium familiar to all, the latter serves to alienate us. Spillaert’s gentle insinuation is here made explicit: the subjects in the photographs are no longer; the onlooker is entwined in an ominous conversation with Death.
The work entitled “Fossilised Soul” (1993, 200 x 150 cm) is one of Delrue’s largest in his series of early self-portraits. The earthen-brown and chalk-white tones contribute to the feeling of fossilisation. Our eye sees a massive pillarhead which our brain tries to interpret as a human head. It is a powerful image, which dominates the rest of the work – a block that is simultaneously empty and full. “M.A. 2001.XI.1” (Picture 6), on the other hand, depicts an authentic head, belonging to a person out in the street, but whose traits have been blurred as if to mask their identity. This, too, is a big picture (200 x 200 cm), which gives the onlooker time to pour over the meanderings of the painting work. The eye quickly discovers acrylic colours and black Chinese ink mixed in with the horizontal and vertical hatchings; the artist has created a gradual progression from light to dark in which the white, yellow, ochre and red flecks lurking under the surface shine through the blue-green night scene like bright shards of glass. The colour palette reminds us of Francis Bacon’s sombre paintings of cardinals, except that the figure who dominates the image is not an exposed individual sitting in the shadows of a room, rather a concealed, veiled and obscure figure that refuses all communication – a “walker”.
In “1999. V.1” the same figure appears, cloaked and in the foreground of a scene which through his presence we understand as a wet street in the dim light of an early winter evening. The centre of the painting glimmers with a silvery sheen, almost as if a large puddle had formed there, but the head of the figure is almost indiscernible against the dark sky. Is the figure really a man, cut off at the knees by the bottom edge of the picture? Why do four dark horizontal lines run from the left-hand edge of the painting and cut right through him only to disappear under a further layer of paint? Why does an elongated white light dazzle like lightening beside his left ear?
In some of his paintings, Delrue enters the realms of iconography, a field he has already explored in some of his drawings. The initials used in the title to “C. R. 2001, XII, 2” reveal the individual portrayed to be the patient Christine Remacle, with whom he has produced certain drawings together. Delrue does not shy away from tackling themes from current politics either: his studio is home to a collection of newspaper photographs which he intends to use. He reveals that the figure in his large-format painting “P. F. 2003, I.1.” is Pim Fortuyn, shot dead on 6 May 2002. Delrue has condensed this violent crime into a bright skull with a bleeding wound, blurring the contours of all of the remaining shapes and forms to an even greater extent than in previous works. They are left “suspended” in the air to such an extent that even the vertical format is irritating to the eye. The brush style tempts us to read the picture as a landscape .
So “P. F. 2003, I. 1.” is not an unequivocal depiction of history that documents the death of a well-known politician – such as would be the Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David. Rather, the event itself is concealed behind a gaze full of shame that is blurred around the edges in a painting style more or less similar to that used by Gerhard Richter in 1989 in his series entitled “18 October 1977” depicting the members of the RAF after their death in Stammheim prison.
The death of Pim Fortuyn is just one of the stories being told in a backdrop against which energies move and refuse to solidify. These energies are expressed as movements of blue, green, brown and black shadows: they are energies of the night. They settle like sediment, like grime on screens, at times oscillating against bright backgrounds, “pinturas negras”. This description calls to mind the “Quinta del Sordo” paintings by Francisco Goya from 1819. From Goya the colossus towering in the night sky over the campsite of panic-stricken, fleeing peasants; from Delrue “De hersenvreter, 2004, III, 1”, which emulates from afar the composition, colour palette and atmosphere of the historical masterpiece (Madrid, Prado). The fearful peasants are here compressed into one dark, inward-looking face which represents all humanity. Its head morphs into a plate supporting two oval, egg-like shapes. When creating this piece, Delrue must have been reminded of the works of Hieronymus Bosch. The CEREBRIRAPTOR, that mouse-like, four-legged monstrosity, Delrue’s nightmare, tramples on the cerebral hemispheres, those most important of vessels. The lofty allegory of war has given way to a new allegory that befits the 21 st century.
Delrue has since 2004 been taking up regular invitations to work in a guest studio available in the European Ceramic Work Centre in 's-Hertogenbosch which he has used to develop sculptures made of burnt clay and porcelain. This has enabled him to open up his work to a whole new and surprising perspective. The idea of hewing or whittling a certain shape – a human form – out of such brittle materials as wood and stone is alien to him, but kneading a soft mass of earth seems as familiar to him as applying colour with a soft brush or drawing in three dimensions. At the time when he was exploring fossilisation as an expression of his fear of memory loss, he added white, life-size plaster heads to his faceless, chalk-white painted heads and in 1995 installed both side by side in a permanent exhibition in the Brussels Parliament. Now he uses a kiln to bake gleaming black “Mind Sculptures” and “Mind Houses”.
The first group of three figures, produced in January 2005, are the product of the same design ideas that eventually gave birth to the “Wandelaar”. But these figures are not rough around the edges with uneven surfaces, rather are massive, weighty ceramic creations, uniformly black, variations of a standing, three-dimensional shadow.
Delrue drew inspiration for one of his sculptures from another of his own works: a painted-over nude drawing with an egg-like, oval shape, which even appears to have a dark head, and on its right-hand side a rounded “satellite”, a “child” for this “mother” figure. Delrue came up with a “fantastic idea” for an architectural model: a round tower, as tall as it is broad, with a shallow, open domed roof like the Pantheon in Rome, and leaning onto it a small, spherical building with a pointed roof: a “Mind House” complete with entrance hall.
(“Mind Sculptures” in this format are akin to wicker beehives. Astonishingly, American sculptor Royden Rabinowitch illustrated his contribution to the exhibition catalogue “Open Mind – Closed Circuits. Homage to Vincent” in Ghent 1989 with a photograph of what looks like one woven and one cast beehive.)
Sketches of cupolas begin to appear in Delrue's diary. On the 12th of February 2003 we find an onion-shaped cupola in a ruby-red wash complete with the words “ekwc 's-Hertogenbosch” alongside a pointed blue dome. On 18.08.04 we discover a vaulted tower complete with spike, which could be the spike of a bomb. Indeed here we find information relating to suicide bombers in Iraq. Delrue begins to shape and bake countless “Bomb people”: small figures in black porcelain.
A plethora of drawings have been tacked to the walls of the studio in 's-Hertogenbosch depicting a “hill” and adjoining broad pathway. One such drawing features on the cover of “Diary Notes”: in it, the “hill” is painted in as a simple outline around the upper part of a human body, shaped and baked by Delrue. In December 2004, the artist shaped this same “hill” out of clay, giving it the contours of a tower with a closed, rounded dome, becoming liquid down one side and eventually melting gently into two streams between which a cavity is formed. This “Mind Sculpture” was without doubt imagined by Delrue as an impressive monument, a dark and inaccessible commemorative creation with a long path or tunnel leading up to it. Various small-scale variations on this theme can be found in the studio, like stupas with entrance apertures alongside which run long, and winding walls to represent the journey of the pilgrims.
Another sketch shows a tower that has been cut in half and appears as a protective husk for its shallow, pointed cover reminiscent of a woman's breast. For the next stage in this conceptual process, Delrue opens the tip of the roof, allowing us to look into the mysterious darkness beyond. The earth seems pregnant, preparing for birth.
This “female” monument is juxtaposed with another, “male” model made from china clay. Its tower is designed as an open cone, its walls made from whitewashed brick, and its doorway only large enough to allow one person through at a time. Delrue does not shy away from comparison with Californian artists such as James Turrell who seek to experience cosmic light through darkly framed fragments of sky in public buildings and natural hollows. After seeking his Self for so long in the labyrinthine passageways of his own body and soul, he must now find an external surface onto which he can project it.
In 's-Hertogenbosch, Delrue began to feel encouraged and hopeful that one day he may be able to realise one of his monuments in actual size.
Over the last few months, Delrue has been working in the Z 33 studio in Hasselt. Its bright, neutral rooms have enabled him to expand significantly on his “Mind Sculptures” and the design for a “Centre for Cloning and Manipulation”. His work here is ascetic and concept-based, quite the contrary to the “work spaces” he set up for previous exhibitions in the Z 33 even although the “C.C.M.” - a collection of packing crates - once again creates a provisional, transitory feel, and a “workshop” suggests the creation and manufacture of the “baby” clones. Crowds of “bomb people” are visible beneath glass covers.
The reproductive concept of the “C.C.M.” is contrasted with the preoccupation with the open tower, a stand-alone monument which allows a vision of both heaven and earth. Its title: Touching the Earth and the Sky. Delrue designed this tower to be placed into a walled garden, such as the courtyard of the Z 33. A maze is drawn on to a large, paper sheet placed onto the ground. It leads to the 50 cm high model: it is a round tower, built up from layer upon layer of spotless white bricks, an open cone, which gives a view up to the sky.
Delrue initially used photography, in 's-Hertogenbosch in 2007, to come up with the design for the inner walls of the tower - parts of which shimmer in the light and parts of which are cast into the shade – and the changing views of the sky. Today, a video camera placed into a darkened cavity slowly pans through the tower and up to the sky, passing across the bright walls, feeding on the severity of the bricks, which begin to resemble the clouds that are tentatively becoming visible on the edge of the circle. The view upwards and the view downwards become confused. The film is a convincing simulation of how the visitor to the tower feels on a clear and sunny afternoon.
On pathophilic aesthetics
I have tried to describe Delrue's work covering a period of roughly fourteen years such that its internal logic is apparent. Over this period, the artist has moved dialectically between the vertices of external formalisation, tranquillity, “fossilisation” and “baked earth” on the one hand, and anarchic dissolution, heightened agitation, liquefaction and restless endeavour to translate energies into substances on the other. I do not wish to provide the biographical reasons for this process. I am not looking to identify an individual catapulted out of a more peaceful life journey by external circumstances, but able to return there after uttering a desperate cry for help. Any chronology detected here should be understood only as the framework to the quest of an artist who has succeeded in opening, broadening and expanding his identity in such an extraordinary way.
At both the start and the end of his quest, Delrue can be found within the more tranquil bounds of artistic practice. His nascent architectural projects are subject to the external pressures so typical of projects constructed in the public sphere. And these, as we see here, lead in turn to a sublimation of the artist that takes him into the sphere of metaphysics. Spiritual in their approach, they do not at first glance marry well with the images brought forth by Delrue's own eyes as he looked in upon himself. They seem to spring from a different imagination, a different creator.
Delrue's pictographic experiences of his own inner self were the first highlight of his oeuvre over recent years. They are the outcome of a perilous state of agitation, which made it possible for him to create a whole thesaurus of shapes and forms which I have classified under the headings of “the sixth continent” and “pathophilic aesthetics”.
The drawings of heads produced by Greek artist Dimitri Protopapas are records of a similar state of excitement, their facial traits in a condition of constant metamorphosis (10). Miriam Cahn's large-format works are interesting by comparison for another reason: they seek to reflect group experience, the stage, the scene, the public at large (11).
It is wrong to call an artist introverted when he projects the images of his inner self to the outer world. Just as it is wrong to label someone who only talks to themselves as autistic. Delrue has not only published his drawings widely, not only has he displayed his works in numerous exhibitions, he has even invited the public to inspect his artistic quest in the context of his studio. For some exhibitions he recreated his own studio, complete with drawings tacked randomly to the walls, drawing table and chair, dubbing it a “laboratory”. The setting of the scene was so complete that the visitor felt embarrassed to enter such a private space. (Miriam Cahn went even further in her early work on “Das wilde Lieben” [wild love], recreating the actionistic, almost magical atmosphere of a prehistoric cave with on its walls imprints and marks left behind by human beings). And he enjoyed once again revealing the pin boards from his studio in subsequent publications.
It is understood that everyone who enters the sixth continent opens a Pandora's box full of prohibitions and taboos. And anyone who exploits this treasure chest must feel shame. And if they then translate the horrors they have witnessed into tangible concepts, they may choose to do so by limiting their reach, diminishing them, giving them funny names (like cerebriraptor), by drawing or painting over elements they are afraid to show, taking great care to cover them entirely. Delrue's oeuvre ceaselessly ventures into unknown territory, only to then draw back to more familiar ground. It abounds with enjoyable excursions into the realms of skilful drawings and large-scale paintings on the one hand, and furious attacks against the conventions of the academies on the other. Indeed, Delrue's work is so rich that this text can only offer some modest help in fathoming its many depths.
When Delrue began his residence at the European Ceramic Work Centre in 's-Hertogenbosch, he forcefully shut the lid of the Pandora's box he had been peering into with such fascination hitherto. He turned to look outwards. The kilns with their glowing clay and porcelain innards were a source of amazement. He no longer restricted himself to drawing; he began also to create models from cold, soft materials. What began as the human form slowly transmuted, initially into puddles of liquid clay and then architectural creations. His imagined scenes crystallised into towers.
In his early self-portraits Delrue depicts his curious fear of “fossilisation”. Now that he is creating this same “fossilisation” himself, hardening soft, malleable substances into stone, he has opened his horizons to concepts that stretch way beyond the realms of his own person. He is designing “earth works” for gardens and through his video film has created the perfect illusion of the dialectic experience of “Touching the Earth and the Sky”.
The antithesis to looking INwards is not to look OUTwards at other people and at the world through a horizontal perspective. Rather, we must look out vertically, persistently seeking (as the camera shows) an angle that is between the earth and the sky. The seeking eye of the artist, which previously so indulged in scrutiny of the confines of his own mind, is now upturned to contemplate the vastness of the sky.
Ronny Delrue's visual quest has brought him to a research project which encompasses the work of other artists. This makes it clearer, enables it to become verbalised and conceptualised. It will finally culminate in a text with which he will receive the title of Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Leuven.
Ronny Delrue's son Pepijn was born in 2007. His artistic Eros assisted in the preparations for this event.
1. Michel Beretti + Armin Heusser,
The last continent; report on a journey between art and madness
A book of images and text with materials taken from the Waldau Archive
published by Limmat-Verlag, Zurich 1997
2. Andreas Meier ed.: Centre PasquArt, Miriam Cahn “Architectural Spaces”, published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern 2002
Figure on page 21 “Classic life” 1993, chalk, architectural paper (11), figure on page 111 “Lying figure” 1993, charcoal (10)
3. Essen poster, Folkwang Museum
4. Sketch from 1905 in: Beretti + Heusser l.c. figure
5. Thomas Zaunschirm ed.: Arnold Schönberg, “Das Bildnerische Werk”, Paintings and Drawings, published by Ritter Verlag, Klagenfurt 1991, quoted from a letter to Kandinsky from 1911, page 122
6. l.c. figure page 208
7. John Russell l.c. page 122
8. City of Ghent and Janssen Pharmaceutica, Open Mind (Gesloten Circuits/ Circuiti Chiusi) - Homage to Vincent, Museum of Contemporary Art, Ghent 1989
Antonin Artaud, self-portrait, 1947
Figure page 18
9. Auguste Rodin: “Femme nue assise aux jambes écartées, une main au sexe”, 1890 approximately
Graphite crayon, watercolour on filigree paper, 20, 2 x 13cm
Rodin Museum, Paris D. 4388
Egon Schiele: “Kauernde”, watercolour, Figure www.karlkreuzer.de “Rodin”
10. Traum & Trauma, works from the collection by Dakis Joannou, Athens, Vienna Kunsthalle – MUMOK Vienna, published by Hatje-Cantz-Verlag, Stuttgart 2007, figure page 215
11. Andreas Meier l.c. figure page 38 “Das wilde Lieben” 1984, chalk, paper, plasticine (63)
 Exhibition "La chambre des mémoires & Cerebriraptor", Museum of Ixelles, Brussels, 2007
 Dagboeknotities, Ludion, Amsterdm – Gent, 2005
Diary Notes , Ludion, Amsterdam – Ghent, 2005
 Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent
 Cerebriraptor , Essays by Erik Thys and Rolf Quaghebeur, De Halle , Geel and IKOB Museum für Zeitgennössische Kunst, Eupen, 2007.
 Portretten , Essays off Peter De Graeve, Bert Vandenbussche and Eva Wittockx, De Garage Mechelen, 2003
 Exhibition Touching the earth and the sky, Z33 Art Centre, Hasselt, 2008