Ronny Delrue

Resigned Features

Peter De Graeve

20002

Ronny Delrues work takes the debate regarding the openness of meaning to the limit. He does so, obviously, through his imagery, i.e. through that which is represented on the canvas, and consequently through our looking, but also through the speech act. The speech act is tied up very strongly with the visual expressivity of Delrues oeuvre. This is obvious from the growing number of articles published by critics, art theoreticians and philosophers in which they discuss the impact of Delrues work and the questions it raises, articles in which they engage in an indirect dialogue with the artist and his work. It is also obvious to those who ever had the chance to talk directly to the artist in his studio about his work. These discussions usually focus on what one experiences in the studio (not on that which we see). They are about the incidence of the northern light, about the artist’s house, about the surroundings, about the road to Moen or to Brussels, about people living there, and then, suddenly, about some work – as if, all of a sudden, the work has appeared. Actually, it was there all the time, on the white wall, silently present… Talking about things, the artist sticks to the essence of their being, to what they might mean. Sometimes, things may mean a lot for Delrue – even too much. Often he gladly reduces them to what they might mean, to a potential meaning. This dream about meaning is, of course, essentially a mad artistic project, as old as art itself, about a meaning which should identify with art, which does not simply long to become an object, but which longs to be transformed into an object. It is a project that involves mad questions, as old as thinking itself, concerning our ability to grasp meanings and reveal them in things, express them with matter.

The artist’s studio is an ‘organ’ (I will return to this odd designation below), which is hardly imaginable as the place where Delrue stoically creates his works. Here, talking is done – a lot of talking. But how? When the artist addresses the paintings, the drawings, the sculptures, how does the ‘conversation’ proceed? Do the works and the artist just chat away? Or are the conversations taking place silently, alternately in a head and on a sheet of paper, in matter? (One sees the artist on his way, feeling endlessly around for the image, into the image, while he formulates hundreds of questions; one sees the image, approaching, yet still resisting, hiding itself. Once the image is there, new questions arise, with which the artist has already set out on a new quest).

Distortion

Delrues ‘radically introvert oeuvre’ refers to distortion, as Bernard Dewulf puts it. But the distortion does not simply occur in the artist’s head, in which some distorted or twisted universe supposedly houses, ready to emerge as a gestalt, as a (freakish) shape. The distortion actually refers to the artist’s registering on paper or canvas a world that always has been distorted. What the artist does, is meticulously recording this world, a world which exists somewhere out there. Delrues work can therefore equally well be considered extrovert of eccentric, i.e. pointing towards the many worlds outside the ego. It is socially committed, the formulation all too simple, and maybe this is what it is, before it is anything else. Yet is seems as if the extrovert aspect never becomes very visible, and therefore we have to contemplate the work emphatically, talk about it at length, dream about it. It may sound a paradox, but we are confronted here with an extrovert secrecy, which causes the (distorted) shapes to become tangible, a tangibility Dewulf refers to as the fluidity, the suction, the temptation, even the marshland, once even the inaccessibility, of this oeuvre.

Marshlands tempt us through and into their inaccessibility. Delrues figures have a nymphlike quality, but they are never in a true, literal sense mythological, for in that case they would be characters – personalities with a story, of their own, they, or we, the public, relate. They are, however, merely figures, disposed to silence, simply staring at us questioningly. The silence that surrounds the figures is uncomfortable, and we are spontaneously inclined to break it. But what purpose would our words serve? As Bernard Dewulf has observed, the figures are ‘alternately self-portraits with and without self’.[1] Or Alibiographies, as I have referred to them in another context.

Departing

References to the marshland, the suction or the fluidity of the work actually result in a distorted, or rather, distorting, image, which, through it can never compete with the work of art itself, expresses some essence of the work. In interviews the artist has often used this kind of metaphor to express how he experiences his art (and to explain the marshlands into which his art tempts him: ‘Sometimes, as a painter, I go through a lot of misery.’)

The artist tells us about the ‘images that have grown’ from scribbles, sketches, drawings, and which are to be his point of departure when creating a work. The concept of growth seems to refer to something quite definite, causing the artist’s approach to appear decided, self-conscious. But in this instance, too, we are confronted with a ‘precarious self-consciousness, with and without self’, for nothing causes the artist to recoil more than anything well-defined. Petrification – the growing of shapes with a clear-cut boundary, tangible, visible, concrete, shapes that can be put in words – the artist experiences as the embodiment of horror. Such shapes have to be crushed right away. Classical, formal beauty must be attacked, must be ‘soiled’. While growing, the image erodes (also inside, i.e. within the artist), which causes ruptures without which the artist cannot address the public. For Delrue, painting usually involves some form of destruction, resulting in what Delrue himself refers to as excess, emotion, seething, introversion, also as skin, coagulation, destruction, poetical clumsiness and the dirtiness of the image. Though these words were spoken by the artist himself, among friends, in his studio, these, too, are distorted images of his images.[2]

All this evidences the artist’s fundamental fascination with wandering. Once he alleged himself that he ‘often wanders about in his head, for there are no boundaries there’. A staggering statement, which both reveals and hides what he considers important, how he sees himself as an artist, howit – over there, in his head – proceeds. I would rephrase this statement myself as a call to depart and keep moving, to keep the rhythm, without ever standing still or becoming frozen. Delrue objects to boundaries, to contours, which, from his point of view as an artist, must be either destroyed, liquefied, or ‘distorted’. This is obvious from the disappearance of human features from his work. As if the figures, too, are returned to a starting point – rather, to a false start – where everything moves, without order. This is where the figures are alive before they become frozen, petrified, this is where they become visible before they become an image. Here they absorbed by distortion, even before they emerge from the paint. Their departure in the artist’s head (and, who knows, in our heads) I consider a mirror image of their distortion in his scribbles, sketches and drawings. The departure is a record of Delrues art as it functions in his mind, even before it functions on paper. And it probably never functions, i.e. it functions ceaselessly.

This eternal distortion in countless diary notes or finished portraits, this eternal drawing and removing of the figures’ features, nurtures the speech act, the speaking about art, whether as a monologue or dialogue. It even makes the speech act inevitable. Ceaselessly departing and distorting in order to push back frontiers, to open up new horizons, both inside the head and outside.

Those Not Coming into Their Own

Delrues head is a studio, but the reverse is also true: his studio is the head, the organic place where the artist lives or where he withdraws to think about his work, to create, paint and destroy. It is not an idyllic place, for, as we mentioned earlier, there is misery, too. But in all its banality, there is a certain magic about the place. Here the artist is ‘master of a poor cell’, as Prospero puts it in The Tempest. Outside of the studio, the spell is broken, the sentences and the features are restored. Inside the studio the images that have grown are distilled from the scrawls and sketches. The studio is the place where the artist can briefly escape from the outside world (but not from himself).

The project Yellow was the first in which Delrue involved mental patients. He talks to the inhabitants of this foreign country, sometimes longer and more intense than the medical staff would like him to. The experience is illuminating. Sometimes a conversation merely consists of handing the patient pencil and paper. ‘They draw their most inner self’, the artist concludes, and this drawing, too, is a distorted speech act. Their drawings are a reaction against the ‘flattening of their mind’. Astonished, he notes the meaningless words the patients utter: voicetail, seedbusgiant, sidesteel, sidebugs. The ravings of magicians. Delrue himself draws portraits with sharp contours (the face of Karel, drawn with his left hand) or vivid details (the leptosomic Hugo with his feminine mouth). ‘The portraits must show the outside, but above all the mind’, the artist declares. Extrovert, but especially introvert. Then, suddenly, the intense work with the patients is interrupted and Delrue moves to the studio. He is glad, because finally ‘he can withdraw, create a distance, finish the portraits’. [3]

Now the work of the head, of the studio starts. The portraits of Karel, Hugo, Veerle and Isabelle emerge as distorted figures, touching in their distortion, their features having disappeared, erased. These are portraits of people that no longer come into their own, their mind petrified, skilfully crushed by the artist, scattered in the marshlands of his own wandering mind. He hangs three of the portraits in a single room (Karel, Hugo and Veerle) and calls the installation Silent Minds (part of the series Sensitive Minds). The dullness of the colour of the paper on which the portraits have been drawn, the paleness of the figures and the hiding of the distorting features cause these people to become one with the decrepit house, of which the walls seem to go right through their heads. Karel is depicted with his hand inside his head. Veerle is surrounded by colourful spheres that suggest the dream world, which, according to the patient, has turned into a nightmare because of the treatment she has received. Delrue draws the distortion. (One day Veerle tells him that she thinks this painting is horrible. Because she does not recognize herself? Or because she recognizes herself all too well?) In another room the portrait of Isabelle is hung. Talking to Delrue, she once referred to her ‘enlightened mind’. The artist covers her distorted body with the glaring white light of a film projector. The light fills her features; her face absorbs it, swells, bursts with light, but precisely therefore it becomes filled with a ghastly emptiness. In the background the repetitive click of the looped film tape is heard. A faltering noise. (Flagging speech. Isabelle agrees. This is her portrait. The light: that’s her. Exactly as she is).

The Mind Untraceable

Also the portraits of Christine Remacle, or the drawings they create together (Art en marge, Bruges 2002) focus on the distressing disappearance of humanity. For one week the artist has worked together with this mentally ill woman, often sharing the same sheet of paper, guided by Delrues obsession with ‘the mind walled-up’.

What do these features reveal, what do they hide? And what do they reveal when something - art - hides them? Portrait by Delrue, Thursday, May 16, 12.55. Features hidden underneath a mask of black paint, which only leaves an opening for the mouth. Red. Eager. Garrulous. Randy? Then there is the line with which the head is rendered. What do the contours contain? The mind? (Nothing lines the mind. Anaximander) What goes on in a mind like this? Portrait by Delrue and Remacle, Friday, May 17, 11.32. Pencil lines by Delrue; the hand like a paw in front of the mouth; red paint by Remacle. Is there a phallus inside the head, Delrue wonders. (Not the petrification, but the weakening of the mind as a new metaphor…).

Finally, the last portrait, by Delrue and Remacle, Friday, May 17, 11.57 (c. half an hour later than the previous portrait). Gouache with a figure, drawn by Delrue; greenish grey contours and a green hand, once more hiding the mouth, preventing speech. Christine Remacle finishes the portrait. With red strokes she mercilessly fills in the brow and the temples. This is excess, soiling, seeking an edge, a boundary, and crossing it, tragically. The garish red refers to both the absence of the mind and the tangible pictorial dialogue with the mind…

The features are left out, hence there distortion. Everyone is on his way, constantly on the move. Until something halts forever – a face that reveals nothing but resigned features. Which reveal everything.

[1] Bernard Dewulf, Headaches of Paint, in: Ronny Delrue, 2001.V.31, Van Laere Contemporary Art, Antwerp, 2001.

[2] In: Ronny DelrueMise en atelier par l’artiste [Mise en Studio by The Artist], Vereniging van het S.M.A.K., Ghent, 2000.

[3] Ronny Delrue, Dagboeknotities Yellow Geel, 2001 [Diary Notes Yellow Geel], in: Kunst Nu, 2001.

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