Headaches of paint
Antwerp, June 2001
De Morgen, Zeno (June 9 2001)
Even quite intelligent people seem to have difficulties to grasp this plain fact: painting are made of paint. Usually the matter comes up when modern or contemporary art is at issue. In a way, this is somewhat odd, because precisely these often highlight the use of paint, e.g. by certainly not hiding the brush strokes, or by leaving certain parts of the painting blank (thereby emphasizing the paint) or by alternately applying the paint roughly on certain parts of the canvas and gently on other parts of the same canvas. In short, modern and contemporary art attempt to lend the paint a voice of itself, and not only that which it is supposed to present: the image. Sometimes the image consists merely of paint itself. In that case we are confronted with so-called abstract painting; actually, the latter paintings are the epitome of concreteness.
But that as it may, for decades now many painters have been trying to show their preoccupation with paint, to demonstrate how they think and speak paint. Perhaps precisely there is the rub: most people do not speak paint. It is a strange language one has to learn to master.
On paintings that only confront us with paint – i.e. all paintings, but I am referring here to paintings without obvious image – there is, at first sight, nothing to be seen, except for the paint. So, there we are, gazing at the means and wondering about the aim, while in fact we are already looking at it. The means is the aim. The aim is to lend a voice to the means, to render it visible. That may seem confusing, but doubtlessly that is the intention.
Of course, this is a rather rudimentary representation of the issue. In practice, on the canvas, things are more confused, more subtle, more complex. Means and aim often interchangeable, or rather, they converge or diverge. Paint is precisely very suitable for this sort of thing, because of its liquid properties. Sometimes one can see right through the paint, sometimes it is impenetrable. A stroke of paint can be a stripe, but also a mouth – a stripe can turn into a mouth, paint can become flesh. In that instance it is neither paint nor flesh, but a hyphen, a sign linking means and aim, paint and image, a sign referring to a border area that can only exist on the painting. It is this border region, born form paint, which may offer sublime pleasure to our eyes.
Many of Ronny Delrues paintings are situated in this border region. Ronny Delrue is a painter and a draughtsman. His painterly oeuvre consists of landscapes and portraits; his drawings are, with few exceptions, portraits. But these facts are not very informative. Many of his portraits do not have a face, and many landscapes barely rise from the paint. Many of the portraits seem open – there is a lot of white – and a lot of landscapes seem to be sealed by the brush strokes with dark, deep colours. In both instances however, i.e. whether the works is open or closed, light or dark, there is something self-willed about the work, something inaccessible, while at the same time there is something that draws us nearer, especially in the case of the paintings. Their introvert character appeals to us, lures us.
Delrues work is introvert, not timidly, awkwardly, but radically introvert. Its introspectivity is absolute: the work departs from and returns to our own mind or head. And the head, that is what the work is about. Everything turns round this head, everything in this head turns round. Hundreds of times Delrue must have depicted this head – his head, our head – on paper, and dozens of times on canvas. In both the drawings and the paintings the head is always ovally shaped, somewhat pointed at the bottom, i.e. an egg-shape turned upside-down. To this shape, anything can happen, especially in the drawings: it is empty, or entirely filled; it is magnified, cut up, scratched, dotted, multiplied, it is placed on a preposterously long neck; in short, it becomes distorted in many ways. The paintings are more tranquil in this respect. On the exhibition two portraits, depicting the familiar head, face each other. One is black; the painter has erased its features with composed, vertical brush strokes (p.16). The other one is grey, with horizontal stripes – a sort of bandages – across the face (p.20). These paintings seem mysterious, menacing more so than the drawings depicting the same subject.
As usual Delrue exhibits a large amount of drawings. The artist considers them fragments from a diary. He notes down where they have been made and dates them consequently, sometimes, when the artists has worked for several days on the drawing, more than one date appears (p.28-33).
The drawings represent the artist’s headaches, in various senses of the term. As drawings they record the inevitable daily preoccupations of a human being – on more than one drawing the head outgrows itself: several tiny heads appear. But there is also a monomaniac, almost obsessive preoccupation with the artist’s own head, with his state of mind, with his mental health, so to speak.
By distorting the head time and again, Delrue keeps the head moving. Drawing and distorting the head, Delrue keeps the head going on, preventing it from becoming stuck in itself. On the one hand these battered heads show us what goes on inside the head, on the other hand they constitute a sort of precautionary measure: as long as the head is preoccupied, the artist need not be preoccupied with his head, as long as he can draw the head, all is well.
These observations actually concern the one obsession which keeps Delrue pursuing his course of action: the fear of fossilization, of becoming numb, petrified.
Who wishes to avoid coming to a standstill has to keep moving – the alternatives are few. A painting, however, provides the opportunity to move standing still, an opportunity Delrue grasps with both hands. At the exhibition there is a huge painting, measuring 2 metres by 2 metres, which outstandingly visualizes this principle (p.3). The work is jet-black, or more accurately, vineyard-black, and seems tightly sealed. A wall of black against the habitual white wall. But really, you should remain standing still in front of it for some time: slowly you will start to discern movement within the painting. The deep darkness seems to lift partially, and slowly something which resembles a landscape comes to light, a light which may originate from the grey tones hidden under the black. I have even noticed trees, water and irises, and a reflection of sorts. But then of course, I may have been standing there too long.
Something similar goes on with the other works. Looking at an intensely grey canvas (p.7) covered with brilliant tones, one sees the grey paint following from the vague outline of a human being to become a primitive landscape, and finally disappearing into the canvas itself. In this work three of Delrues themes merge into a beautiful, both complex and clear image: the human being, the landscape and the canvas. Like a trinity the themes converge almost perfectly. Almost.
The latter – almost – is what Delrue is fond of. His drawings and paintings are not perfect. Perfection even scares him to death. What is finished has the qualities of a tombstone. A painting or a drawing may bear witness to the fact that they result from the artist’s effort. They may seem dirty or even damaged, or, as the artist puts it, they may show their injuries – to a certain extent, of course. In Delrues view in the unfinished aspect often the poetry of a word resides, as well as its lasting character – what remains unfinished, continues in a certain sense: it prolongs an indefinable sense of expectation and desire, a certain restlessness.
To judge by his work, Delrue certainly is a restless man. That is not to say that the resulting work itself looks expressly agitated: the work merely shows us – sometimes involuntary – traces of restlessness. The sense of a permanent quest is even essential to what Delrue has to say.
Suppose one could peel Delrues paintings like an onion: layer upon layer one would find the traces of this restlessness. When painting, Delrue proceeds slowly, working in layers. Often he starts with bright colours, sometimes with an old painting he has found on a jumble sale. Then he embarks upon the process of overpainting. Usually he leaves traces of this process visible on the canvas, but also on the sides and the bottom of the work. As one can see at this exhibition, sometimes even drops of paint dangle from the work, like small stalactites – the phenomenon par excellence referring to petrifaction (p.1).
Painting layer upon layer, Delrue is often led to use dark shades, lots of blacks and greys, but also deep greens and browns - though he also used to work with off-white tones. The artist prepares the paint himself, using pigments and a medium; he uses India ink as well. The effect is therefore unusually dry. As if there is something sooty about his blacks, as if the paint has been soaked up greedily by the thirsty canvas. What remains, is a rudimentary, lustreless skin. A dusty, finely granular fleece of paint. A drained marshland. The dryness is essential to the sensual aspect of the paintings. It is a sort self-willed, reticent dryness, which appeals precisely because of its aloofness. There is something difficult, hard about the beauty of the work; it requires an unhurried glance to emerge from the troubled, sunken paint.
The drawings are a different matter. It is not the looking at them which requires an effort in this instance, but rather understanding them. Often they have been created quickly, in series, during short, intense periods of work. Delrue uses ordinary writing paper for these drawings, and prefers not to frame them. They are reminiscent of pages from a diary, with all the imperfections such pages involve. They also look very different from the paintings: more linear, sometimes more light-hearted, more explicit, too. Because of the medium, they are, of course, less layered. But because they originate in series, there is actually a layered aspect about them. It is possible to imagine us superimposing a series of these drawings: the result would be a scan of the artist’s worries.
What would this scan look like? Certainly gloomy, heavy-headed, as the artist’s video proves (p.5). A story globe rolls slowly to and fro across a table. The globe looks like a huge, heavy brain. Hands try to lift the globe, but hardly succeed. This head is reminiscent of the ball chained prisoners have to drag along. In my view the hundreds of drawings of heads fall into two categories with regard to their meaning. On the one hand there are those which visualize the tyranny of chimaeras congesting the head; on the other hand there are those visualizing the desire for an empty, blank head. There is a constant coming and going, a commuting of an extremely self-conscious identity and the urge to reach a state of absolute non-identity, to become a human being without qualities. These drawings are self-portraits with and without face, exercises in absence and presence, from someone who occasionally suffers from too much self, and who feels compelled to draw this excess of self, urged by the need for – almost literally – empty-headedness. In short: Ronny Delrue manages neither to get into his head or out of it.
The latter is also often true with regard to the paintings. What is, in this instance, the means, and what is the aim? Every now and then Delrue paints entirely ‘abstract’ paintings. Usually, however, there is ‘something’ to be seen, either vaguely or very plainly, from the top of a hill (of which the remaining part has been painted over) to a face, from a very primitive landscape to a canvas, from which, on close observation, a bridge and water emerge.
The bridge and the water, Delrue informs us, have something to do with an anecdote about a drowned person (p.10). Also the other paintings (and drawings) are anchored in facts, stories, memories. Delrue is not the kind of painter who uses public material, i.e. photographs from newspapers or magazines (a practice common among may contemporary artists). In that sense his work is very autobiographical, though without any references to mere anecdotes. These have, so to speak, dried up in the paint – they have been sucked up by the black hole of Delrues canvas.
In the artist’s best work, however, traces of anecdotes remain visible: the paint has reconciled itself with the facts, with the ineffaceability of anecdotes. The result is a kind of perpetuum mobile between what the paint hides and reveals, between that which it causes to vanish and that which it causes to become visible, and consequently, we are led to endless conjectures.
The best of Delrues work often makes my eyes feel as if they are wandering through a labyrinth. How did I get in and how do I get out? Where am I? In a strange borderland. E.g. in the residual area of my memory. In what is left when the brush has travelled through the memory: stripes, blots, surfaces, strokes, and some fragments of images. This must be a painting.
‘Actually, I am not very good at painting,’ Delrue once said at the end of an interview. That is of course a wonderful phrase to conclude a long interview, a nice phrase to quote. But what did the artist actually mean? What does it mean to be ‘good’ at painting? While painting, lots of painters have to unlearn painting well in order to keep the paint moving, in good shape, to keep the brush agile, curious about the paint. In that sense Delrue refuses to paint well or beautifully. With every painting he rubs beauty up the wrong way.
Obviously, Delrues self-willedness leads to a different type of beauty. This sort of ambiguity is practically inevitable in art: beauty does not compete with ugliness, but with beauty itself. This artist has exacted beauty from beauty. During his quest he has portrayed beauty. Stubbornly he has resisted beauty.