Freedom is a Problem
by Jonathan Griffin
catalogue text solo show at Roberto Polo Gallery, Brussels 2016
What would Bart Vandevijvere’s paintings sound like if they were music? They would sound contemporary and industrial, for sure, but they would also include all sections of a classical orchestra, filling the high ceiling of a concert hall with the soft vibrations of the string section and the hard-edged blasts of the brass. They would be arrhythmic, at times, and also dissonant. There would be luscious, joyful passages that make you nod your head in absorbed reverie, propulsive sections that compel you to tap your foot, and then there would be surprising moments in which harsh, abrasive tones that would shake you to attention. Significant passages of Vandevijvere’s score would call for improvisation, and his musicians would be forced not only to listen to what their fellow players were doing but to open themselves to complete sensual awareness – what in Germany is called Fingerspitzengefühl.
And what unconventional instruments might Vandevijvere’s music require? Power tools, perhaps, and a Theremin, but also rustling paper, crinkling metal foil, and maybe trays of broken glass, shaken by a percussionist. He would probably use tape loops – recordings of previous improvisations, sampled, edited and played back as the basis for fresh discoveries. In his rehearsal process there would be whole arrangements that would be learnt, then discarded: sedimentary layers in the compositional process that become buried under new forms and tones.
Bart Vandevijvere is a painter who understands that he is working in the wake of a long tradition, a once forceful programme that now leaves its proponents adrift in a mixed sea of valid and invalid possibilities. “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” concludes the narrator in Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnameable (1953).[i] Vandevijvere has spoken of his paintings as passages of a journey; beginning each new work, he says, “you have a rucksack but you don’t have a path.”[ii] That rucksack is packed with tools and maps from previous journeys, with the memories of experiments done by himself and done by earlier explorers. As the painter gathers experience over time (Vandevijvere has now been painting for over three decades) the rucksack becomes heavier, but it contains more possibilities.
In the 1950s – an era that is recalled in certain dimensions of Vandevijvere’s practice – the various strands of the avant-garde were much more tightly braided together than separate disciplines within progressive culture are today. Painters compared their work with architects, poets or dancers; novelists and playwrights responded to, and informed, the advances in music and painting. This was especially true in New York, where experimental composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman consorted with visual artists such as Philip Guston and Robert Rauschenberg. Vandevijvere has succeeded in plotting a new path for abstract painting by harking back to the cross-disciplinary dialogues of the mid-20th century.
Music has been a touchstone for Vandevijvere since his early multimedia installations, performances, drawings and paintings. In his most recent work, the strategies of avant-garde composers and performers reveal to him ways to push forward as a painter. Cage, who allowed silence and chance to enter into his music, and Feldman, who experimented with scale and incrementally subtle tonal shifts, remain his polestars. But Vandevijvere has broad tastes, and the titles of his paintings shout out to a panoply of musical figures across different eras and regions: the radical contemporary jazz saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, for example, the Italian Minimalist composer Giacinto Scelsi, or the Japanese pianist Aki Takase.
What these musicians share is a sustained engagement with the idea of freedom in their work. That may come through improvisation, or unconventional approaches to tablature or structure, or expanded ideas of what might constitute music or beauty. They approach this freedom, however, with discipline and with self-imposed parameters. In music and art, as in life, freedom is a problem that demands to be solved. This is especially true in contemporary painting. Vandevijvere perceives that the challenge for him, as it is for any painter, is to find structure within a structureless situation, and to control the elements of chaos and chance in his work.
Take his rhythmic, staccato painting FFFF (friction for Fred Frith) (2014) as an example. While it is by no means taken for granted that we would read any painting from left to right – as we do automatically with text or tablature – this painting seems to suggest it. Vertical thin black lines fall like beats on the canvas, creating a loose meter. After two beats the white ground begins to fill with incident: vaporous black marks created by the artist flooding the canvas with water, and the faintest traces of diagonal lines that tilt us forward into the painting. The tempo gathers with a striking chromatic line, leaning even more acutely, that shades from a fluorescent green to a yellow, orange then aquamarine. Two more parallel coloured lines follow. By this time, the regular vertical beats have disappeared, replaced by leaning strokes that pass in and out of perceptibility. Water has fuzzed Vandevijvere’s black acrylic paint, in places, into faint grey plumes. Meandering drips travel to the eastern edge of the canvas: onwards to the dissipated, chaotic conclusion of the painting.
With all its delicate and essential accidents, FFFF (friction for Fred Frith) is like a controlled fall. Not the kind of slapstick fall that the graceful clowns Buster Keaton and Oliver Hardy perfected, but the conscious dancer’s fall, as witnessed in the choreography of Merce Cunningham, perhaps, or Cunningham’s early mentor Martha Graham. When training her dancers, Graham would always teach them to fall to their left. “Unless you are left-handed,” she explained, “the right side of the body is the motor side; the left hand is the unknown.”[iii] Vandevijvere’s lines are falling into the unknown.
When Vandevijvere begins a painting, he compares himself to a blind man moving out into space. He is entirely open to whatever he might encounter, even something that he has not previously foreseen. In certain cases, he will take a canvas that has somehow been marked by the activity of making an earlier painting. In the magisterial Measure for Skies (3) (2013), a smudge of fluorescent green paint in the lower left corner, and another on the top edge, prefigured the artist’s deliberate scrapes of black beside them. The faint textural smudges across much of the painting occurred naturally – perhaps when Vandevijvere leant on the canvas to inscribe the razor-sharp black lines that map a floating, geometric tangle in space. He liked them, so he left them. (An accomplished craftsman such as Vandevijvere can remove almost anything from a painting; nothing is irreversible or permanent, so everything on the canvas becomes a conscious decision.)
In reality, there is no workable distinction between accident and intention in painting. The four points in Measure for Skies (3) where water has allowed the black lines to seep upwards – like the soot from four candle flames – is an example of a skilfully controlled accident that Vandevijvere orchestrated on the canvas. Despite all his skill, it is inconceivable that he could make the same marks again, but equally, a lesser draughtsman could not make those marks at all. Chance occurrences such as these provide a way for the artist to discover new territory within his medium that is unforeseeable before the painting is begun, but which comes from nowhere but from within the painting itself. They reveal a dimensionality to the medium that arises not so much from moving forward or outward, in a progressive manner, but from sinking deeper within the painting itself, as if extracting something hitherto unseen from a well.
To a significant degree, Vandevijvere’s attitude toward the aleatory in his painting is informed by ideas in music that were developed around mid-century by the New York School composers and by Europeans such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. John Cage, who remains particularly associated with what came to be known as indeterminate music, clarified the different forms it could take. Throughout his career, he famously used the I-Ching to generate decisions about such factors as instrumentation, pitch, tempo and duration in his work. He referred to this technique as using “chance operations,” and since the parameters of a score were fixed and identical for every performance, he himself did not consider it indeterminate music. By contrast, scores in which decisions were left open to interpretation by the performer, or open to the chance occurrences (such as the ambient noises during the performance of the otherwise silent 4’33”) were, according to Cage, genuinely indeterminate. Morton Feldman, another composer greatly admired by Vandevijvere, occasionally worked with a further, arguably more extreme category of indeterminate music, in which traditional musical tablature is abandoned altogether in favour of an abstract graphic score, which the performer must interpret subjectively.
Vandevijvere does not use “chance operations,” but neither does he ever reach the level of evacuated minimalism achieved by Cage in 4’33”. (The painterly equivalent of 4’33” would either be an entirely blank canvas, or a canvas that only bore the inadvertent remnants of other activities.) Instead, he moves between the poles of chance and intention, of chaos and order. There is hardly a painting in his oeuvre that does not have elements of each. Even with a work such as A Glimpse of Sciarrino (2014), which on first glance seems predominantly blank, with only a few tentative marks scattered across its surface, clarifies into a taut composition of subtle tones the longer one looks at it. The traces of previous forms that have been washed off by the artist still show through, and the rusty orange edges frame the isolated incidents in the centre.
This process of washing away semi-dry paint, which Vandevijvere employs in many works, is akin to an archaeological excavation of the painting’s past; a similar result is achieved when he scrapes or sands the dried paint, as with 4 Dilemmas (A 60 Minutes Request) (2013), in which the brutalised surface reveals, at its edges, the imprints of the wooden stretcher bars beneath the canvas. In that same painting, sharp-edged areas of green, yellow and red reveal the earlier painting buried beneath the grey and white topmost skin.
In Champs de bataille (2014), there are several layers of painting and washing away that have become, in the finished work, almost impossible to separate. The usual effect of washing off a layer of black paint on a white ground, also seen in Splitting the Thought Again (2015), is to transform the brush stroke into a photographic X-Ray of itself. (Once again, we see the painting discovering itself from within, rather than from some external source.) Both paintings achieve this state of apparent thinness, which also contributes to a sense of their distinct sections having been cut out by scissors, and rearranged as if in a collage. The title Champs de bataille says a great deal about Vandevijvere’s working process; for him, the act of painting, of organising and resolving the problem of the picture, is a battle fought on the surface of the canvas against the medium and even, at a deeper level, against history. No wonder his finished works can look scarred, exhausted, and ransacked.
In several paintings, there is a sense that the battle is ongoing, or even that the viewer might be required to step in and join the fight. One work, titled Painting Compilation Kit (2014), is seen by the artist as an unresolved arrangement of different painterly gestures, techniques, forms, and layers. Through a feeling of movement, of simultaneous apparition and disappearance, the painting seems to be coming and going at the same time. In The Collapse of Symbiosis (2015), the painting appears to enact the collapse of the title in real time, before our eyes. There is a difference between describing an idea in paint and actually enacting it. In Vandevijvere’s most vivid works, however, it can be hard to discern the distinction.
Vandevijvere is not an Action Painter (as was fashionable in the New York School), but we are distinctly aware, when we look at his work, of the kinds of actions that produced it. It is performative; the speed of a line, of a drip, of a seeping stain, is preserved within the static residue on the canvas. It is impossible not to imagine the artist moving, now fast, now slow. In practice, Vandevijvere admits that there are moments in which he must act quickly in order to contain or encourage a chance occurrence in the wet paint. There are other times – as is obvious if one studies his paintings carefully – when he is forced to leave the layer to dry before starting on the next. (Unlike an Action Painter, therefore, who tended to throw down a painting in a single frenzied session, or a live musician. Perhaps the better comparison would be with a musician in the recording studio, who seeks to retain all the energy and spontaneity of a live performance within carefully modulated layers of recorded tracks.)
The excitement of looking at Vandevijvere’s paintings, in which the artist seems to be assembling the work directly before our eyes, implicates us in the drama of the painterly battle, as well as the excitement of seeing fresh forms bloom from the quagmire. Vandevijvere has also referred to the activity of making his work as “painterly gardening”. The large canvases of ‘The Garden Painting Session’ (2015) are filled with the urgent energy and freedom of fast brushstrokes, done in harsh bright sunlight and perhaps with a gusty breeze speeding the drying of the paint, under a tree in Vandevijvere’s backyard. The artist has the generosity and grace to let the viewer feel as if he or she is standing there with him, making the discoveries of the painting at the same time as the artist.
John Cage once wrote about his reservations concerning the term “experimental” when applied to his work, which he resolved by considering the difference between writing a piece of music and hearing it. “A composer knows his work as a woodsman knows a path he has traced and retraced, while a listener is confronted by the same work as one is in the woods by a plant he has never seen before.”[iv] In Vandevijvere’s painting, we have the sense of walking along the path side by side with the artist, encountering strange new plants together.
[i] Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable, in The Beckett Trilogy, (London: Pan Books Ltd., 1979), p.382
[ii] All quotes by the artist, in conversation with the author, Kortrijk, October 2015
[iii] Joseph H. Mazo, Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America (London: A & C Black Ltd, 1977), p.157
[iv] John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), p.7