The painter as a Mikado player

following a visit to Bart Vandevijvere’s studio in Marke, April 2010

Recently, MAC’s in Grand-Hornu dug up the amazing video Der lauf der Dinge (1987) by Fishli and Weiss. It is a half-hour domino war of attrition in which movements shamble along, now quickly, then agonizingly slowly, through a sequence of orchestrated accidents, childish experiments with planks of wood, car tyres, expanding and evaporating liquids, fireworks, and all kinds of tilting and falling junk. It is a video that makes us happy, as it charms and fascinates the child in us. Just like two naughty boys discovering the laws of physics in their father’s garden shed…

I am reminded of this in the studio of Bart Vandevijvere, a crow’s nest in the attic of a terraced house, hidden behind the trapdoor of the attic stairs. The stains on the wooden floor and along the wall immediately point out that there is no classical gentleman-painter at work here, but rather one who tilts his canvases, moves them around on the floor and subjects them to a whole series of movements. The next two hours will seem like an audio-visual DJ set, in which Bart keeps digging up both music tracks and paintings, nervously or calmly, and, depending on my verbal or non-verbal reactions to them, tries to keep the mood going with the occasional enthusiastic comment. He made a good job of entertaining me, judging by my mood and my surprise at how quickly time had passed.

Three quarters of Fishli and Weiss’ experiment consists of pathetic attempts to steer the ‘course of things’ into the direction of a controlled causal connection, in which the path of one action to a final conclusion has been traced and orchestrated beforehand in tinkering fashion. More than technical ingenuity, pure hope that the elements will react as expected, plays an exceptionally big role in the outcome. What Bart does in his painted oeuvre is largely similar. Obviously, the parameters of the experiment are completely different and fairly traditional: paint and canvas. The boundaries of both surface and medium are being pushed. Bart dissolves paint, makes it syrupy, beats air into it as in a quality Zabaglione, allows it to partly set, has it disintegrate again, washes it off, now does not interrupt its fanning out or dripping, then again does, sometimes carefully, occasionally abruptly by means of a strip of tape. During this process, he is constantly flirting with the decay of structures, with the abyss of chaos, yet always retaining the imperative ambition of control. In this case he chose to use acrylic paint, a material able to cope with the strange stretch of contrasts pushed to the extreme. Bart can talk enthusiastically about the creation of one blotch, about the effect of a hairdryer’s heat in an attempt to influence the drying, about the resulting crinkles, about the effects of taping… This process is to traditional painting what alchemy is to science: a proto-science, in which trial and error allow you to get a grip on some processes, but in which mysteries and semi-failures abound.

There is music in the background to our conversation. This attic is as marked by sound as it is by paint. Bart’s fascination with experimental music is widely known, and its influence on his visual language is self-evident. The temptation to read individual canvases as examples of synaesthesia and to look for recognizable traces of ‘visible sounds’ is overwhelming. For once, my musical illiteracy is an advantage; I do not allow this contamination of my vision.

The chronological standards for what I am looking at are two works from a series dating from five years ago. At that stage, Bart’s longstanding research congealed into a series of horizontal canvases, in which viscous traces of paint and passages fading into each other are explicitly cut by light and dark horizontal bands. An overzealous analysis could make these strongly ‘horizontalizing’ canvases into staves, with fluctuating musical and rhythmical indications in between. The first view of this kind of work appeals to the habit of reading horizontal formats with continuous lines from the left to the right, scanning for a script or a score that started somewhere outside the frame and continues on the other side. The aspect of time, a constant musical element, conflicts with the essence of a painting, which provides all information at a single glance. At most, you can reread it in order to unravel one of the layers simultaneously presented to you. The history of a classical musical composition develops horizontally; the history of a painting develops in depth. Herschilderij [Re-Painting] is a large red canvas that deliciously allows itself to be peeled like an onion when it is viewed – a kind of strata-graphical rebus that constantly has you barking up the wrong tree. A large, blindingly red surface pierces through repetitions of half-covering, whitish writing, changing direction. It is a brushed, gluey wash that he has eroded or washed off in places before it could adhere. On top of that, accidents (be they elicited or not) appear, in the same red as that of the foundation, and in a complementary green. It is difficult to distinguish what has been ‘painted’ and what has been ‘repainted’. Looking for the deeper layer, through the pale mist, your look catches on drippy patterns, which in turn are a riot of mingling colours. If music – a constant background to Bart’s painting – has left its traces anywhere, it is most surely of the experimental kind. It is no coincidence that Bart prefers the extremities of the musical spectrum which make pure tone, measure and rhythm disintegrate. Morton Feldman, for instance, who unsettles every structure or score by leaving the interpretation of notes and rests to the performers. Or guitarist Fred Frith, who starts from the instrument, which he subjects to extreme sadism. Just as Bart taunts the chemical tolerance of his paint, Frith tampers with his guitar: a woollen thread or a drumstick pulled through the strings, a manipulated pedal – unconventional methods resulting in an unsuspected range of sounds. John Cage already prepared pianos with bolts and nails. Make no mistake with these kinds of musicians, though: they did sacrifice a few things to coincidence, but utter chaos was the last thing they were looking for. Their experiment was always an unending quest for control, for a balance between the fortuity of the situation and the mastery of it. The same duality characterises Bart’s canvases. Once in a while, a title betrays this attitude, this searching for control over an uncontrolled process. Trying to reconstruct an attack of epilepsy refers to the sublime impotence of the painter looking for complete control. There is nothing more impossible to reconstruct than the absence of an epileptic fit; it is the ultimate example of a situation in which consciousness fails. It does lead to marvellous works, though; among them one with bright purple that integrates, bleeding, into a white surface; a smothered movement that still seems to be going on. I confide to Bart how strongly it reminds me of the swoons of my childhood, when I was distressed by the closeness in a crowded church at Easter.

Elsewhere, the painter keeps a tight hold of the reins. In Trashed, Disabled painting 1 and 3, Pieces or Freaked in he juggles with a syrupy paint that he pushes in all directions to his heart’s content. The forceful gesture and the steering of the material are intensely noticeable here. So, too, is the consciousness of the edges of the canvas, which also determines the movements. Here and there, Bart is toying with the viewer; sometimes he is almost teasing him, like Bernard Frize does, albeit less rationally devised and with more instantaneous improvisation. Straight caesuras reveal utterly planned interventions with tape and overlap. The exact method is cleverly disguised. It is not surprising that Freaked in was dedicated to trumpet virtuoso Dave Douglas. No instrument allows for better gliding of sounds if it is optimally guided by the player’s breath.

In works such as Musician’s painting, Another musician’s painting too, For Fred Frith and Another splash 1, he manages to find a beautiful synthesis between structure, readability and the free flow of paint; the latest accomplishments are reconciled with the horizontal paintings of a few years ago.

And what to think of the marvellous To Christian Wolff? An unfathomable black canvas, changing direction of brush strokes like a kind of ton-sur-ton matrix, with the intensity of a starry night sky. The latter association is fully due to one of the white specks in the upper right corner, which because of its smudgy character resembles the halo of a star. Who would this canvas be dedicated to? To the man who gave music a political dimension by allowing the interpretation of the performer to prevail over the will of the conductor or the composer? Or to his namesake, the German philosopher, disciple of Leibnitz, with his unshakeable faith in a predetermined creation, in which all phenomena and occurrences in the universe logically arise from one another… ? I have no idea whether Bart also intended to refer to the latter, but whoever looks at this black work will deem it possible… The painter as a Mikado player, who picks sticks from the jumble of coincidence on offer, aware of the implications and consequences of each move, each attempt to gain control of the situation.

Frederik Van Laere