Since the 'youngsters' Sidi El Karchi and Bas de Wit successfully completed their studies at the art academy a little less than ten years ago, the museum has been following their progress. That was fairly easy to do, as they both studied in Maastricht and still live and work in the vicinity apart from short visits to New York and Antwerp. Now El Karchi and De Wit's careers have really taken off. Their CVs each list a series of group and solo exhibitions, they have won incentive prizes, and galleries in Cologne and Amsterdam are representing their work, which is gradually finding its way to the (buying) public. Not to be outdone, the Bonnefantenmuseum
has acquired a total of eight paintings and two sculptures by the two gentlemen. And these acquisitions are now being exhibited in the form of a large-scale duo presentation.
Still, you don't need a duo presentation to ascertain that El Karchi and De Wit are in no way a duo. On the contrary, they seem to be each other's artistic opposite. El Karchi is trying out the time-honoured genre of portrait painting and has something of the 'fijnschilder' about him, whereas De Wit demonstrates daring and bravura in his paintings and sculptures, bringing together or 'assembling' all kinds of things.
El Karchi and De Wit have a preference for figurative representation, especially of the human figure and its personifications. And above all in their work, the 'story' is making a real comeback, in the wake of the human figure which is often in fine company or given a meaningful attribute. Although technical aspects like colour, line, texture and composition are obviously important to El Karchi and De Wit, so too is the ability to place apt punch lines with a bit of flair, to intensify the symbolic and psychological content of the portraits.
It was during his studies that Sidi El Karchi decided to concentrate solely on the genre of portrait painting. the emphasis is on portraits, of loved ones, of himself or occasionally of idols such as Michael Jackson. The starting points are line and outline, recalling the methods found in the age of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, or those used and perfected by the Arts and Crafts school. His way of painting or drawing does owe a good deal to a tradition based on line and decoration. The subdued, symbolic portraits of El Karchi, in which he keeps portraying a different persona, force the gaze inwards and demand a type of concentration that requires soul-searching rather than formal analysis.
El Karchi is a careful driver, so to speak, who before putting brush to canvas goes in painstaking search of the right photo almost without exception of someone from his circle of family, friends and acquaintances, or of himself, of course. Using series of sketches, he then chooses the right size, cropping and composition. This is followed by a gradual process of colour on colour, and layer on layer sometimes repeated up to thirty times. The largish size of the canvas on which El Karchi keeps searching for an attractive balance between figure and background, and depiction and paint, also contributes to the increasing inapproachability of the figure portrayed.
El Karchi's emblematic self-portraits form a special part of his early oeuvre. In them, he presents himself in a series of stereotypical artist roles: El Karchi as Van Gogh, the tragic genius in a straw hat, as a diligent pioneer of art dressed in a blue worker's overall, and as a hedonist and dandy, posing nonchalantly with a cigarette in After Beckmann (2006). In the most recent works, however, the role-playing takes on a more serious undertone.
El Karchi does not work 'from nature', but from photographic snapshots. Photographic reality is the starting point. The task he sets himself is to manipulate the eye of the camera so that he can shape the world as he wishes, eliminating all chance and spontaneity. The dominance of artificial visual methods leads to frozen, unemotional paintings and drawings. The form and execution of his compositions are structured in such a way that mere reality does not get a look-in. This total mastery of all the resources he uses is bound to yield a unique transparency, a total visual silence that is never achieved in either film or photography for there it is interrupted by the incessant background noise of life.
The grotesque 'motley crew' that populate the sculptures and paintings of Bas de Wit, on the other hand, take possession of the space as only uninvited visitors can, throwing in one dirty joke after another without a care in the world. As far as his visual arsenal is concerned, Bas de Wit is a glutton. He is also an all-rounder a painter and sculptor who can switch from one medium to the other with the utmost ease. A nervous chaos winds its way through his work.
De Wit shares his preference for assemblage and grotesque visual idiom with his audience. De Wit shows us a hilarious, slightly ominous and mostly politically incorrect world of shadows, in which everything we believed innocent and good has turned into exactly the opposite. But fortunately it never becomes pretentious or openly moralistic.
De Wit is a rather laconic workaholic, whose furious productivity now requires a shed, in which he sweats all day long in the noxious fumes of epoxy, polyester and polyurethane. His assembled sculptures are created through an associative process and have enormous dynamism, as if they could jump right off their plinth. But don't misunderstand the artist works predominantly with moulds and casts, which demands preparation, technical control and precision work. The surprise (for De Wit himself, too) is mainly in the finishing touch, when he gives the work one last kick in the behind. This may consist of an addition, such as the black crow on a gnawed corpse with impressive genitals, or an absurd title suggesting an inimitable mental leap (The more you cry the less you pee).
What distinguishes this artist from the rest is his tempestuous imagination and conceptual power. Furiously combining images, he takes his figurative visual universe, which is instantly recognisable, and transforms it into an idiosyncratic, totally unfamiliar decor that does not display the slightest logic, let alone allow any kind of theory to be distilled from it. Comically, provokingly and sometimes even poignantly, De Wit puts everything into perspective and leaves it open as far as possible, with regard to both form and content.
Sidi El Karchi (1975) lives and works in Maastricht and Sittard. He studied at the School of Fashion in Sittard and at the Fine Arts Academy in Maastricht. His work has been recently shown at the Steendrukkerij Amsterdam, 2010; Open Studio's. I.S.C.P., New York, 2009.
Bas de Wit (1977) lives and works in Maastricht. He studied at the Fine Arts Academy in Maastricht and at the HISK in Antwerp. His work has been recently shown at Volta Basel and at Figge Von Rosen Gallery, 2009.