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Perrotin Tokyo present exhibition of works by Belgian artist Pieter Vermeersch
Pieter Vermeersch View of the exhibition at Perrotin Tokyo, July 11 – September 12, 2018 © Photo: Kei Okano. Courtesy of the artist & Perrotin.

by Stuart Munro

TOKYO.- Beyond any sense of fading light or imminent sunrise, paintings by Belgian artist Pieter Vermeersch veer away from seeing the world in simple terms. Instead, they abstract its image through materiality, picturing the world as a series of carefully controlled encounters. Their restlessness and curiosity seek out the unexpected and unknown. Towards the end of Eric Rohmer’s film Le Rayon Vert (1986), a restless Delphine (Marie Rivière) and curious Jacques (Vincent Gauthier) wait for a flash of light said to magically appear as the sun drops behind the horizon. This fading light is briefly exchanged for a moment of genuine connection between the two, while daybreak on the other side of the world creates its own sense of resolve, with Ryunosuke Akutagawa describing the Japanese rising sun as a quieting influence over the restless conflict of sleep. To Sol LeWitt these opportunities picture the world anew. “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach” … leading, as he says, to new experience. This new exhibition at Perrotin Tokyo, the first solo exhibition for Vermeersch in Japan, reinvigorates the artist’s previous work by applying it to new territory. Paintings move beyond the picture frame and photographic image. Which partially explains why his paintings are not really paintings at all.

In the past, his works have retained a liminal edge that wavers between the optical and the imaginary, abstracting the horizon as a way of escape. His images exist in a hybridized photographic moment, rendering material and cast light in his own form of painting. Gradients of colour have flourished the length of one gallery (CCNOA in Brussels, 2008), while other spaces were filled with projections (at New York’s White Box, 2009) and filtered light (at Galerie Elisa Plateau & Cie. in Brussels, 2012). In each case, the architecture has encapsulated the image, as if visually seizing the moment to reveal that flash of light.

Empty spaces have related their own physical limitation with images expressing what is impossible to see. Images mask their origin, repurposing things across scales without any definitive scale in mind. These ‘observant’ canvases give urgency to images that appear fixed and stationary, as if standing still. Yet they’re not without their own form of motion. Early works such as 8 Paintings I (1999) show the view of a car windscreen repeated over and over again. Each appearing as wide-eyed as a child barely able to see past the brow of windscreen wipers. The horizon might as well have not existed. It seems clear to me now that my own outstretched hand touching the window of my father’s car was also my way of making brief contact with a world pushed hard against glass. Untitled (2013-2015) encapsulated the moment of a photograph with the slow patience of oil painting across scrapped canvas. Gradual changes in tone were reflected around the axis of a pivoting mirror (“Ergens/Somewhere” MuHKA, Antwerp, 2006) as distinct and different, as if each were traveling in the opposite direction. Scrap marks hinted at layers beneath, like the car’s wiper clearing one view to make way for another. On marble, a residue of marks and finger prints indicated things outside the image drawing closer, while dabs of paint on marble sampled its geology, reactivating the material through a painterly study of patience and time.

This exhibition in Tokyo is made up of three elements—marble works that “paint away” their materiality, paintings based on photographic sources of copper, and a painterly installation added to the galleries glazed facade, allowing certain views in, framing other views out, and altering the atmosphere inside. Images and surroundings are pushed hard up against each other and ultimately obscured. The wide-eyed image of that car windscreen now becomes a gesture in itself—de-framed, repeated, and reproduced. Each element does away with traditional framing, repeating itself to reemphasize a place in a world now made visible, drawing emphasis to marbleized slabs of time that exist beyond the grasp of any image. It’s an attitude shared by fellow painter and minimalist Lee Ufan who also works with stone because it is “a material that reminds us of an overwhelming flow of time … something totally beyond human reach.”

Previous works have revivified earlier painting-photograph studies, taking a single yellow line drawn through a landscape photograph and making it real. An installation built as part of the Kenpoku Art Festival 2016 realized the yellow line as a built intervention within the Northern Ibaraki countryside echoing Untitled / 􏰃Speelhoven􏰁 (2003). It is hybridized images such as these that describe time and materiality as purposely bent out of shape. They are aspects of yearning as much as they are image making. In the case of marble works, what would happen if vein-cut travertine were to sit alongside cross-cut local stone? If mineral veins were imagined tracing the outline of an interior, what of other marble now lining the hallway of some anonymous office, department store, or windowless hotel room? With no view out, everything including the marble would look inward. Views out would be replaced by cameras and television screens that ‘look’ with a penetrating gaze. All would be omnipresent and pervasive, whether slipped inside a coat pocket or mounted in the corner of a room. They would stare like benevolent eyes in their own careful way, trained on the obscure and abstract for some discernible sign of life. These marble paintings and studies in material and light could suggest another perspective away from the artist, one where this ‘sentient’ material pictures itself out of place, suspicious of its surroundings yet willingly present. One moment a painting is an image sourced from a photograph. The next it becomes a space of its own, rephotographed and returned to an image for all prosperity.

With each work in this show an abstracted document and record built around an image pushed beyond the traditional picture frame, observation and physicality share an ongoing conversation, changing as the space around them evolves. The minimal and slight gesturing on display conceals the instinct to look for character in material with little character of its own, where mass production, repetition, and facsimile suggest the more sophisticated the eye becomes, the more taciturn the image appears. Noticing these subtle changes is lost in the presence of something greater or more unfamiliar, and with it, the overwhelming sense of something alien. Penelope Gilliatt once said that the void of space expressed in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) stemmed from a desire to aimlessly search for meaning in the most aimless of places, and the enormity of making contact with the unknown. “What makes people … throw anyway the unknown, or set off in spaceships? To see what Nothing feels like, driven by some bedrock instinct that it is time for something else?”

In Vermeersch’s paintings, that bedrock instinct moves from representation to abstraction in search of the unknown, encouraging the alien and unexpected with each mark and every brushstroke. There is something to be said about the approach of his paintings and his paintings approaching the world. This self-expressiveness is reflected in the autonomy of marble, while architectural gestures like windows and rooms formally guide and coerce the painting, making the frame of the exhibition a conversation between places, objects, materials and ways of seeing—a cosmology that spreads outward and beyond.

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