Saturday, 7 August 2010

Nobody has actually been there: Some Thoughts on Paintings by Per Hilldoranza

Today I’d like to consider some paintings by the Dutch architect Ben Huygen, working under the alias ‘Per Hilldoranza’ (images of the paintings are available at his website). Huygen has co-designed, with Jasper Jaegers, the so-called ‘cactus building’ planned for Rotterdam port (see image above) – a nineteen-floor tower containing 98 residential units, arranged in a staggered floor design that allows each unit a two-level outdoor space with enough available sunlight for foliage to flourish. Such architectural work (which one might place within a recent trend for ‘biomimcry’ – a kind of sustainable design explicitly echoing natural forms, systems and processes) indicates a pre-occupation with the relation between the natural and the artificial, the solid and the fluid, shape and function, which, while of course not precisely translated from the buildings to the paintings, may still provide a way into them, or at least help us to see some affinities between the work in both disciplines.

As Huygen says of a more modest house design in Kinderdijk (a village just outside Rotterdam): “We like self-evident buildings. After all, we are not standing there to explain them; they should tell their own stories.” (‘Dwell’ magazine, May 2006, p.210) Thus, his painting, poised between abstraction and representation, definitely ‘tells its stories’ (strong suggestions of figures, buildings and natural features are common), but without tapping into a complex set of gestural, colouristic, or figural iconography (of, let’s say, the kind outlined in Michael Baxandall’s ‘Painting and Experience in Fourteenth-Century Italy’). For one thing, such a detailed system of aesthetic symbolism is simply not accessible to the modern artist – with the broadening of themes and influences, and the countless reproductions, imitations, and mediations resulting from the explosion of the *image* in the information age, the artist has to find their own, *individual* specificity, to create their own myth, their own set of images and symbols which may flow freely from and between several different systems of thought (for instance, African tribal art, Oriental philosophy, or the vestiges of Romanticism). This art may be full of suggestion and allusion, but it is never fixed or tied within a more general system of belief; it is aware of tradition, but unable to fit with any great clarity into a specific artistic lineage or chronology. The artist must always work alone, an individual working through the echoes of the past and the contradictions of the present in order, perhaps, to provide some glimpse of the future.

On his website, Huygen’s list of current themes (or topics of thought) includes ‘the moon’ and ‘infinity’. Bearing this in mind, we might consider the series of four paintings entitled ‘nobody has actually been there’. Perhaps the most immediately striking aspect here is the use of thick, white bands of paint (laid on with a sculptural touch, to suggest the overall smoothness of stone, but also, like stone, with rough bands and cracks making small incisions on the surface) that dominate the upper half of the canvas. It’s hard not to view these as abstracted nightscapes, the areas of white like the moon transformed through vision, stretching and bulging out over blue-black bands and vertical shadows which suggest the night sky and the sky-scraping skyline of a city below. This is by no means straightforward, however, for the white band and its relation to the darker areas underneath it exist in a different relation in each of the paintings. Thus, in the first of the series, the white area looks like part of a larger shape, cut off by the edge of the canvas – vaguely suggestive of a dog’s bone, a drip trickling away from the main area of a puddle, or a curving river – which might be part of, or connected to, any of the white areas in the subsequent paintings, as in a kind of jigsaw puzzle. Though the compositions are definite entities in themselves, stark and almost monolithic, one is still left with the sense that they are only fragments, details from a much larger work. This is largely due to the placing of shapes within the frame: for example, a rounded shape appears cut off by the frame’s straight edge, before it has the chance to complete its curve. Such use of the frame is perhaps influenced by photography, though the ‘zoomed-in’, microscopic effect by no means diminishes the work’s sense of (large) scale – the powerful imposition it makes on the viewer, demanding attention, drawing one into its encompassing space. Nonetheless, of the four paintings, it is only the third that expands out the viewpoint, so that the white shape is not cut off at the edges, and we see it entire – a highly suggestive shape reminiscent at once of pastry rolled flat by a rolling pin and trailing flour behind it, an amoeba, or a cartoon angel. Once more, this shape is placed over, or within, a dark ‘background’; and, even here, its placement makes it seem as if it might be flying off towards the edge of the canvas, as if it has only just been captured in time. Here then, the white night object has become a flying thing, once again suggestive of something other than itself –the moon’s reflection, the shape stretched mid-ripple on water – but it is not that other thing precisely, not a ‘representation’ of the moon as such. Rather, the moon hovers behind this shape, this whiteness as symbol, as idea, perhaps in some sense relating to the ‘collective memory’ included in Huygen’s list of themes; both something as specifically tied to a historical period and to a set of religious concepts (crosses, church architecture) and as ‘general’ and ‘timeless’ as the moon (though of course, in itself, the moon is related to more ancient forms of religious belief) re-awaken something, functioning as imprecise symbols – symbols which long ago lost their specific, ritual or iconographical function, but which still trigger off something a species memory, and provide the possibility for the creation of a new set of images to refresh and expand on the old. As Werner Herzog puts it, “we are surrounded by images that are worn out, and I believe that unless we discover new images, we will die.” This has to do with possibility, with the entering into and creation of a space of dreaming and contemplation, a space that must in some ways be removed from direct involvement with the scientific ‘fact’ of the world (and the remnant of religious ‘truth’), that must attempt to remove itself from pre-defined ontological systems, to move into a more ecstatic realm where the relations between things and the meaning with which they are imbued become looser, more subject to change, more subject to new inscriptions that will remove the harmful legacies of past beliefs.

Perhaps this is merely what I wish to ‘read into’ the canvasses, what their particular combination of suggestiveness and abstraction brings out in me – perhaps this is why I want to see the flecks of white paint streaking and trickling down from the main body of the white shape, descending from the moon to the earth, from the realm of the non-human to the realm of the human, as ‘moonshine’: both as the moon’s reflected rays beaming, bearing down light, and as a kind of liquid emission – like the bath of light in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, or “the wine which through the eyes is drunk, flow[ing] nightly from the moon in torrents” in Albert Giraud’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire.’ It’s as if someone wished to capture some substance of the moon and to bring it to earth, like a jewel, a precious thing; and this desire – to reach upwards, and to bring back downwards the fruits of one’s exploration – seems manifested in the spindly ladder scratched into the paint in the second of Huygen’s series (an echo, perhaps deliberate, of William Blake’s engraving ‘I Want! I Want!’). At the same time, this wish is just that – an unfulfilled wish– rather than a reality. The child in Blake’s engraving has only just begun his ascent, poised on the first few rungs of the ladder, and, though there is a square shape, resembling a door, which might allow entry into Huygen’s ‘moon’, there is no human presence to use the available ladder and enter that door: both ladder and door simply sit there, inert, inactive, immobile. In any case, the ‘door’ really appears as such only in the first painting, the ladder only in the second; one has to read across the paintings to connect them, to force a stronger symbolism than that which actually exists. Huygen is not simply presenting a dreamer’s naïve desire. It is precisely because it is something outside the normal sphere of human activity and control, an object of aspiration which remains frustratingly just out of reach, that the moon can appear as so powerful a symbolic presence; because of this inaccessibility that it can remain an object onto which dreams can be projected and inscribed. And this gives a transitory, fragile quality to any such dreams – and to any such interpretations of the paintings. ‘nobody has actually been there’ might jokingly refer to conspiracy theories which suggest that the moon landings were faked; it might also literally describe the painting, the creation of a ‘landscape’, or an imagined space, to which no one can in reality go, because it does not exist, except as an imagined image. Thus, there is at once both a desire for the impossible, for that which is just out of reach – a desire to continually push the boundaries, the limits of what one is allowed to do and dream – and a realisation that this might render one simply a passive, inert dreamer. Perhaps this is the difference between painting and architecture: a building, because of its scale, its presence within a public, lived environment, is a visible contribution to the world, while a painting hangs in a corner of a room, away from prying eyes, a mere speck in that same environment. And yet, because of this, it allows greater space for experimentation and for the working-through of symbolic resonance than on a building project.

Of course, both in painting and in architecture, the artist has to work with the materials available to them – with the illusion of physical space (in painting), and with actual physical space (in architecture); with the grain of texture, with the malleability of shape, and with the varied tints of colour. If Huygen’s ‘Cactus Building’ presents itself at once as ‘alien’ and ‘natural’ (a plant swelled to monstrous size, but also a skyscraper – something monstrous in itself – made to appear more natural, more curvaceous, more flowing, bending in sympathy with nature’s hatred of rigidity), so his paintings work through theses and antitheses, contradictions, complications and intersections.
Textures and colours used may simultaneously suggest the roughness of dust and the sharp clarity of flecks of light; earth and sky, solidity and fluidity, thickness and translucency. The attempt is to give something essentially solid, a mass of immobile material, the illusion of shimmering, of movement. At the same time, Huygen’s admiration for the simplicity of form found in medieval church architecture ensures the presence of firm and clear shapes and motifs – not for him the floridity and display of statuary in the great cathedrals, but the simplicity of a roadside cross. A cross, a suggestion of skyline, of silhouette, of shadow; a night sky, a door, a window: such motifs are not used for a specific symbolic function – as with the treatment of the moon in ‘nobody has actually been there’, a whole maze of symbolism is present, but not to the forefront; rather, it lurks beneath the surface (after all, the moon itself may be only part of a wider symbolic field initiated by the paintings’ use of whiteness). There is undoubtedly much more to say about these works, but perhaps this short piece has given some inkling as to their fascinations.


Lutz Eitel said...

Very interesting! I would say from the images on his site that the moon pics hang together a little better than the rest of his stuff, where often one would be tempted to sniff out the influences of other painters more than an inherent mood. Oh, and also, I don't think the Gombrich/Baxandall approach is really irrelevant to contemporary art, it is just not applied because you will make a fool of yourself if you tried. But once the artist is safely out of the way . . . Keep on posting about art, Lutz

david_grundy said...

Thanks Lutz - following up on the post over at your blog, it's intriguing to think about the Magritte 'Ellipsis' predating pop art. I wonder if we can say that any of the paintings from that series in any way 'predicted' or even influenced what was to come?

Lutz Eitel said...

I don’t think he influenced or predicted pop (pop was so damn serious), reception really began in the early 80s, eg among the european bad painters (Dokoupil is on record as a fan). But they drew heavily on pop, and I find it kind of amazing that Magritte would hit on something so close in spirit without having that vocabulary as a resource. Only in two paintings, really, the rest can be sort of “explained away” through Picabia, Nolde (huh? that’s probably coincidence), caricature and illustrations, and the artist making fun of himself. But yes, I find that fascinating. A related example in music might be Langgaard’s Music of the Spheres from 1918, also an oddity in the composer’s work, which was cited by Ligeti as having (unbeknownst to him) anticipated a good many of his composition techniques.

david_grundy said...

Not heard the Langgaard, so will have to investigate. Thanks for the tip...