Turning to Stone
Having known Pieter Vermeersch for some twenty years now, and having followed his work’s development for just as long, I only now, upon seeing the works assembled in this very exhibition, have truly come to appreciate the geological dimension of his painterly practice and imagery—why he likes stones more than trees, say, or why he prefers the desert to the forest. (My personal animosity, if one can call it that, towards the idea of the desert and the ideologies of abstinence and restraint it has spawned, goes some way towards explaining why I, a traveling companion of Vermeersch’ for close to half of my life now, have always retained a measure of distance towards his work—an interested observer looking in, rather than a true inhabitant of its world.)
Two earlier works pointed the way, but only now make sense in this regard: one is a painting, untitled, made in the mid 1990s, in a representational style seemingly at odds with the signature polychrome, sfumato abstraction of his mature work—it depicts a valley in a New Zealand mountain range, with three tear-like drops of bright colour trailing across the canvas, vertically splitting the bone-dry peaks in equal parts. Another is a work I only know by way of its photographic documentation: Untitled (Speelhoven), 2003, a uorescent-yellow horizontal line—consisting of a hundred mounted meters of painted wooden panels—drawn across a clump of trees too modest to qualify as a forest. In the former, intimations of Vermeersch’ literal turn towards stone (more speci cally, marble) in later years; in the latter, the mild- mannered, coolly understated iconoclasm of a deleted landscape, the refusal of landscape painting’s most hallowed motif—the forest of Gothic, northern lore.
The primary function of marble as material in this new suite of paintings is no longer that of a mere carrier (something to paint on), but rather as a grounding counterpoint to Vermeersch’ ethereal, immaterial concerns (something to paint against): here is a painter of pure colour and light, of evaporation and the imagosphere, who, in turning to stone, confronts, embraces even, the intractable physicality of the world, and life’s, basic components—stuff, with stone being the hardest, least pliable of all the world’s stuff. (There may be sobering biographical reasons for this turn, but I’ll leave those unnamed.) Although “struggle” is, generally speaking, the last word that comes to mind when re ecting upon Vermeersch’ seemingly effortless practice, these paintings indeed attest to a willed con ict of sorts: marble as the world’s stubborn remainder, and a reminder of the futility of every attempt to paint matter away. And to return to the matter of effort: the large-scale canvases that centrally feature a deliberate wipe-like intrusion at their heart likewise dramatize a tension heretofore absent, one is inclined to speculate, from the artist’s work—arch-physical irruptions or interventions in the smooth, weightless continuum of Vermeersch’ well-known ephemeral palette.
What I imagine draws Vermeersch to stone, to a species of geological imaginary, is the earthen elements’ singular power in conjuring the profound cosmic absurdity of what we so lazily, unthinkingly call “time”. It is what I think of, in any case, whenever I nd myself on a beach made up of pebbles rather than sand, or when walking along a rock cliff, or holding a crystal in my hand, or gazing at mountains and marvelling at a display of minerals in any old museum of “natural history” (a telling contradiction, that). This one pebble on a lakefront in Yellowstone National Park for instance—how long has it really been lying there, and how long has it been in existence already? And more pointed and poignantly still, how many more aeons will it continue to exist after mankind has been wiped out? A lonely boulder in the Rockies: so in nitely “old”, mutely ridiculing everything ever made by human hands—and, it is worth remembering, that evidently includes all art—with its very age. (That’s another thing about stones: how silent they are. And silence, it is worth noting, has been called the prayer of the desert.) Lifting these slabs of marble from the bosom of the earth, so to speak, Vermeersch’ brush leaves a mark, disarming in its transience, on a slice of time. Nothing more: a thousand years from now, the Sistine chapel will most likely be rubble, some of it hopefully still sporting the faint traces of a by then fully forgotten master’s hand.
I do not know what Pieter Vermeersch thinks of Agnes Martin, but let us assume that her well-publicized love of the desert, exempli ed in a life of creative isolation led in various villages in northern New Mexico for more than 40 years, half-justi es my invoking the spectre of her work in this text’s concluding paragraph. Last year, I managed to see a large-scale retrospective of her work in Düsseldorf—predictably touching of course (I am a believer, though just as much an outside observer looking in), though it is a Martin quote put up large-lettered at the exhibition’s beginning that has stuck with me most: “When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not just in the eye. It is in the mind. It is our positive response to life.” It admittedly takes some courage to talk beauty in contemporary art (or in the world at large for that matter), and this may account for a de nite charge of conceptual courage coursing through Vermeersch’ work as a whole, avowedly obstinate in its attachment to aesthetic questions above all else. Perhaps this aestheticism may at one point have been something of a liability, but no longer: call it the non-negotiable, mortifying beauty of a stone.