Carole Vanderlinden - 2014 - Deux pieds sur terre et deux en l'air [FR, essay]
Two feet on the ground and two in the air
A few words about the work of Carole Vanderlinden
You cannot fail to be moved by Carole Vanderlinden’s paintings. They are direct, compact, powerful and amusing. They are disarming. They are a nod to the history of art. They are very rich, but also very simple.
I first met Carole Vanderlinden at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, where she was trying to improve the stretch of a canvas. She was surprised to see me walk round the painting and also study the back of it. Several years later I was struck by a wonderful, sensual, minimal painting consisting mainly of a pale section on which the image of a snow-covered conifer was evoked by a play of added, tremulous, splodgy lines and glimpses of a golden ground. Beautifully painted, subtle and moving.
I asked the artist why she thought I had found the conifer painting so affecting. “Perhaps because I see masses”, she answered, “rather than flat planes or contours. In this painting I may have managed to evoke a mass.”
Vanderlinden’s paintings always look different despite recurrent elements such as oblique passe-partouts, plant motifs, skies and expanses of water, contrasts between thick and thin or matt and shiny painted sections and textures which give the impression of having created a ‘vista’. Some paintings could be an amusing take on the work of Fernand Léger.
I am very keen on the black on black paintings in which matt and shiny sections alternate. Sometimes she combines paint with Indian ink, sometimes she makes ivory black matt by mixing it with Shellsol.
All in all, her paintings appear to be sober settings for minor, sensual accidents which, once noticed, monopolize your attention, but then retreat coyly: a spot, a flowing element in an geometrically constructed painting, or a colour which suddenly takes on a seemingly luminous quality.
Her palette takes up an entire table. The layer of paint evolves from two to seven centimetres thick. On the right the blue; on the left the red, the green and the yellow; in the middle burgundy, purple and brown.
What does she think should be discussed in this article? “I think you should write something about the olfactory pleasure”, she says, “about the joy I feel and the memories which flood over me in my studio when, for example, I open a new tube and first smell the fresh colour. Every day I use materials I used as a child and they trigger an endless succession of associations. I would also like you to write something about what my art might become.”
The first painting is portrait format, it measures 140 by 101 cm and has a gold-coloured background. On the left and right sides we see a succession of greenish blue, all slightly different coloured squares, flanking the golden middle field like Brancusi columns. Look more closely, however, and you see that on the ‘gold-coloured’ background, which has evidently been lightly mixed with dirty Shellsol, a brighter gold spot appears. And then we discover more spots, wine-coloured, brick-coloured and coral-red, which without being conspicuous, without standing out, besmear or erode both the background and the figures. “I often think of Per Kirkeby,’ says Vanderlinden, “who says somewhere that he always begins a painting by painting a brick wall, until a hole in the wall reveals the potential for a painting. Here I have reversed the procedure by first painting a hole and then adding the tiles. The tiled motif comes from a tiled wall I saw in Sintra in Portugal and from the sculptures Carl Andre made based on the work of Brancusi. The squares are supposed to evoke the illusion of perspective.”
A second painting shows two figures against a pink background. The figures are suggested by several surfaces. In the place where their bodies are, the pink background has been sanded. We don’t know if the characters are fighting or dancing; there are only two feet on the ‘ground’. Vanderlinden tells me that she always paints in oils and always begins by preparing the canvas. And this is apparent in her studio. Wherever you look you see beautifully-prepared canvasses waiting. “Those canvasses may be there for years,” she tells me, “until they kindle something in me. I wait for a solution, which may take the form of a new stance or a projection. It always comes as a surprise. Or it may be a physical and visual relationship between me and the painting, a sort of power relationship or dialogue, or the solution might come to me outside the studio, in a sudden flash… Often my works are overpaintings. I also love different formats and different starting points when I do drawings… It’s a pity you noticed that the canvas had been sanded. Those are the only places I didn’t touch up. Actually I sanded down the whole canvas and then reworked it. Pretty well all the colours you see, the black, the lilac, the greens, I repainted to create that sort of fake gradation. The hat consists of turquoise blue, painted with old pink. The greens include pine green and mint green. The lilac spot on the shoulder came afterwards. The figures derive from a very old drawing I have always kept, but also from several classical paintings and from photographs featuring moving figures. Would you like to see the drawing?”
Parc du Cinquantenaire
The artist and I pay a visit to the Cinquantenaire Museum (Royal Museums of Art and History) in Brussels. We pass the galleries containing works from classical antiquity and begin our walk with early American art, stopping in front of a rug by the Navajo people. The rug is striped and bordered with zigzag lines and we are instantly reminded of a recurrent motif in Vanderlinden’s paintings. We then come to a buffalo skull inlaid with a mosaic of turquoise stones around 1960. We also see flat Mexican figures resembling ‘speculaas’ biscuits. “It’s flat,” says Vanderlinden, “but it’s alive. They had no idea what a body really looked like on the inside, and their images are fascinating rather than anatomically correct. I often come here to draw.” And so our walk leads us from tree bark carpets decorated with geometric patterns of triangles and diamonds from the Fiji islands to a carpet made of tree bark material on the Samoan islands, which the label tells us is: “c 19, decorated entirely by hand; the artist did not work from a plan but from the inspiration of the moment. The surface was divided by horizontal and vertical lines. The links thus created were filled with dark-coloured series of triangles, alternating with floral motifs.”
I see tempera on canvas from the Himalayas, a painted panel by the Shoshone group of North American Indians (ca. 1900) depicting bisons, a tent, two women dancing and a warrior on a blue horse. Decorated drums from the Sioux tribe made of wood and animal skin, end nineteenth century. A shield belonging to the same people which comprises a representation of a horse that is half hidden behind a carpet held up by a woman with a lovely, sharp profile. A man’s shirt and fallow-deer leggings with glass beads and triangular motifs. A leather bag embellished with pink, red, green, blue, black or dark-blue glass beads. Egyptian mummy portraits painted on wood, second and third century AD. An unknown goddess with the head of an eagle, fifth century BC. Alabaster canopic jars from 1550 to 1080 BC. Eighteenth-century glazed biscuit ware from Tournai, polychrome soft-paste porcelain. Decorated boxes of hard-paste porcelain from Berlin – also eighteenth-century –, a pink camaïeu landscape depicted on the inside of its lid. Old playing cards. A leather wall covering featuring flower and plant motifs, a veneered dressing table set with brass and tortoiseshell on a vermillion ground… And so on. All these objects contain abstract, floral or other motifs repeatedly found in Vanderlinden’s work which therefore sometimes calls to mind work by modern artists who in their turn have been inspired by early art or who have arrived at ‘modern’ abstract motifs in some other way. Often Vanderlinden is enthralled by these objects because of the questions they raise. How were they created? In what setting? Who made them? When, how and why? We could well ask the same questions about her work.
Thinking of Vanderlinden’s fascination with early art and folk art, how this fascination has led to sketchbooks and scrapbooks and how they have sometimes resulted in autonomous paintings, reminds me of Gustave Flaubert of whom it was said that he cut down a forest to make a toothpick, but then in the spirit of his celebrated heroes Bouvard and Pécuchet who tried to master every branch of knowledge of their time. For, indeed, what also seems to fascinate Vanderlinden in this inexhaustible profusion of artefacts is the futile attempt of artists and craftsmen to acquire knowledge or to gain an understanding of the world or nature by means of these objects. Leaf through her sketchbooks or take a closer look at her library and you cannot fail to notice that her real fascination is with all aspects of nature, whether animals, crystals, mountains or plants. Not only has she been a loyal visitor to the Cinquantenaire Museum since the age of fifteen, but she also loves scientific museums and the way they present nature in dioramas. Hence the range of her interests: from medieval miniatures – in which the world is naively presented – through sixteenth-century drawings in which the world is meticulously observed for the first time since antiquity, to all manner of abstract and figurative folklore in which the old knowledge-gap still surreptitiously exists. Once we have penetrated these ancient worlds, we begin to recognize fragments of them in Vanderlinden’s paintings and we understand that they celebrate a sort of sacred unknowingness, or a laborious ascent from the darkness while drawing, as an account of the bumbling history of science, but also as an account of artists making their mark.
I ask Vanderlinden about her favourite artists and she mentions Giotto, Breughel, Cranach, Patinir, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse, Ensor and Fernand Léger. Gauguin because of the robustness of his forms and colours, his surfaces and the characteristic way he reproduced light, his hardness and sincerity, which go hand in hand with a great sensuality, and his habit of working from memory and thus eliminating as much as possible; Van Gogh because of the apparent chaos and the hidden structures, but also because of his sensuality; Cézanne because of his brutality, the way you seem to be able to penetrate ever further into his paintings and because of his very own violet-like blue which is anything but cold. Three painters about whom there is something robust, who take a no-frills approach to their work, who don’t resort to anecdotes or stories. Patinir because of a contrastive quality: his finesse, the way he places characters in a landscape in such a way that they become part of it, his greens and blues. Cranach also because of his finesse, his imagination and his psychological interpretation which never becomes caricatural. Ensor because of his images which stay with you and because of his associations and contrasting use of very personal colours.
Six women’s heads
So far Vanderlinden has made six paintings with a woman’s head as the subject. In each case we have a central figure who seems to be painted on top of a background. However, sometimes the top layer of the ‘background’ was applied at the end. In each case the thickness and rawness of the facture seem to indicate that other paintings are concealed underneath. In all the paintings an important role is reserved for green, blue or violet. Red appears in four works. In two portraits the face is flagrantly broken up into two different coloured blocks (red and white, green and broken white), representing a lit side and a shaded side. In three other portraits similar blocks of colour seem to lead a life of their own. In one case something resembling a mask is created in this way, in a second work they are floating fragments in front of the figure which are amusingly reminiscent of Cézanne, in a third work they are two detached cheeks. In one work half the face is yellowy white, while the hair is eroded into waves by a similar, pale background. Other shades of white return in the collar and the geometric pattern on the dress. Four gradations of a similar, pale colour. In another painting we recognize two lengths of bunting (a succession of semi-circles) which seem to continue behind the figure. The blue background changes hue under the lower strip of bunting, creating the illusion of a deeper space behind it. Refined and amusing. One portrait evokes the work of Paul Klee, another seems to reference Oriental painting. The sixth portrait, in which the face seems to have been brushed away, could be a humorously unsuccessful work by Richter (who has brushed slightly too hard). The playfulness with which pictorial depth and fascinating factures are created here by means of colour, composition and texture, contrasts with the characters’ sad, angst-ridden or expressionless faces. If the paintings are as playful and amusing as I think, then they can only be self-portraits when time and time again the artist manages to pull herself up by the hair out of the morass. If they aren’t self-portraits, then they are memoires of a depressive mother. But enough about that. After all, they are first and foremost paintings. Let’s just say that they are both dark and light-footed.
The artist asked me to write something about what her painting might become. That is of course impossible. A developing contemporary oeuvre is by nature unpredictable. Only in that way can it be innovative. If you follow an artist’s work, you always hope that the day will come when things get easier. You don’t want the work to change, but you do want the artists to find a way to embrace the strange evolution of their work. “With both Van Gogh and Ensor you first have to overcome a sort of repugnance,” says Vanderlinden. And we gather that she sometimes experiences the same when looking at her own paintings, which occasionally defy the borders of ugliness so as to emerge as new additions to our reality. It is as if they have emanated from dark, shapeless, moving matter, which is reflected in the often rigid, wrenched together texture of the painting until our eye becomes accustomed to the sensual, plastic, flowing, illuminating and dancing elements which seem to give the world equilibrium, albeit momentarily.
Montagne de Miel, November 8th 2014