ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Damien De Lepeleire - 2017 - Alles over het portret [NL, essay],
All About Portraits
Some remarks with regard to Damien De Lepeleire’s Ife-paintings
What makes it difficult for some to understand or establish a rapport with De Lepeleire’s work, I think, is that it consists of series, each of which went hand in hand with a renewal of the form. As a result of this, its intrinsic and formal coherence is not immediately recognized by newcomers. However, those who have followed the development of this work since the beginning, know that its impressive renewal renewal of form goes hand in hand with consistency of content.
De Lepeleire’s entire oeuvre is moving, well thought-out, personal and innovative. The man doesn’t make images or illustrated thoughts, but paintings. In that respect he describes himself as a disciple of Swennen. “A painting emerges when you let go of your intentions or when something unexpected happens,” De Lepeleire explains. “The painting goes where it wants to go and it doesn’t have to apologize for doing so. That’s why I baptised my last show “Unapologetic”.”
Thematically speaking, the Ife-paintings can be seen as portraits of a number of the staggeringly beautiful, bronze Ife heads created in inner Africa between 1100 and 1500. This theme stems from earlier work. In 2005, for example, De Lepeleire made several series of watercolours and oil paintings (three of which are in the S.M.A.K. collection) based on published black and white photographs of bronzes from the Renaissance. In the water colours the gleam of the bronzes was left unpainted; in the oil paintings a thick layer of black, shiny paint was to evoke a similar effect. The Africa theme stems from fond memories of his father, Marc Delepeleire (1938-1990) who was a professor at the university of what was then Leopoldville and, on returning home, acted as guardian to the children of his African friends. Consequently, his son has always felt a close bond with Africa and grew up colour-blind.
In terms of form, these new paintings are nothing short of a tour de force. Since 1983 De Lepeleire has been looking for (different forms of) a beautiful facture, which needs to be realizable without using lashings of oil paint, because in the early days he couldn’t afford it. In the current series of paintings, too, we encounter a lovely, subtle facture, whose genesis is illegible. Each painting consists of just three colours: fluorescent orange, emerald green and a colour for the ‘background’. Where the green covers the orange, it becomes brown. The first colour to be applied was orange, to represent the vertical scars of the kings immortalized in bronze. What is extraordinary about this is that these lines of paint will seem to hover in front of the painting, where they seem to catch the light, just as shiny scars reflect the light differently from the surrounding skin. The reason this is so extraordinary is that De Lepeleire developed two new techniques for the last series of portraits (about which I am not allowed to say anything here), which enable him to treat the almost completed painting in such a way that the head seemingly starts to bulge out more and at the same time becomes a transparent, receding space. As a result the lines of orange paint stand out in front of this ‘space’, like the gleam on scars, and create a magnificent illusion of pictorial depth. Furthermore, stray traces of paint see to it that the chronology of the first two layers (the orange and the emerald green) becomes unidentifiable. Finally, the figure is surrounded by a thick and intentionally haphazardly applied ‘background’, which spills over the edges of the figure.
From my last encounter with De Lepeleire, it would appear that he is somewhat diffident because his paintings are not purely formal. As an admirer of Swennen, he believes that paintings shouldn’t mean anything. (Whereas, of course, Swennen’s paintings do say something, i.e. that they don’t want to have a definite meaning.) To my mind, De Lepeleire underestimates the strength of his own work.
By way of clarification, here I would like to refer to two relevant points which the art historian Dirk De Vos (1943) makes in his ‘Notes I’, published in 2015. The first includes the belief that the whole of Western history of art, since the reception of Greek sculpture by the Romans, has sadly been misled by the fallacy that the Greek images were originally white. For the Greeks, De Vos writes, white was an empty colour, the colour of death. And, as he seems to want to imply, an aesthetic that stems from this can only become deader and emptier. When Praxiteles was asked which he regarded as his best sculptures, he replied: “The sculptures which were coloured by Nikias.” This made me think of De Lepeleire immediately.
Dirk De Vos’ second point is implicitly linked to the last and suggests that the fifteenth century should be credited with the inception of modern, Western painting, namely when the individual portrait extricated itself from the religious representation. (The origins of the still life, the landscape and the complete figure are of a later date.) Perhaps this happened because portraits of existing people, like those who commissioned the Ghent Altarpiece, were already included in these religious representations, presumably to reinforce the ambiguity of the painting and to draw the viewer ‘into the painting’ or to involve him or her more closely. De Vos writes that the portrait “emerges as a genre almost immediately and as the ideal model for the ‘true-to-life painting’”, as the “materialization of the awareness of the perception of the world” and as a “symbol of the autonomous artwork”. The choice of a recognizable figure makes the painting no less autonomous. The same goes for De Lepeleire.
Just as the placing of realistic portraits by the Flemish Primitives in a space may have derived from the imitation of polychrome images, so, too, De Lepeleire’s portraits of bronze portraits derived from his ‘pop-ups’: cut-out reproductions of sculptures, which seem to regain their three-dimensionality. Perhaps the current series of paintings constitutes a provisional high point in De Lepeleire’s search for the visual power of flat images and ‘inferior’ reproductions and for the artistic possibilities of factures and pictorial depth. His paintings have the seemingly simple, clear facture of Luc Tuymans, the elegance and humour of Raoul De Keyser, the interplay of foreground and background, pictorial depth and differences in texture of Walter Swennen, the radically flat approach of Julien Meert and the vibration of the large drawings by Dennis Tyfus. It is high time that this exceptional oeuvre by an enduring precursor was thoroughly documented in a monograph and shared with the public and, above all, with young artists.
Montagne de Miel, February 8th 2017
Translated by Alison Mouthaan