ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Johan De Wilde - 2020 - De schaduwtijd [EN, essay]
The Shadow Time of π, Requiem and Pars pro toto
On Johan De Wilde’s work
Yesterday we sat together again, two visibly ageing, brooding men, hiding the darkest corners of our souls from one another, building bridges to meet the other, the secret brother, referring to books, pieces of music or works of art, some of which we both know. I’ve often talked with Johan De Wilde (b. 1964), whom I first met eleven or twelve years ago. Yet I have never converted one of our conversations into a readable report for outsiders, commonly referred to as an ‘interview’. Why not? Because conversations containing references to difficult books look conceited on paper and can hardly reflect the fact that we have actually read these things, and that we do not quote them to make an impression, but because they are the building blocks of our thoughts and feelings. Yesterday, for example, we were talking about a book I had never heard of, in which the German philologist Victor Klemperer dissects the language of the Nazis (and of the journalists and politicians of the day, who in their familiar and vulgar way, conceal, refuse to name or twist things in an attempt to hide the fact that the world is actually uncontrollable). We also spoke about The End of the World Through Black Magic by Karl Kraus; a book by Max Frisch that consists entirely of questions; Jasper and his Servant by Gerbrand Bakker, which is published by Privé-domein; and the free jazz record Free Fall by Jimmy Giuffre. I haven’t read these books and do not know Giuffre’s music, but De Wilde can convincingly describe what these works mean to him. And as I listen, my loneliness evaporates.
I experienced the same feeling when I saw his most recent works, some of which are continuations of series that date back years. One ensemble is based on haunting dream images. Today, a drawing has tumbled out that represents the hips of an earth-green Jesus wearing striped underpants. These stripes are also present in a work from 1993, comprising dozens of seascapes painted in horizontal lines of oil paint (changing views of a Norwegian fjord). And they also occur, again in an adapted form, in the endless score made up of coloured bars, which is a direct translation of the number π (the colours of the lines are derived from a sunset: presumably an image that everyone loves). Looking at all the works on display in the studio today, my suspicions are once again confirmed: artists do not need to look for a style of their own, because they already possess a ‘form vision’ (as Henry Moore coined it) which, actually, they cannot escape. We see numerous breakout movements and new stories, but the ultimate form cannot be steered.
And our images and ideas, do they allow themselves to be steered? Jimmy Giuffre’s album Free Fall was originally going to be called Yggdrasil. ‘Yggdrasil’ is the Norwegian tree of life, which is perhaps based on the yew (taxus). Yew trees are incredibly long-lived. Sometimes, their trunks become hollow and a new shoot grows in this space, sheltered by the old bark. A phenomenon that makes the tree seem immortal. The tree is also evergreen, which is why we call it sempervirens. Eternally alive, but also poisonous. And because of its toxicity, it can also be used as a medicine. In the past, bows were made of yew wood. According to Wikipedia, the name ‘taxus’ (yew) is derived from the Greek τόξο (toxo) which means ‘bow’ (and from which the word ‘toxic’ is also derived). But perhaps it was the other way around, and the bow was named after the tree, which was also lethal? Giorgio Colli (in The Birth of Philosophy) notes that the Greek words for ‘bow’ (βιός) and ‘life’ (βίος) consist of the same sounds (only the emphasis differs). The God with the bow (Apollo) therefore becomes the God of life, but also of death. In Fragment 51, Herakleitos talks about ‘a combination of opposing forces, as in the case of the bow and the lyre’. The lyre is the second of Apollo’s attributes. We can see why: because the words for ‘bow’ and ‘life’ sound the same, and the formal resemblance between a bow and a lyre generates a useful, ambiguous image, one in which life, death and art converge.
For Requiem, an enchanting series of drawings that began as a form of healing and protection for the ailing art historian Tanguy Eeckhoudt, De Wilde made drawings that started out as traces of yew twigs or bamboo shoots. Something unexpected happens here, because just by printing these precise, recognisable objects, soaked in acrylic paint, a shapeless form arises, a stain. In numerous later drawings, we also see how this stain or blob takes on a life of its own and even appears in a dreamscape.
The Pars pro toto series is based on Fra Angelico’s frescoes in the San Marco Monastery in Florence. Each drawing represents a particle of colour from one of the frescoes. The colour is represented as an enlarged pixel, framed by the four edges of the adjacent pixels. The pixel has the same ratio as the original fresco. But because the murals don’t have the same proportions as the cardboard supports (A1, A2, A4 or A6), residual grey areas occur, the sizes of which very according to the fresco’s dimensions. These empty spaces are naturally part of the drawing and are covered with the same pencil stripes as the ‘actual’ representation, so that the edges of the coloured areas contain pigment lines that seem to have overrun. This gives rise to ‘ghost images’ or ‘after-images’ in the corners, which are the result of unsightly particles of pigment being carried along by the pencil as the drawing is completed.
This series touches me the most. The drawings behave like icons: like sacred objects, charged by centuries of devotional use. They also function like mirrors on painting. De Wilde relates that he has made three visits to the monastic cells at San Marco. On his most recent trip, in May of last year, he walked straight to the first floor at half past eight in the morning, in order to visit the chambers in peace and quiet. One of the things that struck him at the time was the tiny window next to each fresco, an opening that looks out onto an ever-changing world, one in which people used to crap on the street, the first tramways once thundered through and where, today, thousands of tourists jostle one another and nibble at soggy paninis like walking, dressed-up rodents. The Pars pro toto drawings add a third window to this: an enlarged area of colour that presents itself as a vanishing depth, an openness. But also as a new form that is reminiscent of Mondrian’s famous paintings that are divided into planes. (I say this, not the artist.) The drawings are meta-paintings (paintings that speak of painting), but they are also objects that evoke a spiritual attitude to life. They remind me not only of Mondrian, but also of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross or Bernd Lohaus’ works with wood or brown tape: minimal, but not minimalist.
The young author and poet Vincent Van Meenen (b. 1989) recently directed me to the essay ‘Bégaya-t-il’ [He Stuttered] by Gilles Deleuze. In this text, Deleuze explains that writers like Kafka or Beckett renew and broaden literature by making the language itself stutter: ‘What they do, rather, is invent a minor use of the major language within which they express themselves entirely; they minorize this language… they are great writers by virtue of this minorization: they make the language take flight, they send it racing along a witch’s line, ceaselessly placing it in a state of disequilibrium, making it bifurcate and vary in each of its terms, following an incessant modulation. This exceeds the possibilities of speech and attains the power of the language, or even of language in its entirety. This means that a great writer is always like a foreigner in the language in which he expresses himself, even if it is his native tongue. At the limit he draws his strength from a mute and unknown minority that belongs only to him. He is a foreigner in his own language. He does not mix another language with his own language, he carves out a nonpreexistent foreign language within his own language. He makes the language itself scream, stutter, stammer or murmur.’
I think the same can be said of Pars pro toto.
‘As I draw,’ says De Wilde, ‘I think of the activities of people in the outside world. Outside, time flows. Inside, it seems to stand still. Each pencil line becomes a unit of time. Every drawing represents a shadow time.’
Unity of time, unity of colour, unity of form: the artist comes ever closer to a form of muteness that says everything. And we see and hear him.
Montagne de Miel, 21 August 2020
Translated by Helen Simpson