ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Robbin Heyker - 2020 - Het spaarzame schilderen [EN, essay]
On the work of Robbin Heyker
I first met Robbin Heyker (b. 1976) in 2014, during the preparations for his solo exhibition Zarrow Shuffle. Since then, I have visited his studio on several occasions and have increasingly come to appreciate both the man and his work. We look at his paintings together, each one of which contributes, in its own unique way, to a steadily growing oeuvre. With a soft voice, he relates the formula that underpins each work. His fingers and lips move in a precise manner. He moves, speaks and smokes like a dandy: a man who knows how to open a nineteenth-century umbrella elegantly or crack a sophisticated safe without making much noise. As a young man, he learned magic tricks to the point where, watching his reflection in a mirror, he was dumbstruck himself. Today, he conjures up fleet-footed, nimble-fingered paintings that, due to the minimal use of materials, make the act of painting itself visible.
Painting as a reflection on painting
Of course, reflecting upon painting by making paintings departs from immeasurable passions, a trained eye, rhythms, habits, ideas, insights, stories, experience and a familiarity with materials and techniques. But it also departs from art history: from works that have touched, vexed, helped, obstructed or otherwise influenced the artist.
If you want to do this in a clear way (so that your thoughts are readable afterwards, as is the case with a philosophical discourse), you can limit the number of means used, such as colours, patterns and textures. It can also help if these means are not motivated by strictly aesthetic or emotional considerations, but by a well-chosen coincidence. It is true that aesthetic or emotional motives also lie behind this ‘coincidence’, as they lie behind all our resolutions or lapses, but choices that are based on some kind of logic increase the legibility of the subsequent decisions. In Heyker’s case, the choices stem primarily from his past as a birdwatcher and magician, and from his love of the ‘quick fix solutions’ that he observes in Beijing, where he has been living for six months a year since 2010.
At the time of writing, Heyker is in Thailand. We speak to each other every day. Over the past few weeks, he has occasionally mentioned a bird whose song he couldn’t identify. A few days ago, he saw it perched in a tree but, lit from behind, only its silhouette was visible. After some searching, he stumbled across a website about the birds of Thailand that included recordings of their songs. Which is how he discovered that it was a kingfisher. As you will subsequently read, he once made a painting using the colours of the common kingfisher.
“It’s either the black-capped kingfisher,” he says, “or the white-collared one. The black-capped kingfisher has six different colours, including a velvety blue-purple that I’d love to paint. The colouring of the white-collared kingfisher is completely different: emerald green-blue and a light pink beak. I hope it’s the black-capped kingfisher, because then I can use that colour palette. Unless, of course, I allow myself to cheat.”
Heyker has always drawn and painted. While studying graphic design, he came across a painting by Baselitz that inspired him to study painting. In art school, he came to admire the work of Raoul De Keyser. After graduating, he made a number of portraits of stuffed birds because he was just as drawn to heavy, charged paintings as he was to a sparse skin of paint, and saw this discord reflected in the mimetic illusion of the stuffed animal. I suspect he was testing how to evoke great intensity with thinner, less grandiloquent paintings, and that, noting art forms stripped of pathos and progressive thinking, such as Harmony Korine’s ‘empty’ films and elements of skate culture, increasingly wanted to tether his work to his personal fascination with the appearance and disappearance of objects and the meagre birth of the painting. This fascination was formed early on through his passion for birdwatching and love of magic.
Elsewhere, I wrote that Heyker sees some kind of similarity between skateboarding and painting. You invent a trick and give it back to the community. Thus the skater Rodney Mullen invented thirty-three tricks, which can now be practiced by others and combined with other ‘tricks’. Aren’t all life forms a trick of nature, a way of disguising the same building blocks differently over and over again?
The bright colours and large tails of male birds are an accidental fruit of evolution, because the most striking males are more successful in attracting the opposite sex. The females, in turn, are much less conspicuous: thanks to their brown or grey feathers they are less likely to be spotted by predators, especially during the breeding season. The more they blend in with the surrounding shrubs, snow or rocks, the greater their chances of survival (and thus of having offspring with inconspicuous colours). Here, coincidence and necessity meet in the selection of colour combinations.
Birdwatching demands a great deal of practice and a ‘search image’, as it was called by Tijs Goldschmidt: you can only see something when you ‘know’ exactly what it looks like. But the same goes, of course, for magic tricks: the magician tries to prevent you from seeing what actually happens. And the spectator’s excitement is born of the desire to ‘discover’ what is going on. A young man who is fascinated by both these fields must also be a fascinated viewer…
Quick fix and modernity
Heyker combines these old passions with the ‘quick fix’ solutions he notices in the Chinese streets: improvised constructions in which certain materials are used regardless of their original function and thereby provoke a kind of shift in the street scene and in our conventional way of thinking.
For example, the wheels of cars are protected from peeing dogs by clamping a piece of cardboard against them with the help of a boulder, brick or other heavy object, and draughty windows are often shielded with a piece of plastic film, which is attached with slats or other accessories that happen to be in stock. Aesthetic concerns are never an issue as these are purely functional solutions. Heyker endeavours to make paintings in the same way.
In Belgium, the quick fix is called bricolage and is erroneously considered to be a typically ‘Belgian’ artistic technique. The best description of bricolage can be found in the introduction to Wild Thought by the Frenchman Claude Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss needed the description here because he wanted to assert that myths are ‘bricolaged’: that they comprise fragments of other stories (for example, the collected knowledge of plants and animals) that have been stripped of their original meaning. Bricolage (or quick fix) is a beautiful image because it reveals the contingency of our thoughts and actions. In this sense, it is diametrically opposed to modernist thought, which is based on the conviction that everything can be explained or approached rationally.
To summarise, these seem to be two different approaches to the concept of functionality. With bricolage, materials, objects and techniques are considered separate from their original ‘function’ and are used to make something ‘work’. In modernism, which is mythical thinking, the architect dreams that he or she knows how a building can be made ‘functional’. The same pseudo-scientific thinking, determined by a concealed ideology, has led to horrendous situations in the political world.
In architecture, design and painting, however, modernism also led to an exceptional clarity and legibility that has facilitated many innovations and opened up a new breathing space. Perhaps Lévi-Strauss’ definition of bricolage (which dates back to the early 1960s) would not even have been possible without the preceding modernism. We might say that a naive attempt at clarity of thought has led to the discovery of an ‘impure’ way of thinking, one that fortuitously appeared to be effective, thus enabling the survival of all the peoples and cultures that still existed in the twentieth century.
All cultures consist of a limited number of building blocks, which have been combined in such a way that they have led to survival. The same can be said of natural evolution. And perhaps also about painting. Stumbling, testing, groping, tinkering, dreaming, fantasising – the painter thinks onwards, creating forms that allow for an interaction with an inner reality, with the surrounding world and with painting itself.
Those who know one species of kingfisher will consider a second type to be a kind of quick fix solution: a botched attempt at quickly evoking the image of a kingfisher. And in a certain sense, I believe we can look at Heyker’s paintings in a similar way: they seem like quick fix solutions that make us believe we are looking at a real painting, and therefore also a kind of magic trick that seeks to evoke the same illusion. Which is precisely why they are paintings about painting. And at the same time, they appear as icons, as captured moments that speak of the passage of time. Time spent looking, trying, trying again, eliminating oneself, stepping back, acting economically.
To summarise, Heyker creates sophisticated paintings that, by means of their economical construction, allow their genesis to be read and make the pleasure of painting visible.
Parakeets, colour palettes and thinness
Heyker’s oeuvre, in its current form, began with several paintings based on a work by Daan Van Golden that features a parakeet (appropriated from a reproduction of a work by Matisse). Heyker copied the silhouette of Van Golden’s parakeet, but subsequently painted it out by going over it with a roller. As colours, he selected the whiteboard-marker shades of red and blue. Another colour palette that he used from time to time was based on the tones he discovered in a make-up set. These hues were combined with simple motifs, such as a ‘hairdo’ or the painter’s initials. He also mixed the ‘painting out’ of the parakeets with the overpainting of placards in China (usually with grey paint). The nice thing about this overpainting, he thought, is that the grey is always a slightly different shade to the colour of the walls. Which results in some beautiful ‘greyscales’.
‘As an artist in residence in Beijing,’ he says, ‘one day, while painting, I had the feeling that I was juggling. As a young man, I wanted to become a magician. In my attic room, I honed my dexterity and taught myself tricks. At a certain point, you master a trick and magic is created before your eyes, although you know perfectly well it’s a trick. One day, in China, my work felt exactly the same way and, later on, I consciously sought this out. Now that I’m working in series, I try to let the trick unfold itself. I also like it when you can reread the painting and that it’s accessible but has lost none of its magic’.
Since 2014, and following on from his meticulous, often obsessive pursuits, Heyker has been trying to leave behind as little ‘painting’ as possible. ‘I don’t know exactly where it comes from,’ he says, ‘but I can never tolerate too much paint. If it’s on something, I want to take it off again. I don’t want to overly contaminate things with paint.’ The advantage of this working method is not only that the genesis of the works remains legible, but also that the act of removing the paint from the canvas creates a unique signature: a kind of humble, clumsy, funny type of finish.
The ancient Chinese art form of the ‘scholar stone’ or gongshi consists of contemplating found stones that have been eroded by water. The artistic intervention is limited to sculpting a wooden pedestal into which the stone fits, so that it receives a ‘direction’. (Certain examples have two or three pedestals.) The stones have erratic shapes or contain openings, which implies that their forms can radically change in the shifting sunlight and shadows. They are mini-cinemas that are not only able to conjure up different images, but also raise doubts about their own solidity and imperishableness. The stones speak of a slow decay and the illusion of an identity. Ego is completely absent. The artist acts with self-restraint. I sense something similar in Heyker’s work.
The gongshi tradition teaches us about the possibility of developing art forms that are not anecdotal, biographical or pamphleteering. Of course, such forms were already developed in ancient Greece and refined during the Middle Ages in Europe, and of course many beautiful, minimal artworks have been made since the 1960s, but today more than ever it seems necessary to extract art from the interpretative urges of bookworms, and I look with interest at artists who dare to give shape to a ‘near-nothingness’ that, through its sparsity, offers a lucid reflection on what art can be, and can mean to us, in an almost meaningless way. And Heyker is such an artist. Liberated from pathos and pomposity, he examines what painting can be if it wants to exist as little as possible. And about what an artistic attitude might comprise if it aspires to be well-grounded, inventive, dextrous, readable, spiritual and courteous.
Montagne de Miel, 26 June 2020