Ilam Campus Gallery
1 - 17 August 2012
It’s theft; pure and simple. Or rather: impure, compromised, intricate. From über-goofy, old-school cartoon characters to the fugitive sheen of spray-on glue, Tjalling de Vries’ paintings splice together an array of stolen surfaces, repurposed and reimagined with an insouciant glee. Not content with mere pilfering, he breaks them up for parts, whittling down, half-erasing and finally scattering the fragments until they are shadows of their former selves.
Like sound collages or the musical ‘mash-ups’ created via sampling, the scavenged elements in de Vries’ works are combined in satisfying, if enigmatic, new forms. It is clearly not his intention to create a seamless blend; on the contrary, he wants the joins to show, to highlight the chemistry he can manufacture between these previously unrelated objects – the frisson Braque described as ‘rapport’. Airy and inventive, the resulting paintings retain the same lightness of touch that animated the series of small, improvised collages that preceded them, but even the briefest scrutiny suggests that they are anything but thrown together.
Nothing about these works is quite as we might expect it, starting with the supports on which they’re painted. Linen, of course, isn’t so unusual, but the type de Vries has chosen is a world away from the finely woven neutrality that surrenders its own identity for the Greater Painting Good. Biscuit-brown with a pronounced and open texture, it doesn’t behave like linen, doesn’t really behave at all. Adopting the pleasing workaday plainness of a notepad’s cardboard backing, pressed into service for one last sketch, it could as easily be the reverse of a painting as the front, and ironically, this everydayness is an aberrant incompatibility that marks it out for special attention. As ordinary as it is, it takes over, inserts itself, says wouldn’t you rather look at me? Paying such attention to a material that might otherwise be taken for granted is just one of many ways in which de Vries interrogates and subverts the foundations of the painting medium in order to expand its possibilities.
There are a wealth of appealing and revealing falsehoods to be uncovered in Fleischermasher; paint masquerading as paper, counterfeit corners and folds, subtle surface anomalies. For apparently simple works, they are absorbingly nuanced, their surfaces animated with a miscellany of mark-making – pencil lines, paint drips, masked edges, squeegeed colour – and complicated by a process of layering that seems designed to mislead and confound the eye. The large cartoon-inspired objects that lean across, peer out of and bustle through the compositions undermine not only any suggestion of profundity, but also conventionally-agreed collusions between the artist and viewer about the inherent logic and stability of the painting plane. In this context, the overblown, exaggerated splashdown of Doodle Duck could well function as a reminder that although cartoonists might be armed with a well-honed arsenal of visual shortcuts, painters have their own tricks to play.
The conversation these works seem to open up is one that is focussed on the very act of painting – and the word ‘act’ seems particularly appropriate here, given that de Vries implicitly draws our attention to his own role as the stager of what we see. Each seemingly casual addition brings the painting’s formal qualities – line, tone, compositional arrangements – into focus, laying them out in plain sight across the surface. It’s an approach that fits into the wider theory of expanded, or extended, painting, in which the activity once infamously pronounced dead is resurrected, not as a practice, but instead as a kind of idea or performance. In other hands, perhaps, such a self-reflexive approach might lead to paintings that turn in on themselves and away from us, but de Vries’ buoyant works don’t allow themselves to be bound too tightly in theory or any other formalities. They’re caught up instead in the banality and beauty of colour and shape, and their exuberant energy is contagious and compelling.
Those colours may pop against the bare brown ground, but they’re watered down and washed out compared with the impossibly bright hues of the comic page or the animated screen. In earlier works, de Vries rendered his appropriated imagery in spectacular, sometimes lurid, colour, so it’s something of a surprise to register the more delicate, subdued palette of these paintings. Like Sydney-based artist Sean Lowry, whose large-scale wall paintings feature well-known, appropriated symbols such as the Australian flag that are gradually obscured or ‘ghosted’ with layers of stock white paint, de Vries pushes his imagery towards the outer edge of recognition, heightening the tension between the known form and his own, out-of-context ersatz version. However diluted, dislocated and fragmented the images are, it’s still hard to avoid the brain’s automatic compulsion to sort them into some kind of rational narrative. And it’s de Vries’ understanding of that impulse, coupled with his well-placed faith in the transporting power of (deceptively) simple mark-making, that makes these works such seductively open-ended fabrications. They may carefully sidestep the obvious cymbal crash of a jokey punch-line, but they make for a fascinating set-up: So, one rainy night, Pinocchio walks into a bar, with an umbrella under one arm and a duck under the other…
Curator, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu