Thursday 23 May 2019

Raoul de Keyser: 'Oeuvre'?

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
     green stuff woven.

 -Walt Whitman, Song of Myself 6 (A child said, What is the grass?)

Originally staged at S.M.A.K, Ghent, now travelling on to co-organizers Pinakothek der Moderne Sammlung Moderne Kunst, Munich, ‘Oeuvre’ is the largest yet survey of works by Raoul de Keyser. Around 100 works spanning the 1960’s to the artist’s death in 2012 are on view. 

Though his reputation may seem long since assured and assimilated, the retrospective is a reminder that we should never take such things as read. The show could equally be titled ‘Oeuvre?’- the seemingly banal, functional title masking an implicit sense of questioning that is entirely appropriate for the artist.

De Keyser emerged from the 1960’s milieu of Roger Raveel’s New Vision- a distinctive Belgian mixture of pop, daily life, suburbia- which for him morphed into a tentative abstraction. Early pictures of sports fields with white lines painted in the grass (seen as wry, mischievous critiques of the era’s formalism, flaunting the ‘rules’), would recur throughout a career in which he more or less consistently explored a wavering balance of abstraction/figuration for the next 40 years. 

The apparently hesitant qualities of early forays into more emphatically abstract territory are often seen to betray a certain amateurism. Yet it’s a quality he would, with sophistication, retain and cultivate throughout the decades. For the ‘Sunday Painter’ connotation is also one of the artist engaged with pleasure, with delight in the doing (and learning). Or, with the slightly more desperate notion that one is painting on the Sunday as a refuge from the week. He doesn’t merely commemorate nor strictly satirize the Good Life in the early pictures of tents, recreational vehicles, garden hoses, window latches, but expresses an ambivalence in regard to home comforts, which can equally be about pleasure and banality, constriction and escape. Gampelaere Surroundings (1967), with its famous close-up of barbed wire against pastoral field, has a typical bite to it, though the theme is explored with more subtlety across the years. Window latches later morph, movingly, into a walking stick (To Walk, 2012). Held up against a provisional suggestion of a country lane rendered in extreme perspective (expressed with a simple off-centre ‘X’ in wasco crayon), the mobility aid is both conveyer and barrier/impediment. 

Similarly, the ‘abstracts’ are often somehow wilfully domestic (a kind of precocious ‘back-room’ formalism), carried out in one or two colours, frequently on small stretchers. There’s a stumbling sense of yearning to understand, to do-well, though in truth it’s a radical rethink of what ‘doing-well’ might be, in pictorial terms. This balance of real pleasure with real criticality and real expression is what separates de Keyser from the cul de sacs of ‘painting’s impossibility’: he wants to go on being surprised by painting’s life, not its death. And indeed, Sunday Painting places emphasis on the activity of painting- pottering around no bad thing.

Except of course that works of such modest ambition- if they are modest in ambition- could easily drown in a retrospective of this size.

The truth is that the work is ambitiously various in terms of atmosphere and thematic depth- and the current show does a pretty good job of showing that. De Keyser is a tricky proposition for a big museum as he flaunts institutional qualities of scale and thematic ‘bigness’, without demonstrably making a fetish of smallness and intimacy.

The various rooms are now and then chronological. The first begins appropriately enough with the ‘60s pictures, alongside the free-standing, stretched linen ‘sculptures’ from that decade (part tent/goalpost, part upturned crash-mat) gathered fairly close together to give a slightly period feel (or perhaps that of a gymnasium, a ‘workout’ room). But this is a feint: the show quickly starts to unravel into thematic groupings, while maintaining a general feeling of progression and expansion through the decades.

The potential problems are more to do with the sheer size of the presentation. There is a valid question of whether a museum-scale retrospective is the best way to experience de Keyser- frequently domestic in size if not ambition. 

The paintings are often best encountered when hung to the rhythm of less neutral rooms, as they were when spread sporadically throughout the converted residential interior of Edinburgh’s Inverleith House in 2015 (see below). The present show similarly comes to life most when the white cube is relaxed. Architects Robbrecht and and Daem- who have created several exhibition spaces for the artist since Documenta IX in 1992- have built ‘walls’ within the walls of the central room: held up by MDF posts and made of builder’s gyprock, their papery, flecked and pulped surface vibrates with the paintings, letting his whites particularly sing. The installation here is utterly sympathetic to the painter’s sense of utilitarian construction and play (the paintings sit in a subtle grid of joints and screws, mirroring his frequent exposal or acknowledgment of the stretcher bar). The room, entered in Ghent through a separate door and with works darting from year to year, is a revelation- elastically hung with de Keyser’s precise sense of élan.  

De Keyser spent a career experimenting with ‘hangs’; a constant process of staging and photographing faux-exhibitions in his studio; leaning paintings against walls, hanging them with blunt hook devices; putting them outside or in trees. Indeed, the question of ‘Oeuvre?’- what it might constitute, its fluidity, how individual works create ripples and eddies in the larger body which can support and extend those works in turn- seems to have been central to his project.

These questions, pertinent for any artist, are especially invited by de Keyser’s particularly self-sustaining practice. New works are created from off-cuts, or based on the debris left by lino-cutting, or are preoccupied with example and ‘iteration’ generally. I suspect certain paintings may have been made as gap-fillers in his studio hangs. Not out of formula, but a push to expand formally, spurned on by the need for something red, or longer, or more emphatically tonal, say. These studio arrangements, obsessively documented by the artist (and reproduced in the comprehensive catalogue), see him looking not for total cohesion but locating opportunities for expansion.

Notions of expansion and collection, of (sometimes eccentric) growth are reinforced by frequent pictures that allude (however obliquely) to water, to trees. Shore from 2005 is disconcertingly illusionistic despite/because of it’s red border, while the broken white lines of his sports pitches are cut down to become birches. Monkey-puzzle trees become all-over abstraction, or gestural marks against steamed-up windows (as in 1989’s November). There can be references to their much older Low Countries tradition- as in the abstracted windmill of Sinking (Piet)- reflective water, flooded fields. The deceptively simple conveyance of silvery outdoor daylight, or its filtering through shuttered interiors, recalls that of David Teniers the Younger.

Highly frequent images of shutters, doors, windows, blinds- devices which allow in the light, admitting one to see out but not in- speak of the work’s air of privacy. Even the monkey-puzzle tree, with its sense of structural confusion, is deliberately planted as a barrier, a screen. These images perhaps speak of our position as viewers peering through the cracks, and the dangers of getting the wrong end of the stick, being critical busybodies. De Keyser, particularly in his later years, is something like an old man gleefully placing questionable objects on his windowsill to delight or bamboozle the neighbours. Yet through time we get to know him.

‘Oeuvre’ allows itself to be summed up in its last room via a huddled grouping of small paintings which de Keyser was working with at the time of his death. They have subsequently been shown, and reproduced in book-form, under the title of ‘The Last Wall’ (though the exact selection has shifted slightly over the years). 

These particularly small works ride currents that run throughout the oeuvre- given poignancy and testimonial status by their biographical significance. And yet they are not summations but starting points. They can be graphic, or impasto, or thinly washed in subtly new ways. Forms can be yet more reduced, or more representational. They are more abject and unlovely than anything which came before- but are buoyed by the memory of it all. And still his illusionism is healthy. Seascape is a rag of canvas wrapped around the middle of a stretcher, hardly meeting the edges; but these edges become the sides of huts, unpainted canvas the sand; a single gradient of white sky breaks off to make waves. 

The abiding image of ‘Oeuvre’, and the real summation of his career is a little painting titled Robben 1. Swirly lines make a rudimentary frame for a newspaper clipping of a footballer, laying down on the pitch like a star gazer (a rare photo-collaged element). Wonderfully scrappy though the match has been, the player falls back, surveying the world from within his chosen arena, delighted by it all. 


NB. This reviewer realizes that Arjen Robben, the Dutch player pictured in Robben 1, is in reality less than 'delighted'- having just suffered many near-misses in a disastrous losing match against Denmark at Euro 2012. De Keyser- originally a sports journalist -would surely have been drawn to the ambiguity of the image, its apparent carefree reverie in a moment of personal despondency. The small painting muses on the perils of missing the target, being off the mark, on the chances of luck, skill and effort coming into alignment, of opening one's self up to potential failure. Almost a secular icon, Robben 1 is about being involved in and alive to the complexities of art and life, to the field of human endeavor.


Friday 17 May 2019