Raoul De Keyser
The Douglas Hyde Gallery
Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
May 15 - June 20, 2009
What is drawing if not thinking in action. It is the easiest, quickest, most expansive, sometimes laziest, and most challenging of forms. For some, like Jeremy Moon, a drawing is merely a preamble to painting, for Ellsworth Kelly it is the linear articulation of spatial and floral beauty; for Cy Twombly drawing and painting conflate into a poetry of scrawl and smear. But for Raoul De Keyser watercolour appears to be a perpetual experiment.
In fact, the Belgian artist is probably one of the most experimental of painters working today. Experimental, not in the sense of Gerhard Richter, Martin Kippenberger or Albert Oehlen, with their play and their transgressions of genre and type, but, like Robert Ryman he is a scientist. However, where Ryman’s “science” is a structural deconstruction of painted objects, De Keyser’s manner is closer to that of a biologist or physicist. That is, he is looking at the physical nature of his material, but restricts himself to acting within the picture surface. This octogenarian is an artist who is open to possibility. In the past, he has found inspiration in fragments of carpet and from flinging paint tubes to mark the placement of shapes on his canvas. Ulrich Locke, his longtime interlocutor, describes this as his willing “loss of authorial control.”
The Douglas Hyde Gallery, a 1970s Brutalist bunker of a space, seems to be the antithesis to such a collection of small and subtle objects. Yet the physical nature of the space corresponds with the material approach encapsulated by these little things dotted around the walls. Nearly forty in number and predominately from this century, they seem to fall vaguely into three groups: “landscapes,” “dots and dashes” or diagrammatic structures, and isolated floating shapes. There are a few here that appear to be studies for paintings, but even the little notes on the margins add to their quality as finished art objects. De Keyser’s work, in watercolour or otherwise, seems to have a notational quality. They allude to things without being that specific, yet, in the way they are frequently saturated by paint, they also read as material objects without a committing to complete physicality.
With its amateurish associations, watercolour can be a kitschy choice of medium, but in De Keyser’s hands it is approached with his usual sense of adventure—perhaps even more so. There are a fair few that seem to allude to the landscape (the traditional motif of the amateur watercolorist, Prince Charles included), but also allow the medium to declare itself ontologically as material; hence puddles of watery pigment are allowed to dry as such, gaining luminescence from the materiality of the paper. This is in stark contrast to Miquel Barcelo, who transforms watery gestures into the imagery, such as an octopus. Whether De Keyser is moving a brush across a grid format or stacking his strokes horizontally as if filling a biscuit tin, these pieces of paper seem to be a site for material as well as ontological investigations of genre and object.
There are few artists today who can produce such “slight” works, where a green or mauve field seems to have been made with a few careless brushstrokes, and yet be so intriguing. The result is not unlike ancient Chinese brush painting or Post-Painterly Abstraction. But where the former transforms painterly effects into representations and the latter into a meditation on pure materiality, part of the pleasurable discomfort of De Keyser’s work is how it flits uneasily between these two tangents. In the end, one is left with questions rather than answers. Are they landscapes? Are they brushstrokes, or even proper watercolours? “This too can be art,” they seem to say. De Keyser is obviously not a virtuoso technician per se, nor is he interested in that; rather, his inquisition of medium and genre is more philosophical in nature. It is an artwork of opportunity, where material and chance are set upon each other. And that is precisely what we admire in his work.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.