Jan-Henri Booyens at Whatiftheworld / GalleryBy Lloyd Pollak
01 April - 01 May. 0 Comment(s)
Jan-Henri Booyens is a member of Avant Car Guard, an iconoclastic collective dedicated to cocking snooks at High Art’s pompous fatuities. The very name Avant Car Guard hangs a question mark over the concept of vanguardism by superimposing the familiar figure of the black car guard upon the great trail-blazers of the Western tradition. However this exhibition reveals Booyens, the artist, not Booyens, the member of the Collective, and although 'Tectonic' is deflationary in bias, it is considered stuff, not acne-ridden adolescent buffoonery.
The title 'Tectonic' means ‘structural’, and succinctly defines Booyen’s preoccupation with interrogating the conventions of pictorial construction in 20th century abstraction, Abstract Expressionism, Post-painterly Abstraction and Hard Edge. Booyens’ spatial derring-do deftly subverts the critical imperatives of the period, especially the dogmas of the supreme rabbinate of late Modernism, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, who entreated artists to respect the picture plane and avoid illusionist representation.
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Derailed typifies the somber glory of Booyen’s colour, the gestural energy of his mark-making, crustaceous textures and alluring painterly brushwork. In this Abstract Expressionist all-over composition, rows of livid, white vertical stripes are applied in heavily impasted strokes to a contrasting charcoal ground that shows through, giving the whites a deathly phosphorescent glow, and lending the painting the appearance of a fence of painted wooden planks kept flush with the picture plane, so as to bar the viewer from entry. The methods Booyens employs traditionally aim at flatness; however this goal is, appropriately, derailed. The whites cling to the picture surface, the charcoals suggest depth, and the dark red, mustard and slate blue diagonals open up a shallow notional space before the blacks and behind the whites, thus subverting the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic.
The fence-like appearance of the work makes it function as a critique of the inhospitality of the modernist two-dimensionalism of artists from Mondrian to Stella and the muddle-headed idealism behind abstraction’s frankly uninhabitable brave new worlds, Kandinsky’s Theosophist Shangri-la and Mondrian’s rigid neo-plastic land of Cockaigne. Booyens both has his cake and eats it, for although the work underlines abstraction’s sterile formalism, it also draws on its strengths. Booyens’ monumental architectonic palisade operates like Rothko’s rectangles, as a screen before a mystery. The whites shimmer with reflected light and the blacks provide occasional though-views into a grey beyond, arousing awe and intimating some numinous presence.
Malevolent gun-metal hues bathed in a baleful greenish glower characterize Booyen’s colossus, Stoned. This alienating colour evokes armaments, tanks, battleships and the regimented utopias of L?ger and Malevich populated by mecanomorphic workers and Cubo-Futurist peasants fashioned from tubular sheet metal. Thick, slabby, overlapping strata of some rock-like substance rise one on top of the other, and carve out an exiguous, empty stage whose shallow depths are defined by forward-pressing geological masses. The downward tilting planes are lit from above, and the shadows grow darker towards the base, and the lit areas paler, weighting the painting and consolidating its cyclopean grandeur. Stoned ushers us into an geological universe of inhuman self-sufficiency akin to hermetic Cubism’s world of shattered planes, Léger’s interlocking tubes and cylinders and De Stijl’s sterile geometries of flat right angles, rectangles and squares, its empty stage signalling the marginalization of man by modernism’s formalist agenda.
The Stoned of the title evokes both the petrified appearance and structure of the painting, and a drug trip gone wrong in which ponderous, granitic masses threaten to slide out of the picture space, and immolate the viewer. In this profoundly disorientating image space assumes an irrational, Escher-like ambiguity. Certain grey planes could be solids or voids, and surfaces we initially read as flat, reveal themselves as raised.
In the energized, gestural Bloed Straat the brush describes a web of jagged angular black lines. Its interstices erupt into pillar-box red conflagrations with flame-like contours. Within the irregular partitions formed by the blacks and reds we glimpse swipes of gray and zigzagging whites that look like spray-can graffiti. There is an illusion of murky depth but, as in Derailed, confusion soon arises as to what is in front, and what is behind, what is figure and what is ground.
A clutch of smaller works address the same dialectic of flatness and depth. Monotony is offset by the virtuosity of Booyen’s facture and extraordinary colours that elude definition. Blink your eye, and what read as brown, appears black, while blues mutate into green and vice versa. The artist claims that his juxtapositions of colour are intuitive rather than theoretical: 'I often spend a whole week mixing colours until I find the shade that speaks to me. I smother the canvas in four or five different hues laid one over the other. My goal is to get the various layers to converse with each other and engage in an emotional discourse'.
Booyens exploits colour to distill louring expressionist thunder. Bloed Straat for example, uses colour association to make a flagrantly emotive impact. The title Bloed Straat invokes injury or slaughter, and the combination of the blacks of evil, death, destruction and night, the grays of mourning and loss, and the reds of blood, passion and danger, speaks of fire and ashes, and evoke carnage just as insistently as Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus.
Booyens’ threnodies on the demise of modernism are executed in blacks as moody and brooding as those of Motherwell in the Elegies on the Spanish Republic. The threatening grays recall dark storm clouds and suggest imminent tempest and lightning; the reds are like scabby cicatrices, and the mustards are sulphurous and glowering. His frequent scumbling of white on black activates both: the blacks acquire the gleam of charred wood while the whites emit smolder and glare. The paintings present vestigial suggestions of the landscape and the palette invests them with the doom-ridden quality associated with Anselm Kiefer.
Painterliness and sensuality cede to dry, aseptic linearity in the remaining works which appear almost as diagrammatic as traffic signage. The Summit, an exercise in pure outline, portrays soaring peaks and sky. The heavens are a ganglion of jerky ribbons of blue pigment while the mountains are delineated in jarring, traffic-sign yellow lines that form a jagged design like crazy paving. The representational elements dissolve into abstract pattern as the eye wanders over the surface. The towering peaks, like the Milky Way seen in Fault Lines, evoke the Romantic sublime, the infinite and immeasurable spaces of Caspar David Friedrich, the canyons and precipices of Clyfford Still and the mythic realms surveyed by Newman and early Pollock. The kitchen sink bathos of an illustrated DIY manual is applied to the lofty transcendental themes, and the disjunction between style and content can only be construed as a negative comment on the windy rhetoric of American Abstract Expressionism and Romanticism.
Despite reservations, the whizzbang spatial surprise effects and sinister chromatic import of Stoned, Derailed and Bloed Straat held me spell-bound. Booyens avoids abstraction’s besetting pitfall of decorative mutism. The ‘discourse’ between the colours is intellectually compelling, while the artist’s ability to summons the dim intuitions of impending convulsion that lurk in the farthest recesses of our national psyche is uncanny. Booyens is a painter of promise.