Stijn Cole or the paradox of the horizon

(published in the book Entre terre et mer)

 

I

The landscape has played a very important role in the development of Western art and culture in general and of painting in particular. Through the painting of landscapes, artists have developed a better understanding of the artistic meaning of what they were doing.

This had led to the autonomy of art. Landscape imagery, landscape description, sequential philosophical reflections on the landscape and eventually the complete mapping of the world or – to use a word of cultural philosopher Ton Lemaire – the integral ‘publication’ of the whole of land and seas, it has all led to the (religious) emancipation and autonomy of man. We evolved from humans subordinate to nature into nature colonised by humans.

Landscapes emerge in Western painting roughly from the 14th century onwards. Initially as a background, for example in the medieval tidal books, gaining momentum with, for instance, Pieter Bruegel (1525-1569) until they become a full motif around the middle of the 19th century and are no longer subordinate to other content. At that time, artists get deeply involved in the visualisation of the landscape, which is how they gradually come to understand the status of their ‘image-ination’ of the landscape. Subsequently, they started making paintings that do not primarily portray that landscape or nature because of its representational value, but that came into being as an artistic creation parallel to nature. It is widely known that the painters of the Barbizon School, including Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867) and Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878), around the end of the first half of the 19th century and in the trail of William Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837), by being the first to paint ‘en plein air’, in the landscape, have played a crucial role in effecting the change from a representation of the landscape to an autonomous realisation of an artwork that still brings to mind an observed landscape, but of which the memory is no longer the major meaning of the work.

In 1855, Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) paints the imposing, realistic canvas, ‘L’Atelier du peintre. Allégorie réelle déterminant une phase de sept années de ma vie artistique (et morale)’ (359 x 598 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). The canvas presents a composite, constructed image of the artist’s studio, in which different scenes can be distinguished. The traditionally present female nude, for example, is not a passive object to be studied here. No, the woman – only barely covering her naked body from the gazes of the other attendees with a blanket – is standing behind the painter who works on the landscape that is on the centrally positioned easel. Courbet depicts himself as he finishes a landscape in the privacy of his studio – completely true to the historical facts. “From now on, the picture argues, it is the artist who creates the world rather than God.” (Barnes, p.77) Or, this painting is nothing less than an independence statement of art and artist of any custody.

At the same time, another technique is developed to render the perceived reality into an image that is ‘true to nature’. Photography takes on the representative function of painting slowly but surely. The camera that legitimises and mechanises the method of the (renaissance) perspective uncovers at the same time the hidden principle of the technique of perspective as perspectiveism: “[...] the idea that every point of view gives a relative truth about the world, and no position can be the absolute view. [...] In Impressionism, and even in the Barbizon School, this particular kind of relativism that perspectiveism is, was already present, namely in the practice of some painters [...] to show the same thing on the canvas at different times and from different points of view.” (Lemaire, p.53). Today, Stijn Cole relies precisely on photography to register the landscape and to come to autonomous works of art through interpretation and manipulation of that registration.

II

Stijn Cole is a paysagist in the best art historical sense of the word. He does not make land art, he is not a landscape architect, he does not impose any form on the land and – for that matter – neither on the sea. Cole visits landscapes, views of the land, and seascapes, views of the ever-moving sea. He records parts of it, mostly in digital, photographic images, but sometimes in mouldings as well, and transforms his registrations into autonomous, independent works of art: paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, objects and videos. Cole expresses himself only in images of landscapes and in images derived from landscapes. The strict limitation to landscapes that Cole imposes on himself seemingly effortlessly is in no way related to the versatility of the output that he distills from the observations of his monomaniac motif. All the parameters of the landscape are visually explored by Cole: the space that stretches to the horizon, the changing light that reveals or conceals the landscape and the time the landscape goes through in its eternal change. Landscapes immediately bring to mind the experience of time and space. Time and space are therefore obviously the most important factors in Coles imagination of the landscape. From the landscape, Cole derives his so-called Time- and Colorscapes, to name his two most important groups of work, as well as many other less categorisable but equally meaningful works.

Following an instruction by Dutch museum man Rudi Fuchs (Esman, p.25) we are looking for otherness in Stijn Cole’s oeuvre, for what we have not yet seen before or elsewhere. Often, we define that otherness as that which differs from works of art by other artists who have preceded Cole.

 

 

III

In his public conversation with Ann De Meester of 30 June 2017, organised by Mu.ZEE, Ostend, American artist Richard Tuttle (1941) emphasises how much he has been impressed by a small seascape of James Ensor (1860-1949). Tuttle, who apparently maintains the fairly consistent habit to follow and watch the sunset with his wife, understands in Ostend, seeing Ensor’s canvas ‘Marine’ (ca 1938, Mu.ZEE, Ostend) how the sunset in “Ensor’s Marine is a spatial experience and not a temporal experience”. Tuttle’s reading of Ensor’s canvas opens the eyes. The painting is indeed not a realistic representation of a setting sun and all its romantic and aesthetic delights. Ensor knows how to render a sunset as the spatial event that it actually is (the earth turns us away from the sun, so that we gradually lose sight of that sun) in a composition that is almost entirely based on a horizontal stratification of strips of light and colour, of red, white, blue, green and ochre. This abstract composition of horizontal strokes of colour would be difficult to interpret as a sea view at sunset if it weren’t for the small, slightly reddish circle segment in the centre of the canvas. In 1896 already, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) left his friend Joachim Gasquet the following words: “the sensations of colour which produce light give rise to abstractions […].” However, Cézanne nor Ensor have – unlike others before them – taken the step to abstraction. Ensor’s horizontal stratification of a sun sinking in the sea finds a visual echo in Cole’s Timescapes. Cole does not give us a horizontal layering of the spatial experience of the landscape but a vertical articulation of the light and colour sensations of the landscape in time.

For a Timescape, Cole makes a series of photographic recordings during a specific amount of time and from a fixed, specific location. For example, in ‘Timescape Dover’ (2007), on 17 October 2007, he photographs every minute for 150 minutes long the sea view from Dover towards the Belgian coast, De Panne to be exact. Each of the pictures shows in the upper half, above the horizon, the view of the sky, the skyscape of that moment, and in the lower half below the horizon, the sea – the seascape – as occurring at that instant. Afterwards, each image is reduced to its average colour and light value by a computer program, and the width of the image is reduced to a single, rather thin vertical strip. Chronologically placed next to each other in the Western reading order from left to right, the 150 stripes are a summary of the transformation of the landscape, at that location, which is sometimes specified with geographical coordinates, and during the specified time. Because Cole has an assistant doing the same exercise simultaneously on De Panne’s beach, looking towards Dover, and because he eventually combines the two Timescapes in such a way that the viewer of the diptych cannot simultaneously see the ‘Timescape Dover’ and the ‘Timescape De Panne’, he brings viewers in a situation where they realise that they can only be in one place at one time, by only using visual means. The dramatic nature of time and space staged simply and powerfully.

To start with the Timescapes – there is a first link between Cole’s works and some works by German artist Gerhard Richter (1932). In 2011, Richter develops his work ‘Strip’, a digital print on paper between aluminium and perspex (Diasec). The work consists of a vertically structured interplay of lines that has formal similarities with Cole’s Timescapes. By digitally dividing one of his previous abstract paintings into two equal vertical halves, reflecting the halves in each other, and finally repeating those reflections, Richter comes to a sequence of coloured lines. Could it be that Richter has so many doubts about the painting’s ability to mean something that he prefers to commission a print of the output of a computer transformed structure of a digital photo of a painting that he made with his own hands? Richter and Cole both apply digital photography and digital imaging. Richter departs from one of his own paintings to generate a second, derived, but independent and printed image. Cole starts from a series of photos to create a printed image that preserves a conceptual reference to its origin in the registration of an existing reality.

IV

In addition to Timescapes, Cole also makes Colorscapes. They make for a significant group within the oeuvre. For a Colorscape, Cole once again starts with a photographic record of a landscape. This can be an existing photograph he borrows from the Internet, a photograph of the Rocky Mountains for example, or, as is usually the case, a photograph he makes himself. Excellent examples of the latter type of Colorscapes are the two triptychs he realised in 2016, in the context of the exhibition project ‘El Camino. Le chemin entre deux points’. For this project about the almost mythical journey to Santiago de Compostella, Cole made, among other things, two triptychs that each contain three big ‘Colorscapes’: two 160 h x 160 cm side panels and a 170 h x 160 cm centre panel. For the ‘Colorscapes’ of each triptych, Cole took a picture of the sea in three different directions at one specific moment. The recordings for the first triptych are created in Finistère, the westernmost tip of France, on 31 March 2016 at 8:50 pm and the recordings for the second on 4 April 2016 at 7:45 pm in Fisterra, the westernmost point of Spain and the place where the pilgrims go to, after they have reached Santiago, to burn their clothes and shelve their shoes.

Colorscapes can be found in Cole’s oeuvre as large works on canvas and as small pieces on A4 size paper. A Colorscape is always derived from a single picture and hence stands on its own, but sometimes Cole groups different Colorscapes that are part of the same sequence of two or more recordings spread over time. Cole consistently presents those multiple Colorscapes proportionally spaced on the wall. In any case, for each Colorscape, the photographic source material, which is always a digital colour image, is read and interpreted by a computer program based on its colourist composition. The program reduces the colour information of the photographic image to 256 colours. Cole chooses to display 256 colours in a square grid of 256 squares, in 16 rows and 16 columns, positioning – once again with respect for the Western reading direction – the brightest colour at the top left and the darkest colour on the bottom right. For the smaller Colorscapes, he makes an inkjet print of the grid, on which he manually, in a careful and artisanal process, reproduces the 256 colours one by one in oil paint. Afterwards, he paints over the printed colour blocks carefully with the appropriate colour. For the larger Colorscapes, the inkjet print serves as a guide for an equally careful colour reconstruction in oil on canvas.

Because Cole only lets you read and interpret the registered landscapes on one level, that is to say in terms of colouristic values, it is no longer possible to find out how natural, how much or how little culturally influenced the registered landscape might have been. Together with the horizon – that separation between air and land – he ‘eclipses’ any tensions that are objectified historically as a result of human intervention in these landscapes. Cole is not interested in human intervention on nature or at least not to the extent that he would allow it in his work.

The landscape in our culture is such a familiar genre that the term landscape or landscape format is often used to indicate of a horizontal image (wider than it is high), whereas for a vertical image (higher than it is wide) we usually speak of portrait or portrait format. It is fascinating to note that Cole chooses the wide, low landscape format for his Timescapes but uses the portrait format for his Colorscapes. In his Colorscapes, Cole makes a chromatic DNA portrait of the visualised landscape.

The number 256 is omnipresent today. It is not only the smallest number that is a product of eight radices (28) or a perfect square (162), the integer also reflects the number of different values that can be found in each of the three colours out of which a digital image is often compiled: 256 values for red, 256 values for green and 256 values for blue. These three times 256 values, combined with one another, provide 16,777,216 possible colour shades. That Cole comes to a grid of (16 x 16 =) 256 colours for his Colorscapes should therefore not be a surprise. Surprisingly in this context, Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) made two paintings which are based on the exact same grid of 16 x 16 squares. ‘Composition with grid 8: checkerboard composition with bright colours’ and ‘Composition with grid 9: checkerboard composition with dark colours’, both from 1919, show exactly the same grid, provided that Mondrian does not choose square boxes (and thus not for a square overall picture), but instead allegedly chooses an aspect ratio corresponding to the golden section. A second, more important difference is how the colour boxes are filled in. Cole does this by digitally analysing the colour photo of the photographed landscape. Mondrian, who has come to an abstraction from his study of the landscape and certain elements of it, fills his boxes purely intuitively and not based on a mathematical formula or some sort of perceived or registered reality. Mondrian compiles his grid compositions purely by means of carefully weighed colour choices, respectively within a range of bright colours (yellow, blue, pale red, white and light greys for one) and dark colours (red, blue and orangey brown for the other). Mondrian wants to realise a self-contained and self-sufficient ‘neoplastic’ (to be understood as ‘creating a new image’) painting. This is why he devotes a lot of attention to the painterly execution: variation in brush directions, adjustment of thickness and colour of the grid lines, etc. It is remarkable at least that Cole, who only recently became acquainted with these canvases of Mondrian, in tempore non suspecto, also deems his gridlines to be ‘free’ and treats them as anything but rigid. The grid lines are no dogmas. For example, they may be painted over partially and then retrospectively be put back in a slightly different colour.

Without being complete: there are still more 256s to be found in the history of modern and contemporary painting. In 1974, Gerhard Richter realises the big painting ‘256 colours’ (Kunstmuseum Bonn) with enamel paint on canvas. And Richter also has 256 different colours in 16 x 16 rectangular colour boxes. By manually mixing yellow, red, blue and green between themselves, and then blending those mixed colours with white, grey and black, he makes 256 colours that he – unlike Mondrian who works intuitively and Cole who works systematically – distributes randomly in the grid corresponding to the image plane. Richter’s work is no longer an attempt at meaning, no longer a visual unity, no longer a painting that represents in its composition and imagery an ideal world yet to be realised (like Mondrian’s work) or no longer a reference to some perceived or recorded reality (such as Cole’s work). In this and in many other (figurative) paintings, Richter expresses his profound doubts about a painting’s ability to mean something. Cole as well has doubts about the contemporary scenic capacities of a painting, since the references of his Colorscapes to the perceived landscape or to an image thereof can only be reconstructed and understood conceptually, favouring the mere enjoyment of the painting as pictorial realisation.

In the preface of the catalogue for ‘Cézanne: Les dernières années (1985-1906)’ (Paris 1978), William Rubin, then director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA - Museum of Modern Art, New York, writes the following: “The way in which the 20th century conceived the act of painting and its process was first announced by Cezanne’s new way of composing a painting that made the drama of pictorial integration – the mosaic of decisions that determine its becoming a work of art – a subject for art itself. […] Whatever Cezanne’s intentions may be, an absolute emotional necessity to render his painting ‘real’ forces him to radically innovate in the only ways proper to painting, its inherent means. We thus find in Cezanne’s paintings a fragmentation, an abstraction and an affirmation of the surface […] a tectonic modulation of colour and an absence of the traditional ‘finite’, all which would become so many key elements in the future art of the twentieth century.” These are words that, almost even without mutatis mutandis, apply to Cole’s Colorscapes. Cole, as well, fragments the perceived landscape (in 256 colour shades), to the extent where the only thing left is an abstract image that represents nothing but the colours and the light, which he saw in the landscape and which were recorded by his camera. Cole as well confirms – despite the visual depth of the colours – the surface of the painting by – next to the conceptual dimension of the work – only preserving a composition of 256 gridded colour tiles, which can literally be understood as a tectonic modulation of colour. An effect that he enhances even more by allowing and leaving on the empty white margins (under the grid on the canvases and around the grid on the A4 sheets) a coarse drip paint, a paint brush test, ‘dirty’ fingerprints and paint splashes and by indicating (in handwriting or not) date, hour and sometimes place of the motif registration. Cole shows the process of ‘realising while painting’. Just like Courbet, Cézanne and Mondrian did it. In painting, it is about the surface of the work, as Cole understood well, and, as Mondrian confirms a few years after Cézanne: the surface is the only thing that matters in painting. When Mondrian saw the interaction between Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Georges Braque (1882-1963) and Cézanne in the first exhibition of the Modern Art Circle in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the greatest revelation for him turned out to be the pictorial structure, the fundamental unity of drawing and colour that Cézanne emphasised. So, for Cézanne as well, the act of constructing was done on the surface of the painting (Janssen, p.399).

V

The landscape, that is what the eye is rewarded with when it points towards the horizon. When the gaze focuses on the undefinable horizon, which symbolises the transition between the world we (think we) know and the world behind that, of which we are now aware that it is there, but that is unknown to us for as long as we do not get into it. If we do not look, there is no horizon. Looking is a first sign of curiosity. The very etymology of the word indicates that ‘horizon’ stands for ‘boundary’. Any self-respecting artist does not give a rip about non-self-imposed boundaries; Cole a fortiori. Born in Ghent, he always travels to other, unprecedented horizons. As a traveller in real life and as an imaginator in art, but always in the spirit of Lemaire’s argument: “The degree of attention to the horizon expresses the degree of reserve a human has for his culture, translates the reservation he has in regard to his own creations. Interest in the horizon means having the will not to coincide with oneself, not wanting to be pinned down by a definite identity, in short: testifying that the factual is not identical to the possible.” (Lemaire, p.81). Cole seeks horizons, thematises them in his work, but does not feel obliged at all to actually visualise those horizons in his work. Paradoxically, in his work, the horizon, the place where heaven and earth appear to be united, is often (inconspicuously) absent.

The line of the horizon is often an element of distinction between a landscape and seascape. In a landscape, it is not always easy to pinpoint a horizon (line). All too often, elements of the natural landscape like trees, forests or mountains or traces of human, cultural interventions, hide the horizon from view. This is different for a seascape. At sea, there are no significant obstacles that stand in the way of the horizon. Whether a seascape shows a horizon depends entirely on the viewer’s point of view. Seen from the beach, the horizon is always identifiable: the horizon is at the eye level of the viewer. The height moves along with the observer: if he or she is in the water or is standing on a higher level, the horizon is on a different height, according to his observation. In other words, the height of the horizon in the image of the observer depends on their position. Courbet made a lot of paintings in the second half of the 1860s that he himself described as “landscapes of the sea”. They distinguish themselves from seascapes of other painters by omitting the anecdotal, narrative and by honouring the power of nature, as the main motif, in the form of a powerful oncoming and overtopping wave. The paintings are often started on the spot, i.e. ‘en plein air’ in Étretat, Normandy, and finished in the studio in Paris. It is remarkable at least that Courbet chose precisely such a volatile motif to realise paintings that first of all want to show their plastically interesting ‘solution’. Courbet was not able yet to capture the moment of a wave curling, it is probably even unthinkable that he would be able to recall such a given moment in sufficient detail to construct a precise image on the basis of sketches and memory images later in his studio. Courbet works mostly from memory in the studio. He reconstructs and invents an image based on his first notes and his many impressions, realistic and credible. Later artists, such as Cézanne, the Impressionists and the Cubists, in other words: the first artists of the modernist movements, will focus on radically unmovable motives as an alibi for making pictorially interesting canvases. Cézanne paints the Mont Sainte-Victoire more than repeatedly to realise ‘harmony parallel to nature’ with visual means; Cézanne can return to the mountain as much as he wants, it does not overtop or float. Claude Monet (1840-1926) paints a whole series of canvases on the motif of the centuries-old facade of the cathedral of Rouen precisely to show how the changing light is capable of affecting the shape, which is what triggered Cézanne – when seeing the work of Monet – to make the laconic statement “I don’t see anything.” Piet Mondrian is 34 when Cézanne dies in 1906. At that moment, he develops step by step a type of painting that evolves from a perceived and depicted true nature to a type of painting that fully owes its meaning to the power of expression of its visual means: composition, line and colour. It is not as if Mondrian, who was familiar with the work of Cézanne, has painted a lot of mountains. At most a few dunes from the Dutch Zeeland landscape at Walcheren. However, Mondrian, who was mostly, not to say completely, caught up in landscape painting for the first 20 years of his career (Janssen, p.231), has indeed painted some very interesting seascapes and has, among other things, via some forestscapes and studies of trees, come a long way from portraying a landscape or some of its elements, a windmill for example, to paintings that do not reference an ever-perceived and possibly recorded nature, but that by their meticulous interaction between line and colour, light and matter, radiate their independence, their autonomy and their non-subordination to nature. Not Picasso or Braque in their Cubist period, Cézanne nor Courbet, let alone the painters of the Barbizon school ever crossed the border into the non-representative, non-figurative imagery. The very careful Mondrian is one of the first to do it and to go all the way.

For his ‘Blue Prints’ (2017), Cole has gone to sea. At the coast of Le Tréport, Normandy, only 100 km from Étretat, where Courbet sets up his seascapes, he walks with his camera into the surf of the Channel and, with a very small time offset, makes two pictures of an oncoming wave. Both photos are put on top of each other later, the first shot, which can be named the oldest one, in blue inkjet on paper and the second or youngest recording in black-and-white print on the Plexiglass that will be displayed in front of the paper. Two recordings in time are set out in space. The horizon on these pictures is high. In this, Cole differs from the classic landscape format that lies 3/8 from the top of the canvas. A proportion that corresponds to the golden ratio. Cole turns that proportion around and arrives at 5/8 sea and 3/8 air by times. In his paintings of waves and sea, Courbet lets the horizon come to the centre of the canvas at most. He looked and painted the sea from on the land; he literally looked down on it, but also with a great deal of awe. More striking still, however, in Courbet’s seascapes is how he treats the horizon. His horizon becomes a luminous, almost glowing line between the turbulent sea and the equally stirring skies. It seems as if Courbet wants to look in the future through that glowing horizon, as if to find out how the world, how the art, would evolve, along that way.

On several occasions, Stijn Cole explicitly introduced the motif of the horizon. In 2006, for the exhibition ‘Ohne Titel’ (curator Philippe Van Cauteren) he painted the walls of the exhibition space of the Kunstverein Ahlen in the blue key and green key colours. The dividing line between the colours, i.e. the horizon of what can be called a universal landscape, corresponds to the artist’s eye level. In the completely darkened room, he then projects, divided over six projectors, a series of black slides, each of which is cut-out so that a white surface is projected on the walls. Those white surfaces reveal locally the blue-green landscape, which is invisible elsewhere. All surfaces projected in that manner are with respect for the dimensions of the originals and proportionally derived from 83 existing landscapes from the collection of the Hermitage (St. Petersburg), the Metropolitan Museum (New York), the Museum of Fine Arts (Ghent), The National Gallery (London), the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) and Tate Britain (London). The projections are oriented in such a manner that the (invisible) horizons of the selected landscapes coincide with the horizon of the locally visible wall painting. In the catalogue for the East Flanders Province Award for Fine Art 2009, Cole again aligns the miniature reproductions of the 83 landscapes on the imaginary horizon that they visualise jointly. Or still, in the exhibition ‘Picture This’ (2006) in Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Deurle, Cole hangs a blue and green key painted canvas, in composition and size derived from Constable’s landscape, in such a way that the dividing line between the two colours of his canvas becomes defining for the height of the presentation of landscape paintings from the permanent museum collection next to his canvas. Again, because he unites the horizons of the different works.

VI

There is something to be said about Cole reducing the landscapes in which he does not put a horizon to still lifes or portraits. Still lifes and portraits, the other important genres from the history of painting, (usually) do not show horizons. In a still life or portrait, the attention is not meant to be diverted from the motif or the portrayed person to a deeper horizon. During his eponymous exhibition in the Château de Chimay (2017) Cole presents two drawings ‘1:1’ [read: one to one]. For these drawings, whose title reads as a scale, Cole made a metal frame whose inner dimensions correspond to the image format of the subsequent drawing. He then set up the frame vertically in the park of Chimay’s castle, in such a manner that from a distance of exactly two meters from the frame he saw through the ‘window’ of the frame an interesting tree. Cole captured exactly that image on photo. After that, he carefully translated the image of the black-and-white photo with pencil and with a personal technique onto the paper using projection. In this way, he only transmits the bright and dark hues of the projected image on the surface of the sheet – without worrying about depth of view. And although he shows landscapes, or photographically mechanised interpretations thereof, he pushes away – despite the used window frame – the classic window function of each figurative image. When presenting the work, he puts down a metal disc at exactly the same distance from the drawing as the picture was taken from the frame. The viewer who wishes to do so, can stand as it were, at the location of the camera. A landscape, let alone a horizon, is surprisingly enough nowhere to be seen for the spectator anymore. There is no more figure ground story. Just as for his Blue Prints, and exactly like Courbet, Cole collects the material ‘en plein air’ and finishes it afterwards in the studio. The trees that Mondrian drew and painted up until 1912, which can be seen as the starting point of his transition from the figurative to the abstract, linked the landscape tradition from the 17th century to the future, to abstract art (Janssen, p.601). With the trees out of ‘1:1’, Cole, as well, makes abstract art.

A few years earlier, Cole realised a series of double drawings based on recordings made in Branitz, Poland. For ‘2 Steps Aside’ (2012) he picked a tree motif or forest motif that he photographed from a certain point, after which he photographed the same motif a second time from a position that is two steps ‘aside’ from the first point of view. The pictures were then projected and drawn out, and of course, the two drawings of each work of the series are also on display spaced with respect for those two steps aside. Other ‘1:1’ works are the drawings ‘De Maten’ (2013), based on photographs of the cut-outs of soil vegetation of De Maten, a nature reserve near Genk. Cole lays a number of frames down on the ground, the inner size of which corresponds to the image format of the drawings that he will later make – in the studio of course – of the photo recordings of the cut-outs that the frames have edged in the landscape.

Cole defied the classical, renaissance perspective even more. The Cubists have suggested the absent third dimension on the planimetric plane of the painting by bringing the ‘tour of the object’ and taking into account ‘the mobility of the gaze’. Cole is anything but a cubist. Not even in ‘2 Steps Aside / Branitz’ (2012), he allows the viewer to do the tour of the object. He offers two images of more or less the same motif, but he separates them from each other as if he wanted to say they really do not have anything to do with each other. An image is an image and relates to nothing but to itself: one to one. Needless to repeat that together the two parts of each work of the Polish series are by definition also about a time elapsing and can therefore be considered a sort of Timescape ...

In Chimay, Cole also presented sculptural variations of the same principle: two one-to-one casts of fragments, each about 1m², of Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire – or at least that’s the way an art historian would be inclined to put it. On the spot, ‘en plein air’, on the mountain northeast of Aix-en-Provence, Cole makes a negative casting of a part of the mountain. Later, in the studio, he refines the mould with beeswax, ultimately obtaining a positive reconstruction of that piece of Mont Sainte-Victoire. He realises similar works in a similar action in the summer of 2017 on the coast of Cancale in Britanny. The castings ‘1:1 / Cancale’ (2017), again cut-outs of a landscape, are shown in the exhibition ‘1:1 / Marine’ (C-Mine, Genk, September 2017) in a spacious exhibition landscape with the Blue Prints from Le Tréport.

With the problem of the horizon, we touch on the problem of depth in a painting. Cézanne seemed to have his doubts. On the one hand, he indicated that he could never accept an image with a lack of modelling or gradation: “This is nonsense.” Or still “Nature … is more depth than surface.” While on the other hand he undoubtedly realised that any attempt at abstraction could only result in a rejection of three-dimensionality. Cole is more radical and therefore clearer in this regard. By letting a computer program interpret the image of the motif in his Colorscapes solely on the basis of its chromatic values and by explicitly indicating – in the title or caption – that his image only represents a snapshot, that his image does not have the ambition to be an all-encompassing unity of time and space, he even raises serious doubts about the meaningfulness of such ambition within the realm of painting. In his Timescapes and in his 1:1 works as well, Cole extracts the depth from the portrayed landscapes. Those drawings, because that is what both types of works are when judged by the graphics they are showing, are of the type mapped landscapes. That is, they only show an exact, flattened out description of a number of non-hierarchical, characteristic elements (Janssen, p.249). Cézanne, at least apparently, does not seem to pay much attention to the horizon. Even in his numerous landscapes on the motif of the Mont Sainte-Victoire, he paints a skyline rather than actually indicating a horizon line. A mountain stands more in the way of a view on the horizon, then that it facilitates a view on the horizon. In other words, if Cézanne was interested in the horizon for some kind of pictorial or other reason, he would probably have chosen another motif. It simply means that Cézanne wants to realise his landscape – as far as it is still possible to speak of a landscape, so better put, his painting – fully in and on the surface of the canvas. As a mere organisation of paint and colour on the canvas. If Cézanne occupies an essential place at the beginning of modern painting, it is precisely because he has “dismantled the space” (Jean Bazaine) to (simply) be left with an image. In all the works mentioned, Cole continues on that exact path. And he shares another consistency with Cézanne on that path. Walking this path means that the artist, the creator of the work of art, is subject to the re-creation of the motif that became autonomous. The personal input or the emotional and characteristic expression of the artist, they must yield to the visual realisation that is in the artist’s mind. Today we would say: to the concept that the artist wants to realise as pure and faithful as possible. The artist should only comply with the requirements of this realisation.

VII

“Especially the mountains, the forest and the water are the archetopoi [archetypal places] of the romantic worship [of nature and landscape]” argues landscape philosopher Ton Lemaire (p.45). These are all places and components of the landscape that can be found in Cole’s oeuvre. Is Cole, who also made works that are reproductions, stripped of all cultural components, of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), the romantic landscape artist par excellence, then a late, 21th century romantic? It may be romantic, but certainly mainly pragmatic motives that have led Cole to live with his family in one of the most remote villages of southern Belgium. Nomen est omen, in Seloignes, – il/elle(s) s’éloigne(nt) – one distances him/herself from culture and comes closer to nature. Cole is no romantic. Cole no longer belongs to the generation of artists who believed that the representation of a (puny) human in an overwhelming landscape was able to reproduce the aspirations of that tormented man. Cole is an artist of his time who objectifies the relationship of man to nature and his observation of the latter to the benefit of art. Humans do not have to come into view anymore in those landscapes. The human who perceives the landscape ensures that there can be a landscape at all. The spectators of Cole’s landscapes take in the places people used to inhabit in the landscapes.

It is not because Cole works with photography and computer programs, that he makes his motives overly scientific or academic. Despite explicitly mentioning time and space coordinates in his artwork, he leaves the wonderful mystery of our existential time/space experience intact. He saves the repeated moments of that experience and by doing so expresses only its increased transience. All elements of his artistic creation (invention, realisation, presentation) are focused on the analysis of the perception and the observation of those fragments of rural nature that still remain, in the best possible art historical tradition. Cole does not (yet) depict any urban landscapes or culturally influenced landscapes. He does not (yet) address issues such as climate change, whether induced by human activity or not. Showing an elevated horizon line in his seascapes or not showing a horizon at all in his Colorscapes and other works, does not make him an activist. Cole currently only retains the horizon in his Timescapes. That is the most important horizon that human beings, as agents, must observe in nature, the long-term horizon. We have spent centuries catching up with the horizon and that has been enough. Due to the unmistakable ‘limits to growth’, we have to return today to the horizon where he once lay: far from us. Not immediately accessible, not nearby. We have conquered nearly every viable horizon and have robbed ourselves of each and every one of them, of every sight, of every desire to unknown distance. Throughout his visual oeuvre, Cole contributes in an artistic, visual, aesthetic and non-discursive manner – so, without many words – to a greater awareness of the experience of our partner that nature should be and of which we continue to make up an integral part.

 

Jo Coucke

Les Blacas, La Verdière, Haut-Var, July 2017

 

Sources, including:

Adhémar, H., Brion-Guerry, L., Monnier, G., Rewald, J., Rubin, W., Cézanne: Les dernières années (1895-1906). Catalogue of the eponymous exhibition in Grand Palais, Paris. Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1978.

Barnes, J. In ogenschouw: essays over kunst. Uitgeverij Atlas Contact, Amsterdam / Antwerp, 2015.

Esman, A.R., Fuchs, R. Vervulde verlangens: Gesprekken over kunst in onze tijd. Meulenhoff, Amsterdam, 1997.

Janssen, H. Piet Mondriaan: een nieuwe kunst voor een ongekend leven / Een biografie. Hollands Diep / Overamstel Uitgevers, Amsterdam, 2016.

Lemaire, T. Filosofie van het landschap. 1970, 8th edition, 2006. Uitgeverij Ambo / Anthos, Amsterdam.

Schreier, C. (red.). Gerhard Richter : Over schilderen / vroege werken. Catalogue of the eponymous exhibition in Kunstmuseum, Bonn and S.M.A.K. – Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art, Ghent. Mercatorfonds, Brussels, 2017.

 

 

   Stijn Cole

 

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