RETI(T)LED – How concealing can reveal illusions (Annelies Vantyghem)

Show me the colour of the void … (Joannes Késenne)

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RETI(T)LED – How concealing can reveal illusions

Art, looking and showing are Siamese triplets. Art shows how artists see through aspects of reality and make it more visible. Works of art make us look at the world in a more nuanced and/or critical way and often leave open various possible ways to look at them. Looking and showing are also central in Johan Lingier’s works. More than that: his artistic research concentrates on the human perception and considers how our mind and other factors make an accurate perception of reality impossible. To do this, Lingier goes beyond reality. He looks for what is hidden behind it and digs for what is in the deep. With what he discovers, he constructs a new artistic reality.

At first, the artist painted in a meticulously razor-sharp hyper-realistic fashion. The resulting images were more than a merely technically great, illusionistic portrayal of the photographs that functioned as starting-images. The term ‘hyperrealism’ is quite meaningful in this context, literally meaning ‘more than, beyond realism’, and synonymous for ‘photorealism’ which reduced the artist’s eye to the mechanical eye of a camera. But whereas this art movement in the 60ies and 70ies stood for a hyper-detaillistic reproduction of something real, ruling out every subjective involvement, Lingier integrated in this tradition his personal philosophy of life and own view on the art of painting. In self-portraits, he introduced himself as a reflecting artist-philosopher and also reflected himself literally by using the canvas as a mirror surface. The long photorealistic painting process led to a growing distance from the realistic starting image and resulted into a more ‘art’-ificial portrayal of reality.

The idea that reflections are just illusions is inevitable in this context and leads us to the oeuvre’s main questions: ‘How do illusion and reality relate?’, ‘What is the difference between a real object, its reflection and its photograph or painted image?’ and ‘What factors can cloud our perception of reality?’. Just like the illusionistic philosophers, Lingier is convinced that every human perception is an illusion, including the perspectives in which we perceive, with time and space as the most important parameters.

In his most recent works, the artist is looking for a way to visualize this issue. The temporary installation he constructed at the end of 2010 in the former Post Office in Ostend united formal factors and factors concerning content, which functioned as the building blocks for his most recent works of art. By taking away raised tiles that were hiding cables lying on the room’s original floor and piling them on top of each other, he created an abstract landscape. With some imagination, it looked like blocks of flats and docks or towers and lakes. The installation had grown from the place in which it was displayed to a new, artistic space. Important is that the room’s history – the original architecture and more recent adjustments (the raised floor, the dropped ceiling) – became visible in the present in layers because of the alterations Lingier made and made up the foundation for a new construction.
In the artist’s most recent paintings, we can equally detect layers. Colours lie on top of each other. Painting shows itself to be an organic and layered process. Often, a figurative bottom layer is painted over with a more abstract image. Sometimes an older painting functions as a first layer. Lingier’s impersonal, photorealistic painting technique made way for more chance and a more lyrical brush technique. In the top layer partly transparent, perspectively distorted tiles are a recurrent pattern. They simultaneously hide and reveal parts of underlying images. This way, every painting displays fragments of its genesis and a specific archaeological stratification. The revealing remains fragmented, because as time goes by, information inevitably gets lost. The nostalgic colours in the tile-layers seem to bring back the past. The grid’s tight abstraction and dynamic perspective also make it possible to read in it a ‘perspective of the future’. Not only layers from the past or the present, but also layers from the future appear. From his conviction that nothing is simply what it seems, Lingier makes us experience time ambiguously. In the figurative bottom layers as well we detect various time-traces. Futuristic architecture flashes us into the future. Art-historical references or characters with old-fashioned clothes and haircuts direct us to the past. The separation of past, present and future is just an illusion. Then, now, soon and later coincide. ‘Back to the Future’ gets a meaning.

Not only this architectural layer-confusion makes it impossible to interpret Lingier’s art univocally. His works also disorient spatially, for which the art of painting is of course suited perfectly. It is the pre-eminent medium to manipulate our perception of space: by means of perspective, a flat plane creates the optical illusion of being three-dimensional. But Lingier takes it further. He adds abstract fields to architectural constructions and landscapes that he picks up on trips, in dreams, in films, in short, in his life in general, and samples them to imaginary landscapes where all spatial guidance is lacking. Is the tiled floor the ground on which a motorcyclist is moving or is the character floating above it? Is there a figure emerging from a wall or merging into it? Is there a building situated in front of, or just behind a film of abstract planes? And what is swarming behind or reflecting in the building’s windows? Which layers are in the foreground and which in the background remains uncertain. The longer we look, the more planes and layers we discover and the more complex the painted space becomes.

In some of his works, Lingier goes even further in the space- and time-confusion. Four monochrome paintings are hanging on the wall as tiles. Although they are on the wall, their mat colour and the thickness of their canvas reminds us more of paving tiles than of wall tiles. The wall seems to be decorated with floor covering and this way kind of becomes a floor. The paintings appear as tiles but the trickles of paint on their borders reveal this identity to be false, as they are painted ‘tiles on canvas’. The monochrome gives a modern impression. The combination of white and brown-red colours reminds of days long gone. With a puzzle of such ‘painted tiles’ Lingier also literally retiles the wooden floor of the back part of the gallery. This way, the floor acts as the wall on which paintings are displayed. The fact that the painted tiles are directed at a central vanishing point, distorts the real perspective of the gallery’s actual floor. Just like in the ‘tile-paintings’, pieces of the composition have been left out, causing the wooden floor to remain partly visible. The painted, black-white tile-pattern that continues across the individual paintings reminds of the maze-like tiling of medieval churches and gives this work a historical dimension. When the artist covers parts of the gallery’s floor with MDF-tiles, there is total confusion: this simulation of old tiles is put over the more recent time-layer of the gallery’s real floor and this way disrupts the order of the present, the future and the past.

© Annelies Vantyghem
(transl. Hannah Lingier)