Layer on Layer

LAYER ON LAYER (2006 -2012)
DE GARAGE, Mechelen
136 pages, 20 x 25 cm, 99 illustrations
Ottabindcover, English and Dutch
Graphic design: Raf Vancampenhoudt
ISBN-13: 9789077193440
De Garage, Mechelen 2013
Stefan Annerel

In everyday life we are virtually surrounded by impure colours.
(Ludwig Wittgenstein)

After Ludwig Wittgenstein’s death, a large collection of peculiar questions and reflections was discovered among his papers. The undated notes were scribbled on odd sheets of paper and were posthumously published in Remarks on Colour. Anyone who is unfamiliar with this book as such or who has not read it, I would like to refer to Stefan Annerel’s paintings. As is evident from the nature of the questions Annerel poses in his pictorial research, he share’s Wittgenstein’s wonder at colour—but Annerel materializes his wonder in his art.

Different … and appealing

In contrast with the abstract character of his works, Annerel finds inspiration in magazines with reproductions of elements from the familiar, tangible reality that surrounds us. He is particularly interested in common objects with some sort of typical pattern, such as fabrics, bathroom tiles, curtains, fitted sheets, etc. Often the primary functions of the forms are decorated with elements that emphasize their homely or comfortable character.

Because in the creative process Annerel makes us of the collage form, his work brings to mind Richard Hamilton’s famous collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing (1956). At that time, the artistic discourse was still dominated by abstract expressionism, with Clement Greenberg as its fiercest theoretician. In Greenberg’s view, the avant-garde, embodied in some absolute way in abstract art, is like a vanguard that protects us against the ersatz of kitsch. Greenberg did not know what to do with the new movement of pop art, which found inspiration in daily life, or he refused anyway to put it on the throne of the avant-garde. The fact is that figuration and abstraction and their respective sources of inspiration are often juxtaposed as opposites. Yet Annerel’s art incorporates elements of both. The “impureness of colour” in everyday life Wittgenstein refers to, acquires an unexpected clarity and intensity in Annerel’s creative process.

The reproductions the artist uses often measure no more than a few square centimetres. He meticulously scrutinizes his “found footage” with a magnifying glass to elaborate subsequently the visual imagery. Indeed, it requires imagination to examine obvious matters and then change their status. With strips of paper and fabric the artist creates an abstract collage on a wooden support, based on the reproduction he selected in an earlier stage. This mother form he covers with a sheet of glass to protect the fragile collage. These compositions tend to be rather geometrical. They could in fact be described as an ordering of matter and non-matter. In the process of their realization, this opposition gradually develops into an illusion of proximity and depth. Thus a texture with trompe l’oeil effect results, originating from the effects of shadows, the positioning of the layers of resin and paint, the contrast between sharpness and blurredness

Chance and the creation of language

What form results in the end is partly determined by chance. It is not that the artist’s choices are determined by fate—rather, the chance element should be understood from the idea that chance presents interesting visual material. A somewhat Darwinian spirit, with nature selecting among random mutations. On the other hand, we should also note that the French neurobiologist Jacques Monod in his writings on the dialectics of chance and inevitability characterizes novelty or change as “an error that goes against the rule”. In this view, without chance, change or innovation is impossible. Through a similar attitude, the artist detaches himself from his original source material, or in art historic terms, from pop art. The recognizable everyday world is steadily saturated with colour and an abstract language develops.

The primary form—the collage—is treated with paint (colour) and this is in fact where the traditional application of matter stops. From this stage onwards, Annerel constructs a stratification of layer upon layer of transparent resin. Absorption, reflection and gloss are added to the set of parameters that define colour. In some sort of poetical projection, this matter could be described as solidified light. Obviously this way of going about art is not an alla prima procedure, which presupposes the application of paint as matter or the completion of the painting in a single session. In the process applied here, the qualities of certain components “mutate”. Components that are originally transparent can turn opaque—or even completely disappear! In this way an intractable history originates in the course of the pictorial process. The integration of light, colour and support is actually not new as such. It calls forth parallels with that which predecessors such as James Ensor and Rik Wouters sought to achieve.

In this respect Annerel’s quest for an authentic style is quite similar to what Rik Wouters did. In the case of the fauvist Wouters this lead to number of technical swerves. Wouters experimented with the relative amounts of paint and turpentine so that his colours would retain their depth and luminosity—the essence of what is at stake here. At the same time Wouters sought to retain the particular fluidity of his paint. The search for a form of “painting with oils as if they were water colours,” as Stefaan Hauttekeete adequately put it, lead Wouters—and likewise Annerel—to test out various types of support.

Traditionally, the painter first draws on the support with charcoal, oil pastels or a diluted mix of oils. In a next step the colour is applied in successive layers. On the lean paint (paint diluted with turpentine or some other medium) a layer of fat paint is applied (i.e. paint containing more linseed oil). This mixture creates a particularly varied surface. Instead of applying the paint quickly, as Wouters did, Annerel opts for a slow process, applying various successive layers of paint. In the most transparent zones, which some critics interpret as “windows”, the underlying sediments remain visible.

A transparent stratigraphy

A palimpsest is a piece of parchment that has been recycled to write a new text on. The text on the upper layer of the parchment was scraped off, so that it could be reused to write on. The reason for doing this was that parchment was expensive and the authentic text had become irrelevant. However, today we can restore the original text that was scraped off with ultraviolet light. This contemporary technique connects well with the interpretative potential Annerel generates in his art. Annerel’s palimpsest consists of a painted piece of paper, possibly tape and strips of fabric. By adding transparent layers of resin he meticulously constructs a stratigraphy. In doing so, it is necessary to comply with the demands imposed by the rhythm of drying and solidification times. Annerel creates his own version of the glazing technique—a technique that goes back to the origins of painting with oils. The deepest layers, those which are the most remote to the eye, are the oldest. They are vaguely visible through the top layer—a smoothly polished skin.

The nature of Annerel’s work is related to geometry. In this instance the points, lines, rectangles or squares no longer represent physical objects. They do not originate in the observable world: they have been filtered out of this world. Having gone through a process of geometrical abstraction, only a few properties are left of the real object. For the mathematician colour and matter are irrelevant, but that is very different in art—in particular in Annerel’s art. He is more tactile, more sensual, more earthly, because the materiality of the colour and the light effects define the character of the work. Furthermore, depending on the point of vantage, a kinetic play originates. Lines and surfaces are engaged in a hierarchic dialogue and create the impression to move with regard to each other. Annerel’s recent works are more symmetrical and once more he uses chequered patterns, like in his early work. For the alert, inquisitive eye, each work comprises a particular pictorial richness.

Despite the interest for figuration and the development of narrative structures in contemporary painting, Annerel’s fascination with the language of abstraction does not diminish. In his narrative, primary aspects such as light, colour, clarity, saturation, absorption, reflection, gloss, depth, line and surface are the protagonists and the artist continues to document their dialogue between them.

Stef Van Bellingen