Formal 2010: Jose Heerkens & Cecilia Vissers, Waterland Museum, Purmerend, The Netherlands

(left) Cecilia Vissers, Blacksod Bay, 2010
Steel, 2 x 95 x 93 x 0.8 cm (photo Peter Cox)
(right) Jose Heerkens, Written Colours II, 2010
Oil paint on linen, 150 x 200 cm (photo Willem Kuijpers)

May 20 – July 25, 2010

As in previous years, the Waterland Museum is organising an exhibition on current forms of concrete art. This time we present works by two female artists, both of whom have a strong affinity with the landscape. Both express this inspiration in a highly different manner so the juxtaposition of their works in the Waterland Museum promises to be more than exciting.
Formal art

Formal art is art that is created in accordance with formal rules. This means that the artist starts from, for instance, a set of fixed dimensions and proportions of elements and creates a sculpture from these. The work will then display a certain order, repetition or build-up of elements. Formal art is sometimes referred to as systematic or geometric-abstract art. It is also known under the name of concrete art; in concrete works of art it is all about the (sets of) rules that have been set in advance and which determine the artwork as it is being realised.

In 1930, Theo van Doesburg published his manifesto on concrete art. One of the principles he formulated in this manifesto was that abstract art is different from concrete art, because the latter is in no way derived from nature or reality – nature or reality are not ‘abstracted’ during the creative process as, for instance, Piet Mondrian transformed an apple tree in a series of paintings to an ever more abstract image of what he considered to be the essence of the apple tree.

Concrete art, Van Doesburg stated, is created entirely in a mental, conceptual process. Shapes and structures are the starting point, and the artist crafts an image by means of transformational processes. So it is more about the compass and the measuring tape than it is about the meaning of the initial image and the final picture. The artist concentrates on the elements of the image and their transformation. The results of such processes have their own autonomous meaning, they refer only to themselves.

In the works of both Jose Heerkens and Cecilia Vissers we can see an inspiration that finds its origin in the landscape and its abstraction; however, in subsequent steps, it leads to a working method that is concrete and its results are autonomous.

Jose Heerkens
“I mostly work on several series simultaneously, which develop alongside each other. Sometimes a series may continue for several years.”

Like many artists who work on the basis of concrete principles, José Heerkens creates most of her works in series. Each series is based on a specific set of rules and principles, and experience has shown that a set of rules may result in an unlimited number of works; a different interpretation of a single rule (choice of colour, grid size, number sequences) results in a different and unique work.

In the survey of her work on her website, Heerkens takes the Arid Zone series from 1992 as the starting point of her more recent work. It is immediately clear that a fascination for the landscape is the basis for this work – the earthy colours, geological layers, a high or a purposely low horizon, and strikingly: the presence of series of parallel lines that sometimes suggest a building, sometimes an archaeological rudiment.

Heerkens processes the inspiration from the landscape in a modernistic manner: crucial is not the image of the landscape but creating a parallel landscape in paint on the canvass. Paint and painting suggests a landscape, recalls this – although never seen in reality – from the memory of the viewer. So not the imitation, but the experience of a landscape in another medium.

In these images certain aspects of the suggested scenery are magnified at the expense of others: the colour of the earth, the geological structure, the line of the horizon, and especially the formal rhythm with which depth, width and height are suggested. A typical example of this is Run Across (1993): the picture elements – horizon lines, colour and the focal point of perspective – have been painted on top of one another almost autonomously. What’s more, the horizon line is curved so we see a part of the globe as it were from cosmic space.

A series of paintings Heerkens created in 1998-2002 was given the title of No Horizon. These works eliminate, in a step by step succession, any visual hold and as a result the abstraction is taken even further and the landscape inspiration is not as clear anymore (but is never lost out of sight).

In the works of the Stripewise Space series (since 2001) Heerkens appears to limit the expression of space in her paintings to the space of a line – on the other hand, there are still sufficient options left: a line may indicate a direction, it may divide the space of the painting into sections, and the width of the line may vary innumerably. The works in this series are not only consciously constructed of lines, but also systematically: the surface of the painting has been divided into squares or rectangles; the (ir)regular lines of paint add content and countenance to these segments. Several rhythms begin to cut across one another.

The concept of the Stripewise Space cycle then evolves into several series in which Heerkens is working ever more consistently and concretely. All possible forms of lines are investigated, in combination with the painting surface and the characteristics of colour schemes.

“Lines give shape and they lead space to rhythmic structures. They also carry the colours across the canvass.”

One series of works from 1998-2002 was called No Horizon; however, the book published in 2006 containing an overview of Heerkens’ work, was actually called Horizon. With this contradiction, the artist seems to indicate that she has never abandoned her starting point, but has in fact thoroughly and conceptually transformed it. Her pictorial search for reduction and essence basically produced a new panorama, inside of which a new horizon emerges.

In the Luminous Square series (started in 2007) Heerkens shows which transformations are possible based on visual and conceptual tensions between line, colour and painting surface; sometimes the grid, as a strictly structured area, is the main theme, sometimes planes and grids suggesting depth, then again it may be a play of lines on the canvass that itself in parts has been left unpainted; sometimes the colouring of patterns and shapes is so close to the colour of the canvass that the difference between colour and non-colour, between painted and non-painted, disappears.

On the one hand these works have been set up more strictly (the painterly element has disappeared completely), on the other hand they have a strikingly and surprisingly light and playful quality. The transformation that all the elements of the image have undergone, results in works of art that are both more complex and brighter.

Heerkens continues to strengthen her concepts step by step in her most recent work; principles from previous series she confronts anew with her by now rich experience as a painter, and works emerge that shimmer in one’s eyes. In this sense her work has some affinity with paintings of Frank Stella, which also spring from classic pictorial themes such as the distribution of light and dark, and the shape/ground relation. The works of Agnes Martin, in which the painted and drawn line – sometimes almost a written line – plays an important part, are also closely related to the works of José Heerkens.

The titles of Heerkens most recent series indicate once again that both she and her work have a place in a tradition in which the spatial reality of colour, structure, rhythm and light, interpreted as autonomous landscapes, continues to be a source of permanent inspiration: Reality of Light and Written Colours.

Cecilia Vissers
The thing that immediately strikes one in the works of Cecilia Vissers is the visually important role of the object’s contours. The strong borderlines of her wall sculptures, their demarcation to the wall, seems to burn itself into the viewer’s eye.

Every now and then a painting’s frame plays an active role in how we perceive the painting – it produces a framework, offers a visual hold and, for instance, articulates the pictures’ depth perspective. Then the frame functions as a window that co-determines one’s view, in the way the diaphragm helps to articulate certain qualities of the photographic image. The contours of Vissers’ work are so powerful that they add identity and dynamics to the entire inner surface.

Every object in the world has shape, colour(s), volume, weight and texture. Vissers’ wall sculptures also have these qualities but in a more autonomous manner. First of all, each quality has been distilled in the purest possible way; secondly, these qualities have been intertwined and matched in such a way that they harmonise within the contour like the notes in a musical chord.

We are used to interpret an object, whatever it is, with our eyes, and to use it, assess its qualities and consider which ones we may utilise for a certain purpose. Does this particular block fit that particular position in the wall I am building? Does this vase look good in that location? We are used to recognise the potential of (natural, cultural) objects, or to read and isolate their history. We attribute a function and a place to objects.

Cecilia Vissers’ wall sculptures are fully autonomous objects, introverted, useless, beautiful, present and unusable. They appear to be created never to betray the process of their origin. Purely in terms of visual tensions it is not clear whether the object has been shaped because there were incisions (from the outside), or whether the material has shaped itself (from the inside). (Some multipart works show incisions as events, e.g. Gaoth (2010) and Very Likely (2010).)

In image theory, a distinction is made between figure and (back)ground: a shape always manifests itself against a – larger – surface or background; the visual dynamics of their boundaries and the visual relation of their – suggested – volumes can be aesthetically charged to a high degree. With many modern artists, and certainly with the first abstract artists, the figure/ground concept has become an important visual means for developing a personal visual language, for instance in Matisse’s paintings on dance and the large collages from the last years of his life. Arp’s reliefs and assemblages, Ellsworth Kelly’s drawings and paintings, and – in the Netherlands – the works of Ad Dekkers and Ben Akkerman also come to mind.

Cecilia Vissers has something important in common with Arp’s and Kelly’s work: however abstract their work is, it always reflect the inspiration of organic, natural shapes and structures such as flowers, leaf and tree shapes, plant growth, and geological formations. Vissers is fascinated by the possibility that her works and nature’s works offer parallel experiences. This is often reflected in the titles of her works: Orange Tide, Follow the River, Wald, Blacksod Bay, Wolkje [Little Cloud] (whereby each title can represent a series of works).

In her residencies in Ireland and Scotland Vissers made the experience of walking across boundaries between mighty spaces: the boundary between cliff, sea, and sky, the sense of “this is the furthest you can go”. But she has also found inspiration in industrial landscapes (Corus Steel Works IJmuiden in the Netherlands and the Ruhr Industrial Area in Germany) and in city profiles.

Cecilia Vissers’ works are systematic, which means that geometric shapes and proportions are important starting points; but contrary to other variants of concrete art (e.g. the paintings of José Heerkens) they do not present themselves as documents of a – more or less readable – creation process. As a result, her work belongs to the Dutch tradition of concrete art that is defined by artists such as Van Doesburg, Dekkers, Schoonhoven and Akkerman; a tradition of works that may be inaccessable at first sight but in which the combination of intensity, intimacy and silence has yielded exceptionally clear results.

–Cees de Boer