Bas van den Hurk’s Mutability
Alex Bacon

While not always recognized in the canon of modernist art history, there is an illustrious history of works that take the form of painting as a tool or device to some end that may extend far beyond the literal limits of the canvas. While superficially appearing to many to be uncontroversially paintings, these can be opposed to those works that rather unselfconsciously present themselves in the conventional trappings of the medium, concerned only with what occurs within its established boundaries. This enables the work in question to use the language of painting as a framework or context for a wider reaching conversation, both aesthetically and conceptually, and even politically.

Recently this tradition has become very visible, as an international coterie of younger artists has come to painting in this way, often as the result of careful study of all the possible modes of expression. That is, not as something that can only be picked up by a fool unaware of the influential critiques of painting leveled in the 1960s by the likes of Donald Judd and Joseph Kosuth, and extended in the ensuing years by a long list of influential artists, critics, and historians; or else by a zealot willingly dismissive of these arguments in the face of their intoxication with the smell of turpentine. This younger generation is working more in the legacy of the radical painterly interventions staged by French artist groups of the 1960s and 1970s like BMPT (the association of Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier, and Niele Toroni), the deconstructive intellectual discourse surrounding Supports/Surfaces, the productive doubt of Germans from Gerhard Richter to Albert Oehlen to Martin Kippenberger, and the materialist concerns of Americans like Brice Marden, Robert Mangold, and Robert Ryman. In recent art this has led to a resurgence of painting, and specifically of works making use of unconventional materials, processes, and tactics of display, but within a painting frame.

What to make, then, of Bas van den Hurk, an artist born in 1965, who came of age in the Netherlands in the 1990s? A good ten or more years before many of his closest artistic peers. He is neither ignorant of recent art history, nor a diehard adherent to keeping alive the faith in painting. Nor does he follow the more familiar pattern of an artist of the generation born in the late 1970s through the late 1980s, who encountered art more on the image-saturated and context-evacuated leveled playing field of the Internet, than in books, magazines, galleries, and museums. An avid reader, gallery and museum goer, and intellectual in his own right, van den Hurk’s embrace of painting is very particular, and the context in which it occurred, which has a relationship to both that moment of the ‘90s and also to the situation in Europe, versus America, regarding painting, and also to today, where van den Hurk is finding his place and reception alongside often much younger peers, with whom he bears strong affinities, while also displaying sharp differences.

Specifically, van den Hurk first encountered painting as a potential prop in the context of installations involving film and photography, with which he was involved beginning in the 1990s. This initially incidental, exploratory, experimental decision born out of curiosity evolved, over the course of a decade or so, into the fully developed practice that we find van den Hurk involved with today, and which began around 2005, and which has recently taken on a certain elevated degree of maturity. For, in the past couple of years, van den Hurk has found the ability and interest to develop a specifically formal language in his paintings, which still, for the most part, utilize unconventional materials, and are often the products of collaborative activities with non-art practitioners, most especially fashion designers, and which are then carefully placed by van den Hurk in specifically conceived installations involving a range of materials and mediums, but in which the paintings increasingly play a starring role.

In this way, we might say that, for van den Hurk, the ferment of installation, photography and video current in the 1990s into the 2000s (and certainly far from outmoded today) first created an excuse for painting to enter the conversation his work was establishing. This being an international situation, and then we must consider that this permission was also based on a relatively lighter pressure in this period on the practice of painting in the Netherlands, as compared with New York City, say. For, in Europe, especially in the Germanic tradition, which bears strongly on its neighbor to the West, where the most radical interventions in contemporary art often took the form of painting—whether we are thinking of the Viennese Actionists, Gerhard Richter, Blinky Palermo, Sigmar Polke, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Anselm Kiefer, or Neo Rauch. The same is true of France, where the pressure was less to jettison painting in favor of putatively more “radical” art forms like text-based work, sculpture, or video, but rather to deconstruct existing aesthetic means, this being the lesson of the most important models of continental theory, such as deconstruction, structuralist and post-structuralist thought, and psychoanalysis.

Aware of this, as well as of the equally important American critique of painting, it made sense that it is only recently, buoyed along by the same historical pressures that have brought a younger generation to painting, that van den Hurk both embraced the medium, if tentatively at first, and has lately been developing its specific aesthetic possibilities. Thus, it is productive to not simply treat his work as a conceptual emanation, more significant for what it proposes than for its own materiality and presence in the world, but to dissect the terms of an individual work of van den Hurk’s, as well as to understand its placement in the larger context of the installations of which they are often shown as one component, if increasingly the most significant.

Consider, as representative, the three painterly works van den Hurk exhibited as his contribution to the aptly titled, for our concerns, show “Politics of Installation,” at P////AKT, Amsterdam. Two are framed and hung on the wall, like conventional paintings, while the third rests flat on a raised platform, next to a bottle of liquid pigment. This pigment could easily be imagined as a participant or agent in the production of the paintings, but it is in fact not, though van den Hurk utilized a method of staining in an earlier body of color field works. We might thus characterize the bottle of pigment as both a remnant of a past way of working and as a stand in for painterly process more generally.

The paintings themselves consist of stretched fabric, which van den Hurk sources from readily available, commercial places like fabric stores and markets. They often have a sheen that catches the light as one moves around the work, and which is meant by their designers to connote luxury, though the materials are in fact quite common and inexpensive. In a sense their aspirations to transcend their lowly status as bolts of fabric through their allusive allegiance to metals and jewels are realized when they ascend to the status of painting through van den Hurk’s selection and framing of them.

The marks that populate this surface are a combination of abstract images silkscreened over folded and bunched passages of fabric, the particular forms generated by this process emerge after the printed fabric is unfolded or unbunched, a procedure indebted to the pliage method of Simon Hantai. It makes sense that the mechanical operation of silkscreening, which is derived from a commercial, graphic usage in areas like advertising also has, of course, a rich art historical pedigree going back at least to Warhol and Rauschenberg, would have provided van den Hurk with his entry into this body of work. Distancing the hand through process and device, and eventually providing an entry point for intuitively-generated marks.

These marks are produced in a quick flurry of activity where van den Hurk reacts to the silkscreened forms using paint sticks so as to achieve a linear, drawn, but still painterly quality. The paintings are thus hybrid, presenting a somewhat autonomous space in juxtaposition with the materialist realm suggested by the physical and architectural elements amidst which they are interspersed. For this reason, what they accomplish formally is also in dialogue with the outside world, a fact underscored by the materials of which they are made, and the context in which they are installed—both of which are key components for van den Hurk. Though he also embraces painting’s inherently nomadic nature, its ability to move around and enter other spaces, both determined by the artist and entirely outside of his or her purview.

As such, it is hard to say that there are something like traditional pictorial concerns in one of van den Hurk’s paintings, despite his use of a readily accessible painterly vocabulary of materials, forms and marks. Instead, the works seem caught somehow halfway in the process of signifying. We feel as if we are watching activity coalesce, some sort of game beginning to start, rather than having been completed. This seems to be the result of the dual nature of the paintings, of the way they have one foot in a very particular realm, the painterly, and the other in another, the so-called “real” world. They are too much aware of the larger role they play, both as just one object in a space populated by a number of other objects, but also their recognition of their role in a network in which they are circulated, both as thing and as image, by means of which they might proliferate and be encountered by innumerable people, who will have various degrees of context for the picture they are beholding, and certainly not the material presence of the work itself to verify it. They thus seem to be aware of this condition, which van den Hurk stages by placing them in installations such as this.

Van den Hurk has long understood his painterly works as events, and displayed them both vertically on the wall, and horizontally on the ground, as well as on pedestals and platforms. This brings to mind an element, even clearer in van den Hurk’s earlier work, of what Leo Steinberg, discussing Rauschenberg, famously termed the flatbed picture plane. For it is not simply that van den Hurk’s paintings are sometimes displayed horizontally, but it is important to consider that his early paintings incorporated a wide array of matter typically foreign to the medium—from earrings to eyeliner. This suggests the painting as more of a container; as, to use Steinberg’s terminology, a receptive surface, than as an analogue for a person’s view out onto the world. Van den Hurk underscores this when he uses fabric for his support, suggesting an analogue with the hand-made push-pin boards people put in their kitchens and bedrooms as much as the canvas surface typical to painting.

The main import for thinking about this today is that it provides another point of access to the more formal paintings that van den Hurk is currently making. We can understand the marks in them as having as much of the factual reality of the materials that used to enter his works as they do an illusionistic, painterly quality. This is also suggested by the fact that van den Hurk retains the commercial fabric, as opposed to canvas, support, even if it is now of a finer, more elegant quality. How is it that a painted mark can enter into such a discourse? Amidst the many things that they suggest, Van den Hurk’s paintings propose that the hand-made gesture or mark has today entered into circulation. No longer simply the direct emanation of the artist’s hand, captured and frozen for all time on the canvas, but all gestures, artistic or otherwise, become part of a networked situation, wherein they shift endlessly back and forth between physical presence, graphic image, and back again. It is no longer just that the painting operates receptively, like the printing press Steinberg uses as an analogue, but actually sends things into motion, into circulation, like the products of the printing press. The protean mutability of van den Hurk’s practice is proof of this, and captures a moment of this flux for our consideration.

- Alex Bacon, New York, 2015