Dorothee Capelle, ' A world trough a window'

Robin Vermeersch

A World through the Window


“What matters most is finding the nuances in which I conceal myself” Maurice Gilliams (1900-1982) wrote about the nineteenth century Antwerp genre painter Henry De Braekeleer (1840-1888).[1] Although a young contemporary artist like Robin Vermeersch (°1977) has little or nothing in common with De Braekeleer, Gilliams’s words seem to apply surprisingly well to the oeuvre of this young West-Flemish artist. Vermeersch’s art refers subtly to everyday reality, yet cannot be considered a realistic rendering of it. It merely echoes the known organic world. It focuses on the nuances, on the details. Vermeersch zooms in on them, explores their limits and creates something entirely new out of them. The recognisable is dismantled and reassembled. Something new arises from the details. In this way, the artist creates a different world in which the essence of the existing one is nonetheless comprised. Robin Vermeersch lets his audience take a peek through the window at the world that lies behind it. He lets us almost touch it, but not quite.
As the youngest member of a highly artistic family Robin Vermeersch studied painting at the Saint Luke Academy in Ghent from 1995 until 1999. Since then, however, painting seems to make room more and more often for drawing and sculpture. Robin Vermeersch stealthily and steadily sets out a path of his own, well away from artistic traditions and contemporary trends.

 Something stirring below the surface

 The essential idea in Robin Vermeersch’s oeuvre is that every new work of art simultaneously generates a new life. Art is never mere matter. It can never be reduced to sheer form. A work of art cannot be considered a deathlike, plain reproduction of life. It is life in itself. It creates a world, an organism of its own. Therefore the artist determinedly chooses organic shapes as the basis of his art. These shapes are based on microscopic photographs of organic cells such as seaweed cells or the cell structure of human muscles. However, the photographs never serve as anatomical models; they only function as an unrestricted source of inspiration. Through association and intuition the useable elements are lifted and combined into a new system. This means that the work of art is never preceded by a well thought through concept or a structured plan of work. It grows organically, albeit at all times aesthetically accounted for. Out of every element grows a new one and yet another one until the work of art is ready to burst out of its confinement. It grows and grows until the artwork/organism is at the verge of transgressing the edges of the piece paper or the wooden box it is presented in. Every work of art sprouts, blossoms and grows until it becomes hardly controllable. It grows rampant. It seeks its way out into the open. Ultimately, the spreading work of art finds itself in the everyday world. 
Of course, every work of art is, by definition, presented in the known world. At the same time, however, the work stands on it’s own. It refers to everyday reality, but can also be seen as a reality of its own accord. A lot of Robin Vermeersch’s art seems to refer indirectly to what, in the theatre, is known as a play-within-a-play, e.g. the murder play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As is the case for the theatrical sub-play, there is an unmistakable parallel between the work of art and the real world. The work does not only create an independent world; it also voices a precise vision on reality. It brings to the surface carefully concealed layers that can hardly be uncovered in the real world.
In this context, the artist refers to the aura of mystery that hangs about the man or woman who stands next to us at the bakery, when we visit an exhibition or attend a reception. We can see him or her, but we cannot look directly inside them. We can touch them, but we cannot truly feel them. We live in our own world and they in theirs. And although there are various connections between both individual worlds; they never coincide. This is exactly what Robin Vermeersch wants to evoke in his art: a form of recognition in the work of art – a human warmth – that remains intangible at all times. That is why a lot of Robin Vermeersch’s art has a very tactile and, at the same time, fragile feel to it. This tactile fragility is expressed, amongst others, in the use of materials. Robin Vermeersch utilizes soft media such as pencil, clay, plaster and epoxy waxes and equally soft supports like paper or the wooden plinths and boxes of his sculptures. When applying colours, he prefers pastels instead of sharp, bright tones. And although the use of pen and ink might imply differently, there is hardly any harshness in his black and white ink drawings. Sharp contrasts are at all times subdued. This results in a delicate chiaroscuro based on soft shadows.

 Drawn sculptures / sculpted drawings

 This subtle light dark contrast is, of course, most noticeable in the drawings, although the sculptures also reveal an outspoken fascination for the interplay between light and shadow. This omnipresent interest, together with a set of formal qualities and a specific choice of subject matters, lies at the base of a genuine synergetic relationship between drawing and sculpture. Robin Vermeersch’s claustrophobic cell drawings and his alienated organic sculptures seem to have grown closer and closer to each other over the last few years. They intertwine. Both are concerned with the subject matters mentioned above: a fascination for the organic, the biological growth process, the creation of a new and other world, the unresolved tension between tactility and intangibility, the tension between light and dark, the continual search for a crossing between what is seen at the surface and the world hidden underneath, etc. Drawing and sculpture deepen each other. They enrich one another. Therefore they are presented together more and more often.
In both disciplines the artist creates little worlds of his own, bizarre and at the same time intriguing spaces that complement each other. Hence, drawing and sculpture also strengthen one another in the way they explore the use of space. What is displayed in the drawing can be understood as the invisible space that precedes or follows what the sculpture shows. Or the other way round. The drawing might visualise a microscopic detail of the sculpture. Or is it just the reverse? The two-dimensional drawing evokes a feeling of three-dimensionality. And the sculptures give the beholder the impression that it exists of a carefully constructed collection of two-dimensional images. Each point of view comes with a new image. Just like we are only able to grasp the everyday world in splintered, fragmented views, the bulk of Robin Vermeersch’s sculptures do not reveal the picture in its entirety all at once. To see more, to dare to look beyond that first momentary glance, the beholder must continuously change his point of view. He must keep moving through the exhibition space: around the sculpture, from sculpture to drawing, from drawing to drawing, and back to the sculpture. Both art disciplines offer opportunities for the other: the prospect of a way-out of one art form to the other or the possibility of a vanishing-point where sculpture and drawing meet. It is left to the audience to discover them.
On a formal level Robin Vermeersch’s sculptures and drawings are closely linked as well. As mentioned earlier, the shapes he uses are, above all, organic. Almost all formal elements are abstract versions of plant cells, muscles, human skin, pebbles, biological tissues, etc. which are all fitted into a new system. In this way, the artist constructs a fascinating contrast between the abstract and the organic, between recognition and estrangement.

Cell drawings

 This contrast between abstraction and organic creation has characterized Robin Vermeersch’s art from the very beginning. The first sober black and white drawings were executed in pen and ink. From the start, the drawings were presented in a series. They could be displayed separately because all of them were created in the same spontaneous, intuitive and associative manner; they were all based on the same concept. Originally the drawings were carried out in A4 format; later, the artist also started to utilize bigger sizes of paper. In his drawings Vermeersch generates a typical, dark and threatening depth by means of strictly repeated motifs and carefully carried out hatches. Through carefully applied shadows he lets the depth vibrate.
Firm parallel lines are used to build up most of these dark spaces, passages and tunnel-like creations. They seem to be representations of surreal nightmare-like interiors. Other drawings consist of wavy patterns as if they were accurate renderings of biological tissues. In some way these seem to refer to the under drawings of the Flemish Primitives or the sketches of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).
In his recent drawings Robin Vermeersch has replaced the sober black and white scheme by a subtle colour palette. Different media are used such as pencil instead of pen and ink. In these drawings the depictions seem somewhat softer and less dark or threatening than in the early works. Also, these new drawings are characterized by an exceptionally strong rhythm and an even higher degree of abstraction.
Both the early and the more recent drawings have in common their incessant exploration of the edges of their paper support. Each drawing seems to be constrained by its support. Each looks as if it could break out of the paper any moment and spread over the entire wall it is presented on. Some of the drawings are designed around a well-defined starting point and blossom or thrive until they meet the edges. Others are abstract portraits that are forced onto the paper surface. But neither let themselves be restrained to the confines of their support.

Dioramas and window art

 The creation of another reality or hidden space within the existing world does not only characterize Robin Vermeersch’s drawings, but his sculptures as well. His sculptural dioramas and window art are dominated by the play-within-a-play idea, even more so than his cell drawings or his landscape sculptures. Diorama’s and window art are, of course, the artistic concepts par excellence with which to explore the effects of hidden realities.
Robin Vermeersch is highly fascinated by the concept of the diorama. To date, he has created two such showcases, one for De Barricade (Kunst-Zicht Gallery, Ghent, 2004) and one as the artist in residence in Be-Part (Waregem, 2008). Both consist of identical wooden cases in which a collection of sculptural elements is arranged in a apparently chaotic manner. In both cases these sculptural elements seem to be at the verge of breaking out of the confinement of the box. They are squeezed into the limited space of the showcase, quite similar to the drawings compressed on sheets of paper. The elements compete with the space inside the diorama; they explore that space and are about to break out of it.
However, both dioramas also differ significantly from one another. In the first box the sober, white, thin sculptures seem to blossom through round openings in the bottom of the case. They are plant-like elements, potato plants perhaps, who germinate and grow rampant underground until they blossom visibly into the box. The second, more recent diorama is made up of painted wooden panels that are thematically, as well as formally, closely related to the recent colour pencil drawings. Just like the drawings, these panels present two-dimensional images with a three-dimensional feel to them. But contrary to the drawings, the wooden elements are not presented on a smooth and flat vertical wall; they are arranged in a specific order on all four sides of the wooden case. In this way the artist creates extra depth, quite similar to the way the theatre utilises painted sceneries to create the illusion of space. The first diorama, entirely dominated by subtle whiteness, lacks this theatrical aspect entirely.
Robin Vermeersch’s window art projects are closely related to the artistic idea he establishes in his dioramas. Here as well the audience is confronted with another world it can reach out to without ever being able to touch it. The beholder can only stand by and look at something so close, yet so very inaccessible. But the dioramas and the window art projects also differ in one crucial aspect. The showcases are exhibited in an artistic context, in the settings of a museum or in a gallery. This means that the visitor has to make very little effort to catch a glimpse of the hidden reality the work of art reveals. It is simply offered to him. In the window art projects this is by no means the case. A screen or window is, quite literally, erected between the work of art and the viewer. This creates an insurmountable distance between the art project and the audience. The beholder is not invited into the artistic space; he remains in his day-to-day public setting and much like a voyeur has to peek through the window to be able to see the work of art.
On top of that, Robin Vermeersch’s window art only reveals itself in stages. We need several viewings to be able to grasp the project in its entirety. These stages may be spread through time. In 2005, Vermeersch created a window project for Kunst-Zicht, the Ghent University art gallery, which allowed the passers-by to closely follow the developing process of the work of art. Vermeersch started the process by marking eleven simple dots on a board, comparable to the way a football coach symbolizes his team. Every few days during a period of three months these dots were linked up in every possible combination. Step by step a complex structure of lines was eventually unfolded.
Some of the window projects reveal themselves through time in a much more subtle way, e.g. by choosing a different light at night than during the day, as was the case for the Instalraam the artist created in 2005 for Croxhapox (Ghent).
Viewings may also be spread through space. In 2006, Robin Vermeersch presented what at first sight looked like an extremely inaccessible, hermetic sculptural wall (De Garage, Mechelen). The only thing visible from the outside was a collection of peepholes. The passers-by were to take a look through these holes. With every opening, the viewer was under the impression that he was going to see another part, another aspect of the secret world hidden behind the screen. Only, the peepholes kept getting smaller and smaller, so one could never really see this secret world. The only thing that was revealed was a set of delicately illuminated tunnels leading to this world without ever really showing it. The illusion of there being a hidden reality behind a closed window were of greater importance than the actual showing of it. The search for a hidden world mattered more than its discovery.

Landscape art revisited

 Other sculptures by Robin Vermeersch are more easily accessible, although the artist does continue to expect his audience to question its traditional viewing habits. Vermeersch does not only examine the artistic possibilities and limits of sculpture as an art discipline; he also explores the effects this has on the audience.
In his oblong, architectural, free-standing sculptures the artist questions the correlation between exterior and interior of sculpture. Consequently he examines the relationship between (re)presentation and support. Conventionally a sculpture displays what it wants to represent on the outside; the inside is mere matter or support. Robin Vermeersch reverses these traditional roles. The rough, unfinished and virtually uninteresting inside is brought to the surface. What usually stays hidden from the eye is made visible. Tangible even; which is even strengthened by the use of materials such as clay and epoxy in flesh-like colours. Robin Vermeersch presents sculpture as if it were a skin one would like to caress. But at the same time one also longs to crack this sculpted skin open, because what matters most is not the skin surface in itself, but what goes on underneath it. For the real sculpture only presents itself on the inside of the work. The Small Chunnel Sculpture (2007), for example, consists of an elongated and continuously narrowing tube with a loop-hole at each end. The beholder’s eye is pulled inside, but it is impossible to look through the tunnel. We are guided inwards, but it is impossible to see right through. Instead, we are led towards an eternally hidden world that lies in or behind the sculpture. This hidden world is almost tangible. We can reach out; but we are unable to touch it. Again, just as in Vermeersch’s window art, the suggestion of another world precedes the actual showing of it.
In his Big Chunnel Sculpture (2007), Robin Vermeersch takes this even further. Instead of presenting the reclining sculpture on a plinth, as is usually done, he places it directly on the floor. As a result the beholder is asked not only to question his way of looking at art on a philosophical level, but also on a more physical level. He has to change his posture to be able to look inside the work. He cannot walk upright and look at the sculpture from a distance, as he is used to doing.

Moreover, Vermeersch does not display an unambiguous, rectilinear tunnel like his Little Chunnel Sculpture, but a network of passages that are getting smaller and smaller towards the centre. On the outside of this wheel-like tunnel construction the central point is clearly visible. On the inside, however, it remains hidden from the wandering eye.
The wall sculptures question sculpture as an artistic medium as well. The least complex of these works consist of amorphous, rather compact, circular shapes in soft powdery colours. They are mounted vertically, as if they were the supports of climbing wall. They are the sculpted elements of a climbing wall that does not guide the body, but the eye.
The landscape sculptures take this questioning even further. Flat landscapes are displayed on a wall, not vertically as if they were paintings, but horizontally. So the viewer must look at them from above and not, as is normally the case with sculpture, from a distance while walking around the work of art. We cannot circle them, we need to draw closer.

Every sculpted landscape looks as if it is a rectangular cut-out from the surface of the moon, or from a microscopically enlarged fragment of a sprouting field. However, they are by no means sterile, semi-scientific or geometrical views of what the world may look like. The use of soft materials and equally soft shapes provide a more than adequate counterweight. Soft round shapes seem to originate from a never perfectly flat and, in some cases, even sloping surface. These rolling forms create shadows that inevitably become part of the work of art itself. Depending on the light and the position of the beholder, these shadows shift and make the sculpture look like a living thing moving through time and space. The landscapes seem to grow out of the wall, to expand organically and to annihilate their once rectangular shape. Traditional static and two-dimensional landscape art is dismantled and reassembled into something new that breaks through the limits of sculpture as a genre.

Worlds of Wonder

 In his drawings, as well as in his sculptures, Robin Vermeersch creates fascinating yet estranged new worlds. From our position in everyday reality we can reach out to these worlds, but we cannot ever touch them. We are only able to catch a glimpse of what is behind the window pane of the known world. Vermeersch lets us question what we see. He lets us feel how space works and how we can explore the limits of space as we know it. He shows the details, the nuances, but never the entire picture. The whole of his new and other worlds stay carefully hidden in the parts. They remain ambiguous. Robin Vermeersch lets us wonder. He gives us hints, but no answers. We are left in utter amazement.


Dorothee Cappelle

[1] GILLIAMS, Maurice, De Man voor het venster. Aanteekeningen, J.M. Meulenhoff / De Nederlandsche Boekhandel, Amsterdam / Antwerpen, 1943. (Translation: Dorothee Cappelle).