Volkmar Mühleis -

The Art of Kindness
Don’t you take my kindness for weakness, MeShell Ndegeocello is singing on her album Weather from 2011. I do not know if Robin Vermeersch is familiar with this song. But the song is familiar with his art, his attitude. Because I’m gentle doesn’t mean I’m not strong. Maybe we learned a lesson, too, growing up as boys in the seventies, eighties. In all their criticism on their fathers, a lot of the angry young men in the sixties became Alpha-males, too. I never heard Robin shouting, and if he would, I imagine he would burst out in laughs, conscious of the absurdity of it, not wasting his time with ridiculous power games, like some male colleagues still like to fight for. He is not striving for drama, the sublime, romanticized supplements of metaphysical promises. Coming from an artistic family, the idea of the one-and-only, singular genius might never have bothered him. His drawings and ceramic works show a modernist craft and finesse, pop-cultural humor and wit, a contemporary awareness for politics as well as beauty. He is not separating formal experiments from ornamental studies, he introduces the serious existentialists and feminists in his hallucinative evocations of playfulness, and contrasts political references with surreal irony and colour. The forms are soft, no expressive lines define the appearance, the tonality is light, light accentuated by shadows and darkness, accentuated in complementarities, like Georges Seurat tought us.
During his recent stay at the European Ceramic Centre in ’s Hertogenbosch he made the sculptures presented in this exhibition. In preparing the works he formed clay mechanically and by hand to long and huge sausages, modulated the moulds as positive twins of the negatives, the baked sculptures themselves, did tests for the glazes, as a highly individualized process in craftmanship, to establish the personal vision and touch with the material and the techniques, from the beginning on. There is no separation of professional assistence and conceptual direction in his work. He is contrasting both sides, playing with both sides, exploring them in his own terms, facets of his art. The baked sculptures are stable, fixed, but represent woven structures, like a rope for example. You are not fooled by an illusion, yet puzzled by an association, a dissociation of material and formal impression. Before content might be discussed, in comparison with form, Vermeersch is putting the principle relation of every artwork on the foreground, the relation of matter and form. Only the crafted artist can do this, as artistic protagonists from Greek antiquity via the Arts & Crafts-movement, Russian avantgarde, up till today remind us. It is only in the context of repressing matter by transformation, in-formation, digitalization, capitalization that a distinction is made between form and matter, concept and execution, active, communicative dominance and passive enduring. The works of Vermeersch speak another language, a language coming from material presence, visual glance, tactile traces; a language of articulating form in space; of opening space by taking place; of inviting to respond; by seeing, and recognizing, that seeing an artwork is a social act, between the spectator and the presented object, a bodily relationship, between a possible speaker and the silent resistance of indifferent matter, forced to shine, to reach our imagination, a perceivable thing in front of me, to enter subjectivity and to re-enter the shared space, with the object, other spectators. A highly indirect process, never to process.
The artist speaks, too. Via the titles of his works. The notion Flanders Classic accompanies a sculpture hanging on the wall, like a wheel represented by several inner tubes, forming together a spiral, inviting as leading the gaze into the void, onto the wall, the white inbetween of circles, showing red touches, like wounds – the tubes as thin bandage, spiral of imagination? Flanders Classic, associating Flanders Classics, the group of prominent cycling races, or a singular classic from Flanders, thinking back to the Flemish Primitives like Jan van Eyck or Hans Memling and back again, up till contemporary artworks and artist? Even Vermeersch’s work itself, as an ironical, self-conscious, joyful play with the term and its possible interpretations?
In another case he underlines the symbolic fixation of the object by addressing it openly: Hey Adolf, a work on the wall, formally based on the swastika, but layered in a finished and an unfinished part, the finished one shimmers in various blues (also Prussian blue?), the unfinished hangs out of the mantling piece without glaze, like rose-coloured, figurative endings, an erected finger, something like a knee and a loose leg – the blue part suggesting a cross with two half-rounded hooks, the naked one a work-in-progress, fracture of construction. The occupied talks under compulsion the language of the occupyer, Michel de Certeau tells us in The Practice of Everyday Life, but never correctly, never to satisfy the occupyer. Robin Vermeersch is not distracting the swastika from its national-socialistic background – to open up again for example the so much older, Indian history of it. He is re-using its form, experimenting with the borderline of representing and breaking with the representation, re-introducing the process, as Judith Butler recommands in confrontation with hate speech for example, knowing the violent ‘mould’ in the back. In times when extreme right-wing supporters join the manifestations of alt-right populist leaders, the work is refering to the past as a ghost of today. Hey Adolf – it will never be Heil again!
Don’t you take my kindness for weakness. If something disturbs him, he lowers his voice, speaks very precise, sharpens his words, draws them clearly, technically, so that there is no misunderstanding for visually aggressive, blurry talk. Do you see it? Do you see it as I do, as we do, as it is there? It is the technical side of crafted art that opens the horizon of communication, visually, intellectually, by words. No mess here. 3-4-3. Being exact. Also in a title, for a drawing from 2016. But what do we see? A composition structured like this. Somehow. An amorph figure  with stars, islands of white spaces inbetween, an arrangement of circles, three above, connected with another three by a forth one inbetween. 3-forth-3? A third, somewhere? A map, of a night-sky? An astronomy, a wishful imagination on a vertical, rectangular sheet of paper? The artist in space, diving in two dimensions, circles again, spirals, allowing the spectator to dream. Cosmic notations, a score for silent, visual depth. Fugitive, ephemeral.      
Titles, for sure, are part of our imagination, too, in the spectre from description to irony, figure to ground. Col de la Schlucht is another drawing called, in mixing French, Italian and German, of a vivid movement like a view from the sky onto a coastline, a delta of many rivers, circling around, flowing with every line of the grey and colourful pencils Vermeersch uses. He is developing the drawings as white left-opens generated by countless little lines over and over, creating like this the impression of bright light in contrast with darkening relievos, Schluchten in German, gorges in  English, in the form of a collar, col in French, or in reference to the musical way of playing the strings of a violin with the wood of the bow – col legno, in Italian –, or as imagining a mountain pass, a mountain pass of the gorge, in the multilingual pleasure of speaking: Col de la Schlucht.
The circular elements relate the motives of the ceramics in this exhibition to his drawings. Vermeersch evocates elemental forms, coming from nature, apart from geometrically mastered compositions. At the same time, he relates to geometrical harmony, yet again bodily, playful, as a swollen version of it. Just have a look on his ceramic work of a vertical, rectangular, regular pattern of three vertical and four horizontal thick, half-rounded lines, and you might think of the wonderful, delicate, harmonious, symmetrical constructions to be hung on the wall by Jan Schoonhoven.
The Art of Kindness is a question of leaving space – how to resist occupation, by others, by yourself. Leaving space, even before any attempt to give it. Leaving in different ways, regarding the other, in respect to the work, the space itself. Being part of an element, passing, passionate, passive sometimes, to act in response. Indirectly, via objects. The absent performer. Objects carry time, that we perceive, continiously, by feeding our consciousness. Objects carry duration, and even just for the short period of an exhibition. They are counterparts, the other half that – remembering Greek mythology – results with us as a symbol, a whole. The symbol of a whole, if you want. The exhibition space is generated by this question of leaving space, in favour of the other, the work, space inbetween. The gentle monumentality of the ceramics on the wall, embedded in the lightness of their tonality, the ornamental painting on the wall, is offering us counterparts of a nearly mediterranean atmosphere, objects from the seaside, indistinct, objects without context, imaginative objects, associations, dissociations, emptying out every singular reading.
There is one drawing of a demonic beauty, that attracts the gaze into its inner space, deepening out its perspectives, distracting the longing to see, into multi-layered, synchronized, blooming episodes, evocating leaves of a flower, folded, unfolding, but at the same time, within the same space, it shows cubist configurations, like folded paper, building up fragile structures, linear textures, arranging a possible scene. The beautiful is never carefree, always ambivalent, Lucifer was the most beautiful angel. Beauty is no synonym for goodness. The sheltered darkness of this drawing, sheltered by the thin, left-open white, undrawn lines surrounding the inner space, is a restless tension, forming itself by its contrasts, balancing relations in developping images, images of a perceivable imagination, intruding space and the tension you are, bound to see what you see, to look for what you see, to think what you see, is what you see: differently. It reminds me of marble, presented in frames in churches from the Hagia Sophia on (amongst others), as a symbol of transitional space, of forming nature informed, natura naturans in natura naturata, as the Aristotelian scholars of the Middle Ages would have put it. Here, matter is not repressed by form, but elaborated by time, force, geological shifts, characterized as complex configurations. This is what nature can do, what we can isolate in service of contemplative images, a contemplative mind. The philosopher is taking distance, the artist can show it, both they are contemplating it. The drawing makes me think of a nature that bodily crafted art is always part of – as bodily articulated philosophy. Vita activa and vita contemplativa as two sides of the same medal: life.    
 Volkmar Mühleis