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stephen wright
linear process

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Linear Process


We’re trapped. Though we don’t always care to acknowledge the fact. Trapped in an all-encompassing and multilayered grid, as infinitely broad as it is long; in a matrix that is Existence itself. It is an existential entrapment, from which the fleeting urgencies of day-to-day life, and the vapid jingoism of functional reason are wont to distract – but never extract – us. “Like it or not, you must be caught” as the nursery rhyme says, with faintly morbid overtones. Always already caught, in fact, in a gridwork that is our permanent horizon line, that recedes as we advance and encroaches when we pull back. Such is the underlying structure of sentiment of Arjan Janssen’s art, the profoundly human dimension of his purely formal visual idiom, the existential predicament he seeks to render intelligible in his paintings and drawings.
Intensely melancholic and saturnine, his work uses sparing visual means to pry this structure of feeling back to the quick. If his art has any extrinsic purpose, it is doubtless to reawaken us to our human predicament, challenge the sort of distracted self-deception that goes with repressing the reality of death. Psychoanalysts have a nice term for this form of denial – of not perceiving what is visibly there: they call it “negative hallucination”. It is of the common, non-pathological though metaphysical form of this phenomenon that Janssen hopes to cure us. The lack of seriousness and depth that he so deplores in contemporary existence leads him to a mode of painting having no truck with “realism”, which, far from showing the world merely as it is, seeks to provide an analytical grid of feeling behind appearances. His work, in other words, does not stem from a visual perception; rather, it conditions perception. Consequently, though the obsessively symmetrical and layered gridworks give Janssen’s work its particular form, they have no distinct meaning or objective content. Yet a certain affinity of mood likens them to the concept that philosopher Karl Jaspers devised to describe the absolute enclosure beyond the relativity of all horizons. Das Umgreifende, the Encompassing, as Jaspers explains, is “not a horizon within which every determinate mode of Being and truth emerges for us, but rather that within which every particular horizon is enclosed as in something absolutely comprehensive which is no longer visible as a horizon at all”. In Janssen’s work it is visible as an obsessively recurrent grid, the fruit of an ongoing linear process.

Brabant hard-edge

At first glance – and in art as in love there’s no denying the poignancy of first glances – Arjan Janssen seems a superlatively Dutch painter. Not merely because of the Netherlands’ flat landscapes and low horizon lines, characteristic of that sprawling suburb of a country, but the very severity of the gridlines cannot fail to evoke the stringent Calvinist morality that underpins its culture. One can certainly read the stark lines that cover Janssen’s canvases as stemming from a cultural need to get back to basics. And while the countless lines which make up his intricate gridworks focus their energy on the canvas’s center, they are as many vectors pointing back to Piet Mondrian, Janssen’s inevitably Dutch predecessor, and beyond him to a persistent tradition, which, since time immemorial, has held lines (as opposed to color) to be the repository of visual intelligence in art. Yet Mondrian’s high-modernist quest for absolute purity, his contempt for any inkling of visual embellishment, is quite foreign to Janssen’s work. For though it is anything but ornate, closer inspection reveals his canvases to be charged with myriad things to look at – and enjoy. It may be worth noting in this regard that Janssen is part of his country’s Catholic community, and if anything – following this logic through – is a Brabant abstractionist. Though a cultural duality can never entirely account for an inherent formal duality, it is hard not to see that in his work Catholic taste is circumscribed by Protestant morality; just as the rational geometry of abstraction is tempered by a human, painterly touch.
Subtle tonal shifts notwithstanding, Janssen’s palette is somber, deep, light-devouring. His artistic imperative, however, is to use as sparing means as possible to attain maximum yield. In other words, though his visual idiom is frugal, the results are surprisingly melodic. The linear process that culminates in the large format drawings demands genuine physical effort on the artist’s part, for each band of the grid is made up of some 150 lines of chalk, each done ten times over. So while on the one hand Janssen visibly spurns all expressive gesture, evacuating expressiveness in search of a rigorously impersonal state, on the other he leaves subtle though deliberate hints of the drawing process – visual clues inviting the viewer to partake in a detective-like inquiry into their making. In the large-format paintings, too, we find both an earnest and methodical suppression of painterly subjectivity, and subtle but self-conscious traces of the painting process – brushstrokes and other “anomalies”, that a hard-core hard-edge painter would doubtless scorn. And in the large format drawings, what from afar passes for an imperious geometrical rigor, is upon closer inspection perturbed by the somewhat abraded and lead-spattered paper at those points where lines have intersected again and again. Such is the structural paradox that accounts for Arjan Janssen’s pictorial singularity.

Cityscape abstraction

Pictorially speaking, Arjan Janssen’s work stands somewhere between hard-edged geometric abstraction (as epitomized by such modernist icons as Ellsworth Kelly) and a more straightforwardly pictorial conceit, depicting, say, the vertical grids of skyscraper façades – those veritable templates of modernist urban architecture. Seen in this way, his gridlines stretch outwards toward the contemporary tradition of urban landscape painting, often steeped with a critique of the alienation fostered by the one-dimensional rationality of contemporary architecture, that one associates with a painter like Yves Bélorgey. So though Janssen’s idiom is abstract, he deals with the man-made, and his work echoes the taut lines of modernist architecture – hence the grid.
Rosalind Krauss has accounted for the grid’s unusual longevity in twentieth-century painting, by describing how it effectively proclaims the modernity of the works where it appears. It does so, she argues, both spatially and temporally: spatially, the grid asserts art’s autonomy: two-dimensional, geometric, ordered, it is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature. And temporally, the grid stands as the very emblem of modernity precisely because it is an omnipresent form in modern art, a form virtually unknown in previous painting, and the form by means of which the painters of modernity landed in the present. It embodies a certain invulnerable and truly modernist defiance of time: the inflexible linear rhythm of the austere geometric surface must seem inviolable. In choosing straight-edged grids as the primary compositional element of his pictorial vocabulary, Janssen would have been hard pressed to find a more austere, even infertile pictorial conceit. For what could be less conducive to development than such gridworks? Yet it is precisely this apparent rigidity that gives his work its depth, its breadth, even as it delineates its field of operations. While Janssen’s work is formally ambitious, it is also exceedingly focused, cranking up passion by paring away at means. His formal ploy for overcoming the constraints inherent in griddom, is to superimpose the grids upon one another. Three superimposed sets of interlacing bands introduce illusionistic space into an abstract field. They articulate a space both layered and illusionistic, suggesting depth while abjuring volume. Yet more than depth, his painting is about digging – and it leaves the initiative to the beholder. The eye clambers over thresholds, squirms between the focal planes of the three superimposed grids, in pursuit of the receding and innermost focal plane; as if its ultimate goal were to secure an impossible standpoint from which the grid could be contemplated from the other side.
Janssen’s work commands – and sustains – patient contemplation. From twelve feet away, the works exude a seamless willfulness. As we approach, the surface can be seen to be alive with the traces and restless energy of their making; at twelve inches, the work blurs into myriad perceptions. Backing up again, the material retreats, and form regains its prerogatives. Somewhere in between, vision oscillates between these two planes, the reticulated patterns drawing the eye into the nethermost depths of the surface.

Stephen Wright.