‘"If you rely only on your eyes, your other senses weaken." It was a Bene Gesserit axioma.’
–Frank Herbert, Dune(1)
text by Mark Kremer, 2021
‘"If you rely only on your eyes, your other senses weaken." It was a Bene Gesserit axioma.’
–Frank Herbert, Dune(1)
text by Mark Kremer, 2021
Attention is an important subject. I remember an early video work by the artist: it was a landscape in which time morphed like syrup and space seemed to swell or contract as if it were a vital organ. One could feel the silent pulse of a beating heart. In this landscape a viewer could roam endlessly and at ease. The work had been created with a medium that also demanded endless patience from the maker. Two film slides were pressed together and slowly slid across from each other, while the surface that passed through the frame was being filmed. Such a technique refers to the 19th century when many artists-scientists experimented with moving and still images. Today Rob Johannesma remembers: “At the time I was frequently on the move. Finding yourself in the world was a theme.”(2)
Ten years later, it is as though a different artist stands before me. This artist’s ear is pressed against the planet: he discerns vivaciously, poised in amazement. The sacrosanct In dark trees (2009, inkjet on paper, 780 x 590 cm) is a complex poetic assemblage in which a photo from a reportage of a rocket attack in Gaza territory is interwoven with a reproduction of John the Baptist in the desert by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (±1485). Embedded within a cascade of newspapers, like a passe-partout – layers of superimposed images and texts, which have been partly painted over with white hues, produce a kind of quiet palimpsest – the two main pictures sit loosely together. It gives the impression of an improvisation. At the same time the composition has been carefully construed. Pieces appear as over-saturated images, bleached by time, or on the contrary as dark chunks. This acts like a printing process, yet the images recalibrate the act of looking itself by jamming the gaze: lingering upon the violence, suffering, and decay, because 'this is really happening in the world!' The work thus generates a sheer biblical flood of impressions; a beautiful dramaturgy of light and shadow conjures stillness and peace.
Afterwards, Rob Johannesma remained out of the public eye for a while. In dark trees was exhibited in De Vleeshal in Middelburg, and in the following years he had various exhibitions at home and abroad. Personal circumstances prevented him from focusing on art full-time.
Now he is showing new work at the gallery Albada Jelgersma in Amsterdam. This has a familiar ring to it; he nudges us: be quiet, view attentively, research the images. Yet, nothing is the same. The artist shows seven paintings, vertical formats, and oil on canvas. I see the painted wings of the theatre. They represent a kind of in between world. The artist uses the word ‘membrane’. He qualifies the paintings as porous, connected with the in- and outside. Pondering these works, I am reminded of a fleece or of plumage. The first impression is of an opaque field or a sealed space: intense, multi-layered colours draw the viewer into the depth. But the painterly touch – the final layer, often applied ton-sur-ton spontaneously and adroitly, comes to the viewer in a convoy of sparks or stripes – gives a contradictory feeling. It is the sensation that right here, live before your eyes, everything works in unison to pry open the space within a field, or a plane.
It reminds me of a painting by Helmut Federle, The Death of Wladimir Majakovskij (1983). A small but powerful and dramatic work, the abstract representation of a falling and tearing colour curtain. The difference is that in the latter a profound, tragic end is being visualised.
The exhibition of RJ combines three interconnected workgroups. His paintings are hung in the first room of the gallery. It is the space of The Struggle. In the second room a series of small works are shown, in which issues of the periodical Domus form the canvas. Among these works is Glass-blue days, the artist’s book the show is named after. In this expansive work the artist looks back at 20 years of activity and his various inspirations. He started the work in 2017. The book contains a collection of rudiments. It features stills from video-works, props that once had a function within his various productions, newspapers of which pages have been painted over, and an abundance of reproductions – among them a lot of recordings of little details of classical artworks telling their own stories through the coarse grain. All the elements have been bound within a book that opens up an entire universe. Above it hangs a recent assemblage: a collar of newspapers – layers of paper forming a backdrop – frame the reproduction of a painting, an anxious self-portrait. Here Gustave Courbet presents himself as The Desperate Man (1843-45). The titular character is seen pulling hair out of his own head.
RJ's paintings evade description. Mutability can only be experienced live. The suggestion of landscape plays a role. I’m taken to the deepest heart’s core of the Amazonian rainforest, a haze of glowing mist. Here reigns the fleeting, and the bestial: some colours resemble birds from fairy tales. In one painting a cloth of feathers, iridescent within the dark background, is featured… A trippy image: exhilaration, peril! Bestial energy penetrates ‘free forms’. These works depict interior life – ‘deep landscapes’. Paint appears as pure structure. The colours are introverted, lightly vibrating, and bright… The artist lays out the structures for you, soft and subtle or conversely, administered against the grain with unruly vibrations. In my mind’s eye, I picture one colour to pull all the strings: an iridescent blue, fluorescent green, a restrained lilac/mauve… It smoulders in each painting; it shimmers and twinkles: like the vicissitude of quicksilver. Weren’t these colours born from the peacock’s tail?
The peacock’s tail is a fascinating spectrum of – not only – dark and introverted colours. These colours can pop, bright as day, depending on a point of view and the amount of daylight they are exposed to. They are an Alchemist’s best friend. Zeno of Bruges, the alchemist-protagonist in Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel, The Abyss, experiences something he has been searching for all his life. 'Night had fallen, but without his knowing whether it was only within himself or in the room: to him everything now was night.'(3) Before his eyes he sees a black that shudders; changing first to a pale-green, and after a while into a maidenly white; finally, the bleached white mutates into golden-red. When colour starts to act as a signifier for a dialectical ontology (‘altered states’) it becomes a merciless tool for artists. Hitchcock used reds, purples, and greens for Scottie, one of the two lead personages in Vertigo, for cinematic orchestrations of doubt, fear, and desire.
The works have three sources. The first inspiration is a critical and personal experience. One day in 2012 the artist woke up to a shocking apprehension: the light in one eye had gone out, died. He began a process of revalidation: picking up the pieces of his life, beginning anew as an artist. RJ is retentive about this confrontational episode, it shouldn’t determine the perception of his art career. He does mention that in 2012 he began working in a more tactile way, touching and feeling the materials, discovering them anew. New kinds of works began to emerge. He painted in black ink a stain upon a piece of paper, almost a visual reproduction of the eye’s blind spot; he let it dry after which he painted a new contour that dissolved at the edges. Was this an icon for fusion or submission? These experiments resonate in his paintings. About this he says: "I wondered what I would see if I were to paint with my broken eye. Now I would like the viewer to see what I see."
The second source is The Dream of Constantin. Piero della Francesca's fresco takes us to the night before the battle of the Milvian Bridge (Rome, 312) depicted in the adjacent fresco. In his dream – flown to him by an angel from heaven – the emperor sees what he must do in order to defeat his opponent. The painting is exquisite, sassy. How gracefully this man rests! Emperor Constantin I sits in his bed in a calm upright pose. If there had not been a second figure painted on the fresco that signified sleep – the third figure (the angel) represents flight, and the fourth watchfulness – one would never have guessed that this man was sleeping let alone dreaming.
RJ acknowledges an intriguing parallel: "The past ten years were rather calm in my practice. I was given the chance to reflect, ponder on what was important in my art, what was not. But the work process was, unfortunately, also disturbed, I was very sick. Perhaps one can speak of a sleep of sorts."
The fresco is part of The Legend of the True Cross. Piero was asked in 1452 to finish the cycle, or composite narrative, left incomplete by Bicci di Lorenzo. He would work on this assignment until 1466. The subject matter ranges from Genesis to the Crusades; those historical events of his own time (1096-1271). It was realised in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Arezzo. RJ recalibrates his practice by visiting Piero’s fresco: he appropriates his work. It is fascinating to see how he conducts his dialogue with the maestro – but perhaps this is also a struggle.
Piero’s art is in on the conversation in the exhibition. RJ’s paintings are built of very thin layers of paint with light crevices at the surface edges, and this creates a spatial effect, like a breather. The world emerges from these light spots. Similar crevices appear in the smaller paintings made on the covers of the architecture magazine. Through their paint we sense the glistening fine lines and volumes of large edifices; the objects are barely perceptible, almost too fine to see, but their material presence is grasped intuitively. The world is spiritualised space. I think of the lyricism of watercolours. In between the paint a vista opens up; the light makes its entrance and it serves as an unequivocal reminder of Piero’s scenes of the open air, the natural images. Cedars stick into the air, the horizon turns up, and, lo and behold, the sun shines gleefully. Here reigns serenity and ebullience.
The paintings are of a demure nature. And their verisimilitude – the material expression that RJ seems to have taken from Piero – is ambiguous. Amidst these dark, soft, and light colour surfaces I experience vitality: the will to live, but also despair to bring that vitality within reach once more, and incumbent gradations of mortification.
Gerard Manley Hopkins is the third source. The exhibition’s title is taken from the poem The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe (Stoneyhurst, May 1893). At about two-thirds into this long poem – in fact this is one strung out thought, a deep rumination upon a confrontation with a huge religious-artistic life problem – we run into the words 'glass-blue days':
'The glass-blue days are those / When every colour glows, / Each shape and shadow shows.'
It is as if everything is put on standby; as if the organism switches back to the factory settings… The poet finds in his nature observations a new balance. Up to this point he has made much ado about the blessed virgin, Maria, describing her at length. Meanwhile you sense him grappling with God (or the image of God).
Afterwards he moves on to nature: somehow he relates better to this, for nature enables his own intimate experience of the divine. I ask RJ a question: "What do you see on glass-blue days?" His response prompts me to believe that Manley’s words offer him a form of solace. Manley describes an experience that permits you to gaze as far as the horizon: this is something RJ can’t do anymore or only really in part. It is a shortcoming.
G. M. Hopkins was a Jesuit and a doubting man. The poet struggled with the contradiction between his inner world and the beauty he saw in nature. Kees Fens, the Dutch literary critic, has portrayed him wonderfully. This passage points towards his happiness: "There was a little track in Stoneyhurst that always shone in the sun after it had rained. Many years after Hopkins’ death one of the fraters recollected: 'Why yes, a strange young man, kneeled by the gate in order to look at some humid sand'."
RJ: "On 'blue-glass days' one can see everything: objects and colours, and the depth of colour. I think that is what my paintings cause, that you can literally stroll across the surface with your own pair of eyes; this is a tactile experience, because you pick up on minute holes in the canvas, or crevices through which other, deeper, lighter layers appear. Those openings represent the horizon in the distance. This is what I think 'glass-blue days' symbolizes for me: the three words are crystal-clear, yet also milky and diffused."
RJ's paintings evoke a singular visual process, they are avowals of vulnerability and the immanence of jeopardy. Intuitively I think of artists who have been able to make great art despite or rather thanks to certain limitations, like Chuck Close whose facial impairment doesn’t allow him to distinguish faces from each other (only later in his life did he address this in public). As countermeasure, he began to paint his friends’ faces, close-up, blown-up, larger-than-life. Yayoi Kusama is another example. Kusama lives with a psycho-somatic condition which changes her experience of sensorial perceptions, the impressions that the external world leaves upon us, into an exponentially amplified experience of the stimuli entering the organism at full speed, hard as hell. Her work reflects her own inner process: a visual world built around awesome powers. However, her art is also her oasis, her safe haven – the locus in which the inside/outside dichotomy loses meaning.
Other artists apply the limitations or obstacles to themselves. I think of Hijikata Tatsumi, the Japanese artist who together with Ohno Kazuo stood at the cradle of Ankoku Butoh: 'dance of darkness'. I am moved by Hijikata. I feel the urgency of this dancer/choreographer, I sense his commitment to the world. Hijikata developed his movements in the decimated and traumatised landscape of post-WW2 Japan. He wanted to make dances that could represent the pain, sadness, and trauma, and by doing so process the experience. Death had a huge place then, amidst the bandwidth of daily life. Darkness is the limitation in his Butoh performance Forbidden Colors (Kinjiki, 1959). His adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s book of the same title from 1959, focused on the force of attraction, erotics, and power display. H. staged the dance for a large part in the wings of the theatre. Bodies loomed from the dark and retreated again. Spectators could often only hear the dancers.
Two figures, an older man (Hijikata) and a boy (Ohno Yoshito, the son of Ohno Kazuo) move together, portraying an ambiguous relationship. A dazed chicken struts on to the stage; it has switched owners, perhaps the boy was hungry and exchanged his affection for sustenance, or alternatively the boy is in prison and must perform an initiation ritual of slaughtering a chicken so as to be accepted by the prison establishment of hardened criminals. The darkness is suggestive, it magnifies the sensations of roughness and intimacy, brutality and vulnerability. Danger is revoked in Submission.(5)
Bruce Nauman is another artistic soul rooted at the heart of the earth. He has made work alluding to torture practices from dictatorial regimes. Dream Passage (Cross) is an installation from 1984. It was based on a recurring dream about a corridor where the artist encountered his own ghost. Was this an experience of death? The work hearkens to his earlier performance arenas from the end of the sixties, in which the artist wandered around in his studio, for example his Walk in Contraposto. Later he reversed the roles: now the viewer became a performer who was invited to enter a narrow passageway, rendering going back a difficult task.
Dream Passage (Cross) was a part of the exhibition Quartetto (Venice, Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, 1984). A cross-shaped structure lay in the space, from its open ends spilt electric yellow and red light. In the central room of this network of corridors – an opened room, like a heart unto its blood vessels – stood a table and a chair. The space had been mirrored/reversed: another upside down table hung from the ceiling with another chair, they lurked inconspicuously as if from beyond a metaphysical looking glass, gazing askance back at you.
Danger and Threat are part of Rob Johannesma’s proposition. His work is deft and intense: it articulates a deep feeling. His exhibition has dramatic quality – in spite of it being hidden. In an earlier design he wanted to transform the entire gallery space. An Etruscan tomb was the inspiration for a space whose windows would be sealed with foil; the spectators would contemplate the paintings from a little bench, as if they were gifts for the after-life: "Living yet dead already. Dead and yet still alive." I think of how in order to become a shaman, one must first die underground, in order for the transformation to be conducted in good faith.
We find forms of living decay in Hijikata's Butoh, for example his Pillar of Ashes, and of course in Bruce Nauman – sovereign and trippy. For Rob Johannesma, mortification is a quiet, intense occurrence. Seven paintings invite the viewer to undergo a sublime initiation. All senses are addressed, seeing is as important as listening and feeling: painting is a rite of passage. The poet found it in the sand. I experience it in dark paint.
Translated by Daniel Vorthuys
(1) Frank Herbert, Dune (London: Golancz, 1966); originally published as Dune in Analog Science Fact & Fiction, 1963-65.
(2) Artist quotes rendered in verbatim, or paraphrased, come from e-mails and conversations with the artist, April 2020.
(3) Marguerite Yourcenar, The Abyss, trans Grace Frick i.c.w. the author (New York: Editions Gallimard, 1976) p. 354. Originally appearing as L'oeuvre au noir (Paris: Gallimard, 1968).
(4) Kees Fens, Finding the Place: Selected Essays on English Literature (Amsterdam, Rodopi: 1994), p. 156. Chapter: "When the Iron is hot. HOPKINS".
(5) Bruce Baird, Hijikata Tatsumi and Butoh. Dancing in a Pool of Grey Grits (New York: Palmgrave Mac-Millan, 2012).