Naked Existence, Kristel van Ballaer & George Meertens, Gallery Dewael 15, Antwerp (BE), 2021
In Search of Silence
The oeuvres of Kristel Van Ballaer and George Meertens seem to be very different; in fact, at first sight, they have little in common. The two works shown on the invitation to the exhibition ‘Naked Existence’ appear to prove the point. Van Ballaer’s ‘Genius’ is a wooden sculpture, an ellipse, painted black and white. ‘Brief’ by George Meertens is a painting, oil on canvas, predominantly pink. The sculpture is ‘open’, whereas the painting is ‘a surface’: painted on canvas, its colour and texture approximate human skin. Moreover, Van Ballaer’s work is smooth and polished – at least it gives that impression – almost as if it were not manmade. It shows a clear link with the ‘Hard Edge’ art of Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015), the American artist known for his stringent stylistic idiom and sharply delineated colours.
Van Ballaer’s pursuit of formal perfection adds a touch of unapproachability and timelessness to her art, whereas in Meertens’s art the painter’s hand is omnipresent. Even in his most monochrome works, the painter’s act is visible. Under the skin of each painting we can read the history of the work, the artistic process. The consecutive layers of paint show the initial steps, the attempts, the conflicts and changes of direction. The surface indicates the moment when the painter decided to stop.
And yet, on careful and unhurried reflection, the two oeuvres turn out to have a lot in common. Forget what I just wrote about Van Ballaer’s stringent idiom. The term might suggest an oeuvre that is cold, chilly, unable to evoke emotion. Wrong. On the one hand there are the small, deliberate imperfections which give away the hand of the artist; on the other, there is a tangible tension in almost every work. It may be caused by the contrast between black and white, between varnished versus unvarnished wood, or by the different sorts of paint she uses: oil, lacquer and acrylic, resulting in different degrees of lustre and/or dullness. An almost playful dynamism arises from the variations in the width of the wood, from an unexpected choice of colours, from geometric figures that either attract or repel one another, or from the use of conical shapes. Sometimes a sculpture seems to be weightless, an effect created by the meticulous use of colours and their reflections.
On top of that – and this may sound contradictory – Van Ballaer succeeds in evoking emotions, merely by reducing shapes to their bare essence. Her search for simplicity – for the beauty of simplicity – offers the viewer peace, and a wholesome antidote to the swarm of images of everyday life. Her work brings time to a standstill. And it has taken her time, too, after a much-needed period of deceleration and silence, to acquire – in wood, her favourite medium – the pure form that she had in mind.
All this takes me seamlessly to George Meertens, in whose work time is the central theme. It is most telling that he entitled a series of recent works ‘Tijdtafel’ (‘Time Table’). Time is essential when studying, experiencing and understanding the apparently monochrome canvases by Meertens: essential, of course, in order to enter his world, but also to experience one’s own thoughts and emotions. Time is, first and foremost, required to see exactly what Meertens has painted. The eye needs that time, plain and simple. Indeed, one is not looking at monochrome surfaces. The longer one looks, the more depth and colour variations one finds, not to mention what teems and stirs under the surface.
Painting is a slow process, even more so with the slow-drying oils that are Meertens’s favourite medium. In this way painting becomes the opposite of our ever faster pace of life. It is a silent and contentious protest in these days when a whirlwind of images constantly surrounds us. By taking one’s time, by throwing off all dead weight and by opening up to Meertens’s paintings – their colours, their textures, their sensuality – one comes closer to oneself.
It is not a coincidence that Meertens displays his paintings at ‘heart level’. He would not want viewers to have to look up or down – their contact with the artwork needs to be direct. The fact that Van Ballaer shows the sculpture ‘Atmosphere’ at ‘heart level’ is no coincidence either: her goal, too, is optimal contact with the viewer.
Both George Meertens and Kristel Van Ballaer are on a journey to the essence of their art. They present their search for that essence – the steps towards ‘being naked’ – without any fringes, without any bells and whistles. What they are both after is the deeper awareness to which silence can lead.