PRINT November 1987


WHAT ARE JAN VERCRUYSSE'S works if not doors to nowhere, empty frames, blocked exits, views “through the looking glass”? As objects they hinge between the space we know (which includes what we know of art) and everything outside it, that unknown toward which art tends and on which life floats. When the works cover parts of walls (when they are panels, framed photographs, or mirrors, for example), they are not unlike the camouflage covers spread over the mouths of pits as traps. The cover makes what lies beyond seem full instead of empty; as a mirror reflection makes right into left, Vercruysse’s work inverts the relations between the void and the solid.

The work is rooted in contemporary poetics—especially in the heretical minimalism of Richard Artschwager, the impassioned rhetoric of Marcel Broodthaers, the sense of visual and cultural depth of European art in the ’80s—and it has a contemporary field of view. One can approach it philosophically through Nietzsche’s myth and psychoanalytically through Jacques Lacan’s symbol (through their double reflections on origins, double in that they both analyze origins—the various ways we know the world—and provide reflections that, like a mirror, reflect the present in which the analysis is being done). Or one can quote Georg Simmel (the intrinsic confines of form, the limits of language), or perhaps Edmond Jabès (the undoing of the sign’s interpretability, of its capacity for metaphor and symbol, when it presents itself as itself and not as a stand-in for something else). The frames, panels, fireplaces, and mirrors of Vercruysse’s works fix fragments of space by their very occupation of it, but they also link us with infinity because of how they break from what they refer to, suggesting other possibilities in addition to their fixed meanings and an entrance into the limitless directions that spread out from the work, which lies precarious on several vertiginous edges at once.

The works require dedicated attention if they are not to be lost in unmarked, undifferentiated space. Given that care, they are suddenly thrown truly open, and one feels an unexpected rush of pleasure—a heightened freedom and eroticism. (Here, where sensuality burns in a hidden state, Vercruysse’s work shows its Nordic character.) Perhaps the works are not doors that mark the dangerous threshold between here and there, maybe they’re windows open to the world—but windows that, when we look at them or through them, leave us faced with an enigma. Vercruysse makes sure its solution is indefinitely postponed. We can arrive at partial interpretations, but something tells us that their meaning is limited. And there is no guide to give the answers. If we are blinded by the vibrant glare of the unknown, the glimmer of nothingness, we can direct our timid, uncertain glance away from his art. Or we can experience being in front of it. Its elaboration of enigma, illusion, and deception is both more extreme and more ancient than those of Vercruysse’s Belgian compatriots and predecessors René Magritte and Broodthaers.

To explore Vercruysse’s art the culture of the Enlightenment is a good background, the harbor from which his voyage departs. Yet that voyage leads through many other waters—the waters of Mannerism, the literary waves of the Spanish conceptismo,1 the sea of the baroque, the medieval depths of hermetism and magic, the archetypes of the ancient world. If the bourgeois culture of the Age of Reason provides Vercruysse with a base, he also senses his identity elsewhere, in different ways of vision that may contradict each other but that he can bring together in his work, melting their moods down in the amalgam of the present in which they echo so polycoustically. (In this era of polyglot time- and culture-travel we take a different but related voyage with Giulio Paolini; his journey focuses on the world of the Renaissance and its revival of the classical order.)

Referring to rococo culture, Goethe spoke of “a sort of conscious illusion” which resulted in an esthetic of complex codes about severe control and its opposite. The energy of the loops and flourishes of rococo picture frames, for example, may seem expressive and free, but it is everywhere contained, organized, as if it were dangerous unloosed. And in Vercruysse’s art, the mirrors, the empty frames (rococo frames were often more important than the pictures they held), the correspondences of individual elements distributed in the space, their composition within a single work (and that composition is impeccable in its calibrated imbalances)—all this produces the “sort of conscious illusion” Goethe saw in more vividly rococo situations.

Vercruysse’s installations create a heightened state of expectation; the components seem dictated by the codes of our culture, but codes disturbed and reformulated, especially through the use of asymmetry and the tension he builds between looseness and control. At first these bare pieces must seem as far away from any rococo illusion of over-the-top fancy as one could get, but the feeling they give us contradicts this. Here is our world, not utopia. In a show I recently saw at the Pieroni gallery in Rome Vercruysse exhibited some of his “Atopies,” or “No place” works, including Atopie (XIII), 1986, and D (Atopie), 1987. To the viewer’s questions as to what they’re “about,” these sequences of empty frames, mirrors, mahogany or rosewood furniture, and panels seem to answer with silence—but not with the promise of the sublime, or of transcendence. Through the very precision of their arrangements, the works distance themselves from immanence and place themselves firmly as channels for the viewer’s experience of what he or she sees in the present—if one doesn’t simply look away, that is. They wait until we fall into the world behind their traps so that we can experience their ascetism, which is critical but brimming with desire. The result is a clear and open tension, a conflict. (One finds it in Paolini’s work also, though modulated by the artist’s Apollonian temper.)

In works with mirrors one finds oneself. One comes expecting art, but there is no obvious art to see, no figure or object behind the door, no view through the window. Art as Vercruysse imagines it is an instrument of uncertainty. What is emerging here is another kind of attitude, one based on a skeptical and critical intelligence that poses oneself as the guide in a world where enigma, illusion, and deception are in closed circuit—but one that is breakable. What by? Let’s call it open desire.

Pier Luigi Tazzi is a writer who lives in Florence. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. The English literature corresponding to Spain’s conceptismo might be the poetry of John Donne.