Francq Volders

Galerij XXI

At the turn of the century, Ernst Haeckel published Kunstformen in der Natur (Artistic forms in nature), a collection of microscopic photographs of radiolarians. His book lent substance to the analogy between nature and art, an analogy that, aiming at the reconciliation of nature and science, has still lost nothing of its popularity, even today. There is hardly a scientist whose sense of beauty does not thrive in a realm somewhere between the patterns of fractal geometry and holography, an esthetic that conforms to popular notions of beauty more than to a taste for Mondrian, Malevich, or Freundlich. There is widespread scorn for this esthetic among art professionals. But their scorn is unfair so long as those who create art remain ignorant of the sciences.

Francq Volders is an artist who approaches this issue from both sides, invoking both art and science. The ten untitled works he showed here, all from 1987—seven in large formats—and three in small formats—are based on visual material from the realm of microscopy. For each work, he photocopied a photograph of a microstructure several times and reduced it to a “skeleton” of the original; he did the same with a few words of text or an architectural image (for example, Cologne Cathedral), which he juxtaposed over the first image, usually right at the center. Then he projected this hybrid image onto a canvas that he had spray-painted with bluish or silver metallic enamel, drew in the outlines with a grease pencil, and then painted the resulting motifs in black acrylic. He has given each painting a three-dimensional presence by attaching a faceted, quarter-circular segment of stainless steel to either side of the canvas, the function of which is to hold the work securely to the wall and keep it several inches away as well.

“The visible is camouflaged reality,” Volders declared in the exhibition catalogue. His statement could be read as literal translation of his work, but only if these pictures just showed what is revealed by the microscope— which would take us right back to Haeckel’s “natural ornamentation.” However, the ornamental forms in Volders’ work also point to the metaphysical origin and spirituality of ornamentation before it degenerated into a mere decorative frill. His use of ornament reveals something of the difference between a metaphor—such as the labyrinth suggested by the central motif in one painting—and the phenomenological analogy between natural and artistic form inherent in the microscopic view.

Volders’ selection of highly artificial metallic colors gives his historically derived images a contemporary look. These are the colors of the laboratory, artificial light, or distant outer space: viewing made possible by synthetic devices. But this art is far removed from the labors of the scientists, who dye their microscope slides or their holograms with the colors of the prism. Even the “synthetic naturalism” of Jack Goldstein is not free of such effects, unless they are meant as parody—that is, a provocation smilingly tossed into the debate.

Francq Volders’ pictures have a symbolic character. Because his work is not static, we are confronted here with a protean symbolism that draws its claim to validity from what Ernst Bloch called the “utopian content of the past” and that keeps his art conscious of its relation to the present.

Uli Bohnen

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.