Niek Kemps

Museum Boymans van-Beuningen

The true intent behind Niek Kemps’ sculptural objects is not easy to discern. The viewer recognizes an artist who appears to be moving toward a kind of post-Modern design, an artist who is testing one form after another. But in his search for meaning, Kemps seems so distracted by the ever-expanding possibilities of his formal experiments that he winds up injecting content, sometimes as an afterthought. He integrates photographic fragments, texts, and dark discs into his shiny, reflective constructions, which are sometimes quite rakish and at other times elegantly baroque. These elements suggest areas of further exploration—levels of content—for the spectator. Through images, the viewer is supposed to be drawn into discourse on the “black holes”—those vacuous areas in space caused by the collapse of a massive star. Yet they could just as easily be seen as a commentary on the voyeuristic aspects of contemporary art, or as an illumination on the tricks of perspective.

Kemps has studied set design, which is apparent in his work. His setlike, large-scale, standing and hanging pieces are often conceived from the viewpoint of the theater-watcher; with their bright, gleaming skins and provocative colors, they function as both backdrop and foreground. That may be the reason why this exhibit of work from the past few years worked so well in the high-tech environment of the new museum of Saint Etienne, France, where it was presented recently in almost the same form. There, the provocative surface effects derived additional associations from the architecture. But here, the invitation that had been extended to the viewer—objects fanning into prismatic and rainbow-like refractions—did not find an echo in the architecture.

Kemps’ work easily seduces the viewer with its spatial and chromatic complexities, but the artist never fully realizes the consequences of the seduction. The artist’s experimental formal language is not quite on par with his suggestive, connotative power. The disjunction between the two modes of discourse is never resolved, and the viewer continues to search the pieces for fragments of meaning. The artist’s acute observations regarding voyeurism and black holes don’t manage to be completely convincing either. The result is that Kemps never succeeds in transforming any single theoretical point into a coherent visual atmosphere.

And yet while his larger works speak about a desperate search for possible meaning, the smaller works have a narrower focus and speak more to the heart; a few times a spark jumped from one of them and really touched me. In Tropic of Gemini, 1987, the viewer sees a multicolored pattern created by overlapping panels of soft-hued acrylic. The two pairs of shapes cut into these panels—like two sets of enigmatic twins—seem to look out toward the viewer. The look is one that does not want to let itself be caressed, but shows itself exhibitionistically and, in this way , manages to engage the viewer. Here Kemps demonstrates a more finely calibrated artistic sensibility. But as long as he remains tied to the construction of larger, less personal objects, such esthetic effects will remain an exception.

Paul Groot

Translated from the Dutch by Ruth Fuglistaller.