Jef Geys

The first work that one saw on entering this exhibition was Bollen op wit schap (Balls on white shelves, 1963), which is exactly what its title describes. In its simplicity, its flexibility (the balls may be moved in any position and function as movable elements within a fixed frame of reference), and its matter-of-fact references to architecture, it was the perfect beginning for a consideration of Jef Geys’ activities of the past 30 years.

This and almost all of the other works in the exhibition were surrounded by hundreds of black and white photographs referring to various objects, performances, films, and happenings in Geys’ career. The word “happenings” is not chosen haphazardly as a descriptive term: the overriding sensation one had after going through this voluminous show was of a sensibility that developed in the ’60s and largely remained there. This was particularly evident in Geys’ obsessive combination of the personal and the objective, each of which expands our understanding of the other.

Geys’ work also features a puerile, leering objectivization of women. Thus the photographs document, among other things, stripteasers, body builders, penises, pornography, and the artist’s experiences in starting a group of café/brothels in Belgium, alongside family, students, correspondence with museums, galleries, state ministries of culture, and so on. Every aspect of Geys’ work over the last three decades was exhaustively represented. Yet the repetitious character of the exhibition, the move toward order in the face of massive disorder, gave the show an edge and made the artist’s career seem more than just a collection of ephemera.

His project for the São Paulo Biennale in 1991 serves as a perfect example of his conjunction of chaos and order. Geys constructed a series of wooden buildings, based on various Modernist architectural models, including projects by Jean Nouvel and Mies van der Rohe. Each was reduced to a scale that made them seem both human and ridiculous. The second element in the project was a series of diagrams based on various geometrical ordering systems, primary among them the Nazis’ use of colors to designate different categories of “undesirables” in concentration camps. At the same time, Geys integrated the colors of various national flags. Both the houses and the coloring systems may be seen as attempts to regulate disorder, whether situated within a utopian framework or a barbaric one.

Still, it is difficult to restrict any reading of Geys’ work to historical references. A related work, Kleurfoto met ster-groen hemd (Color photo with star and green shirt, 1991), consists of 36 black and white photographs of the artist seated in a chair, holding a six-sided star—the result of the juxtaposition of two triangles. With a drop-dead look on his face, Geys manages to evoke and to mock all the historical connotations of the photo. Here, the humor backfires, making yet another joke at the expense of the artist and his place in history.

In his use of humor and his insistence on exposing the machinations of the gallery and museum, Geys’ work may be linked to Marcel Broodthaers’. At the same time, his obsessional integration of personal elements into his objects is also evident in the work of younger artists like Patrick van Caeckenbergh. Yet when all is said and done, Geys’ mania for documentation has led his work to a kind of dead end: trapped in the very museological context that he continues to criticize.

Michael Tarantino