Hasselt, Belgium

Jan Van Imschoot

Provincial Museum Hasselt

A famous curator recently declared the act of painting “illegitimate,” or obsolete. It could just be a coincidence, but since the last Documenta the most interesting art I’ve seen has involved this supposedly reactionary and out-of-date medium. Call it my mistake if you will, but it seems that the familiar refrain that painting is dead (again) doesn’t correspond to reality.

Take the Belgian painter—or perhaps “imagemaker” would be a more appropriate term—Jan Van Imschoot. Van Imschoot’s universe is extremely rich, full of paradoxes and fueled by such compassion for or astonishment over what he sees around him that it is hard for the viewer to know how to respond. You feel sympathy for the villains, heroes, and misfits he portrays, but are left wondering if that is all the work is about. The show’s curator, Bart Cassiman, probably felt the same way, since he tried to provide an exhibition that was not simply anecdotal. Indeed, Van Imschoot’s paintings can be viewed separately, but placed in startling confrontations the pictures do more than tell individual stories. Here, ambitious historical dramas starring Lenin and Hitler were juxtaposed with more quotidian horrors. Children are also important players in Van Imschoot’s confusing spectacles. At times they seem a cherished yet threatened species—at other times merely small humans angered by their limitations—but whether they are monsters or victims, Damiens or little saints, these eerie figures seem completely aware of life’s struggles.

In Réconstruction d’une exécution/Le fusil refusant (Reconstruction of an execution/gun refusing, 1997), an executioner angered when his gun fails to fire is rendered in such a peculiar fashion that you almost begin to pity him. A cartoon-like image such as this could easily be one-dimensional, but instead it is the opposite. Just when you thought that everything possible has been said about a certain theme, Van Imschoot manages to reinvent it—without becoming mired in facile moralizing. His paintings suggest an unholy alliance between the canvases of Francis Bacon and the animated cartoons of Tex Avery.

Jos Van den Bergh