Willem Oorebeek

Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (SMAK)

Only the most attentive readers of the Belgian art journal De Witte Raaf might have noticed something odd about its November-December 2002 issue. By manipulating the printing process of four pages, including the cover, Brussels-based artist Willem Oorebeek made the black text gain in intensity. Virtually imperceptibly, the magazine’s bare graphic design and stark layout, which incidentally hasn’t changed for thirteen years, was granted a certain added brilliance. The by now iconic look of a magazine broadly perceived as highly theoretical was highlighted and suddenly made to appear as an image in itself.

Oorebeek has performed these kinds of intricate investigations into the status of the visual within media for several years now, exploring the contemporary use, appeal, and power of images. He chooses printed images and documents of varying origins (posters, ads, journals, magazines, newspapers, or political pamphlets), subjects them to different formal manipulations (copying them, collaging them, blowing them up, or blacking parts out) using supports ranging from paper or canvas to carpet or wallpaper. In this small but exquisite show, “bigger, higher, leader!,” several of these types of work were brought together in a consistent spatial layout. The somewhat awkward title referred to the omnipresent yearning for expansion, and the undeniable role the media play in producing and endorsing all kinds of “leaders.” Manipulated images of a diverse range of significant historical figures—from Napoleon to Michael Jackson to Anthony Van Dyck—were installed on the walls of three galleries of the museum. An image of Alan Greenspan, taken from the Wall Street Journal, was blown up and transferred to a traditional Gobelin tapestry. Through this double operation, Greenspan—despite his rather dopey smile—emerges, as the work’s title has it, as The Last Emperor of the Wall Street Journal, 2006. For Local Leaders BLACKOUT, 2003, Oorebeek overprinted pictures of such political figures as Mao, Marx, Lenin, and Stalin with a layer of black ink. Although at first sight the black ink performs a formal operation dissimilar to that in De Witte Raaf, the final effect is paradoxically similar. The image underneath the black coating doesn’t disappear altogether. Depending on the lighting conditions and the position of the viewer, it reemerges intermittently but even more forcefully. The BLACKOUT procedure reduces an image’s visibility but does not erase it. It subjects it to a momentary form of blankness, allowing it to resurface again, as an afterimage.

Given the critical nature of Oorebeek’s aesthetic procedure, one wonders why he follows the rather haphazard principle “BLACKOUT WHAT YOU LIKE ”—the title of a 1999 installation in Berlin. The political character and the civic status of several of the people he’s chosen, and their ambivalent relationship to the omnipresent regime of visibility, seem to contradict the idea that he selects his pictures on the basis of affection, interest, or mere curiosity. Unfortunately, questions like these remain unanswered. It’s a shame that such an articulate show didn’t come with a decent catalogue. By publishing a modest artist’s book with two textual contributions that step within the logic of Oorebeek’s own practice, the S.M.A.K. fails to propel a critical reading of the work.

Wouter Davidts