Vincent Vulsma

Galerie Cinzia Friedlaender

There are some exhibitions that at first glance seem exciting and completely convincing—but then somehow leave you feeling perplexed. The young Dutch artist Vincent Vulsma’s recent show in Berlin was one such puzzle. Vulsma does everything right: He compellingly executes intelligent ideas. Yet ultimately it’s hard to know what to do with them.

Hanging in the gallery were eight almost identical, glistening, jet-black—well, what are they? Canvases, paintings, objects? Hybridity characterizes this art from the word go. On the one hand, all eight works start with a standardized, prefabricated, and pre-primed canvas of the kind sold in every art-supply store. Their product code, ARS NOVA E5305-B, was also the title of the exhibition as well as (with the addition of a sequential number) each individual work, all dated 2009. On the other hand, Vulsma doesn’t paint these canvases in any conventional sense of the word; he simply spray-paints black the commercial plastic in which they are shrink-wrapped. The canvas itself remains undisturbed, but the plastic packaging begins to stretch into large, loose folds as it reacts with the paint. In the work’s second stage, Vulsma carefully and delicately traces these folds in white spray paint. As the paint dries, the plastic grows taut, yet the shapes, of the folds remain—as a perfect “airbrushed painting” with astonishing illusory depths.

These conceptual decisions are simple and their execution concise, yet their effect is immense. Of course the images are, first of all, a self-reflexive engagement with the premises of painting. But Vulsma’s play with standardization takes shape against the backdrop of a genre still seen as a stronghold of unfettered expressions of subjective empathy. By taking the canvas itself as their theme, they connect to critical discussions that attempt to reduce painting to the concrete materiality of the stuff from which it is made. And the cheap-looking airbrush aesthetic and the use of ready-made prepared canvases fall deliberately short of the conventions of taste.

Yet Vulsma does not appear interested in any kind of iconoclastic agenda. He neither deals with the sheer presence of paint nor simply reduces painting itself to the support. The fold motif is almost a reference to old-master illusionism—the perfectly painted shape of the fold as the ultimate proof of artistic ability—but this is again contradicted by Vulsma’s quasi-mechanical process of spraying paint directly onto plastic. This reentry of illusionistic space into the critical discourse of medium is a brilliant way of dealing with a paradigm of materiality that has long since run out of steam. Instead of boring ever deeper and pressing through to the “foundations” of painting, Vulsma seals his canvases with an opaque top layer, on which he achieves a kind of trompe l’oeil effect. His styling emulates not only reality, but also painting itself. And because this top layer is so shiny and smooth as to be mirrorlike, it reaches beyond the illusory spatiality of the fold to yet another depth: that of the surrounding space and the exhibition context.

Ultimately, painting is just another reference, one that provides Vulsma’s art with a point de départ. But in opening pictorial space outward into real space, hasn’t Vulsma slightly overdone it, turning the screw just a little too far? Perhaps. Yet few artists have worked so systematically to make their starting point disappear.

Dominikus Müller

Translated from German by Emily Speers Mears.