Berlin

Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, Das Loch (The Hole), 2010, still from a color video, 26 minutes.

Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, Das Loch (The Hole), 2010, still from a color video, 26 minutes.

Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys

Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, Das Loch (The Hole), 2010, still from a color video, 26 minutes.

It has been argued that the work of Belgian duo Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys hinges largely on an investigation of psychologies, a conclusion founded in de Gruyter’s influential experience working in a Brussels community center and the recurrent focus of the artists’ videos on the interaction between eccentric characters and their settings. With “Im Reich der Sonnenfinsternis” (In the Realm of the Solar Eclipse), the artists brought forth 120 paintings and sculptures constituting the life’s work of Johannes, the melodramatic artist character from their video Das Loch (The Hole), 2010, which was also included in the exhibition. The show was thus an investigation of the motivations underlying this fictional artist’s body of work as well as the responses that viewers could have to it.

Consisting overwhelmingly of acrylic paintings in various formats, but also including charcoal and pastel drawings as well as several sculptures in clay, Styrofoam, and cardboard, Johannes’s output casually meanders from gesture to geometry, its lyrical abstraction intermittently suggesting poor renditions of Adolph Gottlieb’s bursts or the abstract heads of Alexej von Jawlensky. Filling almost all of the gallery’s usable wall space, including that of the darkened back room where the film was projected, and even extending onto display panels zigzagging through the front rooms, Johannes’s art is notable partly for its sheer quantity. In its combination of technical poverty, stylistic gaucheness, determined abundance, and apparent whimsy, it comes across as charming, even funny. But one views these works detachedly, feeling that they cannot possibly be valuable artistic statements in and of themselves, that they take on significance only when keyed to another narrative. One relates to them as one might to a close-up of a single character in a video, rather than as self-sufficient works.

But Das Loch, the most recent in a series of videos for which the artists have been widely praised, is more than just an excuse for the artists to freely produce in means and ways that are supposedly contested––to indulge in painting according to convention. The character Johannes has clearly become the focal point for a more expansive discursive network. In one scene, having already criticized Johannes for the fact that his painting will come to nothing, his wife, Hildegard, stares out at the audience––through plastic eyes glued onto her Styrofoam mannequin head, which has been painted purple and accessorized with a wig and glasses. Through the layers of paint, its gentle brushstrokes visible in the wall-size projection, viewers nevertheless register an uncanny emotional presence; one senses Hildegard’s stern disapproval, the cause for Johannes’s dismay. Out in the gallery, face-to-face with the painting used as a prop in the video, viewers might glimpse a bit of the soul that Johannes claims to have put into his work. Yet this is the only piece from Johannes’s oeuvre that existed before the video was made, and the only one not produced by de Gruyter and Thys; it was purchased at a junk sale. Of course, it is not Johannes who has left the trace of himself in this work, but de Gruyter and Thys, who have managed, remarkably, to draw sincerity and subjectivity into conventional painting by working at a remove.

––John Beeson