Rob Birza, Shifting Systems III, 2011, egg tempera on canvas, 70 7/8 x 78 3/4".

Rob Birza, Shifting Systems III, 2011, egg tempera on canvas, 70 7/8 x 78 3/4".

Rob Birza

Rob Birza, Shifting Systems III, 2011, egg tempera on canvas, 70 7/8 x 78 3/4".

It might have taken a moment to realize what Rob Birza’s exhibition “Shifting Systems” reminded you of: Tintin’s Inca adventure in the Temple of the Sun. You went through a door and suddenly you were surrounded by paintings and objects that seemed to come from another culture, almost another universe, bristling with signs and symbols—maps, diagrams, mandalas?—that invited you to puzzle out their meaning, to discover an underlying system. But no matter how hard you tried, you hit a wall. It was hopeless. You were left with ambivalence; the pleasures of form and color ought to have been enough to let you enjoy the show, but you couldn’t shake the uneasy sense that some hidden meaning was lying in wait for you. You wanted to crack the code.

For years, Birza has been recognized as one of the great talents in Dutch painting. He used to change his style radically every two years or so, almost as if it were a game. He painted mildly ironic commentaries on the abstract tradition, floral still lifes, and cartoonish monsters until, about ten years ago, he started focusing on India (which he had first visited back in 1988) and its religions and cultures. For more than a decade, Birza’s paintings were based on photographs of Arabic people and historical events, and tended to involve the confrontation between East and West. In these works, Birza always seemed surprised by the enormous gap between the two cultures, even though it was in bridging that gap that he saw new potential for his art.

Viewed in this light, Birza’s latest abstract work is not entirely discontinuous with the past; the difference is that he turns inward, away from the outside world. It can be helpful to remember not only that mandalas (usually seen as metaphysical representations of the cosmos) are comparable to temple plans, but that the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung also regarded them as representations of the unconscious mind. Birza’s “monsters from inner space” have become “mandalas from inner space.” At the same time, what makes these paintings so remarkable is that Birza is also emphatically commenting on the Western tradition of modernism. Through the unexpected and almost ravenous way he plays with depth, layers of meaning, and non-Western symbolic systems, he seems to be telling us that there is still plenty to explore in the abstract tradition, as long as you have the courage to look beyond the familiar.

That last idea is emphasized by six recent ceramic sculptures, each titled It is all metamorphoses/It is all about love, 2011. Not unlike the monsters in his earlier work, these are mythical figures, strange gods whose origins unmistakably lie in the world of evil and the underbelly of society. Many of them are voluptuous (there are lots of toned bodies and full breasts), and they revel in everything God has forbidden. One shoves a severed body into his mouth, blood flows profusely, and skulls and other macabre paraphernalia pop up all over the place. As confrontational and disturbing as these images may be, in juxtaposition with the abstract paintings, they made “Shifting Systems” a well-balanced portrait of the new Birza. Inside and outside, good and evil, East and West—we could find it all right here. And we could see that Birza has forged a gateway to a new world with deep foundations in more than twenty years of artistic activity. Both Tintin and Jung would undoubtedly have approved.

Hans den Hartog Jager

Translated from Dutch by David McKay.