Stijn Ank, Fresco (01.2017), 2017, pigmented plaster. Installation view, Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Photo: Gunter Lepkowski.

Stijn Ank, Fresco (01.2017), 2017, pigmented plaster. Installation view, Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Photo: Gunter Lepkowski.

Stijn Ank

Stijn Ank, Fresco (01.2017), 2017, pigmented plaster. Installation view, Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Photo: Gunter Lepkowski.

The Belgian artist Stijn Ank recently staged a large-scale sculptural intervention in the architecture of Künstlerhaus Bethanien, which appeared concurrently with his exhibition of comparatively modest wall pieces at Galerie Michael Janssen. Both exhibitions were titled “Fresco,” and the artist had made all the works on display by pouring liquid plaster into custom-built casting molds, occasionally mixing pigment into the plaster during the layer-by-layer casting process.

Fresco painting, which flourished in the fourteenth century—“a fresco” literally means “upon the fresh [plaster]”—is a wall-painting technique in which pigment dissolved in water is applied to fresh lime plaster. Chemical processes permanently fix the pigment particles in the plaster. A similar amalgamation of pigment and plaster also defines Ank’s works. The artist originally trained as an architect, and his works strike a fine balance between painting and sculpture. Yet he believes that the best way to describe them is as interventions that structure the space around them: “My approach is always to try and let the space speak for itself, or in a way try to use the existing space itself as a mold.” Ank’s creative practice is based on a conception of the exhibition space as a volume, a sort of virtual casting mold in which the work is developed as a corresponding proposition. His output is informed by questions such as: How much or how little volume can a sculpture occupy in a given space before it ceases to be spatial? To what extent can sculpture be pure surface, and can surface itself give rise to space? Where does surface end and space begin?

At Künstlerhaus Bethanien, where he was on a residency, Ank started by constructing an elongated casting mold that extended all the way to the ceiling. Placed at an oblique angle between two pillars so that it just barely touched them, the form interpreted these existing structural elements as a kind of frame. At the same time, the mold opened up to the surrounding space by extending beyond the pillars on the left and right. The cast itself was produced on-site over the course of six consecutive days, as was evident in the linear stratification and embedded bands of color. The technique didn’t allow for detailed compositional choices, or even for the artist to lay eyes on the result until shortly before the opening. “Seeing it now,” he said, “I have the feeling that the work really lives here, like a subject. It’s not so much ‘put’ here as an object. It kind of grew here.” The decidedly slender piece he realized at the Künstlerhaus formed a freestanding wall, and the beholder sensed, while walking around it, the presence of a distinct solid volume.

The objects at Galerie Michael Janssen, most measuring roughly twenty-four by sixteen inches, and about an inch and a quarter deep, were mounted on the wall like paintings but were again composed of layers of poured plaster stained by pigment mixed into the mass. These works explored a literal architecture of the pictorial space: The artist is interested in the lacuna behind the canvas, the shallow depth that painting usually obscures in establishing the illusive space of the picture. In these works, an essentially sculptural process has yielded color gradients with a sometimes powerful painterly appeal. Again, the technique makes the visual outcome difficult to predict. Ank built an upright casting mold into which he inserted a standard-format canvas before filling the void behind it with layers of plaster and liquid pigment. His focus is less on compositional aspects than on what he describes as an “inner space” that resonates with the beholder’s interaction with the work; the works’ painterly qualities lend this perceptual space concrete contours. Here, as with the massive site-specific installation at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, the works’ true dimensions became actual only in a viewer’s lived experience of the cast in its setting.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.