Philippe Van Snick, Instability of Fundamentals, 1990, vinyl paint on wood, trestles, dimensions variable. Photo: Thomas Ost.

Philippe Van Snick, Instability of Fundamentals, 1990, vinyl paint on wood, trestles, dimensions variable. Photo: Thomas Ost.

Philippe Van Snick

“Fundamentally,” Belgian artist Philippe Van Snick (1946–2019) once confided to me, “my interest is in the unrest of matter.” Art, for Van Snick, was a means to address the inherent instability of systems, ideas, and objects—the volatility of nature and human life. Chance upends systems; sensuality upsets rationality. Starting out as an artist in the late 1960s, Van Snick combined an early interest in Marcel Duchamp and Surrealism with Minimal and Conceptual art’s radical questioning of the object. He turned to mathematics, studying structure, order, and relation through elemental practices of counting, measuring, and listing. Specifically, he took the decimal system, the basis for the development of Western commerce and science, as his main tool to tackle his personal experience and lifeworld as he playfully deployed the numerical series from 0 to 9 as a primary ordering principle in pencil drawings, photographic series, serial objects, and installations. Épingles de signalisation (Map Pins), 1974, consists of a linear arrangement of ten different groupings of ten pushpins on a wall: ten times the same, but ten times different. Being one of the artist’s key works, it figured prominently in “Dynamic Project,” at the Ghent Museum of Contemporary Art (SMAK), the first retrospective since the artist’s untimely death. The show demonstrated how he remained loyal to his “open system” even as he restlessly moved among materials and mediums.

The Jaqueline Martins gallery in Brussels provided a succinct addition to the comprehensive show in Ghent. The centerpiece of the exhibition was the installation Instability of Fundamentals, 1990. In the stately room on the first floor of the nineteenth-century bourgeois town house into which the São Paulo–based gallery expanded in 2020, eight elementary wooden beams of different sizes rested on pairs of trestles: Four of the beams were painted bright yellow, two black, and two blue. In a manner similar to that of the first installment at Zeno X Gallery in Antwerp in 1990, two identical rectangular blocks, one painted black, the other blue, stood in parallel facing the front windows of the gallery. The other blocks had been used to generate a complex pathway for the viewer to navigate.

Instability of Fundamentals marks a key moment in Van Snick’s oeuvre. By the early 1980s, he had returned to painting, which he had abandoned at the end of his studies. In line with his decimal idiom, he devised a scheme consisting of ten colors: the primaries and secondaries, plus the noncolors white and black, and finally silver and gold. Rather than drawing on the clear-cut contrast between black and white, Van Snick advanced the semantic tension between black and blue—manifested in the difference between night and day—as the binary basis of his system. The realm he thus opened up was not one of numbers and calculation but of poetics and transience—a realm he moreover did not limit to pictorial space but expanded into the real space of the gallery.

Instability of Fundamentals exemplifies the hybrid and protean work engendered by this system. The work resembles a studio setup, as if the blocks are resting on trestles as their paint dries. Since the work uses only three of the colors in Van Snick’s scheme, one might surmise that it displays an intermediary state of production. The foundations are present, but they are not yet firmly anchored. Any artwork, Van Snick intimates, is merely a transitional and hence resolutely unstable expression of underlying principles. Art and artmaking are just as volatile and restless as the world in which they partake.