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The colour of a non-colour

The public at large sometimes questions the point of art, mainly because – leaving side the decorative dimension – its practical purpose is not always discernible to everyone. For obvious reasons, that sentiment applies less to architecture and applied arts than it does to painting, sculpture, object and installation art.

An Vanderlinden has no hesitation in formulating an answer to this initial question about the rationale behind her craft. First and foremost, art is a way for its maker to better understand the world and to secure his or her place in that world. To that effect, science, religion and art have a common aim because, like the artist, both the scientist and the believer probe the essence of existence in their respective ways and look for a better understanding of the Umwelt. This approach should certainly not lead to the conclusion that art has a purely individual meaning here, for the social dimension is incorporated in a consciousness-raising process: the artist raises critical questions and reveals things which would otherwise pass people by.  As so many contemporary artists have already testified, the artist, like the shaman, wants to protect people from adversity and contribute to a greater awareness. The artist explores. Thus, in analogy with the Romantics, An Vanderlinden refers repeatedly to the beauty of nature which is constantly under pressure, and which - as Tony Cragg once suggested – is increasingly being pushed back into reserves. Moreover, through her art Vanderlinden is looking to add something to the sensory beauty that surrounds us.

The fact that An Vanderlinden does this through abstract painting emphasizes the universality of that natural beauty. Indeed, nature has the potential for absolute beauty, if only man would allow it. Abstract painting offers per se greater artistic freedom, because artists who refer to a particular sensory world are in any case bound by specific elements. And though this artist usually starts from the non-figurative, this doesn’t mean that there are no reminiscences of nature. After all, the essence of the latter is by definition abstract and, moreover, patterns and details from nature constantly generate forms of abstraction. Non-figurative art and sensory recognition recur in An Vanderlinden’s work, both in the process and in the end result. Appearing and disappearing form a permanent theme, just as it is inherent in the work of Asger Jorn. Here this changing viewing experience is expressed in the oil paint which is applied with brush and palette knife: creamy, uneven and furrowed. The artist’s signature puts one in mind of the work of various Abstract Expressionists, ranging from Sam Francis through Alfred Manessier, Nicolas de Staël and Pierre Soulages to a restrained Jean Dubuffet.

The changing formats she uses sometimes invite the viewer to come closer and at other times to stand back.   
In An Vanderlinden’s oeuvre we detect a periodic motion starting from paintings with lots of black, through works which are lighter and more colourful, before eventually returning to what is a thematically related black. This recurring dominance of black would seem to be in stark contrast to An Vanderlinden’s bright and cheerful personality and should be understood as the attraction which the dark and the mysterious hold for her, as also reflected in her passion for certain pieces of music. In her first paintings the artist demonstrates the many nuances that can be achieved with black and not least with gleaming black, whereby this non-colour sometimes looks lighter than the colours underneath.   

In the next period, the tension between colour and non-colour in An Vanderlinden’s work recedes into the background as colour increasingly takes precedence; the illusion of depth also increases. The recurrent dynamic compositions don’t always betray the changing painting process, which at times is fast and spontaneous and at other times hesitant with subsequent corrections. It should be pointed out en passant that the artist categorizes her works in collections, using letters of the alphabet combined with numbers. The first ‘Collection’ was not A, but D, the first letter of her partner’s first name. Only rarely, when it relates to a specific painting is the work given a ‘proper’ name.

From the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century a number of events took her work in a certain direction. On the one hand, there was the discovery of a new passion, that of working with ceramics. She also contributed to a number of projects relating directly or indirectly to the Belgian Limburg coal industry. An Vanderlinden’s participation in the exhibition ‘Parallel Events Manifesta 9: Mijn Verleden’ (My Past) was pivotal. Apart from the significance of the coal industry for the Province of Limburg, there is also a more personal link for the artist in that both her father and her grandfather worked in the mines.
Major changes in this recent work are the use of coal, both as a medium and as an image, and the figure of Saint Barbara who suddenly put in an appearance. As per the iconographic norm, An Vanderlinden presents the saint holding a three-windowed tower, which references the Holy Trinity. Saint Barbara was unexpectedly beheaded by her father and so is invoked for a happy death, i.e. an anticipated death strengthened by the sacraments. In the end the saint’s father did not emerge undamaged from the story for immediately after his shameful act, he was killed by lightning.

The tower in which Saint Barbara was imprisoned before her death and which – as we have said – became the martyr’s attribute, gave rise to several assignments. For example, because of the association of the tower with a Davy lamp, she became the patron saint of miners. Exceptionally for the ‘St Barbara’s Relief’ series (2012), besides the traditional and widely used iconographic representation, An Vanderlinden shows the saint mopping her brow. This symbolizes relief, firstly Saint Barbara’s relief that the closure of Belgium’s mines means she no longer needs to protect anyone and, secondly, the relief of the women who no longer have to worry about their men folk who risked their lives on a daily basis. In the new context, the current non-figurative works evolved almost as a matter of course into figuration, not only because of the image of the saint, but also because the ceramic works facilitated this and because this radical departure gave her satisfaction.
In this new phase, An Vanderlinden’s oeuvre no longer simply followed the parameters of painting, but saw her visual language expand from the two- to the three-dimensional. In the first place the original two-dimensionality was breached by ‘painting’ with acryl combined with stone dust, giving her work the appearance of material art. Moreover, her canvasses were repeatedly presented in relation to objects: holy water stoups filled with coal and accompanied by a wall plaque with an image of Saint Barbara. Sacred objects all, functioning, because of the materials used, because of their use, and because of the image, as vehicles for both the earthly and the transcendental.

A comparable element of tension is also inherent in coal, which on the one hand is seen as a dirty, dusty material, but on the other hand also contains a material beauty, especially when its kaleidoscopic structures display a scintillating profusion of matt and glistening surfaces. It is above all the light-absorbing characteristic of black that seems to cause the images to fade away to nothingness and give the represented characters an air of introspection. Another repressed contrast is the fact that – particularly today - ‘black gold’ is usually seen as commonplace, whereas in the past it had a great significance because of its energetic capital. In a recent number of abstract paintings, the material’s above-mentioned qualities seem to be concentrated in the changing tonalities of a deep black and a scorched red.
An Vanderlinden is clearly exploring a new path where figuration and non-figuration exist simultaneously and more explicitly, where coal and ceramics are new visual mediums, but where a part of the essence has also remained unchanged, particularly as the artist probes the colourfulness of the non-colour black. And who knows where this new path will lead. The artist is already juggling various new ideas and asking questions. Adding a touch of beauty to the world does indeed require a never-ending process of thinking and doing in relation to that Umwelt.

DAN HOLSBEEK  (2016)

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