Hauser & Wirth has wisely and inventively brought back to light an eccentric troubled artist who’d fallen under the radar but proves to have been very much of his (and this) time and place. The exhibition, an imaginatively designed installation, emphasized the progressive story-telling nature of the late Belgian artist Philippe Vandenberg by following one curator’s line of reading and interpretation. The installation was laid out on narrow, snaking cleverly designed tables that guided viewers through Vandenberg’s circuitous narrative landscape.
The curator, Anthony Huberman, director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art in San Francisco, himself took an unexpected turn, falling off his bike and breaking both his shoulders just in time to miss the show’s opening. Yet, somehow the misfortune was in tune with the fractured nature of Vandenberg’s art.
Vandenberg (1952–2009) drew a lot (spontaneously and diaristically), drank a lot, and free-associated compulsively. He also painted, very much in the styles of the moment. He filled a 120-page drawing book with works documenting his many and various states of mind, the politics of the day, and the art that surrounded him—from graffiti to art brut to Surrealism to Disney-derived images and even to high modernism. The works here, from his drawing book, call to mind those of Philip Guston, Louise Bourgeois, Ad Reinhardt, and Jean-Michel Folon, among many others. There are minimalist one-line gestures and cartoonish renderings, caricatures, words, and angry Twombly-esque scrawls, and like Reinhardt, another artist of contradictory modes, he created his own reappearing characters.
Among the many recurring images in the drawings is an igloo-like structure that often appears in series, suggesting the entrance to a tunnel in a mountain. In fact, his fascination with igloos derived from the film Nanook of the North and underscores his travels through Europe and alludes to the ideas of both escape and confinement. There are also drawings of turtles that reiterate the shape of the igloos and the association of turtles with torture (the words tortoise and torture stemming from the same root).
A rebel, Vandenberg wasn’t concerned with rules or originality. He was famous in the 1980s (he showed in New York at Denise Cadé Gallery) and then stopped in the 1990s, turning his back on the art world for a decade or so. He believed in the phoenix as a way for the progression of art—that is, out of the repetition and destruction of one artwork grew the next. It was a continual rewriting and redrawing process involving self-destruction.
Hanging upstairs at the gallery were powerful large canvases that seem at total variance with the sketches, including bright-colored design-worthy paintings with one mark or gesture in a contrasting color. But a neighboring room was filled with outraged canvases in childish lettering. One untitled black canvas gradually reveals its furiously textured undergirding, consisting of hatch marks and scratched-out areas.
Some images show that Vandenberg had a disturbing sense of discomfort as a Christian Belgian from Molenbeek, where he felt threatened by the Muslim community: Women wearing hijabs congregate and evoke Guston’s Ku Klux Klan images.
In its entirety, this show offered a portrait of a manic modern man. Vandenberg even hints at the burden of being an artist in sketches of characters carrying the weight of blocks of color. The diversity of Vandenberg’s work obviously makes him hard to pin down, but at the same time, it places him in a European context that scoffs at signature styles and marketing guiles.