Publication: The Times.
‘Abstract’ is a label often applied to the work of the Belgian painter Raoul De Keyser, who died in 2012, aged 82. Its use here doesn’t seem entirely helpful. Almost all of these forty, or so, colourful paintings and objects, which date from the late ‘60s until the year of De Keyser’s death, have some direct relationship to the observed world.
It’s a point emphasised by the writer Bernard Dewulf in a film about De Keyser, ‘Returning is also a journey’. At first glance, De Keyser’s work can seem slight, even simplistic. The paint, often in primary colours, has no depth and the paintings themselves have an air of the unfinished. But this was precisely De Keyser’s intention — to deny his work beauty (a term with which he struggled) in order not to distract from his true purpose.
So, what was De Keyser attempting to do? His work is full of philosophical conundrums. An early piece, Camping V, from 1971, consists of a painted canvas stretched over a wooden box. It’s a large work, about a metre high and almost as wide, with a depth of 20 cm. At the corners, large stitches join the canvas sections together. The link between the title and the work seems obvious but there’s more to this than first appears.
It’s partly painting and partly sculpture. As one looks at it there’s a temptation to visualise it hanging on a wall, its six sides reduced to one dimension. The flat, bold colours of green, blue and cream, seem derived from grass, sky and tent canvas. But is De Keyser’s roguish sense of humour at play here? Do the stitched sides in some way mock the viewer struggling to ‘stitch’ together ‘meaning’?
De Keyser loved words and language. He often struggled with the way words were used to describe and distort his own work. There is a playful approach to relationship of the works and their titles. Part of this playfulness also includes the idea that the paintings are self-reflexive, in that they are ‘about’ the act of painting itself.
The term art historians give to work such as De Keyser’s is ‘abstract figuration’. It suggests the basis of the painting lies in observation but emphasises the honing process and precision of the finished work. Dewulf describes this as ‘poetry’. He’s right in the sense that a poem’s method is an economy of means.
On one wall there’s an arrangement of sixteen works that replicate the layout in De Keyser’s sparse, functional studio in the small Flanders town of Deinze, where he worked and lived for his entire career as a painter. Some of these were painted just before he died and they demonstrate a formidable strength of purpose and dedication. Some, such as ‘ZT’ (2012) use oil on a wooden panel while others, such as ‘Fire’ (2010) use watercolour on the same surface. Here the watery medium bleeds and runs into the wood, creating results just beyond the control of the artist.
De Keyser was full of contradictions and paradoxes. He claimed that too much was read into his work while, at the same time, making it clear that is was supported by a sturdy intellectual framework.
And so it is when we look at these paintings. At the point when we grasp an apparent superficial meaning, a simultaneous notion of underlying complexity begins to take hold.