Letter from LONDON
Daan van Golden: Camden Arts Centre Dec 5 2008 – Feb 8 2009
Mamco: Geneva, Switzerland February 25 – May 24, 2009
Culturgest: Lisbon, Portugal June 19 – September 6, 2009
Friends and critics have been entirely charmed by the exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre. The Guardian’s Adrian Serle describes it as “inexplicably odd. The more you look, the weirder it gets.” The notion of charm seems quite difficult in art today, but then maybe it’s always been so. The idea of “charming art” does not necessarily sound like a compliment; exhibitions can be difficult, even beautiful, hard hitting, or plainly boring and unappealing, but the idea of an exhibition being “charming” seems as if it could suggest both insult and compliment.
Daan van Golden, a septuagenarian artist who has been quiet within the more commercial quarters of the artworld, is the subject of this mini-retrospective. Despite the fact that he has represented the Netherlands in Venice (1999), participated in Documenta 4 (1968) and exhibited at London’s ICA (1967), one suspects that the supportive nature of the Dutch state collection, his low output and his desire for long periods of travel have kept him hidden from the international scene and, thus, greater renown.
On display are the various groups of work that van Golden has developed over the years. There are the meticulous paintings of plaid fabrics and patterned wrapping papers, photographs of his daughter, silkscreen posters of rock stars, and the more recent “silhouette” paintings. The seemingly unrelated, serendipitous nature of his intellectual inquiry, recalling the gregarious attitude of German artists like Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, is part of the show’s appeal. That, together with this myth of an artist who has eschewed the market in part through a long hiatus during the ’80s, led to the rediscovery of van Golden in the ’90s.
A big fan of Yves Klein, van Golden, like his idol, spent a few years in Japan during the ’60s. He taught English and also worked as a film extra (often cast as a villainous white man in gangster movies). Prior to this he had painted expressionistic abstractions and was part of the Cobra group; yet despite travelling quite widely, it was only in Japan that he found a way to move beyond the more emotional aspects of his expression, and channel his skills into a focused and purportedly meditative format. The work since does not overtly represent the influence of the East as much as Klein’s voids or, for example, John McLaughlin’s calm balanced abstractions. Rather, I believe the East has provided him with an attitude toward art and life.
Tablecloths, handkerchiefs and wrapping paper have provided motifs on which van Golden can focus his gaze. The results, painted flat in a semi-gloss enamel, are meticulous recreations of pattern. Not unlike Jasper Johns in spirit, these works recall appropriation, pattern painting and most of all European Pop, but where these movements were responding to ongoing situations in culture and art, van Golden, through his study of Zen Buddhism, was using this meticulous process of translating pattern into painting as a form of meditation. He speaks of subjective and objective motifs in art; the former being an invented, emotional topic drawn from within the artist, while the latter is to be found in the world around us, less determined by artistic ego. He says that this technique helped him find a “peaceful feeling,” and that the paintings already existed in the world and they only had to be realised. With that in mind, a statement he produced in the ’90s titled “Art is not a Contest” (a quote from Dutch poet, Roland Holst), could be interpreted as a stepping away from ego-driven art, culture and production.
The paintings of silhouettes, titled “Heerenlux,” after the type of paint he uses, are similar in spirit. Begun in 1993, the first was taken from a floral pattern he had found in a fabric, but later they also drew from the works of other artists, Pollock’s drips, Giacometti’s walker and Matisse’s budgerigar. Van Golden focused on a fragment from their work and rendered it as a large silhouette, unobtrusively filling it in with one colour. They become mere shapes floating in and puncturing space, acting somewhat like Klein’s voids. Like the patterns, these are already things in the world, waiting to be observed and “realised.” They exude a quiet presence that is neither exciting nor uneventful. They are simply there.
The birth of van Golden’s daughter instigated probably the most radical shift in his creativity. He undertook a new body of work, Youth is an Art, which constituted a beautiful series of snapshots of his child growing up. These “snapshots,” and it is best to describe them so, taken over an 18-year period, are a tribute to his love for his child. But where others would have kept them in a drawer, van Golden’s playful nature has contributed a lighter element to his oeuvre; come to think of it, how many artists have paid such tribute to their children? There’s no doubt that being a fashion photographer in London during the ’70s contributed greatly to the casual and playful nature of these photos. In one a little girl in a yellow dress is strolling by a giant tree, while in another, on a trip to India, the teenage Diana poses in a full theatrical Indian costume. If the common understanding of Zen Buddism is about being in the moment, then these seemingly mundane instances of family life are a good example of just that.
As in one interpretation of Johns’ flags and targets, the meticulously painted patterns by van Golden with his unobtrusive technique and flat enamel paint have a certain reserve. In other words, they are “cool.” Similarly, the wrapping papers from the Japanese department stores, Mitsukoshi, or confectionary shops like Fujiya, are eye catching but also have the feel of another era, somewhat like Warhol’s silkscreens of the Sixties. In most of the spaces here, van Golden and the curators have juxtaposed works from different groups and times. Hence a silkscreen of Mick Jagger sits neatly next to a painting of a golden Buddha head (collaged with dried flowers), while opposite silhouette and pattern paintings stand in stark contrast. The result is that, for an artist of his generation, it is a display of intellectual wandering.
Van Golden is neither the progenitor of a movement nor an original voice; in addition, aspects of his work recall other artists. Rather the attitude in which van Golden conjures—and no other artist could have a better name—could be compared to the scent of perfume or the atmosphere created by movie music (for example the tone it creates in a Wong Kar-Wai film). This is perhaps best summed up by an essay title of his long time curatorial collaborator, Anne Pontegnie: “As the sun colours flowers, so does art colour life.” What does this mean? Elsewhere she has written that he “chose to track down the exceptional in the banal, beauty in the insignificant, the marvelous in the fabric of everyday life.” Van Golden’s work intensifies basic moments of everyday life. After all, is that not just what all artists try to achieve?
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.