CAMDEN ARTS CENTER | SEPTEMBER 23 – NOVEMBER 28
With loosely painted imagery like fish eating fish; giant bubbles floating over a rough ocean; the Arc de Triomphe as a sun in a constellation of stars; a Flinstones-like landscape (painted on a folding screen); and, funniest, a rat on a skateboard, René Daniëls could at first glance be easily dismissed as Neo-Expressionist. He is of a generation that includes Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Enzo Cucchi, after all. However, it is really Picabia, Sigmar Polke, and Magritte who are the better touchstones.
The latter two were admitted influences when Daniëls was a student. Born and still based in Eindhoven in southern Holland, close to Belgium, he once described a Mondrian as being beautiful and spiritual, thus about “exaltedness.” For him that was a very northern, Calvinist idea, whereas his own southern attitude was more “extrovert.” He said he was “looking for a mentality that allows me to switch off thought while I’m painting. That hasn’t been so developed yet in Dutch painting.” This was 1983 and it seemed that he was striving towards a certain fluidity and looseness to the point of drawing with paint, while developing a more intuitive and personal choice of subject. They are “earthy” and not exalted, referencing the human being, not the spirit.
Daniëls’s work emerged against a backdrop of conceptual art and formal abstraction and, like the Neo-Expressionists in America, his results seemed fresh in comparison to the serious and dry work preceding. His earliest groups of work, paintings of records, books, safety pins, and film cameras, are not on display here. Painted loosely in a graphic and repetitive manner, they were derived from his surroundings. Punk music was the inspiration. It was direct, like the dynamism of his painterly touch and repetitive energy. This energy and its figurative nature no doubt warranted his inclusion in the now famous Zeitgeist exhibition in Berlin and also in Documenta VII—both in 1982. Sadly, glimpsing a Daniëls painting these days is a rare event. Most reside in private collections and museums in Europe, and, having suffered a brain hemorrhage in 1987, his output has dwindled to virtually zero. Yet the Dutchman remains a cult artist and this compact survey is welcome indeed.
Daniëls’s early Expressionism rapidly gave way to a more intelligent painting incorporating his painterly touch. He says that the Belgian Surrealist Magritte “never gave in to any degree of emotionalism; his attitude was, in fact, quite detached.” Detachment also makes Daniëls’s work interesting, and separates him from his American and Italian contemporaries. Like Magritte’s odd motifs, Daniëls is known for a “bowtie” or rectilinear butterfly shape. It is abstracted from an isometric depiction of a room with paintings variously deployed on the wall. For example, in “The Battle for the Twentieth Century” (1984), a black-outlined, orange “bowtie,” with yellow rectangles across the middle, floats over a rough Courbet-esque ocean. The bowtie could also be the schema of a room with yellow monochrome rectangles, making the painting more surreal. More realistic, “The Return of the Performance” (1987), depicts a room with other perspectival plinths, blocks or walls dotted all around the picture plane, while a coat-stand or multi-headed microphone stand (another motif) sits forlorn at its center.
In 1985-86, Daniëls painted his first group of these “Mooie Tentoonstellingen” or “Beautiful Exhibitions” while staying in New York. They immediately became part of that history of painting, which includes Matisse’s “The Red Studio” and David Teniers’s paintings of Archduke Leopold William in his galleries, while also existing as lushly painted, evocative abstract patterns. In the end they collectively become enigmatic objects, at once familiar and simple but also mysterious. Are they forlorn existential statements? Reflexive painting about painting? Or surrealist-inspired abstraction? Other forms, like his dry “family tree,” inspired by the coat-rack, with words and names for leaves, just add a verbal-visual twist. There is no simple explanation, and that is part of his work’s enduring charm. His short career, a mere decade, ensures the open-ended nature of this oeuvre.
The critic Barry Schwabsky argued recently that painters today conceptualize “projects” and are judged by them rather than individual works. He points to Michael Krebber’s work as an example. Comparatively, Daniëls belongs to another time and generation. His output could be described as an idiosyncratic evolution; it is not logical but grows organically. Like the Punks, the sexagenarian is a great stylist and, like many stylists, he wears his heart on his painterly sleeve. Today, this is a breath of fresh air, and despite Daniëls’s 20-year absence it is still the most ebullient show at Frieze this month.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.