MICHIEL CEULERS Des Malentendus et le temps perdu
ANA CRISTEA GALLERY | FEBRUARY 23 – MARCH 31, 2012
A LETTER TO BLINKY PALERMO
FROM JONATHAN GOODMAN
First things first: You are still missed as one of the most interesting abstract painters working after the Second World War. Your work shows a prescient regard for painting issues that are still ongoing today, and there is a purity in your efforts that is memorable. I wonder what you would think about a young exploratory abstract painter from Belgium named Michiel Ceulers, who is currently having a solo show at the Ana Cristea Gallery in Chelsea. His work is not like yours stylistically, but he favors an independence and rectitude that followers of your art would recognize and have sympathy with. Only 25 years old, Ceulers already manifests a varied output, sometimes leaving his paintings to chance scrapes and bruises, as if he were seeking life experience to directly influence and affect the look of his art. What impresses me most about him, and where he perhaps has the closest connection with you, is in the diversification of his output, in which abstract painting is explored for its ability to support differing effects. It is not that Ceulers deliberately makes very different art for the sake of doing so; instead, he is investigating the ways an abstract painting might be made in the early 21st century.
Blinky, your response to art was essentially that of an open mind; you were curious and interested to an equal degree. My feeling is that something very similar is happening in Ceuler’s approach to painting, which often includes long, philosophical-sounding titles, as if to guide his audience toward a goal that is simultaneously ephemeral and visionary. The beautiful red-on-white painting, with the enigmatic title “The Girl with the Lad on Brick Lane” (2011–12)—all the paintings were completed in the artist’s Brooklyn studio just before the exhibition—boasts a grid of very small red squares on a white ground with lyric gestures occurring on the surface, including a form that looks very much like the symbol of infinity. The painting’s red gestures tend to concentrate on the left quadrant of the composition, and their effectiveness as art stems from the placement of these lyrical marks in opposition to the minutely spaced grids. “The Girl with the Lad on Brick Lane”is a fine work of art, whose intelligence derives from a certain intellectual maturity, all the more remarkable given Ceulers’s young age.
“Ich schloss meine augen um zu sehen (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorders)” (2010–12) is a simple, vertically aligned, white painting covered with a grid of tiny white squares. Its radical simplicity is made more complex by the inclusion of a few lyrical strokes of white across the canvas—the combination of taut spaces and expansive gesticulations a regular feature of Ceulers’s art. Like you, Blinky, Ceulers maintains an interest in fundamental beginnings, and his grids assert a neutral birth for the abstract impulse in painting. The grid has been part of the artist’s armamentarium for several generations now; Ceulers looks to it as an impartial place to start from. In Ceulers’s hands, the grid is both a nod to previous modernist practice and to the need of nearly every painter to begin with something new.
Ceulers is essentially an experimental painter who is already highly gifted in his ongoing research. You can see his penchant for working out new relations in works such as the diptych “Stark ausgepraegte und sehr stark unterdruecter sexualitaet” (2012), which offers a slightly disabled mauve rectangle on the left. This piece is accompanied by a second panel, made of wood, with most of the grain showing and a yellow rectangle painted on the upper right of the composition. Clearly the two works don’t match; indeed, to understand the painting is to see how they disconnect despite their close proximity. Additionally, Ceulers often stores his works with the painted surfaces facing each other, in the hopes of picking up some random effects. In these cases, he wants to free the painting from human contact.
Ceulers is a prodigious young painter whose work I think you would instinctively understand. His emphasis on experimentation and his willingness to allow chance to affect the surface of his compositions make him a painter who challenges his audience, just as you did. He approaches painting in ways that continue the long-lived testing of its abstract values—in ways that keep the tradition alive.
Jonathan Goodman is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.