Theys & Pitz
1. THE GIFT
The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp possesses a strange painting, maybe one of the most intriguing canvasses in Western art history. It is, obviously, totally unknown. In the specialized literature since 1756 it is mentioned only thirteen times by a few specialists of 18th century Flemish painting. Why do I mention this forgotten canvass of 141 x 185 cm. catalogue number 178, in the possession of the Antwerp museum since 1810, in a catalogue of an exhibition of work by Hermann Pitz and Koen Theys? More: why do I mention a painting from 1713 while both Theys and Pitz refuse to be enlisted into art history, or at least not without protest? And why do I mention this painting when neither Theys nor Pitz have ever seen it, indeed had never heard of it until they read this text?
Well, maybe precisely because there is absolutely no connection between that old and unknown painting and the new objects made by Theys and Pitz: The intriguing, astonishing, bewildering canvas of the little known Hendrik Govaerts (1669-1720), carrying the beautiful title: "The Guild of the young Cross-Bow honours the Portrait of their Chief Jan De Cordes", shows exactly that: things that are totally incompatible. It shows an impossibility, it thematises the disparate and turns it into the subject of the painting itself. An important detail: Govaerts didn't paint it in order to become famous. It was painted and presented to the Antwerp guild of the young cross-bow, in order to buy the painter free from his duties as civil guard. It is a present, but with an ulterior motive.
Since you don't know the painting, let me give you a description. I could refer you to the catalogue 'Paintings from the 18th century' of the Antwerp museum. Unfortunately (something is indeed wrong with art historians) most of the attention there goes to the left side of the painting. And that side is, in itself, definitely not the most interesting part of the painting. For there we are confronted with a typical baroque allegory: a portrait of the chief Jan de Cordes is carried by the winged figured of an old man, symbolising time, who shows it to the 'virgin' Antwerp, surrounded by angels and all kinds of allegorical figures. You probably know that kind of run-of-the-mill allegorical representations: food for art historians and iconologists. Things get far more interesting if we take the right hand side of Govaerts' painting into account. For what can be seen there turns this painting into something completely insane (and as far as I know unique). The allegorical ode to De Cordes does not fill the whole painting. On the contrary, this allegory - with its putti floating in the air while carrying the armor of the chief - is placed on a kind of platform. As if it was a theatrical decor (but an impossible decor: with an 'infini', a sky, an angel appearing between the clouds) of an 18th century version of Passion. You know: the film by Jean-Luc Godard in which a director reconstructs paintings by Delacroix a.o. in a flim studio. And just as in a film by Godard on 'the right side of Govaerts' painting the technicians appear, the directors of this allegorical spectacle. Everything turns out to be fake (well, not completely: the machinery of this baroque allegory isn't shown). We see how the members of the guild come in to honour (or inspect ?) the painting. One by one they descend a little stairway - well groomed modern 18th century gentlemen who look amazed at the surprising scenery before their eyes: the portrait of their chief floating between the putti and the allegorical figures - the clouds and the sky. It is, of course, an impossible combination. It is preposterous, absurd to combine those two things in one painting. But Govaerts did it: with a figurative '&' he links the baroque allegory with the 18th century reality.
Govaerts isn't the first or the last painter who incorporated the process of making a painting into the painting itself. But for the attentive viewer Velasquez' 'Las Meninas' or Godard's 'Passion' are relatively simplistic representations in comparison with this ode to the portrait of a guild's chief. For Govaerts goes far beyond Velasquez or even Godard. He doesn't incorporate the working on - or directing of a representation (a rather vulgar modernistic technique eventually) - no he goes so far as to paint the reception itself of this very painting by the guild to which he offers it. A clever strategy of course: who can refuse a painting in which he himself already figures, even before he has received it ? Govaerts paints the new owners who arrive to inspect their new possession, the viewer viewing the painting as it were. The painting is thus like a mirror looking into the future: “look here is the painting which I give you and here are you while you are looking at it.” But Govaerts doesn't paint the guild masters while they look at a painting, no they look at the representation itself - as if the ode to the chief has turned into a reality. As if the allegory is real, reconstructed by a 18th century Godard.
What is strange and fascinating about the painting of Govaerts is of course the line running through it, between on the left the allegorical representation, and on the right the realistic rendering of the visitors. Only the allegorical figure of Envy, biting on a heart, crosses in the background this line between the two worlds (a little warning maybe to those members of the guild who were less than thrilled by this poisonous gift ?). This line forms the link between the irreconcilable. The irreconcilable of two artistic periods: Baroque and Classicism, of two ways of representation: the allegorical and the realistic, of two ways of seeing the world, and especially of two forms of time: the timelessness of the allegory, and the temporal of the guild members descending the little stairway. This clash must obviously have a fatal ending. How long can the putti remain in the sky now that they are confronted so brutally with the real world? If this was a fIlm by Godard one frame, one 1/24 of a second after this painting the whole allegorical representation would fall apart, would be toppled, and turned over.
But one moment long it remains erect: thanks to the line, the edge of the platform that separates the allegory (on the platform) from the reality (the white and black stone floor) next to it. This line separates and links. It is the line of interpretation. It is the '&' that links the irreconcilable, that unites what is disparate. It is the alchemistic reaction that can only exist thanks to interpretation. In what follows I want to follow this inspiring example of Govaerts and confront the modern work of Koen Theys and Hermann Pitz although they too have nothing whatsoever to do with one another. Except ...
2. THE DECOR
Except precisely the fact that the work of Hermann Pitz has nothing to do whatsoever with that of Koen Theys or vice-versa. And except of course the fact that they are here, almost accidentally (Koen Theys invited Hermann Pitz), united. In an equilibrium that is almost as precarious as that within Govaerts' painting. By means of an '&' which in one space, one frame provides a momentarily internal cohesion - just for the period of this exhibition.
The construction of a decor, the coagulation of time, the 'in between' two worlds, me 'having it both ways', these are key terms not only for Govaerts, but also for Hermann Pitz and Koen Theys - even if there exists between these three artists no link of any kind, no mutual influence. And yet they are all three interested in the decor. Pitz shows one here: the installation 'In Jurgens Augen'. And just like in Govaerts it is a double decor: it contains a picture of his own work room inside the construction of a show-room decor. In his very first exhibition Koep Theys showed decor pieces he had used in his remarkable Wagner video series 'Lied van mijn land', co-directed with his brother Frank. Pitz has worked in film-production in Germany. And he uses lenses to turn models into a kind of decors: "Uhr im Treppenhaus" ('87), "Duplex Realisation" ('93). Theys built virtual electronic decors in his great video cycle, and here shows a miniature of a decor for a theatrical adaptation of Kafka's The Hole. Other works of Theys like 'Perspective' (1988) / 'Passage' ('89) / 'Balkony' ('89) show variations on a decor: on a glass plate the silhouette of a room, door-post, balcony is etched and these plates form imaginary decor pieces that can be moved about in a room. And what else but pieces of decor are the photographic montages of flemish houses with which he builds castles and tunnels ? Theys turns reality into allegory, he takes the guild masters of Govaerts and makes them play in the baroque allegory. He turns Govaerts inside out. Exactly like he turns his door inside out (makes a cast of it) in 'Both sides of my door'. And that too is obviously impossible, absurd: to unite those two sides of the door in a flat plane.
Within the context of his own time and in his own figurative language Hendrik Govaerts showed the coagulation of time. That one moment of silence before the eruption, before the arrival of the catastrophe, before the allegorical representation falls apart. Koen Theys and Hermann Pitz do the same in the context of contemporary art: they show the coagulation just before the arrival of the new, the unknown. Pitz exhibits a seal-ring in which coagulated wax drops are excavated, referring to the water drops he has used before in his work. Water drops that only exist because of surface tension. These waterdrops also function like a kind of lenses, they form also an inbetween, a '&', a kind of 'no place' between reality and representation. In 'Selbst' Pitz places a little photographer (himself?) under a glass dome between little concrete socles. And Theys fixes reality, an alarm-box, a cow, a little house, a latch, a '&' in rubber or by photographical-digital means (and sometimes also in bronze or on video). By the way, is it a tunnel that he shows in his photographic montage of flemish houses, or is it a vortex, a maelstrom that carries everything with it ? There indeed lurks a tension beneath all this work, that of Govaerts, that of Pitz, that of Theys. You sense the silence before the storm. What will happen 1/24 of second after this exhibition?
And yet it is (almost) a coincidence that all these things are brought here together. But it is in the coincidence that lies the secret of interpretation. To interpret something is far more than establishing or determining something, it also implies the making of connections, the construction of a tradition. Tradition is of course a dangerous word. Theys and Pitz reject every form of external tradition, they refuse to be enlisted in some kind of movement - and rightly so. They prefer to build their own tradition, free of the trends of modern art. (Pitz constructed a genealogy of his own work, and showed 'his' water drops on a silver bowl made by his grandfather.)
And yet I can, with excuses, do nothing else than placing them within a context. For that is the fate of the interpretator: you cannot interpret without using beacons and points of comparison, without verified weights and measures, you cannot understand without tradition. But let's use then, and why not, a forged and impossible tradition: Theys & Pitz & Govaerts. Only linked by a '&'. Only existing in this exhibition, in this text. And then no more.
Marc Holthof - catalogue "Koen Theys & Hermann Pitz"
MDD/MUSEUM DHONDT-DHAENENS, DEURLE - 30.10.1994