here is christophe denys
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(following a visit to the studio of Christophe Denys – Koolskamp, 20 April 2010)

About three years ago, the fundamental, painted quest of Christophe Denys saw a radical reversal. Up until then, his research had evolved from abstract, small landscapes to an almost geological, quasi-abstract approach. Structures with balls and circles were subjected to wear and tear, dissolution in solvents, bleeding of paint layers and transparent covers. It seemed as if he had definitively said goodbye to the spatial idioms of the landscape, such as perspective and horizon, and had entered into matter itself. His paintings seemed to be an exploration of structures and materials like bark, layers of earth, minerals or rock such as porphyry and granite. I applied this suggestive association to his works earlier, in a short text for the exposition Close Encounters. It is a dangerously coercive interpretation to keep looking at his oeuvre through landscape glasses, but as Christophe did not nip it in the bud, I am taking the liberty to repeat myself.

Since 2007, the circles have been snowed under, and the line has made its entry. Ever since, long and short straight stripes have dominated his canvases, in an extraordinarily rich variation of nuances and shapes. Microscopy ceded its place to macroscopy. The landscapes – if I may still refer to them as such – became a view of the welkin, a cosmos. Sometimes he draws the lines freehand, then again using a ruler or with the help of strips of tape, with which he crops areas. In amusement, I looked at a ball of discarded tape in a lost corner of the new studio. Christophe explained how this method has come to assume a life of its own, how variation and improvisation emerged even within this medium supplied by industry. One kind of tape is not like another: some types give ragged edges, others stick more tenaciously and leave a different trace. It is a kind of material that can help determine the writing, can spice up the character of the line; a tool he uses more or less consciously, like the choice of a different brush or paint with richer pigmentation.

The paintings come in quick succession. Every time again, they make for challenging viewing. They guide the viewer to a glorious hesitation as to which movement has been initiated. Sometimes you get the impression of implosion, of re-congealing of matter, and elsewhere the lines seem to fly towards you from a distant point, as if launched by a ‘big bang’. The paradox between the geometrical, staged style of the paintings and the irrational, playful way in which they come about is striking. Christophe Denys sets about these works without any forward planning; he allows them to come to life gradually. He expresses it as follows: “In painting, I find the painting...”. Some canvases may on occasion find themselves banished to a corner of the studio, to be finished later or to serve as the foundation for new material.

These paintings are teasers for the reflex to bring any painted image back to a point of origin or a vanishing point. I suspect the painter of setting traps for this stagnated viewing pattern. Ever since the Italian renaissance gave our painting the geometric perspective, it remains a mental matrix for western viewing, in spite of all cubist or abstract experiments. The reason for my suspicion lies in a certain kind of areas that he has been incorporating ever more consciously for some time: fragments of a distance, collections of a few lines that suddenly nicely fall into perspectival line. He leaves them lying around in well-chosen places, only to turn them around or cut them in the same area, creating new disorientation. No perspective as such, but the memory of it, its ruins, shrapnel of a spatial grenade... In the context of the constant memorials, I recently saw one of the apocalyptic photos of the WTC after 9/11. In between the tangle of the debris, a few larger surfaces of the architectural steel framework were sticking out. I do not hesitate to make the association with these canvases, strengthened in my boldness by the artist himself, who once called his work ‘visual terror’. Another, much milder, centuries-old parallel is the one with the panels of Renaissance maverick Paolo Ucello. He must have been about the only one to have a premonition of the abstract adventure of the art of painting, shortly after the (re-)discovery of perspective. The way in which Ucello represented the fabulous battlefield of the Battle of San Romano, with a forest of raised and crossed spears, wrong-foots the viewer. They are clear compositions, as far as perspective goes. But the distribution of planes, the colourful costumes and the equal focus on foreground and background make the viewer’s head swim.

Christophe Denys coaxed me along to his new place, a comfortable small hangar for agricultural vehicles, close to his house in Koolskamp. The proximity of his present studio is noticeable in his work. There is more time to stand back – leave a canvas to rest, in order to look at it again a few hours later and take fresh decisions. Half of the space was temporarily screened off with a transparent plastic sheet during the recent winter cold. The shimmering of the longer daylight through this film seems like a prelude to new work.
The latest results of his diligence show two new, interesting tracks. There is an increase of the cohesive lines or even planes mentioned earlier. They push the view in a particular direction; at the same time they also provide welcome pauses in the busy drawing traffic that sometimes even becomes architectural, as in the better works by Sarah Morris.
Apart from this, the painter allowed more indefinite processes in places: areas that fray or dissolve, fruitful accidents, blurring. Smaller canvases with a limited use of taped-off areas show an especially rich, watery gradated wash as a basis. The poetry of the unfinished, unpolished of his earlier work sneaks back into the compositions through this back door. Where the canvases remain mainly white, with dark, fine lines hesitating or slipping on the undercoat, they are even reminiscent of Jules Lismonde, a seriously underestimated figure.

It is enjoyable to see how Christophe Denys makes loops in his constant quest and occasionally crosses the path of years ago again. It is this kind of shorts in the circuit of painting solutions that provides sparks and creates new possibilities: taking a step back in order to make better progress...

Frederik Van Laere