Stijn welcomed me to his home in Ghent in August. His studio is in the hollow of his house, which he is renovating himself. A former sewing factory where everything bears his hand both in the curated spaces and the works that populate them. Stijn welcomed me with great warmth. He had just returned from Ostend where he was renovating another space, a flat. I imagined his fingers dancing on any material and creating living spaces for his family and his works.
Our conversation mainly focused on his shows in Mexico, in both Mexico City, at Galeria Hilario Galguera and in Monterrey, at Heart Ego Gallery. They are the results of an accumulation of works from an ongoing investigation into the artist’s practice, documented and presented in different languages, media and bodies of work as a conceptual exploration of time. This new stage in Stijn’s body of work emerged from a trip to Mexico in the spring of 2022, where he visited a range of places including Mexicali, Monterrey, Hermosillo, Puerto Peñasco, Chipinque, Metepec, Querétaro and Mexico City, choosing by intuition the right landscapes to communicate each idea.
It seems that Stijn's work has sometimes been confined to its relationship with nature and light. It exists, of course, but the use and appeal of these two elements should not categorise anyone in a specific art movement. This brings me back to a growing personal question: why this propensity to reduce everything, to control everything by word and qualification, to put artists in tidy drawers to allow oneself to apprehend their art?
Being the registrar of your own art
When we met, Stijn described in detail the exhibition that is now open in Mexico City. This is his first solo show in the city and most of the works on display were still in production at the time of our conversation. He was to occupy 6 spaces in the gallery and had found a certain coherence in the works to be presented: a skyline, the horizon, at the height of his eye.
Many different types of works were to be presented at the exhibition, but in terms of the production of the works, three categories stood out: those that Stijn had already produced himself and was taking with him, those that Stijn had produced in the past and were produced on site in Mexico City, and those Stijn had never produced before and was going to discover before the exhibition. By this I mean that he didn’t try out production on his own for some of the works, trusting craftsmen to realise his idea. The clay plates “Solid horizon” 2022 are an example which he imagined on the plane and asked a Mexican craftswoman to do. It was only when he set foot on Mexican soil that he discovered the result of his idea.
I found it very impressive, this possibility to let go of the control on the work and to dedicate oneself only to the idea and the result. This possibility of trusting other hands to produce your idea. It seems to me, however, that there is always a margin for error. How, when we read the idea that someone gives us, can we not add our way of interpreting it during the production? How, also, to find the precise words expressing one's thoughts, expressing the spirit that one wishes to transmit to the work, beyond its technicality? This therefore requires a letting go of the technical production aspect of the work, but also, of a part of its result. I therefore imagine this letting go as part of a creative process.
I'm just the registrar but the main view of the work is created by the moment. I present the rules of the game but the game itself is made by nature. With the ceramic plates it is the kiln and the fieldoven that are creating the stains on the plates. My paintings are series of colours, it's not a conscious composition. It's a composition based on mathematics, on the moment, I'm just the curator of it.
Nothing ever happens by chance: the encounter with a work, with an artist, with a book, always seems to me as being linked to the current spiral of our lives. And so, without any chance, a book fell upon me while writing this article: After Cubism, written by Amédée Ozenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (aka Le Corbusier) in 1918, the book that launched the foundations of purism, considering cubism as corrupted.
This book, with its evangelical phrases such as "the moment of proportion has come" or "the human work is a setting in order", came at the right moment in my reflection on the production of the work and on what I would almost consider Stijn's anti-impressionism.
Thus, in the process of producing the work, the first idea must be precise, almost locked in precision, although Ozenfant and Jeanneret specify that an armature is not a hindrance. Does the result, in the end, matter so much? It does, in the artist's desire to achieve the quality he expects and demands of his work, but how much subjectivity is there in the work produced?
These thoughts from 1918 were taken up by the conceptualists of the 1960s, imposing rationality, almost a refusal of subjectivity.
Am I trying to put Stijn’s practice in the drawer of purism now? No. But the more I read about conceptual works and the conceptual perception of art, the more I tend to consider Stijn’s practice in this line. However, I would not consider that a straight line, a pure horizon, because I perceive indeed in Stijn’s practice a rather strong form of rationality but also a controlled place for subjectivity.
First of all, each of its works chooses its medium. Stijn's work can be found in photography, painting, sculpture, installation and collage, but the names of these mediums do not seem to matter. They are not imposed on either the artist or the work. An idea germinates and it is necessary, quite rationally in the end, to allocate the most coherent medium and material to it.
Then, there is this controlled subjectivity. In my eyes, it is imposed in two parts: his relationship to time and his relationship to the chosen place.
I asked Stijn if he was obsessed with time, as it plays an important role in his creative process. Several of his works are called Souvenirs. There are notably photo-based works, that are the consequences of having let time, through its passing days, its climates and its unforeseen events, leave its mark on the photographs.
Well, everybody has an obsession with time I guess. But time is not the only subject, in all of these medias that I use, the works I make, I go to the basics. So, it's about time, it's about colour, it's about how an image evoluates, it's about the medias themselves, and it's about the perspective from where we look at an object...but I'm not obsessed.
Indeed, for the “Double exposure” works, Stijn’s photos are left outside for a number of days with half of the photo covered. The unprotected part is left to the sun and the weather, creating a bleached right half.
I made them when we just decided to move back from Chimay to Ghent. I wanted to capture the surroundings of Chimay which is a beautiful rural area in Belgium before we moved to the city. I took photos of trees in the spring, always solitary trees. I developed them and placed the Lambda prints outside. This type of photo is built up in 4 layers of emulsion. The one on the surface is the blue one and it is the first one that gets attacked by the sun. Therefore, you can see the biggest changes in the sky and in certain greens. I left the prints outside during the whole summer from the 21st of June until the 21st of September. The only cover was a thin sheet of foil like they put around flowers - just to cover it from the rain and bird shit. I didn’t cover at first but the acid in bird shit made white stains and the rain is also damaging the works.
If you look at them from an angle, you can see that the hidden half is still shiny and the other is becoming quite rough. In Mexico I did the same, the prints are bigger and were placed on the roof of the gallery during the time I was absent between spring and the exhibition.
This process has its share of hazards, from bird droppings to colour changes, or also rain ingress. For the tree series, only half of the photos in the process survived. Only le temps is the master, temps understood in its French double meaning: time and weather.
On the other hand, Stijn’s work is certainly a collection of personal memories, but it does not go into sentimentality. The places chosen by Stijn to place some of his works are not innocent. It is the tree near his home when he lived in Chimay or, for another series, the beach where he went as a child. In his series of sculptures ‘Cancale 1:1’, which consist of molds of the rocky shore of a French beach, molds were taken from this shore at a specific moment. Due to the erosion of the sea, they will never be the same. In this way, Stijn inscribes this memory in time. But the idea has to find its place and Stijn brings subjectivity into his work with a great deal of pragmatism. The memories make it possible to establish a timeline.
This sculpture is molded on the French coast, in Cancale. It's the first rocky shore when you go from Belgium to Spain, let's say. I took it on a beach where we always used to go as a kid. I don't want to be sentimental but if I have the chance to do it, I take something that is personal. And then I leave it, I don't mention it in an exhibition text or something. If I could choose between this beach and just a random beach, I thought it was nice to go to the beach that I spent my childhood summers on. The sculpture is just a part of the shore that I molded, it is a relic of the landscape. (…) There is a Belgian artist called Roger Raveel, he stayed in his village his whole life. He painted fragments out of his village, clothes hanging on a washing line, a farmer fixing a fence, two people waiting in front of their house, everyday affairs in his hometown, he painted them in a contemporary way and I like them a lot. His work is in a way pop art but a farmers version of it.. It is so nice to stay around your house inside your own life instead of going to places that you don't relate to. Nowaday life is different, we live in a global world. However, I notice that people relate more to their own world than to something exotic. I think it would be bizarre to show the Mexican works here in Belgium, people would relate in a way I’m not looking for to the agave plants, the cacti and the lava landscapes. The image would distract them.
Some works more than others are part of his life, of his experience, but all of them carry at least a part of him, a part of his energy.
A strong example is a work that represents my daughter’s day of birth, ‘Daglicht 29/11/2005’. Her birth was at 8.19 in the morning and I started making each minute a photo of the sky above our house during 24 hours. I transformed these images into a timeline showing the average colors of the sky of each minute, 1440 minutes, one day long. In that first 24 hours, the night is in the middle of the image. In other ‘daylight’ works, I started at midnight to end 24 hours later at midnight again. In a lot of works especially now in Mexico, I use my own eye height as a baseline of perspective and as a conceptual border that transforms the sometimes abstract works into landscapes.
In the Horizontes shows in Mexico City and Monterrey, his eye height (1.58 meters) has a big importance - either as the horizon for every piece or for almost every placement of the piece. So there is that part of the invariant that Ozenfant and Jeanneret spoke about, that guiding line that does not suffer any protest. However, even if this hint of subjectivity might seem to be a pretext for Stijn, it seems to be, above all, a way of starting somewhere.
What happens when the work is purchased? Does it fit the collector's eye height?
Not always of course but my eye height is quite average. I suggested before to adapt the work to the collector's eye height but I'm over that idea. The question was: whose eye height do I choose when it is a couple? the man or the woman? When it is a person of two meters high, the work would be against the ceiling. Thus, from now on, if you buy it, you have to put it in my perspective - which is very close to the common height they use in museums. So the relation with me stays. Not only during the show, but also afterwards. in this context it’s interesting that more nordic museums use a central height of 160cm and above whilst the more southern museums use 150cm as the standard. I’m somewhere in the middle, geographically and sizewise.
The order of colours
In other works of the Souvenirs series, Stijn shells the colours of a photo he has taken. In this way, Stijn dissects a specific moment and arranges the colours, thus bringing rationality to the subjectivity of the chosen moment.
I take an image of the landscape and then the computer calculates the 256 average colours in it and ranges them from dark to light in a grid of 16x16 colours. Then, I turn over this composition so it ranges from light to dark. By doing this, it becomes an abstraction of that landscape, it is the colour chart of a moment. It has nothing to do with the composition of the image, only with the colours of that landscape.
The subjective landscape no longer exists. It has been overtaken by the rationality of the order, it was only at the service of the ordered colours. So it is not about the colours or the impression they give, but about the order they should return to. Stijn then mixes each colour in oil paint in a patient manner, some are found immediately, others with many attempts. In this way, subjectivity has led to computer rationality, which leads to a form of human equivalent rationality in the search for the right colour.
But how do you present your work then?
If I’m talking about my work I always go through the process of the work. Tell how a work is made. But that's something you can see in the end, nothing is hidden, I don’t use tricks that confuse your eyes. So when I do these tours around the show, I'm just pointing out what you see and, in this case also, where the title of the show comes from: my eye height, my horizon, my point of view, my perspective. And I invite people to try to adapt to that point of view.
However, besides the things you see, there is a big possibility to reflect on the work. Because you refer to your own perspective and your own frame of thoughts, or, especially in the abstract works, you refer to moments in your own life, not so much to the exact moment that I'm referring to. The works are very objective, mathematically and conceptual but they become something subjective.
Some works are different, the small works for instance, people see them as some kind of a mental game of doing the input of the colors on top of the image. I never did that but it's fine if people interact with them and if it creates another kind of concentration. I also noticed that, with these small works, because of the photo, there is a much more direct look. People are used to photographic images, but they also look much longer at the works. And it actually depends on the viewer: some people like the abstract works and others can identify more with the figurative landscapes.
I talked last week with Stijn, about his Mexican exhibition and how it went. It happened that some of the works did not turn out the way Stijn expected, so they were not shown but it opened the way to another curation of the show, which brought other works under the spotlight.
This exhibition of Stijn at Hilario Galguera's gallery in Mexico City has an important feature: it resembles an institutional exhibition. It covers most of Stijn's types of work, showing coherence in a retrospective form with works that are nevertheless custom-made. It takes the visitor into his practice that is as cultural as it is natural.
I always put something cultural on the top of something natural. Even with my drawings, with their frames. Frame of view is also something cultural.
This sentence has stayed on my mind because, for me, it sums up Stijn's work, traversing his series like the horizon. However, I don't think it is binary and certainly not in any particular order. There are intertwining, opposing and yet symbiotic forces between nature, culture, control and subjectivity. Stijn then clarified:
As you know, I was Peter Buggenhout’s assistant. The common ground we share is that we try to compose what is decomposed. I try to do that as well. Peter's work is in a tradition of abstraction, it is minimal in a way. You see a lot but you can't refer to anything. I relate to that idea as well, of making an abstraction of something real.
Stijn Cole lives and works in Ghent, Belgium. He has had solo exhibitions at venues around Europe and beyond. His work is part of important collections such as the Belgian Embassy in Washington, USA and Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (S.M.A.K.), Ghent, Belgium.
Galería Hilario Galguera is located in both Mexico City and Madrid. As a parallel programme and platform for specific and independent projects with artists, curators and writers, in 2016 Galería Hilario Galguera also opened El cuarto de máquinas, a space for inclusion, collaboration and experimentation in Mexico City.
Horizontes, 2022 on view until the 15th of November at Galería Hilario Galguera, C. Francisco Pimentel 3, San Rafael, Ciudad de Mexico, by appointment only. Some works can also be discovered in Monterrey at Heart Ego Gallery.