Abstractions on the horizon

Stijn Cole has his first solo exhibition in Brussels, at Irène Laub: landscape ‘abstractions’ with an almost romantic evocative power.
We remember his bronzes installed by Yolande De Bontridder in the opulent garden of the Villa Carpentier in Ronse, but also more monumental exhibitions at the S.M.A.K. and the MSK in Ghent, not forgetting a presentation of multiples at the Villa Empain, or the last biennial in the Parc d’Enghien. Long established in Chimay, Stijn Cole (Ghent, 1978) is part of the most important institutional collections of contemporary art in Belgium, notably the Belfius collection, the BPS22, the Ixelles Museum and the Belgian Embassy in Washington.
For her first solo exhibition at Irène Laub, the artist has chosen to work under the sign of “Souvenirs”. All the works presented were inspired by the region of Chimay, where he lived for about ten years before returning to Ghent during the first confinement. While he was trying to visually capture specific moments in time, he realised that, in a global and direct way, he was also describing moments of his own life: “It’s like a shelf of personal memories linked to places he has been to, to specific moments”, he says. A personal approach that takes on a universal dimension through the analytical treatment Cole applies to these temporal fragments. “What is more common to human beings than the experience of time passing?” asks Pierre-Olivier Rollin, director of the BPS22, in the text accompanying the exhibition: “The experience of duration and its expression through the means of art history are a recurring preoccupation of artists, and Stijn Cole is no exception. Better still, the Ghent artist makes it the common thread of a research that is both conceptual and romantic: objective, documented, scientific, but also incredibly emotional and poetic.
His multidisciplinary practice revolves around the relationship between the subject and its environment. Through a process that combines traditional artistic disciplines with digital manipulation techniques, Cole seeks to represent the variations that time and light impose on a selected section of a landscape. So it is with these blocks of Rance or Carrara marble gleaned over time, shaped by the artist to retain an impression of the landscape: a single gesture – cutting cleanly and polishing one side of the block – transforms it into a landscape, creating a skyline for our eyes. The tracks are blurred, the block is seen in all its raw minerality. Two recent sculptures made of bronze stanchions to which a branch of a tree – oak or hornbeam – is grafted, give the measure of the space and make these works the trace of a wandering in the forest. But the artist does not allow himself to be pigeonholed: he seizes all media with talent, deploys series that are both contrasting and complementary, and renews himself while digging the same tireless furrow that offers the astonished public a different reading of the landscape. “I’m not a painter, what interests me is the search for colours, the way they blend and the tactile dimension”, says the man in front of two large abstract paintings – a seascape and a forest landscape – from which he has extracted the colour chart to give a different composition: a grid of shades that could be mistaken for pixels.
How to preserve a trace of the landscape in the most abstract way possible?With great subtlety, Stijn Cole answers this question with ‘paintings’ varnished by a car factory, where matt and satin shades reveal the quintessence of the memory. The photograph of a solitary tree, only half of which has been exposed to the sun during a summer, shows a natural discolouration, as if the work contained two distinct temporal sections. Another example is a photograph taken in the fog: the ‘natural’ horizon has disappeared, but Cole replaces it artificially with the fold of the paper, giving the viewer a different impression depending on the light, natural or artificial, and the moment. “He makes abstractions out of landscapes,” marvels the gallery owner: “Whereas here nature itself imposes an abstraction on the eye, the artist makes us feel the landscape. The horizon contributes to the fact that, even in the face of abstract lines or squares of colour, one can still situate oneself in the space.
Blurring the lines, the man plays with his label of contemporary Caspar David Friedrich and remains surprising as well as elusive.

Le soir 12/1/2022