José HEERKENS

Impressed by the vastness of nature, I tried to express the extension, the quiet and the unity. […] Vertical and horizontal lines are the expression of two opposing forces; these exist everywhere and dominate everything; their mutual action constitutes the life”.

Piet Mondrian, Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, Wittenborn, New York, 1945.

2014-L16. Morning. white, scarlet red, and mother of pearl. oil on linen, 80 x 160 cm. Photo credit Willem Kuijpers
Morning. White, scarlet red and mother of pearl, 2014-L16. Oil on linen, 80 x 160 cm. Photo credit Willem Kuijpers

The Dutch painter José Heerkens addresses the theme of the “vastness of nature” relying on the “equivalence of opposites”. Her pictorial research is based on the spaces and the essentiality of the elements through a direct experience, since, as she states, reminding the modus operandi of Leonardo da Vinci, –all can be found in nature–.

In 1992 she came into direct contact with the nature during her journey in Australia, and in particular with the immensity of the land. The vast uncontaminated expanses, mainly devoid of human presence and traces, originated a posteriori reflection on natural elements.

The following artistic production will be affected by this experience, being characterized by a musing on spaces and symbolic linearity. These theoretical formulations, in fact, materialised on the artist’s paintings as a simplification of the graphic and chromatic elements. The vast uninhabited expanses as well as the constant presence of the horizon line in the Australian and Dutch landscape influenced Heerkens to elaborate her spatiality, symptomatic of her introjected journey into her mind.

The physical space, therefore, becomes a mental space which is translated onto the canvas by means of lines and geometric shapes arranged along a hypothetical horizontal line. In this way, she creates a dynamic rhythm and a chromatic balancing able to establish the harmony between elements. The synthesis achieved between lines and colour assumes a dialectical character that is reflected in abstract visual textures which may be comparable to the Compenetrazioni iridescenti (1912-14) of the Italian artist Giacomo Balla, master of experimentation of the relationship between motion and light. Similarly, Heerkens, through the chromatic approach of rigorous geometric essential shapes and uniform colours, defines a sense of movement capable of producing a difference in optical information which becomes no longer measurable quantitatively, according to the mathematical formula of the wavelength emanated by colour (J.W. Goethe, Theory of Colours, 1810).

The alternation of light reflected by full hatch oil colours modulated by vertical and horizontal brushstrokes produces a different colour reaction although the colour is the same. This kind of play of chiaroscuro is translated by the spectator into a visual rhythmic perception. At the same time, the oily surface of the painting strengthens the sense of movement. The perception of colour becomes fugitive and iridescent depending on the viewer’s position with respect to the work. The systematic alternation of brushstrokes attributes to colour a spatial value, not only within the painting but also externally, stimulating the visual perception of the bystander who comes into contact with the most intimate sphere of the painting.

2016 - L6. Evensong. oil on linen, 150 x 150 cm. Photo credit Willem Kuijpers
Evensong, 2016 – L6. Oil on linen, 150 x 150 cm. Photo credit Willem Kuijpers

Her gesture is always controlled, the intellectual act transcends reality, though, reality is the starting point for reaching pure knowledge, figurative essence. This is made up of simple and repetitive rectangular forms on a monochromatic background that, in her more recent works, is given by the natural colour of linen. The absence of any realistic reference is therefore found among the open spaces between painted and uncoloured surfaces. From this connection between sign and colour, descending from neoplastic movement, a new relationship is established between man and the environment. Moreover, the absence of titles for the individual works with natural references is symptomatic of the artist’s will to refrain from any reference to reality in order to gain access into a contemplative and evocative sphere of the various phases of the day, like in the case of Noontide (2016) exhibition at Mies van der Rohe Haus (Berlin). The executive and perceived interaction with light is a fundamental and decisive element of her art, it is traceable in her continuous research focused on the spatial relations which precede the effects of optical perception. The light that penetrates through the large windows of her studio is reflected by canvases arranged onto horizontally plane where the artist works to play with chromatic volumes to define fresh spatiality.

The prodrome of this research can be traced back to another master of art history, Paul Cézanne: with his tireless work around Mont Sainte-Victoire, she became the precursor of an experiment of independent reality in relation to the natural model. Cézanne, first, and Heerkens, afterwards, come to define a parallel harmony between colour and shape as two inseparable elements.

The cosmic sense of space and the division in horizontal areas, according to a symbolic criterion more solid and earthly, represent the principal factors in the artist’s choice of format, that in turn characterizes the performance of the entire work. The dimension of pictorial surface, the cognitive limits (E. Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1956) of the painting are at the base of the work, since the format itself is already part of work. Likewise, Heerkens maintains a harmonious modular ratio (Vitruvius, De Architectura, 15th c.), often by a 1:1 proportion with man to establish such an “intimacy condition”. As Rothko affirmed in Space in Painting (M. Rothko, Writings on Art, 2006), “the great paintings put you inside them”. Close to the Rothko’s themes on art, as a language of the sublime, she took part in the International Painting Symposium Mark Rothko 2016 at the Mark Rothko Art Centre in Daugavpils (Latvia). According to a Jungian view, in fact Heerkens confers great importance to the choice of colours and materials, as a vehicle through which the unconscious express itself in a sort of proper language. The affinities with the master are further found in a sort of epiphany of the colour carefully sought for its spatial qualities and its lyrical and meditative charge. The painting is thus rationalistic, slower, geometrically structured by simple and linear figures according to a logic very close to Mies van der Rohe’s motto: less is more. He was also a protagonist of Rothko’s life as commissioner in 1958 of decorative work, never completed, for the walls of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York.

This kind of historical commixtures and contaminations in art and architecture is a further element that characterizes the work and the artistic path of José Heerkens, who adhered on this side, although she started from different principles, to the wish of arts integration as it was for De Stijl (Leida, 1917-1932). The founder of this monthly and promoter of a new aesthetic sense was the Dutch Theo van Doesburg, but many artists of the calibre of Piet Mondrian collaborated at the magazine. Heerkens, taking part in the exhibition Lebt Theo? Niederländische Kunst 80 Jahre nach van Doesburg Manifest zur konkreten Kunst (Bonn, 2010), becomes an essential part of this artistic path made of abstract and geometric elements in relation to the work of art and space. From here the passage to the Bauhaus and the pictorial discipline taught respectively by Vasilij Kandinskij and Josef Albers, as transformation of the elementary forms into space and the visual problems related to the optical illusion, is immediate and witnessed, at the same time, by her residence in 2011 at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany (Connecticut, USA).

As her most prominent predecessors in the Bauhaus or Abstraction-Création, Heerkens has finally reached a non-figurative painting through a purely geometric conception via the exclusive use of elements commonly called abstracts proposed in new and infinite variations that define her own operative and linguistic practice.

2015-L34. Written Colours. oil on linen, 150 x 200 cm. José Heerkens
Written Colours, 2015-L34. Oil on linen, 150 x 200 cm. Photo credit Willem Kuijpers

The research for an expressive language common to all people, such as the iconic pictorial one, is at the basis of her research from 2010 onwards, after the creation of the first paintings of the Written Colours series. This pictorial cycle was born by a spontaneous and autonomous process of thinking about simplicity in the sequential creativity. These works are the proof of a linguistic and narrative unity that combines every painting or drawing of the artist. At the same time, each single work is independent from the previous or the subsequent as a sort of literary sequel where the writer, using common linguistic codes (Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, 1983), realises his literary work to express his own tale. The same process may be extended to painters, as well as Heerkens in this case, who through forms and colours, that is universal iconic and chromatic codes, expresses visually her own creativity, her own story. The common denominator for both is the free flow of ideas that is organized on paper or on canvas to give an emotion to readers or observers.

In conclusion, it is possible to identify and define an artist’s own pictorial language made of pure colours, geometric shapes and horizontal lines that flow from José Heerkens’ mind to her brush as individual independent works but, at the same time, being part of a more complex creative and spatial logic. Every time she starts to concept and create a new work, according to a never-ending researching process, she is hit by a sort of inner stream of consciousness. In this way, the journey inside creativity will never end.

José Heerkens

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