Jean DeGroote: In de stilte van de dingen (In the Quiet of Things)
Copyright Bookshop, Ghent, BE, 2020
90 pp., illus. Paper, €25,00
This book is a little treasure. It is with considerable difficulty that I have reviewed In de stilte de dingen, mainly because at present it is only published in Dutch. I managed to obtain a .pdf file of the manuscript in Dutch via Edith Doove, one of the book’s essay contributors and also a Leonardo Reviewer. I then translated this file using Google Translate, which astonishingly did the whole book in one go, just well enough to read and understand. Why did I go to the trouble I hear you ask? Because DeGroote’s work is worth any amount of effort.
In our super-saturated global society of images, screens, sensationalised hype, noise and busyness DeGroote’s paintings are like silent healing sentinels that take us to a quiet contemplative centre where we may experience the true essence of the “thing”. DeGroote chooses commonplace, normally unremarkable objects as subject matter, such as an envelope, a banana, a light switch or a twig. The cover of the book features his “Envelop” painting, an austere image in grey, off-white textured oil-on-canvas, this painting stopped me in my tracks with a gasp of “that’s it”. We cannot reproduce images in these reviews; however, you may view many of DeGroote’s works on his website.
The book has 13 essays discussing DeGroote’s work, some are long theoretical texts, others short descriptions in poetic form. These are interspersed with well over 70 colour images of the paintings. Many of the works were recently shown at DeGroote’s hometown gallery, with which he has been associated for many years - S&H De Buck, Zuidstationstraat in Ghent. Consequently, the book is part catalogue, part art-book part theoretical discussion of De’s work. As Els Vermeersch aptly states on the back cover, “...the works must above all make themselves felt. The pictorial representation does not take precedence here, but the process of observation and construction does. Hence the central theme in Jean DeGroote’s: “no observer, no object”.
I found the first essay by Elias rather disappointing as it seems to miss the point of DeGroote’s work and is basically a theoretical “rave” concerning postmodernism and its glitterati - Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, Kristeva et al. Perhaps we could think of DeGroote as a Platonist, as I believe he does see himself, but if we step outside the Eurocentric philosophical traditions and look into the Eastern approach to existence we find they are far more appropriate in describing De’s work. Especially Zen. Zen does not want to talk about the “thing” but rather experience the “thing” itself of itself, direct experience, no theoretical hot-air attached. The point of DeGroote’s painting is for the viewer to directly experience the essence of the “thing”, to stand transfixed before the painting and feel the essence totally. Van Damme in his essay, “Op zoek naar de essentie met Jean DeGroote” (“In Search of the Essence with Jean DeGroote”) (p. 75 – 81) really understands this as he states, “The artist (subject) and the twig (object) falls together for a moment and forms one harmonic unity, at least on a mental level.” This is the essence of Zen as described in Zen and the Art of Archery, where the archer, the arrow, and the target become one, ‘no correspondence entered into’!
Further along this line of appreciation, as Michiels so beautifully says, “...the work of Jean DeGroote cannot be explained, it slowly penetrates within you, it is a silent argument, a soft anarchy. It is like pure poetry” (p. 53). Van Haute, in his essay, is in a sense issuing a warning against over intellectualising and analysing DeGroote’s work when he says, “By giving I would say too much text and explanation detracts from the spell of the work” (p. 46), Exactly! As Zen says, be careful not to mistake the finger pointing at the moon, for the moon herself.
DeGroote’s statement concerning his paintings and working approach, “no observer, no object” may be discussed and analysed ad infinitum, ad absurdum with different branches of Western philosophy, but using an Oriental approach nothing at all needs to be discussed, “direct experience” is all there is, both in the case of the painter DeGroote when he is creating his masterpieces and again by the viewer when standing speechless (hopefully) before the works, such as I feel before The boot van de Charon (The Boat from Charon) (p. 87), this image is indelibly etched into my mind.
I would very much like to see a 2nd edition of this book published with English text alongside the Dutch, and with at least one additional essay along the lines of Zen understanding and elucidation of DeGroote’s paintings. As I said in the beginning of this necessarily brief review, his paintings are not only brilliant in their own right but extremely important works to help bring some balance to our contemporary world full of too much of everything - especially noise.