Folkert de Jong — The Immortals
Folkert de Jong
Past: September 1 → October 13, 2012
This exhibition presented at galerie dukan hourdequin shows the project entitled The Immortals made by Folkert de Jong for the Mackintosh Museum/The Glasgow School of Art as part of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art (20 April — 7 May 2012).
The works collectively titled The Immortals represent a concentrate of a number of Folkert de Jong’s themes. Invited by the Glasgow School of Art to exhibit in April 2012, he took as his starting point works by famed architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, originator of the School’s building. Influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement, Mackintosh’s creative world brought standardisation and a nostalgia for the artisanal together in an association of traditional techniques and the most advanced technology the late nineteenth century had to offer. De Jong shows the architect and his less celebrated artist wife Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh working in a simultaneously avant-garde and highly conservative Victorian setting. The title of the work is the Mackintoshes’ name for the group — also known as The Four — they formed with Herbert McNair and Margaret’s sister Frances.
After the “christening” that was the initial installation, these pieces were subsequently shown in other venues in the same way as at the galerie dukan hourdequin in Paris, and thus developed a new life elsewhere: so little does their appearance seem to owe to the past that, at least at first glance, their historical content is no longer visible.
Folkert de Jong’s groups are irritating: their face-pulling is joyful but it’s also repulsive, and you can’t tell if this is infantile bad behaviour or someone pushing the rules for statue-making to the extreme limit. You can, however, immediately spot who they’re by, given the use of the artist’s favourite material, Styrofoam (and its variant, polyurethane foam), whose frankly industrial look, gaudy colours and strictly chemical makeup situate the work firmly in the domain of the artificial. Used for insulation and for building Hollywood sets, extruded polystyrene possesses contradictory virtues: while easy to sculpt, it is only apparently fragile, with a rot-resistant composition that makes it more durable than wood. A lot of today’s bronze sculptures are cast from initial polystyrene shapes, but de Jong has always avoided this additional, official-art step towards sanctification. Styrofoam was invented during the Second World War by Dow Chemical — the American company that went on to manufacture Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam — and is marketed in Europe by IG Farben, former producers of the infamous Zyklon B gas. Thus styrofoam has invisible links with two monstrous episodes from recent history. The entire de Jong oeuvre is founded on this kind of undisguised contradiction, in which something seemingly temporary and light-hearted is in fact eternal and intimately related to destruction.
Styrofoam’s vivid colours, in particular sky blue, baby pink and ochre, were features of de Jong’s earliest sculptures. In 2007 he created two substantial works — Les Saltimbanques, after Picasso, and Chronic: Handmade Nightmares in Red, Yellow and Blue, after Mondrian — whose Modern Art references marked his introduction of new colours into his groups. Later he worked with fluorescent paint, black and spattering, in garish associations conjuring up not only German Expressionism and painted Baroque figures, but also the advertising posters whose visual impact he was trying to match. A hundred years down the track he returned to the gluing and painting of found and manufactured objects that Picasso had experimented with in his 1914 Glass of Absinthe. Flouting the Modernist imperative of principled purity, he indulged in mixes and bricolages of painting and sculpture whose visual verve was due as much to form as to colour. In The Immortals this flagrant chromatic overkill contradicts the work’s forms — especially those of the moulded faces — and combines a tribute to Fernand Leger’s painting with a kind of Legoland kaleidoscope.
The urge to communicate is one of the primary driving forces in de Jong’s striving to extend the scope of his art and integrate it into life. He has no scruples about availing himself of seductive colours, working with exciting subject matter, caricaturing facial expressions and drawing on more popular forms like the theatre and the movies.
His faces are always placed on the floor, with no base, and inhabit the same space as the viewer, who ends up involved in a kind of theatrical relationship with them. The exaggerated expressiveness of smilingly drunken faces, together with pupils and teeth frequently highlighted with colour or glitter, adds to the viewer’s feeling of being threatened, in an echoing of Antonin Artaud’s maxim that «everything that acts is a cruelty». Interestingly, de Jong was a performance artist before becoming a sculptor, miming historical events or zany scenes from the early Internet sites of the 1990s. He still opens his exhibitions with performances, in addition to designing the sets and costumes for the New York troupe The Wooster Group. Here too he takes issue with modernist criteria, in a personal blend of the theatrical, the spectacular and consummate bad taste.
Despite their initial “gore” movie impression, his works focus systematically on historical events or established art masterpieces, speculating about issues like power, reputation, exploitation, morality and the human being’s capacity for self-destruction. The history of sculpture is the history of commemoration, of the monument raised to mark a great battle or pay tribute to a king or a religious dignitary. This is why de Jong never treats his subjects gratuitously, and draws each work’s raison d’être from its context. He carries out detailed research, then uses stereotypes rooted in a popular culture shared by his audience to set viewers thinking about how advertising, TV and so on influence us on a daily basis.
This determination to create a “universally” comprehensible oeuvre goes hand in hand with an aloofness from contemporary Dutch art.
Folkert de Jong belongs to an interconnected world which to a large extent shares the same filmic, TV and art references, not to mention the same sets of problems. His aesthetic of the grimace reminds us of the Chapman brothers, Gelitin and Paul McCarthy, the creator of Ketchup Cube. Owner of a number of his works, Charles Saatchi sees him as having the same concerns as the Young British Artists. In the final analysis de Jong seems as closely linked to the English-speaking world — most of his exhibitions have taken place in the United States — as to his native Holland, where the Groninger Museum gave him a ten-year retrospective in 2009.
Vivid as they may be, de Jong’s groups always emanate an elusive melancholy.
His carnival energy is often marked by decline and degradation: death lurks in these frozen, tar-spattered faces, and the use of contemporary materials contrasts with the implicit nostalgia of subjects lifted out of the past. Periods collide totally and unambiguously in the use of the ancient, anachronistic technique of moulding. Recently de Jong has stressed the growing importance of the metaphysical aspect of his work, as if, paradoxically, his potently material art is leading him to a silent, extremely detached view of a world of hyperconnected overconsumption. All these paradoxes make the de Jong oeuvre a source of endless reflection: at once irritating and alluring, irreverent and cultivated, vulgar and sophisticated, it lies somewhere between the clangour of trashy statues and mute anguish, between contempt for his materials and delight in their use.
Opening Saturday, September 8, 2012 6 PM → 9 PM